Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Srinagar today

Srinagar. March 16, 2009.
I try to spot familiar landmarks from thirty years ago. Nothing seems the same. Apart from the Dal Lake – which seems to have shrunk miserably since – and the imposing backdrop of hills silhouetted against the clear sky, duplicated in the silent waters below, nothing seems the same. While the rest of India seems to have progressed, this part of the world seems to be caught in a time-warp.

Srinagar, sleepy, grey, dull. Nestling in an age-old hollow, guarded by Shankracharya Hill on one side and the Hari Fort on the other. Somber sentinels, silent witnesses to turbulent phases in the history of the province. Shikaras glide half-heartedly across the glassy surfact of the Dal. The embankment by the lake has some activity -- families promenading on the walkway. Men, women and children with red apple-cheeks. Tall bearded men in windblown phirans, loose sleeves flapping against lean bodies. Hawk-eyed, rugged features. Peace seems to have returned to the valley although the tourist biz is yet to pick up.

But is it really peace or an uneasy clam? I sit through an academic session, part of a seminar where the women sit on the left side of the hall and the men on the right. The women – most of them – have their heads covered with the hijaab (is that what it is called?) but a few daring ones are bare-headed. I am told that they love wearing the head-scarf as it "gives them a sense of security and an identity". All of them wear salwar-kameez. Some are in burquas.

A group of young women crowd around the visitors and ask – “What does India think about us?” The question takes me by surprise. I do not know what to answer.

This is a seminar in honour of the golden jubilee of one of the Departments. Several alumni have been invited and are honored with the gift of a Kashmiri shawl. They have come from other states, some of them have returned to Kashmir after several decades. They are nostalgic, talk about their youth on the campus, and generally feel good about returning to scenes of the past.

And then, in one of the seminar sessions immediately following the "honoring" ceremony, the host turns aggressive. He starts belting out an impassioned speech on “Kashmiriyat”. Anti-India sentiments are whipped sky-high, Kashmiri nationalist slogans are raised. A good number of us visiting from outside Kashmir remain silent and frozen but the delegates -- all academics, students and teachers -- clap and cheer. The speaker, encouraged with their response, becomes more vocal. We, the visitors who have been honored just an hour ago, squirm in our seats. This is an academic seminar. We wonder why it is taking a political turn. Outsiders “from India,” we feel trapped.

I feel terror creep down my spine I tell myself it can’t be true. I must be dreaming it.

Mercifully, the session closes. Really closes. Perhaps the hosts have recalled their duties as hosts because anti-India sentiments are not revoked again. Tentatively, gropingly, we try and normalize interaction with the locals.

Why are girls so timid? So withdrawn? They have gone through so much, comes the answer. They have been abused, brutalized, raped. A local delegate informs me that he has personally supervised the burial of 43 members of his family when – at some point of time – there was open fire on their village.

Open fire? By whom? – I want to ask. But my question remains unasked because I am afraid of the answer. I do not wish to know. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” With the previous display of hatred against India and the Indian army, I think it best to leave some questions unasked.

Being driven around the city in the assured safety of a host’s vehicle, I look around and take in what I see. Crumbling walls, broken doorframes, smashed glass, and blackened windows – all mute witnesses to a not-so-old history. These were homes of Kashmiri Pandits who were driven out of the valley two decades ago. Ruins that once belonged to them have been cordoned off. There are boards sealing the area, keeping out encroachments.

Desolate. Dilapidated. There was life here once. This rubble was once a happy home with life and activity. The patter of children’s feet in the courtyard, Family dinners around a bukhari. Sounds of happy voices in times that were green and golden.

What do I see now? Remains of happier times, dusty and bare. Dry torn branches with a stray rook cawing in desolation. A curious cat sniffing around a heap of garbage. On the remains of a blackened first-floor window sits a dog silently surveying the scene. Like an alert sentinel on guard looking down at the aftermath of a battle.

Where have all the flowers gone?
This is not the Kashmir I wish to know. This is alien territory. I have seen enough.
Let me go back home now.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Khooni Rakshak

I shall dedicate this page to Khooni Rakshak.
That’s how I refer to him. In a bit I shall tell you why.

We are in Manimajra. Raju and I. I have brought along Raju's wheelchair, a basket of food, and my laptop.

Weekending. Good fun.

First let me introduce you to him – Khooni Rakshak is Raju’s new night attendant. He has been working for me / us for almost two months now. I had to hire him (in addition to Krish who looks after Raju during the day) as my back started protesting even more and I could no longer hoist Raju when needed. For some time I kept struggling with bad back, but then I decided to give in and hire help for night duties, too. Plus Raju would stay awake all night sometimes. I would keep awake with him and it would affect my work the next day—so many reasons, all related. Anyway, to cut a long story short, this boy, quite inexperienced as household help, was looking around for a job. Seeing him sturdy and willing to work, I asked him to step in and he did.

He seemed to be about 16 or 17 years old, a ‘bhaiyya’ from UP/Bihar, crude in his ways but with an open, endearing look about his face, and an ever-ready smile. That’s what made hire him – a cheerful young man to do night duties with Raju. Finally I would get decent sleep at night! From that day on I took my pillow and razai to the upstairs bedroom every night and left Raju downstairs in the living room with his attendant.

They seemed to be doing well.

“Check his background,” my friends advised him.

I don’t know how to, I told them. I just know his uncle who is the caretaker of our Manimajra house. That’s it. (-- Our suburban villa, you know. Ahem, we go there for a holiday occasionally!)

No, but it isn’t safe! I was warned.

I sighed as I told them – “Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant taste of death but once. Let me think I am being valiant.”

And all was hunky dory.

Until the other evening. Let me re-live the scene --

We are in the living room. I am having a late cup of tea. The boy sits in the living room on a chair opposite the TV. His eyes are glued to the screen. Cricket seems to be his passion. From time to time he claps his hands and jump up in delight. When Sachin missed a catch he is livid.

Next to him, in another chair, sits Raju, propped up by pillows. He is not as restless as he usually is. His knees are drawn up so that his feet rest on the seat. With one hand he clutches his sweater, as though hanging on to it. With the other he holds the Boy’s sleeve. His sightless eyes are not turned in the direction of the TV but his head is tilted at an angle as though he is concentrating on something. A smile hovers on his lips.

When I catch the boy's attention for a minute I continue my tirade – I am admonishing him for breaking traffic rules.

“If the traffic police gets you they will put you behind bars,” I try to frighten him.

He shrugs nonchalantly: “Never mind, Aunty, then can’t keep me for long.”

“Why?” I am puzzled.

“They can’t keep me for more than a week. Even if the police catches me, they cannot hold me in prison for more than one week. It is against the law.” He has a broad grin on his face.

That rings an alarm bell.

“O, my God,” I gasp, “How do you know?”

“Because I have been in prison, Aunty.”

"You mean you have been arrested?”

“Yes,” he says casually

I gape in disbelief.

“Seven years,” he continues, without batting an eye.

“What did you do? Robbery? Cheating? And why did they give you seven years.”

“For khoon, aunty, I did not rob or steal or cheat. I don’t do such lowdown things. I killed a man.”

Gulp! I almost choke over my biscuit. The tea I have sipped comes out in a splutter.

“O my god! You are joking. Who was this? Why did you kill him?”

“My mother’s marad.” He says nonchalantly.

Marad – man, lover I presume.

I do not know what to say. He continues –

“He was cruel to me. Used to beat me. So I just did him in.”

I have to look at him again. I had thought he was just 16 oir 17 years old. But if he has already spent 7 years in jail then he must be older.

“How old were you then?”

“Eleven,” says he.

That should make him about twenty now, I guess.

So this is the boy I have hired for Raju. This boy with the endearing smile, the honest look, the friendly face, who has spent seven long years in juvenile prison for killing a man.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he is a sturdy young man who can hoist Raju, put him on his chair, wheel him around. I can’t.

He wakes up nights attending on Raju when he cries, changes him when he soils his clothes. Allows me to have an undisturbed sleep so that I can function normally the next morning.

Raju is happy with him. Laughs when he sits with him. Misses him and cries the nights that he doesn’t turn up.

He is Raju’s attendant. His Rakshak.
So what if he is Khooni, too?

Khooni Rakshak has made life somewhat easy for me, too. For which I am grateful.



Throw it out of your system.
All the impurities, all that is base.
Purge your system of the carbon, of all that pollutes.
That’s it – again, now. Repeat. Once more. Carry on for fifteen minutes.

I’m talking about Bhasrika.
Oo – dat?
No one, sweetie! It’s a breathing technique.
Baba Ramdev has made it popular.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Take in the goodness of nature. The pure air, the oxygen.
Huff – breathe in. puff – breathe out. Throw out your breath.
Breathe in the good, exhale the bad.
No, not that way – you gotta throw out the air when you breathe out.
Yes, that’s better.

The old lady sits in the park doing Bhasrika. She rewinds and replays the Baba’s instructions in her mind. Somehow they don’t seem to help. Her breath doesn’t seem to come right. Perhaps she should try a bit harder.
Pouf – breathe out.
Hrr-r-umph-ph – breathe in.
No, not that way, she thinks. Let me try again.
POUF –that sounds better.
HRR-R-UMPH-PH. Even better.
She is satisfied.
Sitting on a bench in a children’s park, she tries to discover hidden energies within herself in the gathering gloom.
She feels the knots unknotting in her brain. The mind loosening up. The body relaxing.

She has her eyes shut but the inner eye is wide open. Her mind is detached in space and time but her ears are attuned to the myriad sounds of the park. The chatter of the birds in the trees, readying for the night. The occasional giggle and murmur of a couple on a bench behind the bush. The snatches of conversation floating with the wind – passersby chatting as they take a walk. A couple of kids in the distance, playing with their dog. The regular turning of bicycle wheels as they as they go past her.

Bikes in the park? She wonders. Some kid perhaps. Oh, yes, she can hear the scratch of supporting wheels on the concrete pathway – it’s probably a kid’s bike.

The sound of the bike comes nearer as she huffs and puffs. It slows down just in front of her, then moves on. Almost reluctantly.


Through her noisy breathing she can hear the bicycle wheels coming to a halt. A pause, then the sound of movement again in a reverse direction. The kid returning, perhaps.


The wheels slow down and grate to a halt in just in front of her bench. She registers it all but continues her noisy breathing.

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Take in the goodness of nature. The pure air, the oxygen.
Huff – breathe in. puff – breathe out. Throw out your breath.
Breathe in the good, exhale the bad.

A gradual stillness descends on the park.
The birds stop twittering in the trees.
The excited chatter of kids, the playful barking of dogs – all that peters down as a hush takes over. A kind of hush – she remembers the old song – all over the land tonight….

She remembers days of her youth. A brown-haired young man on a mo’bike singing this for her.
She smiles through the Bhasrika.

Whatever happened to Yankee Doodle as he was called? The last she saw him he had a bald pate and a humongous beer-belly. And she had caught him in hilarious situation.

She was returning from the sabzi mandi, when she had heard a commotion behind her. Turning with curiosity she had spotted a huge man trying to shoo off a cow eating spinach out of his shopping basket. He was running, trying to dodge the cow but the cow was adamant, had her head buried in his basket and was making a meal of the fresh green leaves. The man was shouting, trying to run from the animal but the cow, nose-in-basket, was trotting along happily after him. A cheering crowd had gathered on the roadsides.


She is still doing Bhasrika. Her eyes are still shut but her smiles turn into laughter and she starts giggling. Then laughter overpowers her and she begins to laugh.
Slowly at first, then louder. And louder.

She still has her eyes shut.

Let me concentrate on Bhasrika, she thinks.

The park is now enveloped in stillness. It must be late. She is tired, perhaps she should go home.

She opens her eyes slowly, rubs them and looks towards the sky. Yes, it has darkened.
She looks around and finds herself staring straight into eyes rounded with innocent astonishment.

A midget-sized boy on a kid’s cycle is standing right in front of her. Apparently he has been there for a while. He has incredulity writ large on his face. His eyes are the size of saucers, his mouth wide open. What is the old aunty doing? is the unasked, unspoken question.

She returns his unflinching gaze. He shows no response.

She smiles. He still remains frozen. Like a statue. Eyes unblinking, mouth wide open, one foot on the pedal.

“Hello,” she says, leans forward and holds out her hand.

The boy suddenly seems to come to life. He blinks, lets out a scream, turns his bike around and flees.

She wonders what the matter is. Has he seen a ghost? A gargoyle? A phantom?
Tut, tut! She shakes her head disapprovingly, these kids are brought up on too many horror stories these days. His imagination is probably running wild.

She gets up from the bench and begins walking towards the exit gate of the park. It has been a nice peaceful evening and she is satisfied that now she has mastered the art of Bhasrika.

The little boy, meanwhile, has fled at top speed, without looking back even once. He has a story to tell his friend, Bunty, when he gets home. This time it is a real-life story of how he saw the old aunty from the neighborhood in the park.
The old aunty and how she seemed to be sleeping as she sat on the bench.
And while sleeping, how she made noises like the noises their Maruti 800 makes when it refuses to start on a cold wintry day.
And how she could even puff like a railway engine.
And smile and laugh all by herself.
And how she tried to call him – may be she wanted to catch him.
What if she had indeed caught him?
Would she then have taken him home, cut him up into small pies and cooked him for her meal?

Grown-ups are so wierd, Bunty, so frightening. If you promise not to tell anyone I’ll take you with me to the park. May be she will come again. Then we can hide behind the tree and watch her.