She spoke with chilling savoir-faire; her gait, the embodiment of the ruins of Sharda Peeth. And she didn’t even know what the place meant, or where it was. I had difficulty explaining to her from where I came. She repeatedly referred to West Bengal as South India, and that by virtue of being a South Indian I must have been very intelligent–so she thought.
Lest I be censured for misleading the reader, she was not from that Azad Kashmir, which is better known as Pakistan administered Kashmir. She was perhaps only going that way, in an ideological sense. She was however, from Srinagar–one that wanted azadi.
I met her having travelled fifty kilometers from my home in Delhi, in a remote establishment tucked away in Greater Noida. We sat at a cafeteria, she offered me French fries, after I pulled a chair for her. I was, meanwhile, choosing some choice sarcasm on the recent Delhi High Court verdict on Kanhaiya Kumar’s interim bail.
My Kashmiri friends at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) are divided from me and my nation by a common language–or a common music–that of Hindi Cinema. They used to hum and quiz me on songs of Kishore Kumar or Manna Dey. One of them had even said Mohammad Rafi was not a good Bollywood “product.” The reason was Rafi was Muslim, and in order to be a good Bollywoodian–good enough to be listened to and enjoyed in Kashmir–one had to be a Hindu. I had to remind the azadi-campaigner two things. Mohammad Rafi had sung bhajans. That could well have made him temporarily and culturally a Hindu, in the way Ashis Nandy found Kipling to be culturally Indian, despite being spiritually Anglican. Also, Kishore Kumar (or Abhas Kumar Ganguly) converted to Islam in order to marry Madhubala. That should have disqualified him from the magnanimity of Kashmiri music listeners. My friend must have detected some insidious logic in my arguments. He had parted without paying for his tea, leaving me to do the needful. Today when Shazia (the woman from Srinagar) offered me a bowl of wafers, she had begun an uncanny compensation for Kashmir’s debt to India.
“I live in Delhi, Lajpat Nagar,” she said. “My husband lives with me too…you see my hijab?”
“Of course, one of my students used to wear it too. In fact more than one, depending upon how you understand student,” said I.
“Was she Mawmdan (Mohammedan)?”
“Not really, well, I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to those things, I guess,” I said, trying to be extra cautious, perhaps perversely cosmopolitan.
“I’m Mawmdan,” she said.
“Did I ask?” I said curtly.
“How much do you earn,” asked Shazia, ignoring my remonstration.
“I was thinking of how Hindu cinema and its music has transformed this nation into such a narrow metaphor,” I said, ignoring her obtuseness.
“Are you Mawmdan?” she asked.
“I like Urdu, and I can catch snippets of Kashmiri. Does that make me one?”
“I’m very bad at Urdu,” she said. “My husband tells me, please don’t try Urdu. You molest and rape the language. My husband is a doctor.”
“His metaphors are unique, for a doctor,” I said, unable to curb my irritation.
She kept insisting on details that appeared, despite all her innocence, uninhibitedly vulgar to my refined sense of privacies. By and by I realized my forbidding responses had begun to annoy her. So far she had been only fair and somewhat apathetic. My disinterestedness must have hurt her ego. Her culinary hospitality was due to be reciprocated. Why, she is a passable subject to chat with, I wondered. She is beautiful, she is Kashmiri, a fascinating subject, under the circumstances of the JNU row over azadi slogans. Why should I be unmoved by this remarkable prospect? I must instigate her, a bit more politely, I thought.
“Tell me,” I asked her after giving the matter some thought, “how is it for a Kashmiri woman to live in Delhi? I mean, do you find yourself noticed by others, differentiated very often? Your hijab, for instance! You’re very conscious about it, aren’t you? You’re rather particular about what community you come from, so do you find yourself singled out by others as well?”
“The truth is,” she said, “it’s rather hot in Delhi. In Kashmir its much different.”
“I don’t mean the climate…you see I have friends from Kashmir. This isn’t to say I have very efficient knowledge about the state. But things have happened recently. What do you think about them? Did they affect the way in which people around here treated you?”
“You mean the JNU thing?”
“Yes, are you aware of what happened?”
“Yes, I know, I have been hearing these things, you know. Some unruly students said some things. They said Afzal Guru was a hero, and they were arrested.”
“Do you know they shouted slogans of azadi?”
“Oh did they?”
“I am afraid to say, and I don’t know how to say this inoffensively, I have always held that the people of Kashmir cannot but be political. They also cannot but keep a good humor about things. You speak an empowered language, you have access therefore to media, newspapers, all of which are full of politicking at the moment. Obviously you can’t be as detached as you seem. Unless I am mistaken, you are not very affected by anything that the state or the court has had the insouciance to do.”
She smirked. Rather decisively. Even derisively, as I soon understood.
“Doctor saab (her husband) says don’t support India, don’t find Indian cricketers handsome during India Pakistan cricket matches. The buzurgs (elders) in our families tell the women not to appreciate Indian cricketers. Do you really think I am apolitical? My uncle is a Member of the Legislature in Delhi.”
“Delhi? You mean Member of the Parliament?” I said, considerably surprised.
“Do you really mean the Lok Sabha?”
“Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha, I’m not sure. He’s a politician.”
“Which party is he from?”
“Why, our party. We have a party you know. It’s the PDP.”
“Your uncle is an MP from the Peoples Democratic Party? You mean, seriously?”
“Of course he is. We are being criticized that we haven’t spoken on the JNU issue. But neither have you.”
“But I have, I do keep speaking all the time, I come from there after all.”
“By you I mean, Narendra Modi hasn’t spoken on the issue. He is a Hindu Prime Minister. He won’t speak on Kashmir.”
“Well, I don’t know if he doesn’t do so just because he’s a Hindu. However, why hasn’t the PDP made any statements? I mean don’t get me wrong, I can’t necessarily valorize Afzal Guru, all that would be unconstitutional. But…”
“But, he’s gone now,” she said irately. “He’s gone, and there’s no use of politics over his death. All we want is azadi from you.”
“Well, sure you can have it, I grant you that. My saying it won’t do much though,” I said unable to stop feeling disturbed by how soon the conversation had got polarized between arbitrary us’s and you’s.
“In Kashmir, our bewas gather every month at Lal Chowk for their roodalis. They mourn over the photographs of their slain men. That’s how we get to know who was murdered, and how, by the army. Otherwise, dead bodies in the valley leave no trace. Someone’s entrails were dug out, someone’s eyes, someone’s foetus. There was a mother of a ninth-grade student. She had three daughters and this only son. He would have been the sole earner of the family in a few years. A militant came, he dropped a bomb, he made an expert escape. This boy was caught instead by the army and made an example out of. His throat was slit, his intestines were drafted out. His mother didn’t even have enough money to reclaim his remains as her son’s, let alone employ a lawyer to prove his innocence posthumously.”
“I have heard such tales,” I said, sheepishly, “but each time I do I feel my blood frosting. There is cowardice in our performances of liberalism, at least in some of ours you know. We are fearless, so we think, we cast all opinions we can openly. During these nationalism campaigns I did realize that we can’t be so bothered with freedom of speech when many of the nation’s barbed wires are rusting with blood. Not just the blood of soldiers, but of villagers from Kashmir. I haven’t even been there…yet I presume to know the valley…the blood of women…”
“Now you tell me, you’re Hindu, I don’t know if you’ll understand,” she interjected. “Because you’re obviously modern. But we Mawmdans are not, we are backward. We don’t have a problem with that. I do what my husband asks me to do. In such a society, how can a father not say something when his daughter is raped?”
I almost laughed. And then deep shame came over my insensitivity. Trying to empathize with her I replied, as charitably as I could.
“That kind of bodily violation can hardly be quelled by the whether you stand on the looser side of values. I feel like I don’t even have the right to call it deplorable any more. You’ve labelled me too as a part of them. And why not, when I myself feel so much contempt? Just at the fact that I go on with my life comfortably, with these mediocre urban assertions of freedom and freedom of speech. However, you didn’t quite tell me, why didn’t PDP come out with a clear statement on the Afzal Guru slogans?
“You know our Chief Minister died two months ago. His daughter Mehbooba Mufti Sayeed is to be the next minister. The people don’t want her to form a party with the Hindus.”
“You mean the BJP?” I asked.
“The valley won’t stand any Hindu CM. BJP will strengthen its position by and by, so it thinks. We won’t let that happen. PDP is answerable to Kashmir. Kashmir doesn’t care about Leh or Ladakh. It did not vote for the BJP. It wants Mehbooba to form her own government.”
“Isn’t that all the more reason that they should have used the situation to make their stand on Afzal louder and clearer than before?”
“Now I must tell you what really happened at JNU,” she said. “On the day the sloganeering happened, BJP had deployed some Kashmiri youths to shout the slogans of azadi. They had their faces covered so that they could flee easily in case of police intervention. That the police would come was pre-planned. They came, they arrested the president. The Kashmiris fled. These weren’t even from JNU. The whole thing was a ploy of the BJP’s to use the JNU incident as an excuse to fortify Kashmir even more. They have the army now, they’re in power. And if PDP said anything, Mehbooba’s position would have been compromised within the coalition with BJP, in Kashmir.”
I was too shocked to say anything. I struggled to mutter, “are you suggesting the slogans were a BJP plant?”
“I am not really. I am telling you they were. BJP knows it can’t last in Kashmir for long. They need reasons to keep alive in the hearts of the Mawmdans, as a source of panic, as a reason why the Kashmiris should stay in check. They too raise azadi slogans. Modi wanted them to know that they too won’t be spared henceforth, if a Hindu president of the student campus wasn’t spared by them.”
I sat aghast for a few minutes. Many conspiracy theories seem believable to us, especially because they talk about incidents from which we are geographically or emotionally removed. But JNU was not just a subject of an academic conversation. Being my creed, and being so close to it even geographically I shuddered to think–just for a moment in absolute credulity to Shazia–how the bandwagons of communal conflict had finally entered the beloved campus. But, couldn’t she have been making it up all?
Her phone rang. She spoke in Kashmiri. It was probably her husband. Of course she made no mention of me to him. She walked out with her phone, and when she returned, she was back to being her obtuse self.
“Would you mind,” I asked, “if I wrote all this?”
“Of course not.”
“Surely, you should rest assured, that I wouldn’t use your name.”
“Please do,” she said. “They should know who it was that said what was said.”
I did not obviously follow her wish.
“But would you like to clarify your position on the forced exile of the Kashmiri Pandits? Where would they go, if for instance you happen to get your azadi, and they wish to return to the valley?” I asked.
“They never were unwelcome. They are free to come over and stay in their houses which they have abandoned. They only come here to sell them. Look at Anupam Kher! Why would he even want to come back? He is rich. Happy. Successful. We live there in misery. My father didn’t get promoted to director because of a Kashmiri Pandit. This fellow sat in Delhi over his post, while my father retired as a deputy director in Kashmir. The pandits lie. They don’t want to come.”
“Some of them accuse that they were terrorized by militants. That they were killed en masse…”
“Look all those things happened before my birth. My father said that some of the pandits were threatened. It’s not as if nothing happened. But people like my father gave them support. And all was fine, until one they the pandits chose to leave. We reasoned with them but they wouldn’t listen. Even now my father tells his Hindu friend to come over. But he is very rich and settled in Bombay. So we have decided to make peace with the fact that our compatriots from the other community shall not return.”
“And if you get azadi, who will you go with? Will you build your own state or…”
“My husband supports Pakistan. So I think we’ll go with them. Although they send terrorists, we all know that. But they’re better than the Indian army. But one thing is certain, the Pakistan team doesn’t play well in cricket anymore. At least there, India does deserve to win. All I can say is I’m Indian by birth, and I’m Indian by heart. My father and my husband may not be.”
I quietly picked up the last of the French fries, as she concluded.
“I have been to Kerala. Kerala is in the south. I’ve been to Kovalam beach. I’ve seen the sea there. You too should go to Kashmir…who can say if we’ll meet again?”