X’mas

Wake up to a call from the one who waits. ‘Don’t you have to go?’ ‘Yup but it’s too damn cold.” It’s 8 a.m…it’s a Christmas morning in Kashmir. I sleep for a few more minutes and then drag myself out of the electric blanket. The room’s freezing as usual…I light up the gas heater. The tiny gas cylinder with a round dish like apparatus starts with a whoosh.
A quick trip to the the loo and the ice cold water that gushes out of the tap wakes me up for all of eternity! No hot water means a dry bath…body scrub and baby wipes.

A few cups of tea later, I rush to the Holy Family Catholic Church on Maulana Azad Road. ‘Madam, bag check karao,” directs the vardiwalla. The security is tighter than usual…the vigilance has exponentially increased. But that is true for the entire Valley. Even when one was crossing the Banihal Tunnel, one could sense the doom in the air.

The Church looks different from the last time I visited. Much has changed after the floods. I’m too early, the Christmas Morning Mass only begins at 11 am. After all the ‘Chillai Kalan’, the 40 day long period of the most chilling, biting nights has already made it’s grand entrance with the night temperature dropping to -5. I pay my respects, I am now in all too familiar territory, with the convent education and all…and find a place in the middle of the tiny church, on a pew next to the heaters.

It’s a long wait, the congregation slowly trickles in. All the carols we sung in school are now blaring through the loud speaker, in Hindi. At just around 11 a.m arrive a throng of my peers. They make it to the front of the church and park themselves between the altar and the first pew, blocking parts of the aisle. The mass begins. I catch only parts of it, about how riches don’t bring happiness etc. I’m unusually distracted by the photographers. Halfway through the mass there are more photographers in the church, than members of the congregation. There they are snapping away to glory. I take a few photographs from my seat. A number of times during the service, the Priest stops his sermon to ask them to move to the back. But to no avail. By now my blood is boiling. I ask one to take it easy. He apologies but it all continues. There’s no space for the Priest or  congregation to move. I just take a few shots from the back of the church and step out.

There is a standard procedure that outsiders follow when they come to the Valley. Fraternising is the best way to gain access. But I keep to myself, everywhere. Unless, I am interested in someone as a subject or out of an inquisitiveness that I rarely experience, I speak only when I’m spoken to. So I wander aimlessly, waiting for the congregation to step out. The throng comes out too.  There I am keeping to myself when one of them approaches me. “Mere behan banogee kya?” I kid you not..no hi no hello..no introduction…that’s the opening line. Maybe it’s my size or that I look like a dumb, lost child…but a lot of boys I encounter feel the need to be my saviours – my princes on white horses or my brothers. Instead of warming up to him (like a true cynic, I don’t believe words or trust actions only intentions), I turn nasty. ‘I don’t want to speak to you, forget being related to any of you. The way all of you totally disregarded what those people asked for! Why don’t you try behaving like this in Hazratbal?”

I have no idea what takes over me sometimes but my voice has now become awfully high pitched and  there I am yelling at what has formed into a group of  influential photographers of Kashmir. FYI it’s a lot, I hold in high regard due to the risky nature of their vocation!

My unsuspecting peer, doesn’t know where to look. ” Too many of the new guys come from villages and are uneducated, you can’t accuse all of us of being uncivilised!”, he says. In retrospect I realize arguments such as these are unnecessary. First, I don’t make pictures as a means of earning a livelihood with editors telling me what to do and when. Plus, I wrote once about ethics that everything boils down to who we are in private, when no one else is watching!

Anyhow, a familiar face sees me fretting and approaches. It’s Mr T, a young accredited photo journalist, someone I have bumped into on many occasions…he has all the characteristics of a ‘good guy’. This is the first time, we have a long chat. He calmly explains to me the behaviour of his colleagues, tells me what is happening in the Valley and parts ways having exchanged numbers.I get a call from my assistant who isn’t in the Valley these days. “Don’t go to the Shrine today there may be trouble.” he says. “If there was the press wouldn’t be here”, I reply to my Mother hen.

A few conversations and some photographs later I quickly rush home to get out of my white jacket and red cap and to put on my pheran. Now, I’m dressed in my Dargah attire. On the previous day, one had visited the Shrine for Eid-e-Milad-ul-Nabi celebrations, a festival to mark the birth of  Prophet Muhammad and was returning for the continued festivities.

I’m too late. By the time I park my White Horse and head towards the Shrine a swarm of men is moving towards me. An hour of this that and the other and I am ready to leave. As I head towards my horse, I  get a message saying that there’s a strike tomorrow. It’s from Mr T, then another asking where I am. He sends a photograph of a procession and asks if I want it. For a minute I don’t understand and then it dawns on me. I’ve heard rumours of this being a common practice amongst photographers. ‘Na, thank you’, I write back.

Come back to my Oh so freezing apartment. Grab a quick bite and drop in to say hi to my land lady- A fierce Sardarni in her late , she’s lived in Srinagar, for what seems like forever. She has all the qualities of a Kashmiri-strenght, resilience, vulnerability and a prejudiced mind set.  Each time she sees me, she reminices about the time past. We chat for a while and another message appears from Mr T. ‘Heavy stone pelting in Jama Masjid.’ he writes. “Oh shit!”, I say out aloud. “Ke hogeya”, asks my land lady. I tell her. “Iss time pe tussi nahin jaoge!” It’s already 6 p.m and pitch dark outside.  “Menu jana bhi nahin he, dekh chukki ha aur nahin dekhna.” I’m going to buy some veggies and and then I’m going to pray. “Sardara di kareengi pooja ke Musalmana di?”, she asks in her customary way. I feel my temperature rising but I know it’s a waste of time. “Mein bin pende da lota..na ithe da na othe da. Mennu sab same lagda he ji.” I bid her adieu.

I am very distracted by the day I’ve had. The Anonymous Aunty calls. We talk about the weather…I try to pray but I just go through the motions. Check my messages and Mr T has very sweetly sent a few more. Chat with the boy for an unusual amount of time and fall asleep. A quarter of an hour later, I wake up to the tremor. I hear doors opening and shutting and people stepping out of their houses. ‘Wild horses aren’t going to drag me out of this warm bed, tonight!’ I fall right back to sleep. At 4 a.m the rat in the house manages to make me jump out of bed, with his daily visit!

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