Valley speak

How young Kashmiris are finding love in the time of conflict and curfew

The internet is playing a major role in activism in the Valley, and love and relationships too.

Since July 2016, unrest has become the new normal in Kashmir. As violence escalates, so does the rebellion against it, some of it taking newer forms and some, the oldest kind – love.

Little is written about social life and courtship in Kashmir, particularly in times of conflict. Needlesss to say, romance in and around Srinagar has come a long way from the early Bollywood montages of lakes and houseboats, or shy Kashmiri boys waiting in the streets to catch a glimpse of the girls they like. Just like the internet has had a major role to play in activism in the Valley, it has acted as a catalyst for love and relationships too.

Traditional match-making

Like most of South Asia, marriage continues to be extremely important and is seen as a transition into adulthood in Kashmir. Traditional marriages are arranged in the Valley by manzimyors or matchmakers who have for years, gone from home to home, carrying with them a roster of names of eligible young men and women – their diaries loaded with detail.

The manzimyor can be a man or woman, but since they occupy feminine spaces within the household, male manzimyors go to great lengths to act effeminate and appear non-threatening. They look for all the essentials: age, khaandaan (family), ponsa (wealth) and shakal (looks). Even today, despite the curfews, the rage and the violence, manzimyors are responsible for most of the matches in Srinagar.

Ghulam Mohammad*, a manzimyor, has been arranging suitable matches since the 1980s. “In the early 1990s, it was impossible to even find an auto to get around town,” he said. “Now it is much easier. We’ve had curfews for so long that we have times we can freely move around in. We adjust our schedules such that we got everything done before 9 am and after 8 pm.” He has managed to earn a little more than he used to by reminding his hosts how dangerous it is for him to look after matters of the heart during times of unrest.

Cellphone to the rescue

Mohammad also said that he has had no problems since he got himself a cellphone – most conversations now happen on the phone, he said, and boys and girls are willing to simply speak to each other and work things out. Despite the fact that more people are finding their own partners, Mohammad said his business is only growing.

While the unrest does not seem to be taking a toll on matchmakers, it does have an impact on weddings, many of which have been cancelled, postponed or hastily conducted in the past year. Angry neighbours have interrupted celebrations saying they were inappropriate given the unrest in the Valley – to celebrate at a time like this was to disrespect the cause. Most weddings are low-key and do away with the weeklong fanfare which was once the norm. Some have even done away with the famed 32-course wazawan meal. In the spirit of Kashmiri jest, these brides and grooms will be remembered as “curfew-mahrin” and “curfew-maharaza” for a while.

Rendezvous at tuition centre

Middle school onwards, you see a surge in the popularity of private tuitions in Srinagar. As a business model, they are lucrative. Young students across the city attend classes from dawn until late in the evening. This popularity would suggest that the school education system is lacking, but in fact, most educational institutes in in Srinagar are segregated by gender – so the tuition centre is the only place where teenagers can mingle.

Here too, mixing of the sexes is not overt – boys and girls are required to sit on either side of the room. Insha*, a college student in Srinagar, who attended one of the few co-educational schools in the city, now finds the atmosphere of her girls-only college in Srinagar stifling. “I find it almost impossible to speak to male classmates like I did back at school,” she said. “Many of them are not used to speaking to girls comfortably to begin with, and then it is almost a taboo to be seen walking around or talking to boys because people notice and people talk about you; this is not just students but professors as well.”

So how do young people meet or court one another? A casual sighting at tuition class can turn into more – phone calls, in some cases, introductions through friends. Still, according to Insha, the public intermingling of singles is rare and frowned upon.

Danish Ismail/Reuters
Danish Ismail/Reuters

The ones who can afford to, go to restaurants – others find parks and gardens, often risking moral policing by self-proclaimed activists. Given the city’s conservatism combined with the curfew, mobility is further restricted. Most of the romance in Srinagar, therefore, happens on the internet and over the phone. Unfortunately, this breeds an underbelly of unsafe cyber practices which often have dangerous results: stalking, cyber bullying and harassment.

Stalking is believed to be the root of how many romances begin – obsessive proclamations of love are seen as the way to woo girls. Many express their concerns at this seeming norm. Speaking of a friend who had succumbed to similar advances, a young woman named Sarah said, “I don’t understand how she can claim to be in love with the person who literally stalked her all the way from tuition to school every day for months, but it’s not my place to intervene.”

Most girls admitted to having been victims of such behaviour but never reported it for fear of causing a scene. Others naively enter into associations they soon regret – immediately after things turn sour, fake profiles are created in the name by jilted lovers, private photos leaked and emails hacked. Only then do the girls resort to contacting the police. Once reported, the police do track many of the men who create fake profiles, but there are far too many cases to track quickly and effectively. Given the political climate, cases of stalking and cyber harassment are given scarce attention.

Dating on the internet

The internet and social media ban, therefore, has a direct impact on courting and relationships, but people have learnt to adapt. “The government bans WhatsApp, we have Hike,” said Akbar*, a young professional in Srinagar. “They ban Snapchat, we use Instagram. The ban is quite pointless, really. The only thing the curfews and bans do is give us more time to kill and actively use social media. This is why online dating is becoming so prevalent.”

Increasingly, a large number of young people use dating apps (though few use their real identities). Akbar and his friends have an entourage of girls they are “dating”, a few from Kashmir, but largely from other states in India whom they meet when they travel. Quite a few young men are in intercontinental relationships, “Cheeni to Arabi” or East Asians to Arabs, said Akbar, and some across the border, Pakistanis.

Of course, the rules are different for girls. They are much more reluctant to use their actual identities on dating apps, so besides using fake profiles, most girls said they were on dating apps simply for a good laugh.

A scroll through popular dating apps reveals there are several who choose the “men looking for men” option – judging by this, it would seem that online dating apps have proved to be empowering for the small group of LGBTQ youngsters in the Valley, although this is something rarely spoken of publicly.

While the hijab and burqa are usually seen as a sign of rising religiosity, many young girls admit they wear scarves for the anonymity it brings them. Scarves enable women to date or go out to meet friends without the fear of being spotted or labelled immoral. It also means you can protest without your identity out in the open.

* Some names have been changed to protect identities

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.