On 28 July, Vijdan Saleem was a radio news presenter, reading out the day’s most important news: if statehood and special status were delicacies, statehood was soya chunks that Kashmiris eat, convincing themselves that it is rista, the sumptuous traditional mutton meatballs cooked in a gravy.
A video of the skit went viral in Kashmir, many on Twitter picked up on the reference. It was a dig at Jammu and Kashmir’s former chief minister Omar Abdullah who, on that day, had seemingly hinted that he was willing to settle down for mere restoration of statehood instead of a reversal of the unilateral abrogation of erstwhile state’s semi-autonomy.
On other days, Mr. Saleem has remoulded himself into a television reporter with a guide on how to report in Hindi, sometimes a Kashmiri of the older generation reflecting on life, and at other times, the exasperating manzimyoar–the intermediaries between families seeking marriage alliances among other characters.
Mr. Saleem’s satire has touched upon politics, culture, and society; drawing heavily and giving a contemporary spin to the ages-old nitty gritties of daily life in the Kashmiri society. “My goal is to make people laugh even if it’s for a few minutes,” said Mr. Saleem. “Kashmiris are already depressed due to the lockdown. I just try to help people feel better.”
With over twenty thousand followers on Instagram and more than six thousand on Twitter, entertaining the audience online is a part of the job for Mr. Saleem, who is a radio jockey in Srinagar. Making a “stressed people” laugh gave him satisfaction, he said, and the feedback is instant–from both resident Kashmiris and those abroad.
Kashmir has been under intermittent lockdowns for nearly a year since the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomy last year and now, because of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic–the first lockdown where Kashmiris have access to the internet, albeit only on slow speed 2G.
For those looking for solace in humour online, it is not just Mr. Saleem’s videos but many others, not just entertainment industry professionals, who have made full use of the choked but available internet to help Kashmiri laugh in testing times.
One among them is twenty-year-old Taha Naqash, a comedian who has grown up in the consistent gloom of Kashmir that set in since the 1990s. He has been making short skits on daily life for the last four years, blending humour with the spirit of taking on difficulties of life in stride.
On 4 August, Mr. Naqash impersonated a politician wearing a black color waistcoat in his Instagram video. Answering a phone call to address complaints, calling it the addition of vote to his vote bank, he mocks the idea of Naya Kashmir and calls it a scam. In the video, he points out internet bans and restrictions in Kashmir since the last one year.
Mr. Naqash’s goal had always been to create happiness, he said, and make someone laugh. On Instagram, where most of his videos are available, he goes by the name The Humorous Kashmiri and has more than 10,000 followers and viewers across age groups. “I watch your videos with my parents and I think I am not as big a fan of yours as my parents,” Mr. Naqash once received a message from a young woman.
According to Mr. Naqash, a good laugh at the end of a few minutes long videos was all that one needed for a good laugh to uplift their mood. “I can say that by tracking the reaction of people on my videos,” he said.
It was for this reason that Memoji Laaleh, an anonymous social media account has taken to making satire on the iPhone’s animoji feature–a three dimensional emoji that mimics its creator. Initially, she used the feature casually and did not intend to continue making videos. That is when she received a message from one of her audience that changed her mind.
“I received a message from a woman who said her husband, who was undergoing chemotherapy, used to look forward to these videos,” said Memoji Laaleh. She did not want to be named since many of her videos are political commentaries in her native language, Kashur.
In most of her videos, Memoji Laaleh, who is in her 30s, portrays an older Kashmiri woman reflecting on the things in life that frustrate her. In one such skit, Memoji Laaleh complained about her daughter’s addiction to watching videos on the phone, in another she mocked the appropriation of Kashmir’s political slogans by demonstrators — protesting China’s aggression — in mainland India.
Against the odds
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Kashmir had been under a rare lockdown–the first in which the internet has not been suspended, even if restricted to slow speed. For Kashmiris confined to their homes, the access to internet and the plethora of online humour they can relate to–both politically and culturally–have come as a welcome relief.
Twenty three-year-old Muntaha Shah is among those who found relief in online humor. “Lockdown has increased everybody’s stress and watching these videos for some time helps you dodge the frustration of life,” she said, and added that she eagerly awaited fresh content from the online community, particularly Mr. Saleem.
Ms. Shah, a college student, said that watching Kashmiris poke fun at the dark times and hardships of life “worked like therapy” for her and even her younger sister, a class 12 student who hasn’t been to school since 2019, owing to the successive lockdowns. “I introduced Vijdan’s and Memoji’s videos to [her sister] and since then we share a laugh together for moments while watching their videos,” said Ms. Shah.
However, the slow speed of internet annoyed Ms. Shah as videos took longer to buffer and often stopped while playing. “We can’t do anything about the internet speed but we also can’t stop watching these videos,” she said, but still maintained that online humor was “a helping hand” amid the lockdown.
Being a content creator and a professional in the entertainment industry, Mr. Saleem is dependent on the internet and agreed that the slow speed of the internet was a major obstacle. “Videos don’t work properly on 2G internet speed,” he said. “It irritates my audience who aren’t able to watch the entire video because of the constant buffering.”
Keeping this in mind, he has limited his videos to a mere twenty seconds.
Everything about life is political and how could humour be devoid of it, said Mr. Vijdan. “Sometimes, the source of depression among the people of Kashmir are the trending political topics,” he said, “and to talk about them on a lighter note made people feel better.”