After subsisting in a safari park zoo-like condition for nearly twelve weeks, I was filled with a little presumptuous feeling of optimism while taking leave. Although the reason for this short-lived...
After subsisting in a safari park zoo-like condition for nearly twelve weeks, I was filled with a little presumptuous feeling of optimism while taking leave. Although the reason for this short-lived departure was mundane, my heart was irresistibly uproarious with the thought of intimacy with the free world that lived beyond the frosty reach of inhospitable mountain tops, miles away from the stranglehold that had cooped us in. In addition to a Z-grade security cover for us barbarians, thanks to the inner workings of democracy, we are blessed with an additional enclosure formed out of ornamented but discarded antiquity of political courtesy and, in equal measure, choked with threats followed by hollow words of faux sympathy and heartless compassion.
The first thing that hit me after landing at Delhi airport was a certain sense of camaraderie. I was a fellow traveller from one would-be union territory to a place that was a union territory, and it was for the first time that I was carrying such distinction. To my amusement, the warmth of the inspiration made me feel sweaty. When it grew into crass uneasiness, I realized my cloak was not suitable. I immediately took off my jumper.
What made me realize I had arrived in a different universe was the internet of things. It was flowing around in a faintly familiar unrestrained manner; everyone looked glued to their shiny screens punching messages of romance or revulsion, reading pieces or perhaps playing games. Before I could pick up my luggage, I was availing the bounty. After 78 days, to be precise, thanks to WhatsApp, I was face-to-face with my family in Lahore. My little daughter was so excited that, per her own statement that she repeated several times, she wanted to eat me alive.
Such immoderate freedom left me so enervated that, for the next two days, I sank in my bed doing nothing but reading the latest pieces on Kashmir, including my own. I also checked e-mails and messages inquiring about my welfare. I responded to all those I knew, updated my Facebook status several times over and posted my latest poems in Urdu and Kashmiri, and retweeted a few stories of interest.
On the third day, I took the metro rail, a marvel of the previous Congress government that brought some order to an otherwise unruly daily commute. For starters, I lost my way before finally reaching almost in time for a meeting with Javed Iqbal Shah, the estranged husband of former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. Despite moving beyond the axis of being exes, the two cannot uncouple from their blood relationship as first cousins.
We met at the Constitution Club of India, not far away from parliament, where the current crisis of Kashmir was formalized. We started with the unconstitutional raid on Article 370. "There was a long-standing trust deficit for valid political reasons between Kashmir and Delhi. The unilateral abrogation of Article 370 will further widen that chasm and challenge the political space and standing of the erstwhile mainstream forces", he said.
Shah is sharp and erudite, and above all, unapologetic in expressing his opinions. He orders a chola batura while I keep myself content with a sugarless cuppa. After a bite, he insists New Delhi carried a coup d’état that has numbed Kashmiris. "They are trying to figure out and size the existential threat on account of an inflicted suspended animation of their normal lives and the larger political realities that now await them. A sense of being leaderless and rudderless compounds this fear".
We talk about his younger daughter, Iltija alias Sana, who, of late, has assumed her maternal surname of Mufti and receives disproportionate prime time television coverage, provoking fears that intelligence agencies are attempting to foist yet another Mufti on the Valley. Shah, "as a father" praises her "articulation and erudition" but "as an analyst," thinks that "Kashmir's tryst with dynasties is over ... unless Delhi enacts some new farce or the people of Kashmir choose to be naive enough and are ready to be willingly beguiled and coaxed yet another time. Our conversation ends with mourning at our collective loss. We promise to meet again, Insha Allah.
By the time I reached my hotel, news came about the death of SAR Geelani, a former Delhi University professor, who, along with Afzal Guru, was co-accused of masterminding the Parliament Attack in 2001. In addition to the commonly held belief that he was a victim of state-controlled brutality, I have always believed Geelani was more dubious.
The next day, Friday, the vicinity of parliament beckoned me again. I took an interest in the neem walay baba, nestled under an old neem tree, yards away from the Central Secretariat metro just outside the office of the Tuberculosis Association of India. The open-air shrine has been raised several feet above the ground around the huge street and had benefited from a recent restoration. The caretaker, Ali Shah, who has barely breached his teens, credited it to some sahib working at the nearby Transport Bhawan. At the mazaar that includes another grave, ascribed to Baba's younger brother, the man would pray for a son from his "unfruitful companion". Miraculously, or perhaps with some thoughtful initiative from the wifey, a boy was born. This earned baba ji a marbled makeover.
On Saturday afternoon, as soon as we touched down at the Srinagar airport, I had to take out the long-forgotten jumper to shield myself from the mild wintry air. As we entered the airport building, the first message that confronted us was rather guilefully alluring. A hoarding, printed over a poor quality picture of blooming tulips apparently from the famous Tulip Garden at Srinagar, announced: "Welcome to Paradise on earth". It was written in three languages – Urdu, Hindi and English. I left it to unremarkable oversight that a message in Kashmiri was missing.
Only a few yards down, an armed soldier of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) looked stiff with his gaze vaguely fixed at something remote and invisible that was hard to discern, but it clearly displayed his lack of charity towards everyone passing by. He was encased in his bunker that was artfully disguised as a customer services counter covered in a flex sheet that proclaimed bold but brief instructions in splashes of colour: No Queries. Keep Distance. CRPF 35 BN.
All of a sudden, I felt a creeping feeling of dread and insecurity. I'd certainly arrived back at my paradise!
(This piece was written on October 28, 2019 after a five-day visit to New Delhi from October 22-26)