In a modest café named Winterfell on the bank of the Dal Lake in Srinagar, tucked away from the glances of intrusive passers-by and the dangers that rule Kashmir’s streets, a few young Kashmiris have managed to create an oasis of sorts.

It is easy to get bored if you are young in Kashmir, particularly on days when the internet is barred. At moments like these, shooting the breeze on pends or shopfronts was a welcome way to pass the time, but in recent times, the pends have been replaced with brick-walled, well-lit halls filled with sleek western furniture. Ambient Western and Indian pop music plays in these cafés, most of which have opened over the last two years.

There are now more than a dozen cafés and each has a distinct identity: Goodfellas on the banks of the river Jhelum is the hub of writers, poets and artists, while Winterfell is preferred by a fun-loving and trendy crowd of young people, particularly women (the café’s name is inspired by the popular fantasy series by George RR Martin, A Song of Fire and Ice). Books N Bricks with its suave ambience sees a mixed, sometimes slightly older crowd.

All the cafés are owned and run by young Kashmiris in their twenties to thirties. The food and company on offer provide solace from the monotony of life in the Valley.

On July 27, days before two militants were killed in South Kashmir, young men and women gathered at a café where Bollywood playback singer Vibha Saraf, a Kashmiri Pandit from downtown Srinagar, captivated the audience with a Kashmiri rendition of Rains of Castamere. The showstopper that evening was 18-year-old Rauhan Malik, a guitarist and vocalist. The din of Kashmir’s volatile politics, charged as ever, was drowned by the chorus of dozens singing.

A space to share 

On a sunny Sunday morning, Winterfell had only two tables vacant. “People come here to socialise, rather than eat,” said Kamran Nisar, a 28-year-old who co-owns the café with his cousin. Within an hour, most of the tables were occupied by young women. The small kitchen churned out cups of freshly brewed coffee, grilled chicken, and pastas. “They talk about the future, social life, and aspirations,” Nisar said of his patrons. “A decade ago, we [Kashmiris] didn’t have these spaces. There were a few but even they were perceived as restricted.”

Young women deep in conversation at Winterfell café. Image credit: Rayan Naqash

Books N Bricks, inspired by the American diner aesthetic, is owned and managed by childhood friends Arsalan Sajad and Danish Zargar, both of whom are 28 years old. Sajad realised that Srinagar lacked spaces where he could get together with friends when he moved to Delhi for school in 2005. “Earlier people would pick a friend’s house to meet in groups, but now they have an option to choose a neutral space where no one has to play host,” said Sajad.

By the late 2000s, a few shabby pool clubs had begun to appear in different parts of Srinagar, but these were still restricted spaces – often poorly lit, smoke-filled halls prone to fights and off-limits for school-going children and women.

Yawar Ali, a business man and a frequent patron at Books N Bricks, said cafés offered relief from the “traumatised public spaces” of Srinagar. “There are shutdowns four out of seven days a week thanks to separatists,” he said. “The frustration level among the youth is high.” According to Ali, most young people in Kashmir have grown up seeing violence all through the 1990s. Café culture, therefore, allowed them to believe that at least once a week they could feel “normal”.

“It’s also about giving time to yourself,” he said. “When I am here, I don’t care about what is happening outside. I don’t indulge in those worries.”

Owning a café provides some relief too. Zargar of Books N Bricks said: “Most friends have moved out of Kashmir, but after opening the café I have met at least 50 new people, whom I now see every other day. Earlier, I would go to Delhi every few months, I couldn’t stay here [in Kashmir] at a stretch with nothing to do. You need to socialise. How long can you go sightseeing to the same places?”

Last year, as the Valley erupted in July, following the killing of a militant commander, curfews and street violence halted normal life. By October, Zargar’s café provided a welcome relief for dozens when most business establishments were still closed. “We had an endless supply of coffee and would talk on for hours.”

Image credit: Rayan Naqash

Love and networking

Books N Bricks’ interior is tiled with varnished bricks and a modest collection of books to browse from. Their juicy burgers and fish fillets mean the books are seldom read, but cafés have another draw: they are safe spaces for men and women to meet, away from the ubiquitous stares and moral policing on the streets.

Faakirah Irfan, a law student at the Kashmir University, said, “If you would be seen with a man, people would assume that you were romantically inclined towards each other.” For this, Irfan held moral policing by fundamentalists responsible. Every year on Valentine’s Day, a separatist and Islamist fanatic, Asiya Andrabi, leads small groups of burqa-clad women and rounds up couples trying to meet or share a private moment. No one is quite sure why, but Andrabi has spared the cafés thus far.

Irfan said that in cafés, young Kashmiris could finally network, share stories and shape discourses. “We never had something that was youth oriented,” Irfan said. “We are not radicals, we know how to have fun but we have never been given the space for it. Over 30 years, we have been told that public spaces are only for staging protests. In a conflict zone, it’s even more important to know what each person is dealing with.”

A debate titled 'Feminist voices from Kashmir' organised by Amblin Services Pvt Ltd and hosted by the Winterfell café. Image courtesy: Faakirah Irfan

Talent spotting

In the year since it began, Winterfell has hosted two dozen events that include book readings, live music performances, illusionists and discussions. Books N Bricks also hosts music performances by amateur artists and talks at their café.

Goodfellas, meanwhile, gathered a large following by hosting talks and gaming events. In the first six months of 2016, Goodfellas hosted 22 events, said its co-founder Mujtaba Rizvi. Since then, Rizvi has started his own café, Zero Bridge Fine Dine, where he intends to replicate the Goodfellas model on a larger scale – on July 27, he hosted a discussion on the role of arts in the Kashmiri society.

“These cafés have given a space for youth to open up, but the truth is that they are for the Kashmiris who are relatively well off,” said Touseef Raina, a young social activist in Srinagar. “What can the average Kashmiri do to have a good time and relax?”

But Rizvi hopes café culture will bring about a “Kashmiri renaissance” to deal with the “severe crisis of engagement among youth”. “Cafés are incubation centres for thinking – they don’t achieve anything themselves but offer spaces to facilitate thought process,” Rizvi said, pointing out the state government’s clampdown on student politics in the Valley. “Nobody has noticed, but something exciting is happening here.”