I’ve had enough of connectivity being arbitrarily taken away and with it, access to a whole host of other things. Enough of that to last a lifetime. So last week, I left Kashmir as soon as phones went down with the death of veteran separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Sad, since it meant missing the wedding of a former student, whose been like a son. Probably good for weight-loss, though. Going to that wedding would have meant more wazwans. Despite trying to be weight-conscious, I’d already done four wazwans, two birthday parties, a couple of picnics, and Eid with a family that sacrificed a large ram – one they’d fed dates, almonds and other delicacies for a year.
I’ve joined friends, many of whom have been like family, at Eid celebrations several times over the more than quarter century I’ve been going and coming from Kashmir, sometimes for several weeks or months at a time – first as a journalist, then a writer-researcher, briefly as a documentary filmmaker, then again as family, but still always wearing my journalist’s hat. Yet, rarely had I been as immersed with a family’s celebrations as this time. Two close relatives of this family organised weddings on Eid, which was a happy bonus.
More than for all of that, though, I was grateful for the affection with which amazing friends cooked and brought me my kind of daal-sabzi even when I stayed at a lovely place by a rural lake. For those initial weeks, one quietly soaked in the sun, the sunsets and the silences, only in touch with a couple of very close friends.
R and R
For, my primary purpose when I first went to Kashmir in mid-July was to rest and recover from many months of the Covid-induced lockup and to get much-neglected exercise. The second wave had just abated in Jammu and Kashmir, and the number of new infections remained below 200 a day all the time I was there. I faithfully used a mask, though few others did, and things remained good on the health front.
Even in those initial weeks, though, I felt the pulse. I watched lumberjacks and sand miners and fisher boats. I trekked through a bunch of villages. I conversed with a man embroidering a shawl at the lush green edge of a field where boys played football and volleyball near the river.
The place is smilingly placid. Very. And placid is not Kashmir. Never has been, except in the wake of Sheikh Nooruddin Wali under Budshah (Great king) Zainulabedin (1420-70) and the Mughals.
Only after roaming for a while did I go to Srinagar and seek meetings with political leaders. I was privileged by the warmth with which a host of leaders received me there. Breezily brushing aside my uric acid concerns – just his style – Farooq Abdullah carried me along to a wedding feast across the city.
I met half-a-dozen other National Conference leaders there, sitting between Ali Muhammad Sagar and Nasir Sogami for the meal. I was grateful to be warmly received by Muzaffar Baig and Safina Baig (both of the People’s Conference) when, having taken a lift, I arrived without notice the day the phones went down.
Animated chats over walks and dinners with old associates and city neighbours revealed much more, of course. Sitting in Delhi, where I’ve spent most of this Covid time, one gets so little of the flavour of what’s happening. Turns out things and people aren’t what they seem from afar.
Visited the grave of Mian Bashir, the Gujjar pir and political leader who died on August 14, just a few days short of his hundredth birthday. I’d interviewed him at length many years ago about his life and times, his association with Sheikh Abdullah, and much else. Saw devoted members of his community who had trekked from as far as Rajouri to pay their respects. Condoled with his gracious son and successor, Mian Altaf.
Along the way, visited Naranag and the Sangam at Dab, then Sharika Devi’s temple on Hari Parbat, and of course Makhdoom sahib. Stayed in a Shia locality during Ashura, something I’ve long wanted to do. Joined my hosts in mourning processions from the 8th of Moharram, and at shrines and Imambargahs on the 10th, and learnt of religion and international affairs (yes, including Afghanistan) when I got invited to dinner at homes in the locality.
Over these seven weeks, I had the world’s best daniwal korma (not pictured since my eyes popped and I ate it before thinking of a snap), a top-class aab gosht, a classic marchwangan korma, a fine rogan josh, a lip-smacking praan-based curry, outstanding greens, including a dry monje, and steamed fish. (Daniwal is coriander, praan are shallots, now in season in Kashmir, monje haak is kohlrabi, and marchwangan are Kashmir’s fleshy chillies. Aab gosht is a milk-based mutton curry, much valued if served in a wazwan feast. A red roghan josh curry is indispensable in a wazwan.)
One also got to crunch juicy (Bulgarian) apples picked right off the trees of a friend’s friend’s orchard, and munch the soft kernel of green walnuts (shelled helpfully by a skilful host, to spare my hands the stains green walnuts tend to leave). Drank lots of spring water. Had planned to bring back a few fresh Ambri, a type of apple one rarely finds in Delhi, and some fried praan, but evacuating overnight demolished all plans.
The best part was the caring warmth of ordinary Kashmiris on the street – the welcoming smiles, free advice, and, on the day Syed Geelani died and restrictions were imposed everywhere, an invitation from a grey-bearded stranger at a kirana shop to dine at his home if I didn’t find food. Heart-warming, as always.
Two different friends say they drove around the area where I was staying that phone-less day to see if I was roaming outside (I tend to do that), and was okay. I was deeply touched.
But the best moment of all was being lovingly served a meal by the children of my hosts one day when their parents were still out at lunchtime. Constellation-spotting at night, and teaching them maths by day too. “David uncle se padhunga, mazaa aata hai [David uncle will teach me, that’s fun],” said a 3-foot-nothing whiz – who, by the way, has decided to be prime minister.
I’ve taught halls full of lecturers at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Academic Staff College, journalism postgraduates, a 12th-standard board student, and many undergrad classes, but never nine- and 12-year olds, until now.
Somehow, even suspending all other activity to protect my laptop and phone whenever all eight cousins – aged two to 12 – descended on my room, yelling and tossing cushions, was still a joy. Toofan aaya tha, I’d tell their parents and grandfather, the storm came. But I loved it. Even being mimicked by one of the six-year-olds was cool.
One discovered through these seven rejuvenating weeks that, while strong political currents lurk silently below the surface, the bonds of warm human relationships hold firm.
David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.