In his trademark calm voice, Kashmir’s newest radio jockey Mirchi Vijdan dispenses advice to his growing tribe of listeners on how to deal with problems that come with long-distance relationships. “The real goal is not to be afraid of the test of fire,” he said on his late-evening show. “If you think you will grow apart because of the distance, that might just happen.” Vijdan cautions listeners that living in the same city does not guarantee a relationship’s success, and to drive home the point, he shares his own experience – Vijdan and his girlfriend broke up after five years, soon after she returned to Kashmir. He encourages couples in similar situations to focus on the fact that the person they love is “far away but close to their hearts”.

Vijdan’s show isn’t just any regular radio programme. In a conflict-ridden society, where public display of hate and violence is rampant, and threats of moral policing by fringe elements not unknown, the Srinagar resident has broken a taboo by going on air to talk about issues like falling in love before marriage and proffering relationship advice.

Vijdan belongs to the generation of Kashmiri youth that grew up in the troubled 1990s when the streets were battlegrounds. “For us a candlelight dinner does not mean a romantic dinner,” he said. “It brings back memories of when families would draw the curtains and huddle together under a candle to have dinner discreetly, lest it draw the attention [of security forces or militants]. We had no nightlife and we had no space to talk about emotions.”

Mirchi Vijdan often welcomes listeners with his catchphrase “khawa-teens aur hazards”.

At the same time he is careful about walking a thin line on his show. “I don’t want to hurt the dominant sentiments in the society,” he said. “But the reality is that people do date here. There is no-one to talk to about the lack of motivation [to deal with the issues] or inspire [them] to keep it together and deal with [their] problems.”

This marks a step away from the existing monotony in Kashmir’s comparatively few radio stations. Until this year, there was only one private radio station – Big FM – that operated in Kashmir, apart from two government radio stations. Now there are two more private stations – Radio Mirchi and Red FM – with another in the pipeline. Big FM would largely run shows on civic issues and rope in various officials to talk about public grievances. While such shows would “solve social issues, they didn’t know about the personal problems that people face,” explained Athar Kuchay, a regular listener of Vijdan’s show.

Let’s talk about love

Vijdan, whose real name is Vijdan Saleem, hails from Quil Maqaam in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district. A former journalist, he was at first reluctant when he was assigned a love show during his orientation training at Radio Mirchi’s Chandigarh office, unsure how it would be received in Kashmir’s largely conservative society. But since the launch on June 16, the number of listeners tuning in to the daily three-hour evening show is on the rise. Vijdan’s Instagram account reflects his growing fan base. In the last one month, Vijdan says, he has acquired more than 1,000 followers. “I get most of my feedback there. And it’s all [been] very good response.”

Sitting on a tall chair in the soundproof studio in Srinagar, Vijdan sometimes welcomes listeners with his catchphrase “khawa-teens aur hazards”, a cheeky word play on the Urdu phrase “khawateen aur hazrat” (ladies and gentlemen). The sprawling city with the hills in the background can be glimpsed through the open window behind him, a city in which, Vijdan says, an atmosphere of insecurity persists even today. “Even relationships, where both [partners] are in Srinagar, tend to become long distance. People cannot meet each other often. I try to give [these] people hope; that their problems are real and need help to deal with.”

Talking about love in strife-torn Kashmir gives immense hope to Vijdan. Fayaz Kabli/Reuters

Sheikh Shazia, a 28-year-old resident of Srinagar, tunes into the show on most evenings after she first discovered it while driving. Radio programmes in Kashmir, she says, focus on “difficult issues” and the youth are largely ignored. “They never talk about love, which is needed in Kashmir,” she said. “Talking about love, lost or gained, is something I can relate to.”

Means to spread hope

This is Vijdan’s first stint as an RJ and he says he is “just trying to be a friend”. Within a week after going on air, listeners began reaching out to him on social media to discuss the show, or to simply to pour their hearts out. Some users even messaged him saying “everything seems normal now”, while others have found an outlet to express their feelings. “When I pick up these issues and people tell me their stories, it goes beyond radio,” said Vijdan. “I am personally trying to uplift people’s spirits, tell them that this is not the end of the world.”

Asif Ahmad, 20, who lives in Pulwama in south Kashmir, says the show helped him deal with a recent heartbreak. “Talking to my friends did not help as much,” he said. “Our experiences were the same. They didn’t have solutions to give. But his [Vijdan’s] show gave me a new perspective.” The show has helped Ahmad learn things he says no one had ever told him before, right from how to approach someone and carry oneself during a date to how to dress up for the occasion. Another listener of the Vijdan’s show, a postgraduate student at the Kashmir University, describes the programme content as “weak” but adds that “it is a bit liberating to talk about these things”.

Vijdan relates an anecdote from his native village of Quil Maqaam. A woman accidentally dialled the wrong number, but the conversations it led to, with a man from the village, eventually led to their marriage. In a Kashmir where stories of deaths and killings are aplenty, Vijdan says such stories of hope are rare.

Talking about love is not merely a job for Vijdan. “When I speak on the radio after dark, it gives me immense hope,” he said. “I believe I can translate that hope and offer companionship to someone sitting by themselves, in a hamlet outside Srinagar.”