Who asked for the Curfew? – Lesley – Medium
Wearing sunglasses in Srinagar can be fun. The other day while walking on the pavement, glares on, the driver from a passing auto-rickshaw called out to me. He pointed towards the skies and said,
“Bhai, udhar dekho, sun!”
(Brother, look, there’s the sun!)
Come to think of it, this was a break from the otherwise gloomy tales from the valley I’ve been witness to. It’s nice to see that locals here have the spunk to embarrass pedestrians who are simply minding their own business — a spectacle that I otherwise treat myself to only in Bangalore and Mumbai.
In the course of my 2 week-odd stay in Srinagar, the one thing that I’ve come to be convinced of, is the evil of the us-them syndrome. We’re all taken in by it, sometimes subconsciously and the other times — as was reiterated by the events of May 23 — very much consciously. One of the first conversations with my editor at office was about how the incumbent political party had made inroads in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. While I sat there asking him the whys and hows of the topic, he simply went,
“How did they (reportedly) manage to vandalise a statue of Periyar and get away with it?”
Sometimes we simply over-magnify the grass on the other side is, and ignore the revisiting fungus on our own turf. But what’s novel however, are the markers of the neighbourhoods or certain spots in the locality :
“Here’s where you’ll find most of the stone-pelting taking place.”
“That’s the bridge people were massacred on.”
“Take a left from the military camp there.”
Soon you’ll realise that public memory and personal memory are superimposed, even in everyday conversations. For that matter, I was told that my place of residence and work are surrounded by localities of such historical importance. I pass by the city center, Lal Chowk everyday on my commute to and from office. A quick google search will tell you the Mao Zedong influence behind the christening of the area. The same search will also tell you how infamous it is for its timely eruptions of protests, stone pelting and shows of dissent. Though I haven’t witnessed any extreme situation so far, the constant paramilitary presence here is a marker in itself for how an incident in some distant corner of the state may manifest its repercussions here. So normalised is the presence of the personnel, that what I find unusual now is their occasional absence.
But perhaps, this is just the outsider in me finding solace in everyday sightings. For me, the pigeons stationed on the electricity wires, the street-side vendors and the plying buses have come to symbolise normalcy.
One of my ongoing reporting assignments requires me to visit an office on the other side of Lal Chowk every second day. For this, I need to walk through the now-familiar Jehangir Chowk, surpass an ageing temple which now seems to host a paramilitary camp, pass through many of Lal Chowk’s lanes lined with shops selling winter wear and t-shirts with slogans such as ‘Apna Time Aayega’ and the resonating spin-off ‘Apna Kashmir’ , walk parallel to the Tyndale-Biscoe School compound wall and walk over one of the most scenic footbridges in the city to finally reach the boulevard overlooking the Jhelum and housing important structures such as the SPS Museum, the Cultural Academy, among others.
On this route, I also happen to see the following verse painted on a wide, green, locked gate:
“Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life.”
In these situations, such sightings throw themselves open to whatever symbolism or interpretation you’d take them to be — your faith talking to you amidst doubt, gloom and uncertainty, tests for your belief in atheism on the contrary or mere signs of normalcy — of knowing that come what may, these signs, motifs and structures will stay. And your want to join them in hopeful immortality.
A few hundred yards from Lal Chowk is the Gawkadal Footbridge, that on the fateful morning of January 19 , 1990, was the site of one of the earliest known massacres in the city. A crowd of protesters was crossing the Gawkadal Bridge, heading towards the shrine of a Sufi saint when paramilitary personnel opened fire at them, killing close to fifty people. I’m yet to visit what remains of the footbridge today. But it shouldn’t be difficult to find, since I’m told the 1990-event is fresh in modern-day memory and the bridge is in a locality called Maisuma, which is infamous for it’s own reasons.
I was on another assignment this week, that managed to test all of my journalistic ambitions at their very core. For one, the experience questioned my willingness to force a microphone right in the mouth of of a tragedy-hit victim and ask him or her – ‘How are you feeling?’
But I’ll save an elaboration on this for my next post, when the article in question is published as well.
What deserves more blog-space this time around is the recent shutdown the city — along with other parts of the Valley — was put through on account of a recent high-profile encounter. On the evening of May 23, after a draining day at work, I finally reached home to find my mobile internet service malfunctioning. Some messages went through, but music streaming apps and YouTube were largely rendered useless. Another hour went buy and the connectivity completely snapped.
Sitting clueless, forced to carry on with my everyday routine, I finally get a text message from my office HR officer to stay calm and not to come to office the next day. She briefly tells me on call of what’s transpired in a distant village of Kashmir and what the general situation in the city is like. For the next 24 hours, locked up in my room with no internet connection, my experience in Srinagar seems to have inched closer to reaching a full circle.
Without social media at your bedside, you’re finally made aware of the escape it’s been offering you all this while. I never really felt the realities of Kashmir and Srinagar to be specific, until I had no Whatsapp to fidget with. With no internet or company and the constant fear of uncertainty, perhaps I finally felt what it meant to be in a conflict zone, without directly being involved. Without being involved AT all, even in the slightest. Perhaps being dragged into the dungeons while being at the hilltop a second earlier, is what life in a conflict zone is all about.
And this was when I decided to finally read Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night. My roommate had fortunately left a copy behind and my ‘Watch-Later’ list on YouTube had kept postponing my reading. Peer writes about his growing up years in Kashmir ( through the 70s, 80s, 90s) and his initial years in Delhi trying to establish himself as a Journalist. These are the phases of his story that I’ve reached so far in the book and both are equally resonating. The latter, because of my own aspirations in life. But the former resonates with what I witness and experience in Srinagar on a daily basis.
An acquaintance casually remarked once that the youth in Srinagar have little to do — hence they seem to devote a lot of their time to their appearance. As lopsided as this statement is, it’s also true in a way that the youth may just need alternative getaways of social engagement. For starters, getting an education, as far as I have come to know, is such a task in itself. Ordinary days in a week are outnumbered by the days when hartals, curfews and shutdowns have been declared. As Peer notes in his own book, children born right before and after the 90s grow up with childhood memories of strife and conflict. The city of Srinagar, as far as I know has no cinema hall and cultural activities and programmes are at a bare minimum. But it’s during these times that you come to question yourself the most. On my way home, in one of the empty streets, I saw a father lead his daughter by the finger over imaginary obstacles on the road, letting out a cheerful ‘Whoosh!’ every time his daughter hopped. To this, the toddler giggled endlessly.
That reminds me. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as individuals, capable enough to mold our decisions and face the consequences on our own, it really isn’t that one-dimensional. It takes immense support from families and friends to let go of everything else and focus solely on your ambition. I haven’t had it easy, people elsewhere haven’t made it that seamless for me. But thankfully, I have a mother at home who in a way overcompensates for everything the others fall short of.
And then of course, there’s patriarchy that makes it so much easier for a man to pursue practically everything he wishes to, as opposed to a woman. That’s for another day to vent about.
Owing to the shutdown the streets today were the most deserted since my arrival in the city. All shutters down, hardly a dozen pedestrians on the footpath at a stretch. The busiest of local markets vacant and the noisiest of bus stops, silent. Of all my symbols of assurance, only the auto rickshaws and few street-side vendors stayed loyal.
The auto-driver who drove me to office in the morning, at the end of a long chat rhetorically sighed,
“Who’s the enemy here and who’s to blame?”
I couldn’t agree more.