From Kashmir to Manhattan

It felt good to be back, and I thought, “Wow, I have reached home, allegedly.”

Our teacher was very angry that day. “Mye ha basaan, yemis chhu zehryah garyi gaes cylinder moklyomut (I think her household has run out of cooking gas)”, a friend said.  “Naa, mye ha basaan, yemm chhe panni derqaaqni syeeth aaker kermich (No, I think she has had a fight with her sister-in-law)”, said another.  As we were busy with our Sherlockian deductions, the teacher announced that there was going to be a quiz, so as to prepare us better for the geography exam. As I was still giggling over our ingenious explanations for her skewed temperament, the teacher signalled me to stand up and asked what the capital of Lithuania was. I did not have a clue. The class fell silent, and there I was, standing in front of sixty students, with their eyes stuck on me. I first made sure if the zipper of my pants was closed, and then started looking for answers. Jameel rose from behind to whisper a word into my ear, and in my anxiousness I thought it to be the answer. “Batamaloo”, I replied with a confident look. The class burst into laughter, but seeing the look on the teacher’s face, we soon became silent again. Suddenly, a friend sitting at the end of the row stood up from his chair, raised his finger and started imitating Sunny Deol. “Utaar do yeh vardi, Balwant Rai ke kutton! (Take off your uniforms, you slaves of Balwant Rai!)”, he shouted. This time even the teacher couldn’t control herself. She giggled, and just like that, her anger had vanished.

Jameel and I used to go to Bhagaat (Srinagar) for our tuition classes. From there, we had to catch a local bus to Sonwar, where our school was. While waiting for the right bus (‘Apour-Lalchowk’) to arrive, our bony arms allowed us to take out letters from the post-box at Bhagaat chowk, which would provide some entertainment, but we made sure that we returned them to the box immediately. On the other side of the chowk was a snack shop called ‘Shiv Shakti’, famous for its samosas, chutney and chai. A few years ago, Zahoor Qadiri, a pretentious bragger also famous by the name of Qaedir Keetanu (Keetanu is germs, in Hindi) invited us over to Shiv Shakti. I had once complemented Jameel’s new wrist watch, to which he had said, “Ye geya gaer? Gaer chhi behtareen Rasheedas (You call this a watch? My friend Rasheed has the classiest watch ever)”. At another occasion, Jameel complemented my spectacles on which he commented, “Yi geya gaagal? Gaagal gey behtareen Rasheedas (You call these spectacles? My friend Rasheed has the most stylish pair of spectacles ever)”. And a year later, while enjoying our snacks at Shiv Shakti, Keetanu mentioned how he liked their chai. “It all depends on the milk, you know. Their milkman’s cow must be producing good milk”, Jameel added. At that moment, I just couldn’t control myself, and years of frustration came out in a single sentence. “Yi gowwa duad dyun? Duad chhu nyeeran behtareen Rasheedas (You call this milk? His friend Rasheed produces the best milk ever)”, I commented. Jameel spurted out the chai onto my tie, and we all laughed till our stomachs ached.

Time spent aboard the ‘Apour-Lalchowk’ bus used to be our favourite part of the day. Among its passengers was usually a wild chicken, sitting gracefully beneath the seat. The chicken nicknamed ‘Gul Kokur’ (Kokur is chicken, in Kashmiri) belonged to the aged Kareem sahab, who used to carry it to different offices, hoping that some officer would accept the chicken and release his pension money. “When I was younger, pandits used to have these high ranked positions. Hard working and honest people they were. Would never take a bribe”, he once added nostalgically. The maulana sitting next to him nodded, combing his beard with his fingers. “Secularism always stabilises communities. When you lose secularism, you have intra-religion conflicts”, a friend spoke softly into Jameel’s ears. To this, Jameel commented, “Yo, my dad’s so secular; he says he couldn’t wake up because his ALLA-RAM clock broke down”.

Another noticeable personality on board was that of Maqbool a.k.a Mackky. Mackky believed in dressing vibrantly, wearing a bright yellow shirt and parrot green pants, with his dark shiny hair standing like a cock’s crown and his eyes covered with huge black sunglasses. Due to striking facial similarities, it was rumoured that Mackky and Gul Kokur – the chicken, were distant relatives, however Kareem sahab disagreed, not because Mackky and Gul Kokur belonged to different species, but because he considered Gul Kokur’s eyes to be far more beautiful. The bus was a place where one could imagine himself to be superman. Since the bus was mostly full, passengers would often get an inch of a handle to hold and two inches of floor to rest their foot on, while their bodies dangled outside. And it was during these moments that we would close our eyes, feel the air on our face and think of ourselves as superman, flying high over the clouds. However, the driver’s brake and the conductor’s high pitched shout for passengers would eventually remind us of our reality. Discussions would soon start on the bus, covering a wide range of topics, from serious politics to cricket to whether Aishwariya Rai has had a nose job. Kareem sahab once mentioned how a national hindi news channel aired its special report on ‘Kya alien gaye ka doodh peetay hain? (Do aliens drink cow’s milk?)’. We all giggled, and our school stop arrived. I gave my bus fare to the conductor who looked at the coins with a serious look. “Ya chaakleta, ropai di byey (You chocolate face, give a rupee more),” he said angrily. “Chocolate face? Was he referring to my skin tone?” I started thinking. Thoughts of using Shahrukh Khan’s ‘Fair and Handsome face cream’ crossed my mind. However I didn’t give it much heed.

Jameel’s fate had been sealed by his father when the doctor had sighted Jameel’s male genitals inside his mother’s womb. “My son will do IAS,” Jameel’s dad could be heard saying all social gatherings. But Jameel was afraid of not qualifying, and thus facing humiliation. “Well, all the blame lies with your genitals”, we would tease him occasionally. “Leave IAS, I am going for medicine instead”, he once said. “You do realise that you almost failed your Biology exam, right?” I giggled. “Oh, do not question my intelligence. My knowledge of human anatomy is far better than that of the military’s,” he replied strongly. I got curious and asked how he came to this absurd conclusion. “Well, I at least know that if you shoot above waist height, the protestor is going to die”, Jameel was doing his usual again.

I spent the next two years of my life at “Mahindra United World College of India” in the beautiful Western Ghats. I got to meet people from over 60 countries, and picked up a few conversational sentences from their languages. I would hear a lot of “We should talk about Kashmir someday”, from both Indian as well as foreign students, and was happy to notice how open and understanding the people were. In my eleventh standards’ physics class, my teacher was having a casual conversation with my Chinese classmate about Tibet. “What do you have to say about Kashmir then,” my classmate asked. To this, my teacher, who is Indian and an IIT alum replied, “People should be given the right to decide, and whatever they choose, India should have no issues with that.” I found positive attitude in people all around campus, which benefited me greatly. I also came to realise that, contrary to popular belief, talking to a girl was much easier that walking amidst gunfire.

A year later, I was in the United States for college. The opening convocation had flags of all the countries represented at the college, and students would pose with their respective countries’ flag for pictures. Hamid, a Pakistani student who helped me a great deal in settling in, once asked with which flag I would pose. He continued to say, “I should stand with a Pakistani flag, and pull you from one side; and Shubam should stand with an Indian flag and pull you from the other, while you are in the middle with a frown. This should totally be your cover picture on Facebook. We can even have Rabab, holding a Bangla flag in one corner.” Two weeks later, I visited New York. I was all excited, and hungry. The moment I stepped out of Penn station, I saw a halal food cart at one corner. I walked over the guy and asked for some kebabs. “How is Pakistan brother?” he asked with a smile. “Pakistan is good sir, but I am not from there”, I smiled back at him. “Oh, then India? Where in India? Lucknow? Hyderabad?” he took names of some Muslim populated cities. “Kashmir sir”, I replied. Hearing this, he let out a huge laugh and said, “Then not really India, huh”. Upon asking how he knew about the Indian cities, he said that he was from Egypt and had visited India once. I took my kebabs, gave my salaam and left.

Next, I stopped a cab to go to the Empire State building, and suddenly I was sitting with Fawad, a Pakistani immigrant who drives cabs around Manhattan. He seemed welcoming, and enquired about my studies.  At that moment, I thought it be monetarily wise to disclose that I was from Kashmir. And in the end it worked, he charged me a dollar less. In the U.S., I was a member of the ‘desi’ community. ‘Desi’ is a word which crosses borders and landscapes, to include people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Nepal. In other words, ‘desi’ refers to people who show interest in ‘butter chicken with naan’ and know about ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’.  At one desi gathering, we had brought food from a Pakistani restaurant in Jackson Heights. I called in Shubam, saying that we had some Indian food. “You mean Pakistani food”, an American friend of mine pointed out. “Oh, India – Pakistan same thing”, I tried to be brief as I was having desi food after a month and didn’t want to be disturbed. But she didn’t let go and asked, “How’s India and Pakistan the same thing”. I was too seduced by the smell of chicken korma to talk sensible politics. “Because we use the same swear words”, I said, and the gathering let out a small laugh.

During my second semester, I enrolled for a course called ‘The Arab Spring’, where we were taught books by political analysts on the issue, with a combination of Arab literature translated into English. Seeing a guy with an Arabic name in his class, professor Abdullah, a Jordanian, asked me where I was from. “India”, I replied. “Kashmir, to be specific. Have you heard of Kashmir?” I added. “Of course I have. I was born in Jordan, but my ancestry is from Palestine. We know about all such places of the world”, he said. I spent the next couple of minutes evaluating his use of the phrase ‘such places’.

After two difficult semesters of college, it was time to go home. I was greeted with a huge ‘Welcome to India’ sign at the Delhi airport, from where I had to transfer to a domestic flight. Seeing a ‘Javed’ with ‘Srinagar’ written as his destination, the security guard at the gate asked “It must be very cold there, right?” I could see child like curiosity and excitement in his eyes. “Sir, so cold that your fingertips come off”, I joked. He looked at my still-intact fingertips and laughed. A few days after reaching home, I got a call from Jameel asking me to come over to Parimahal. Jameel was accompanied by another friend – Khurram. “You fled to the States, you son of a gun,” Khurram could be heard repeating occasionally. “I was stuck here for a year, but luckily I got into Delhi University for Computer Science. I want to work for some IT firm at Bangalore. What’s left in Kashmir anyway? Killings, strikes and curfew”, he said with an exasperated look. “And harissa? (A Kashmiri mutton preparation)”, Jameel was being sarcastic. “Ain’t no one getting Harissa in Bangalore”, he added.

As much as I hate waiting for marriage lunches, which are scheduled for 2 pm but served at 4, I don’t have much choice. Failing to show up could suggest anything, from sickness to inter-family jealousy. At one such delayed lunch, a point had reached where I could no longer take any mutton. “Man, serve some vegetables,” I was talking to myself, and to my rescue came mushrooms. But I had not fully savoured the mushroom flavour, when huge mutton pieces in the form of ‘Roganjosh’ attacked our plate, as if security forces had been unleashed on a group of protestors. The mushrooms got dispersed and ‘peace’ had been forced again. And after the Roganjosh curry had sunk in, I tried to look for my mushrooms beneath the huge mutton pieces, but they had been buried deep into the pile of rice, never to be found again. Their graves, unmarked, unnamed.

Next day was Friday, and I was at a mosque in Safakadal for the day prayer. The 99 names of God carved in walnut wood adorned the mosque’s front wall, while carefully cut wooden tiles decorated its sides. I got a place in the last row and sat down. The imam talked about ‘Amreeki’ foreign interventions, and went on the highlight the weakening faith of current Muslims. As the sermon ended, and we stood up for prayer, a group of children wearing bright colourful khan-dresses and aged between 5 and 7 appeared behind us. Amidst soft chit-chat and laughter, they explained to each other the rules of the game. It seemed fairly simple. The tallest man in the mosque was the target, and each child would get 7 tries to put the mosque’s prayer cap on his head. Whosoever’s cap lands on his head first, wins. At the sound of ‘Bismillah’, the tall man was attacked with prayer caps, with some hitting his long pointy nose, and some going completely astray. Finally, after intense hard work, a prayer cap finally landed on the man’s head, and a loud cheer from the boys followed. The winner had been declared, and had earned himself an ice-lolly.

I couldn’t help but smile at the whole incident. It felt good to be back, and I thought, “Wow, I have reached home, allegedly.”

Photograph by Hakim Ali Reza

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