Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Wedding in Kashmir

SRINAGAR, October 2007: A velvety lullaby: this is what crossed my mind as the sprawling, majestic Dal Lake cradled our shikara, gently rocking it like a baby sleeping in her mother's lap.
For miles, the bluish-grey water spread across like a sheen of tranquillity, cushioned by a sturdy line of high mountains on whose tops, bundles of clouds hung motionless. The only sound was that of the slow rhythmic flapping of the boatman's oar as it dipped into the water.
For a good half-an-hour, I dozed off, oblivious of the strains beneath this calmness, the shadow of violence lurking in the cool breeze blowing through the chinar trees, whose leaves were bursting to change colour from green to crimson.
Peace, which appears on the surface of Kashmir, too, seems ready to burst into a riot of crimson, also the colour of blood.
As if to signal how quickly the stillness in the Valley can be shattered, a CRPF motorboat whirred in a distance -- men with AK 47s and binoculars, looking out for an unpredictable adversary who chooses his own time and place to strike.
A week before we left for Kashmir, to attend a close friend's wedding, two army majors were killed when militants stormed into a security camp inside Hotel Duke, right on the Dal boulevard.
This came a day after Yuvraj Singh slashed six sixes against Australia and was awarded a crore of rupees. The majors' families got a few lakhs. An SMS did the rounds in New Delhi at that time: "A crore for six sixes, how much for two majors?"
Hotel Duke is now in a cage of barbed wires.
Across the bustling city, at every kilometre or so, a soldier or a paramilitary gunman stands strapped in a 28-kg bullet-proof jacket, holding an assault rifle, his finger caressing the trigger, furtively looking in every direction.
Others stand trapped in bunkers, a web of barbed wires across a small opening, the barrel of the gun jutting through it. The mesh of wires is to bounce off a grenade that could be lobbed at them anytime.
Some others stand inside drums in the middle of the road. Only their heads in helmets are visible, watching out for a speeding car bomb. There are bunkers and camps inside the maze of bylanes in residential colonies, holding their space, like little "green zones" in the Baghdad of India.
The CRPF patrol boat irked my little daughter.
"Mamma, is this to catch the bad uncles?" Mallika asked with a frown across her little innocent forehead.
"Yes, beta," Manisha, my wife replied.
Mallika looked at the men with guns who waved at her but she buried herself in her mother's lap. Why have we told Mallika that militants are "bad uncles", we ourselves do not know. Perhaps, it came naturally. Perhaps, it should not be so. Perhaps, she is too young to be told who is on the right and who is on the wrong side of this war. Perhaps, we too, do not know who is on the right and who is on the wrong side of this war.
The chaar-chinari is like an emerald in the middle of the lake – a square island with chinar trees on all its corners. This was a Mughal retreat, a picnic place for the prince and princesses. On the small patch of land, is a CRPF camp. Some men patrol its length and breath while some, wearing vests, cooked lunch. A jar of pickle soaked the afternoon sun near their shelter.
The wedding songs at Haroon's house were at a peak when we reached the bungalow in the evening.
The songs are called wanwun and perhaps, one of the biggest tributes to Lal Ded, the 14th century poetess saint of Kashmir, these songs are never written but are composed on the spur of the moment. The tune of all the songs is more or less the same. Between stanzas there is a gap of a few seconds during which the women, who alone sing these songs standing and holding each other by the waist, compose the next line.
Some lines sung on that day were: "Go and get your bride, she is waiting for you, they will put a gold crown on your head, go soon, she is waiting for you …"
Life mirrors reality. So they say, so it happens. Over the past 17 years of an anti-India revolt in Kashmir, lyrics of the traditional songs, though not for weddings, have also recorded the ghastly changes.
So one couplet goes like this:

Yim mujahid zoraware, Yem kapaise aayaie
Yim aayi sarhad pareyaie, Tim kapare aaie
Sopore kerekh cross firing, Waremuli kerekh chaire

(These powerful mujahids, where did they come from? They came from across the border, from the other side. They resorted to cross-firing at Sopore, and took tea at Baramulla)

And some more:

Kalashnikov lagai balayai
Yenav ladayat path fairaleh

(Don't' give up this fight for freedom; I shower my life on this Kalashnikov)

Main mujahidov behan
Praraie hideoutas

(O my beloved mujahid, I will wait for you at the hideout.)

Saien tehreekh kya chhaie
Jaan waisiwaye
Asi me marew ase chhe
Insaan wasiswaye

(Our struggle for freedom is genuine. So why do you torture us for that? We are humans, too!)

A gaggle of children darted up the staircase as we climbed up to the first floor of the sprawling bungalow decorated with strings of multi-coloured bulbs. The women in their finery smiled and welcomed Manisha and Mallika with open arms.
Haroon, a handsome Kashmiri, dressed in a kurta-pyjama with a shawl draped across his chest, hugged me as we sat down on the carpet with an assortment of dry fruits and sweets laid out in front of us.
The songs filled the air to the beat of traditional drums.
Haroon was in his teens when his father, Abdul Rashid Shah, launched the Daily Nida-i-Mashrik in 1992, at the peak of the Kashmir revolt. Over the years, it has become one of the most respected Urdu language newspapers of the region.
"Those were tough times," Haroon recalled.
"My father was kidnapped for a week by the ikhwanis (surrendered militants) wanted more coverage of their activities. Kukka Parray, their leader, said we were not publishing news about them. On the other side were the militants, who warned us against publishing anything on the ikhawanis. The army was also after us. But not for one day did the newspaper close down."
The one-week kidnapping ended with Shah promising to publish more news about the ikhwanis. Parray gave him two identical photographs of himself surrounded by his gunmen, demanding both pictures be published on the page one of the Mashrik.
During his captivity, Haroon and other family members approached a senior hardline separatist for help.
"He told us that 50-60,000 people have died in Kashmir and nothing is wrong if my father's name is added to the list," Haroon said.
Eventually, Shah published the two identical photographs and the family waited with baited breath for retaliation by the militants.
"Thank god, nothing happened," Haroon said.
"Kya karenge, yeh sab toh chalta hai yahan (What to do, all this goes on here)," Shah added, nudging the tray of dry fruits towards us.
"The only thing which has happened in the past 20 years is that the Kashmiri's heart has been split into four," he continued.
"In one chamber is the blood for Pakistan, in another for India, in another for freedom, in another for the militants. The Kashmiri today does not know what he wants. He is totally confused. The separatists keep giving calls for strikes. I say strike against whom? Against India? Against the army? Are they going to go and give you your freedom if you shut shops and school? No. I guess we are all waiting for another mass uprising. It can happen anytime."
In between sips of nun chai, the traditional Kashmiri salty tea, Haroon went to another room where his newspaper team was giving final shape to the next day's edition. The office, which is in the Lal Chowk area, had temporarily shifted to the editor's house for a day or two because of the wedding. As the women of the house left for the bride's home with the mehndi, Haroon gave the final headlines.
"This paper has come out every single day since 1992," he said. "There cannot be a gap even if it is my marriage."
The page one had the story of protests over the killing of a teacher allegedly by a soldier in Kupwara district.
As the story goes, every day the teacher used to accompany his women colleagues through dense forest picketed by the army, to the school. The army soldiers didn't like this and one day they confronted the teacher, tortured him, shot him dead and tried to bury the body when local villagers came and took the body from them. Protests flared. Thousands came out on the streets. Police fired in the air and baton-charged the protesters.
The army, which has ordered an enquiry, says the teacher was killed in an accidental firing of a gun. No one is willing to buy this -- absolutely, no one.
As one talks to more and more people, the feeling of distrust towards India comes out very naturally. In any discussion, there are only two entities – Kashmir and India. They are never together. Most people still talk the language of "in India this happens", "in Kashmir this does not happen", "India cannot take us by force" et cetera.
The headlines of local newspapers, too, read: "Protests break out against army, India".
Where are we? I wondered.
Not that I am a blind nationalist but nearly 20 years and India has not been able to win over the people of Kashmir one bit? We are where we were when the first shots were fired in November, 1989? What an abysmal failure of the mandarins of our foreign policy and internal security. It takes the blink of an eye for 5,000 people to storm the streets of any Kashmiri city. And you call this normalcy?
"There are two cricket matches being played today -- one of India and another of Pakistan. I have just told them to make the Pakistan match the lead of the sports pages. I have no choice. My readers want to read this news. If I don't play up the Pakistan match, they will not read me. This is the situation here," said Haroon.
The Mashrik sells about 5,000 copies in a city where the largest selling newspaper, Greater Kashmir , has a circulation of more than 30,000. The Mashrik is read by the Urdu speaking masses and is almost solely dependent on government advertisements for funds.
"We have to make compromises some times so that we keep getting these ads. But we have to strike a fine balance each time, for each story. It's a difficult task running a newspaper in Srinagar. Earlier, the militants used to directly call us to complain. These days, this has become less frequent. But the fear is there – from all sides," Haroon added.
A traditional Kashmiri wedding has its roots in simplicity – like most weddings. But unlike most other weddings, rituals surrounding a Kashmiri wedding have more or less remained simple over the centuries. The priest takes the groom's nod for the wedding and then the women carry mehndi or henna for the bride to her house where her nod is taken. As far as the marriage goes, this is over now.
The next evening, the groom goes to get his bride in a baraat (wedding procession).
As we chatted on the carpet, Haroon's phone rang. He did not react but gave the phone to his father and explained, 'The maulvi (priest) is now conducting the marriage ceremony at the bride's house. Someone's called so we can listen in."
Putting down the phone, Haroon's father hugged Haroon. His mother and sister, too, came and hugged him. Haroon was now married. The bride had said yes. The house burst into celebrations; the singing reached a crescendo.
The only extravaganza, and an extravaganza it is, in a kashmiri wedding is the Wazwan – or the Mughal feast.
"This is nothing but pure gluttony," said Shafat Ahmad Kira, a journalist and Haroon's close friend, as dozens of us sat down in groups of fours before big saucer-shaped plates garnished with blobs of meat on a bed of rice.
The meal began with a ritual washing of hands as a jug and basin called the Tash-t-Nari.
The serving dish was piled high with heaps of rice, decorated and quartered by four seekh kababs , four pieces of methi korma, two tabak maaz , sides of barbecued ribs , one safed murg, one zafrani murg, along with other foods.
"Don't think! Dig in!" Shafat said as we dipped into the rice, making small morsels and relishing the distinct flavours of Kashmiri spices.
A traditional Wazwan has 36 dishes prepared elaborately by a team of traditional chefs in huge copper vessels, cooked overnight in slow log fires.
It's difficult to believe anyone can eat all dishes served at the Wazwan, called the Mughal feast after the Mughal rulers who began the practise. A lot of food is wasted but no self-respecting Kashmiri would do away with the ritual or modify it to a buffet system, especially on weddings.
"Some years ago, the government made a law that not more than seven dishes would be served at Wazwans and they too would be served in a buffet to prevent wastage," said Shafat, whose love for good food glowed in his eyes.
"But it didn't last long and we are back to this," he added, as more chunks of mutton – this time in minced with chicken – landed on our bed of rice, served by a waza who went around the rows of people with a copper utensil and a long, serving spoon.
The meats didn't stop pouring in. Beyond a point, I just gave up, apologetically looking at the mound of rice and mutton in front of us.
"This is only the semi-final," said Haroon. "Tomorrow is the final when at the bride's place where we would be served at least 30 dishes."
I cringed. But there was no escaping this. I had come for the wedding and I jolly well have to eat the Wazwan.
During the meal, Haroon got a telephone call. He appeared worried as he rattled in Kashmiri to the man on the other end.
"There's been an attack," he said as he shut the phone. "Militants have entered the Ikhwan Hotel. I might have to go."
The small gathering around us comprised mainly journalists. Immediately, everyone was on the phone and fortunately, the news turned out to be a rumour.
As we came out of the decorated tent which served as the dining area, Shah pointed to a man and commented: "No event in Kashmir is complete without the presence of an anti-national element!" Everyone burst into laughter.
Talah Jehangir, the man Shah was pointing to an a friend of Haroon, works for the Prasar Bharti. Some time back, he was shifted from Srinagar to Hissar in Haryana on charges of having "anti-national" sentiments – a dark euphemism for a Kashmiri who sympathises with the militants and desires freedom.
Tragedy evokes myriad hues of humour in Kashmir.
Otherwise, life would have been unbearable.
From the window of a room on the first floor of Haroon's house, one can see the faint line of the mountains, haloed by blobs of clouds. At dawn, the stillness of the city skyline is ruptured by the sound of the call for the morning prayer. Soon, multiple azans echo through the concrete jungle, from minarets towering over it.
In the 1990s, these minarets blew out the message of azadi, when hordes of gun-totting youths gushed out of the bylanes on to the city square and randomly fired in the air, chanting, " Azadi, azadi."
The day woud rattle with the rata-tata-tat of gunshots interspersed by an occasional thunder of a bomb, like a never ending Diwali.
"Now it is all quiet. Much, much less,' said a journalist.
"Just a few years back, it used to be 3-4 incidents a day in Srinagar. Now it's 1-2 in a month. But the feeling of alienation among the people has not moved an inch. One would argue why people still vote. They vote because they want bijli-pani, but if you ask them if they would want to be with India, they would say no. They still want freedom."
But Tariq, a young, energetic stock-broker is clear he would want to be with India.
"In the long run, India's economy will be big. Pakistan is fragmenting. Look at the blasts every day. It's a failed state. I would put my bets on India," he said.
Tariq is doing brisk business in Srinagar where investing in India's booming stock market is only a recent phenomenon.
"No, it's not haraam. It's buying and selling," he said when asked if Islam allows investing in the stock market.
Tariq was my lift for the baraat for the bride's house. Nattily dressed in a suit and tie (why are Kashmiris so good looking!), he switched on Kashmir's brand new FM radio. A female voice crackled on the car radio: " Sadabahar paanch gaane aapke liye hazir hain. Israt, Mushtaq, Javed aap sab anpe SMS karte rahein.." and the voice faded into a top Bollywood chartbuster.
"You see," Tariq said as we set off from Haroon's house in a cavalcade of more than a dozen cars. "This is an evergreen industry. And in Kashmir, it's only just started. For the next 10 years, the graph is only up and up," he added, as we negotiated through dark alleys, towards the main highway.
Just five minutes away from Haroon's house, we came across the first security camp – inside a dark house. There are no street lights and at 9 in the night, when the baraat left, most people had gone to sleep.
Like a well-rehearsed ritual, all the cars slowed down before the camp, switched off the headlights and switched on the cabin lights for the security men to see who is inside the cars. They let us pass without any checks and as a rarity, the gun-totting soldiers smiled and waved at us as the caravan of cars went pass.
Haroon sat along in a black Toyota Corolla. Women don't accompany the groom in the baraat. They are also served food separately, after the men have eaten. This is more to with the sub-continental practise of keeping women away from sights of men outside of their homes than blatant gender discrimination.
A little before the colony where the bride lived, we were stopped by a local police checkpost.
"Where?" a rude constable spat at us.
"Going for a wedding," Tariq replied.
"Coming back or not?" the security guard asked.
"Insha-allah," Tariq said, swearing between his breaths.
The Wazwan at the bride's house was a killer. I could not move beyond the first few courses and settled down with glasses of curd.
"Haroon, sorry boss, I give up!" I said.
"This is just the beginning. The best dished are yet to come," Haroon said but I was not going to take more of this. True, I am on Atkins diet but even Atkins would shudder at the sight and smells of the Wazwan -- if it is served three days in a row!
Back at Haroon's house, his bride sat in a hall, her head bowed and covered, surrounded by women singing songs. She cried inconsolably, like most brides in the sub-continent who leave their paents home for good to join their husbands in his home.
Haroon's mother kept wiping the tears off her doll-like face but she kept bursting into tears. Some members of her family had accompanied her to the groom's house and slowly, one-by-one they hugged her to go back.
Many women in the group were now crying, charged by the emotion. They sang and they cried. Ayra, the little darling daughter of Haroon's sister, too, started to wail.
But then two young girls from Haroon's family tok over the singing and broke into a spirited Kashmiri song accompanied by the bubbling of the dholak and the mood slowly began to mellow.
Haroon's proud father walked about tending to his guests. His house was full of relatives from far and beyond. Everything went off nicely and as planned.
On our last day in Srinagar, we were back on the Dal. My mind was a flurry of colours, songs, of course, the food, and a chorus of happy voices.
How do I reconcile this with the "Two killed, 12 wounded in Kashmir gunbattle" headlines which we keep reading and which I keep tossing at my editors in the newsroom. Where is this "God's own paradise" headed? How long will the silence of this city last? When will the next shot be fired?
The sun slid behind a mountain rendering a dash of orange and blue in the sky. It mirrored in the river, creating a halo of gold and blue on which our shikara floated. The evening was once again punctured by the many sounds of the azan from minarets across the city.
I slept like a baby in my boat on the velvety Dal.
(First published in Realpolitk --