By Nidhi Suresh
I don’t remember the time. Time takes on a funny pattern here. I realise that it’s time for a lunch, when the men in office leave for namaaz and I remember to heat up my dinner when the mosque yells ‘iftaar’.
That evening, too, I didn’t remember exactly what time it was. On Fridays, most people stay away from Jamia Masjid. Jamia is located in downtown Srinagar and is said to be one of the most dangerous parts of the city.
Coming from Gurgaon and Bangalore, Kartik and I had a very filmy imagination of danger. As we approached the road towards Jamia, there were stones lying placid on the ground. Shops were open, children were playing on the street and the CRPF was in place. A normal Friday at Jamia.
While walking down, a CRPF man beckoned us. We walked over and one of them asked me, “Are you from South?” I tried not to roll my eyes and said, “Yes, but I’m not a Madrasi”. The man started asking me where in South. When he found out I’m from Bangalore, he started talking to me in Kannada. I got excited and we spoke for a good 15 minutes about Kashmir in Kannada. I dervied a strange sense of happiness to see how everyone around us didn’t understand a word. In a matter of 5 minutes, CRPF uncle and I had knit together a little South India near Jamia. I told him I missed filter coffee and he said he’s not able to adjust to Kashmir.
As Kartik and I walked ahead, the area started to slow down. Shop shutters began rolling down, vendors left the place, children were ushered indoors, people began taking out their face masks from their pockets. Kannadiga CRPF uncle, now with his big gun in hand, walked past us and indicated us to leave. We walked toward the entrance of Jamia, where more CRPF jawans stood waiting. One of them started laughing at us and said, “What are you standing here for? Leave. Only we and the dogs remain here. Leave.”
The Tilawat began. Tilawat is a recitation or reading of the Holy Qur’an from the Masjid. The Tilawat seeks for His mercy and peace for mankind. Kartik and I decided to find a safe spot to observe. As we took a few steps away from the Masjid, a stone came flying past my head. Kartik froze, watching it go past me. There was no time to find a safe spot. We were right in the middle of the exchange. We stuck ourselves to the shutter of a shop and stay put. From within the Masjid, stones started flying out. The CRPF began shooting.
Before we knew it, the CRPF fired up their cars and trucks and started driving off. From within the Masjid, a crowd of 150-200 people charged out with sticks and stones in hand. Most of them had their faces covered. With the Tilawat being read loudly in the background, sounds of firing and stones hitting metal, along with the Kashmiri boys yelling slogans and the police swearing at the crowd, it seemed like a frenzied trance. One didn’t have to understand Kashmiri to feel the anger.
The boys chased down the security vehicles; the CRPF in turn threw tear gas. One tear gas, flung towards us, landed a few inches away from our feet. We were too shaken to react. Seconds later, a local Kashmiri boy came with a stick and flung the tear gas away, as if he were playing cricket. Once the security drove off, things calmed down. Kartik pointed out to me how the watermelon vendor stood watching the entire ‘game’. He hadn’t shut his shop; he hadn’t covered his face. He just stood there with his hands folded and he looked quite blank.
The boys around started telling us to keep our camera inside, as we followed the small procession down the road. They began yelling Aazadi slogans, while eyeing the dark-south Indian girl curiously. I noticed that I was the only woman around. It suddenly made me very conscious. I wondered if they were able to crave for Aazadi as they looked me up and down.
About 10 minutes later, the security was nowhere to be seen. The boys began taking down their face masks and stuffing it in their pockets. The barricades were opened and life was permitted to return to ‘normal’. Kartik and I got into a shared taxi and left.
Leftover relationships, mundane conversations, and a general sense of banality forced me to leave Bangalore. And that Friday evening, as Kashmir lay naked in front of me, I had no idea what to do.
I no longer understand what Aazadi means or what an occupation means. As I mentioned before, it seemed like a well-planned game. The CRPF knew where to stand and when to fleee. The boys knew how long to yell, how well to play cricket with the tear gas, and not to miss the new girl in the street. I looked for women. I didn’t see them on the streets or peeping through the windows. They were probably preparing for Iftaar (fast breaking). Did the Aazadi that the men called out for resonate with their description of Aazadi too?
Kartik and I got off the taxi and walked over to our Chinar tree. We sat there for almost an hour talking about our evening. The Jhelum flowed by calmly and it’s hard not to find the moment ironic. I thought a lot about Kashmir before coming here. I read and talked to people about the conflict. I used to think that once I get here, once I see it all with my own eyes, I’ll be able to assess something. But that evening sitting under the Chinar tree all I felt was tired and confused.
When I narrated the incident to a Kashmiri friend and showed him the video, he looked at me, amused at my surprise.
Photo: Nidhi Suresh
Nidhi Suresh is a journalist based out of Srinagar. She graduated from Mount Carmel College, Bangalore and is currently working with Kashmir Observer.
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