An afternoon in the Dal


A beautiful evening by the window
That opens down my memory lane —
The window and I
And a piece of poetry —
A cup of nun-chai in the chilling cold
And the flights of my fantasy —
An October afternoon in the Dal
In a Shikara, and you by my side
In complete harmony
With the gentle waves
Of gilded water
And an ecstasy–
Autumn in Kashmir
Wrapped in gold and yellow,
Sulphur and crimson —
A breeze mellow
Under the majestic buin’  —
A walk by the Avantipor ruin
In the outskirts of Srinagar
Or beside the dried up Jehlum
At the waning dusk of fury and fear
Do I still not remember!
And it remains forever —

© Sadaf Munshi (2003)


Some useful notes by the author: 

Dal  ‘Dal Lake; a famous lake in Srinagar, Kashmir’
Nun-chai  ‘salt tea; traditional Kashmiri beverage’
Shikara ‘term for a traditional Kashmiri boat’
Buin ‘Platanus Orientalis; name of a tree known for its beauty and majesty world over, it has great importance in Kashmiri literature and historical tradition’
Avantipur ‘place name; famous for its historical importance for it houses thousands of years old ruins of the kingdom of Pandavas, great figures in Hindu mythology/religion in India; these are gigantic stones engraved with beautiful and amazing pictures’
Jehlum ‘name of a famous river in Kashmir which has been mentioned in literature centuries ago with different names’


Breakfast and Bed







Breakfast and Bed

A freshly made waffle
Topped with whipped cream
Blueberries and chocolate
I see poetry on a plate —

A cup of hot tea
With a touch of cardamom
And a streak of sunshine
Peering through the kitchen blind
There’s a rapturous warmth
In this cold Sunday morning

She sings melodies
In a husky voice
                     “Come to me, come to me”
I listen in delight 

You snore and I toss myself
On the bed, in turns pushing
And shoving you aside
I cannot sleep

Bad habits stay long —
What will you say
When I vanish
From your side one day?

© Sadaf Munshi  

The mystery of Okus Bokus

Okus bokus teli wan tsokus
shaal kich-kich waangno
onum batuk lodum deigi
wal ba nalichas savaarey
Bramazaaaraz poyn chhokum
Tekis teka banyov kyah

We would sit in a circle with our hands placed on the floor, palms down. The lead player would move their right hand clockwise pointing towards the focus with the index finger touching a hand against a word. When the last word kyah was spelled out, the targeted hand was to be turned upside down. The next time this happened the hand was out of the game. The player would repeat the practice until the last hand remained in the game to be the winner. The winner would then take the lead and the game would continue. 

Stories get distorted when passed on from source to source. Memories fade away with time. But memories could also be creative. Often the end product is quite different from what the actual would have been. I always wondered what this children’s rhyme in my mother tongue would actually have meant when it was composed. Many words simply sounded nonsensical and unrecognizable when we heard them and repeated them. They said the rhyme was considerably distorted from the original over generations of having been orally preserved. Whatever the song meant, it is a testimony to a culture that I was raised in as a child, and which my American born children will perhaps never be able to cherish, experience or understand the way I did.   

The song, which has continued to be popular among Kashmiris of all denominations, has a number of “studied” versions, which attempt at solving the lexico-semantic mystery in Okus Bokus. For example, the opening words have been variously rendered as tsa kus, ba kus, teli wan su kus ‘Who are you, who am I, and then tell me, who is he?’, and hu kus, ba kus, teli wan tsa kus ‘Who is he, who am I, and then tell me, who are you?’ While the words have been considerably distorted and changed or replaced by other words or nonsensical syllables (as in okus bokus), the interpretations also vary widely. For example, according to one native speaker of Kashmiri, the word su ‘he’ refers to ‘the creator of the universe’ while in its modern, or so to say, corrupted version, su is perhaps a random person sitting in the room, a witness to the children’s play. Similarly, it is not clear how the second line, parsed as moh batuk logum degi by a contemporary performing artist, Kailash Mehra, and translated as ‘I feed my senses with the food of worldly attachment and material love’ (where moh means ‘desire’) was modified to onum batuk lodum degi which literally means ‘I brought a duck and put it in the cauldron/pot’ (to be cooked for dinner perhaps? Could that be true?).

The next line was passed on to us as Shaal kič-kič vaangno. The possible original version of this line, based on orally preserved knowledge, is: Shvaas kič-kič vang-mayam, with possibly only one translatable word of Sanskrit origin, viz., shwaas ‘breath’, while the rest of the words are unrecognizable to a modern Kashmiri speaker (cf. Kashmiri shah ‘breath’). A more spiritual interpretation attributed to this line (based on an online publication Gyawun) is: For when the breath that I take in reaches the point of absolute purification’. It is not clear how shwaas became shaal and vangmayam (perhaps an inflected Sanskrit verb whose meaning is to be confirmed) got replaced by vaangno. The contemporary (distorted) version runs the risk of translating shaal as ‘jackal’ and vaangno as the vocative form of vaangun as ‘egg plant’, while the meaning of the reduplicated form kič-kič is unknown.   

Astonishingly interesting and perhaps another comic construction is the line: wala ba naličes savaarey (Lit. ‘Come and swing on the hookah pipe’). This line is missing from most of the reconstructed (“intellectual”?) versions of the poem. What comes next is the line bramazaaras pōñ čhokum, perhaps originally bruman/braman daaras poyn čhokum (Lit. ‘I sprinkled water to bruman daar’). In this line, while the word bruman is interpreted as ‘nerve center of the human brain,  it is not clear whether daar is an independent word or, most likely, a part of bruman, because the Dative Case marker –as (roughly translated as ‘to’) appears on daar and not on bruman, which leads us to the possibility of bruman-daar being a single lexical entity, or a compound word. The corrupted version, bramazaar-(as), may sound like a contraction of bram mazaar, and could even be interpreted as ‘the graveyard of fear’(where bram means ‘fear’ or ‘apprehension’). The latter may rather be an oversimplification.      

The final line of the ditty reads as ekis eka banyov kyah in one and ekis eka banyov t̩yok in another orally preserved version. The word t̩yok could mean a ‘drop’ or a ‘dot’ and the line could possibly be (literally) translated as ‘a dot to a dot, and what did it become’ or ‘a dot became one with a dot’. A sophisticated translation equates the word t̩yok with a dot made from sandal-wood paste depicting divine fragrance, and symbolic of universal divinity. This leads to the meaning of the line as: ‘I realize that I am, indeed, divine’.   

© Sadaf Munshi

Coffee and a kiss


A cup of coffee
and a sizzling kiss
ah, pure bliss!

The lover’s lips quiver
on the contours
of her body

He moves around
in the deep dungeons
of a solitary town
mapping its twists
and tracing its turns
with gentle strokes  

Please tell me, will you,
the musings of a mystery
And I shall trail down
the lyrical pathways
of the April breeze

Love is a whirlpool
of wishes and wonders
Brace up and take a dip
lest the thread of life
shall slip away

Give me a hand
when I walk on sand
and pause by the ocean–

© Sadaf Munshi

Language Hunting in Pakistan: A Road Trip to Gilgit

It was summer 2010. After several stressful attempts over 3 years, I received a visa for a research trip to Pakistan. A plethora of investigations, letters of invitation, and even a sufarish from people with contacts in the Interior Ministry hadn’t helped. But this time the process got really smooth. I wrote an impassioned letter to the Consulate General of Pakistan in Houston explaining to him my ordeal over the years. I also sought letters from my university. And, I had a US federal grant to support my project which would document an endangered language of Pakistan. The visa arrived within weeks. I was thrilled.  

“Are you crazy?” my husband fumed when I booked my tickets. It was a lengthy tour from Texas-to-Delhi-to-Srinagar-to-Delhi-to-Lahore-to-Islamabad-to-Gilgit. and I was pregnant. But no good advice could stop me. I took my five-year old, deposited him with his grandparents in Srinagar, and returned to Delhi within two days to take the detour flight to Gilgit via Lahore and Islamabad. I would have preferred a road trip from Srinagar but for the plenty of restrictions on modes and points of entry.   

There was a prolonged wait at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. The ticketing lines for the Pakistan International Airlines were long. After waiting for sometime I started getting impatient. Just saw a lady dressed in an all gold attire, layers of makeup and a hairstyle that reminded me of the lead character in a Japanese television serial Oshin aired in India over two decades ago. The lady confidently cut into the line, and was cheerfully received by the men at the desk. I tried to console myself with the thought that she might be flying in the Executive class, which wasn’t true after all.

We received our boarding passes and were seated in the aircraft in a quick rush. The flight took off after the recitation of the Dua-e-safar. An airhostess came with a bundle of newspapers. I randomly pulled out Nawaay-e-Waqt. The first article that grabbed my attention on the front page was about the “48 people injured during protests” and the “three Mujahids” who had attained “shahadat” at the hands of Indian (Security) Forces in the “Maqbuza Kashmir”. I was reading the item about Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s “chest pain” on Page 12 when I saw the lady-in-golden-attire again, sitting right next to me. I stole a look at her disembarkation slip as she wrote “52 years” for her age. I figured she too was headed to Islamabad. As we cozied up during our stopover in Lahore, she talked about her secret courtship with an (unnamed) Indian diplomat. “We stay in Manali whenever I visit.” Ah! “I wish I could stay longer. Going back and forth every other month — it’s hard, you know.” I wish it was that easy for the commonplace to travel across the border.

My travel agent had helped me find a hotel reservation in a “safe area” in Islamabad. After a good night’s sleep, I got ready for my flight to Gilgit next morning. When I reached the airport, I discovered that my flight had been “cancelled on account of bad weather.” Perturbed passengers started protesting about the “step-motherly treatment” to Gilgit. “They must be needing the aircraft to carry a VIP somewhere.” “They always do this to us. The weather is perfectly alright in Gilgit. They are lying.” “They treat us like second-class citizens.” My contacts in Gilgit confirmed on phone that the weather was “sunny and clear”. I was disheartened. “Please join the protest, Ma’am!” Join the protest?  

On popular demand, I did join the protest. But soon the number of people started dwindling while the officers refused to budge. Traveling to Gilgit is not an easy exercise. Besides the special permit needed to the “restricted territory”, only a handful of flights travel. Other means of transportation were limited. I did not want to lose a single day waiting in Islamabad. So, I pleaded to the officer that my visit to Gilgit was extremely important, that I could not wait for an unknown number of days. I wished I could also tell him how hard it had been to get a visa. The arrogant officer couldn’t care less.

And then I saw Sultan, my taxi-driver, with a group of European hikers, standing nearby. They were also headed to Gilgit, on a hiking expedition. Sultan suggested the group take a road trip. They offered me to join but I politely declined, considering I was five months pregnant and the journey was pretty strenuous. Sultan handed me his card “just in case”, after which the group said a “good-bye”. I went to search for my options.

The Quaid-e Azam international airport reminded me of the Old Delhi railway station — crowded and mismanaged. Anybody that I asked for help directed me to another person so I ended up moving in circles. I had no hotel reservation for another day. The trekking team for Gilgit had left and I was on my own. I went from counter-to-counter inquiring about the next possible flight to Gilgit. “We don’t know, Ma’am. It could take as long as a week.” A week? I was shocked. Finally, frustrated, I took out Sultan’s card and called his number.  “We are about 30 miles away from the airport, but we can come back and pick you up.”  Yes, yes, please! I was relieved.

The temperature was staggering hot — almost 42 degrees centigrade. We bought water bottles and some snacks in Rawalpindi. I got the best spot in the ten-seat van, right behind the driver, with an empty seat next to me where I put my backpack and my camera bag. I decided not to call home about my changed travel plans until I arrived in Gilgit lest they should panic and make ways to stop me from traveling onwards.

It was a 23-hour long journey from Islamabad to Gilgit and a bumpy road, but our high-spirited guide kept us well entertained. Beautiful songs were playing on the recorder as he showed us important points of interest on our way talking about their history and cultural significance. At around 2:00am, we reached a police checkpoint. As soon as they spotted us, a dozen policemen suddenly seemed to be on a high alert. They advised us to “wait for about three hours” before we could proceed any further. I was tired. Despite great pleading the policemen did not oblige us. “You cannot leave before 4:00 am. That is the order.”  

At 4:00am we were allowed to move forward. In about thirty minutes we reached our hotel in Chilas where we slept for a few hours. After an elaborate breakfast, I pulled a local map from the hotel trivia shop before we checked out and moved ahead.

Munshi_fieldtrip_Karakoram Highway_with European hikers

With European hikers on Karakoram Highway

The muddy waters of the Indus ran along the Karakoram Highway. Our guide, a native speaker of Burushaski, continued to chatter in his accented Urdu and broken English while we took pictures and video clips along the shaky ride. Very few vehicles plied on the road. We stopped to take a few pictures. The view of the Nanga Parbat was exalting. 

After some time, we stopped again to buy refreshments at a makeshift shop in Jaghlot, a small town situated 45 km southeast of Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway. I couldn’t find much except for wrinkled and mushy mangoes; I changed my mind. Some curious children stopped by our van. I tried to take a picture of a little girl in a brown shalwar-qameez but as soon as I put my fingertip on the camera button, she quickly hid behind her companion, a little boy in a bluish-green Khan-dress. With a bottle of water in my hand, I waved a smile and boarded the van.

We were 11 kilometers away from the Gilgit city when a majestic sign board welcomed us in three languages: English, Chinese and Russian. Around 1:00pm we arrived in the city.


Arriving in Gilgit

 I met with scores of people in different parts of Gilgit and some nearby villages — speakers of the Burushaski language from Hunza, Nagar and Yasin valleys. Everyone was extremely friendly and hospitable. Socio-economically, it seemed, there was a lot to catch up. Although my interest was language documentation, talk of Kashmir politics was inevitable at times. Being a Kashmiri who introduced herself as “an Indian” seemed some sort of a surprise to some. “But Kashmiris want to be part of Pakistan?” Well… 

While I was out on various documentation expeditions, my movement was constantly screened by officials – the Police, the Special Intelligence Bureau, and the Interior Ministry. Every few minutes, people called my host asking about my whereabouts, about what I was doing, who I met. At one point I was so annoyed that I grabbed his telephone and demanded to “handle it myself.” I volunteered to give every single detail of my visit to the officer at the other end and requested not to disturb me any further. Instead, the officer wanted to “see me in person”. Frustrated, I headed to his office to “get it settled”. After explaining my purpose to travel, the officer said: “So what will we get for letting you do your work here?” You must be kidding? I banged his table with my fist, but he said was serious. I am sorry, but my grant is not budgeted for a bribe! I released a sarcastic laugh. At this the officer shot a series of questions. During the exchange I discovered that he was a speaker of Burushaski. That IS the language! Suddenly his tone changed. He stood up from his chair, headed to a cabinet, and quietly pulled a thick book.

“My father translated the holy book into Burushaski,” he handed me the volume. I opened the first page and read the translator’s name. That’s your father? I am meeting him tomorrow. “Do you know him?” Of course! We’ve been in touch for a while. The officer, extremely embarrassed, apologized and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Just make sure I don’t get any more phone calls from your office, I winked at him and left.

Language documentation is quite an intrusive exercise; it involves close and prolonged contact with the members of the speech community. Together with my research assistants — speakers of three different dialects, I traveled to several places. We met with scores of people — students, teachers, farmers, housewives, lawyers, army officers, “ex-separatists”, businessmen, doctors, sportsmen, musicians, poets, and artists. We collected a huge corpus of linguistic data from men and women, young and old. We recorded stories and legends, personal narratives, historical accounts, discussions on language, culture and politics, proverbial expressions, food recipes, poetry and songs. 

Hundur_men dancing during traditional music and song performance

Burusho men in Hundur

“Record us later,” a group of women came to me in Hundur, a remote village in Yasin valley, after we completed recording a musical performance in which men danced to exhaustion while women watched from outside; they too wanted to dance but “separately”.

Roads, streets and alleyways in Gilgit were often rugged with big potholes here and there. On our way back from Hundur, our rental car was damaged. So, we had to leave it behind and ask for a “lift”. But incessant rains had caused considerable destruction. At one point it became impossible to drive. Floodwater was gushing forcefully over a rocky blockade. Everyone got down to assess the situation. It was a daring exercise to cross even on foot. Some locals came forward to help. My companions advised me to sit in the car while a dozen people literally lifted the vehicle in their hands. I was nervous; should they lose grip, the vehicle could land in a deep gorge. In guarded steps, the car was carried to the other side. I was glad we made it across safely.

Munshi_Data collection_Floods_Gilgit

Floods in Gilgit, summer 2010

Summers being hot in the city, the frequent power outages were a menace; the nights, however, were pleasant. Many evenings, my host family sat in front of their television watching Indian cinema. Long drives and extended interactions with the locals were a learning experience. Over a cup of tea with phit̩i (a bread cake) or during a course of s̩apik (‘(staple) food’) served with d̩aud̩o (a soup dish made from noodles and meat), and during scores of recording sessions various aspects of life in Gilgit unfolded.

(to be continued)

Ateeqa Bano: An Unsung Hero of Kashmir – II


Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

A day before my return to the US during my January 2015 visit to Kashmir, I met Ateeqa Ji again, this time at the University of Kashmir. She called me and invited me to a “program on girl child,” organized in part with the Markaz-e-Noor. When I entered after taking off my shoes at the front door, I saw Ateeqa Ji sitting in the front row on the left side which was predominantly occupied by men while a dozen women, some of them in complete face veils, were occupying a space on the right side of the hall. As soon as she saw me, Ateeqa Ji quickly stood up in excitement and offered me her own seat – a spot decorated with cylindrical cushions covered in white gilaf. After a bit of polite haggling and my refusal to take her spot, she sat down and I took the space on her left.

We chatted for a while and kept waiting for the Vice Chancellor, the “chief guest” of the event that was supposed to start at noon, but when the VC was nowhere to be seen even by 1:00 pm, people started getting impatient. Ateeqa Ji turned to me in an embarrassing tone, “Sadaf Ji, do people come to meetings this late in the US as well?” to which I responded in a negative. She appreciated that. In a few minutes, the convener began the program and Ateeqa Ji talked various problems faced by women of Kashmir — problems at home, in public and at the work place. She spoke about “the lack of self-confidence in women” its side-effects which often expresses itself in the objectification of women.

Next, Ateeqa Ji invited me on stage to “speak a few words” on the topic, and I, hesitantly obliged. By then the VC had arrived and taken the special seat in the center of the stage. While I was talking, a bearded man came to me with a little note in his hand that read, “This is not a seminar, please be short.” I quickly finished my point and sat beside a burqa-clad woman next to me. I was sipping kehwa from a beautiful chinaware tea cup and gulping on the last crumb of a shirmaal when I saw the woman writing something on a piece of paper that she pulled from out of a file and passed it to me quietly. The meeting was adjourned after a little bit of commotion over the remarks of the VC who said that “women were responsible for their own woes,” at the conclusion of his views and those of another male faculty who declared that “women’s job was to bear and raise kids while that of men was to earn and support the family.” I retorted in protest and some other women joined in as well. At that uneasy note, people dispersed.

aap se jii bhar ke baat karna chaahti huun (‘I want to talk to you at great length’), the burqa-clad woman had said to me while passing the piece of paper along with her email address. I discovered she was a comrade of Ateeqa Ji in her activism on women’s issues, closely involved in the affairs of the women’s welfare organization Jamiah Falaah-e-Nisvaan set up some years ago. I tried to meet her in the adjacent room but it soon got jam-packed with people and suddenly I found myself ensconced between three men on a sofa – one on my right and two on my left while my new friend squeezed into a corner at the other end of the room hesitant to break the invisible barrier between us. She had promised to “unveil” in private when I told her that I felt uncomfortable talking to a person I could not see. I looked at my watch and realized I was getting late. “I have to leave,” I said. I had to prepare for my return journey and meet another friend who was waiting for me outside. Ateeqa Ji offered me a ride back, but I asked her to excuse me and began to leave. “Wait,” she quickly turned around for something and came back with a package: “This is for you. From Sopore.” The bag full of kulchas that she had brought as a parting gift traveled with me to the United States along with several documents and scores of photographs she had handed over to me earlier; my husband and I relished the kulchas for several weekends over nun chai.

I visited Kashmir again in June that year to gather more information on the collections. Over the following year, I stayed in touch with Ateeqa Ji off and on in connection with my unsuccessful attempts in pursuing funds for digitization and documentation besides training of personnel in the methods in cataloging and preservation. The proposal was submitted and declined twice by the British Library (United Kingdom) in 2015-16. Next year, in summer 2016, I was in Kashmir again for a grant-writing workshop (which sadly was never held due to the situation) and for collecting more information for a re-submission. When I was frantically trying to connect with Ateeqa Ji for a letter that needed her signature, with phones only working intermittently (thanks to the government restrictions), I received a short call from her: Sadaf Ji, main aap se bahut maa’zrat-khwah hoon. Internet band hai, is liye main letter nahi bhej sakti, aur hadtal ki wajah se aap se milne Srinagar bhi nahi aa sakti (‘Sadaf Ji, I am very sorry. Since the Internet is not working, I cannot send you the letter. And because of the hadtal, I am unable to travel to Srinagar to meet you (and deliver the letter by hand)’). After checking into a hotel at Rajbagh for Internet access, I somehow managed to submit the proposal, this time to the National Endowment for Humanities (USA). The proposal was declined a third time earlier this year for insufficient information.

For the first time in many years, I did not visit Kashmir this past summer in 2017. Disappointed at my previous attempts, I did not have the enthusiasm nor the patience to pursue the grant a fourth time during the next funding cycle. I lost touch with Ateeqa Ji in the meantime and the next thing I heard about her was that Ateeqa Ji was no more. Heartbroken and embarrassed, I regretted the loss of the repository of knowledge that departed with her – knowledge that may not be assessed by ordinary people nor retrievable by ordinary means. One can only hope that the treasure she left behind is taken care of with the same dedication and passion that she harbored.

© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.


Ateeqa Bano: an unsung hero of Kashmir – I


Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

Situated in the heart of the pristine Sopore town and away from the clamor of the city life is an incredible treasure trove called Meeras Mahal. An extremely modest building, Meeras Mahal is an abode of numerous artifacts of historical and cultural importance that are yet to be disseminated to the outside world. The materials collected over more than three decades of relentless efforts by a legend, an unsung hero of the time — Ateeqa Bano. Born in 1940 in the same town, Ateeqa Ji spent most of her adult life serving as an educator and collecting and curating cultural artifacts of a myriad kind. Before her retirement from government service, she served as the Director of Libraries and Joint-Director Education (Jammu & Kashmir). 

It was a pleasant morning in January 2015 when I set out for the historic town of Sopore during a ten-day trip to Kashmir to discuss the plans for a proposal to digitize the manuscript collection at Meeras Mehal. The meeting and the transportation was arranged by personnel at INTACH Kashmir, my collaborators on the proposed project. DSC03917Ateeqa Ji’s eyes glimmered with joy when we arrived. I had explained the purpose of my visit earlier on telephone; she was expecting me. She greeted us with great fervor and high expectations. Wearing her usual “burqa coat” over a green pheran while a light cotton dupatta lay loose over her head, it seemed she were all set for the meeting. We started our 3-hour long journey in her little compound around midday — a small office space with very modest furnishing, no heating and no curtains in the room in the cold season. As Ateeqa Ji gave an introduction of the museum over a glass bowl filled with dried fruits —  almond, cashew nuts, pistachio and dates, a little girl with a scarf woven round her head kept sneaking in and looking at us from out the window. The window opened into the walkway leading to a series of similar-sized rooms in a row. An associate pulled a table from one corner and set it beside another one of slightly different dimensions in front of us. Ateeqa Ji opened a roll of plastic sheet with golden patterns and spread it over the tables for tea and more snacks. Thereafter, she took us for a tour of the museum, from one room to the other, walking us through history and revealing to us an enormous treasure of several generations.

DSC03941Ateeqa Bano’s Meeras Mahal is a repository of items illustrating Kashmir’s ongoing cultural history in a visual format – rare manuscripts, ornaments, pottery and terracotta utensils, metal works, wood works, stone crafts, traditional dresses and jewelry, a coin collection, some calligraphic works, and different kinds of tools. Each item in the repository has a name, a story, and Ateeqa Ji knew it all. Words that have fallen out of use in the language, items no longer seen in the Kashmiri households, are some of the various attractions I was impressed with during my few hours of experience at Meeras Mahal.  DSC03964Picking up an item in her hands and demonstrating its importance in an exuberant manner, telling its story to the audiences – Ateeqa Ji had it all, the incredible motivation to explore and the passion to preserve Kashmir’s remarkable past, its rich cultural history. Our next stop was the manuscript collection — my primary interest in the museum. Ateeqa Ji handed me a copy of the inventory and we went through the list — item by item. Manuscripts were maintained in a pretty good condition given the limited resources she had had at her disposal.

As we sat down for a second course of tea and snacks towards the end of the meeting, Ateeqa Ji produced a document, a proposal for the creation of an institution of enormous potential. DSC03927She showed me the map of a proposed little township with many aspects including a proposed site for an “artists in residence” program she wished to set up as part of her efforts. It was a spectacular idea and I was fascinated, but it needed resources which had been consistently denied. Over the many years of her work on collecting and curating the artifacts, Ateeqa Ji had been desperately seeking financial support from the government and other sources for the maintenance and upkeep of the museum, for hiring trained staff, for infrastructure to preserve the artifacts, and for the upgrading of the building structure.

DSC03945“If this kind of work was done by a man, he would be supported and recognized. Our society does not recognize women’s contributions, she said to me in a humble tone as her associates moved their heads in silent admission. I knew she was right. I had nothing to offer before I left except for a promise to be fulfilled.  

Ateeqa Bano was a woman of incredible motivation, an inspiration, an institution of her own. I could not help but fall in love with this woman of enormous potential and zeal.

(to be concluded)

© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.

Kashmir quagmire: How to interpret the worsening situation?

In October 2010, a 15-year old class 10 student, Burhan Wani, suddenly disappears from his home at Sharifabad, a nondescript village in the remote Tral area of Kashmir one fine day. This happens after he and his brother Khalid were intercepted and thrashed by the Indian security forces when they were on their way to some place. Earlier that year in summer major protests were held throughout Kashmir amidst enormous clampdowns by the government forces. About 117 people were killed in Police firing and many more injured. Numerous arrests were made, many of them random and vindictive in nature. There were allegations of the police exacting money from the families of the arrested youth, threatening of slapping the Public Safety Act upon them unless they paid huge sums in bribes. In many cases the youth were allegedly released only to be arrested again.

Five years later, in 2015, Wani makes a dramatic appearance on the social media, posting pictures and self-recorded YouTube videos. Posing in army fatigues, sometimes with a bunch of friends and peers of more or less his age, mostly from the same area as him, the young man becomes a heart-throb for many young Kashmiri boys. These are children of conflict, born and raised in and after the 1990’s, vulnerable to influences from radical forces and ready to be used as cannon fodder by Kashmir’s conflict industry which survives and thrives on instability and on the abuse of power by the state forces.

In June 2016, Burhan appears in a video, surrounded by weapons, boasting of a kārvāyi (‘action’) “last month in which our men targeted the army and the police personnel,” threatening of more such kārvāyi “without any warning” as the latter had not acted as advised, he says. Apni banduk ka rukh India ki taraf kar do (‘Turn your guns at India’), he directs the local police in a matter-of-fact tone. While he makes a statement assuring the “protection of the Amarnath Yatris” (because “they are our guests,” he says), he also adds a warning against the formation of the proposed colonies for sainiks (‘soldiers’) and “composite colonies” for the rehabilitation of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits – proposals which many Kashmiri Muslims, especially the separatists, saw as an attempt to “turn Kashmir into an Israel-like occupation in Palestinian territory.” Recall that much hullabaloo and paranoia was created after the newly-formed state government announced the two proposals which have since been set aside.

In yet another video footage that appeared later, Wani is seen with five other young boys in black-n-white kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads video-taping themselves during a private moment in a forest near Kolgam – a scenic village of Kashmir located at a distance of 68 km from Srinagar. In the footage which is more pretentious and comical in nature than it is terror-inducing in character, the friends are seen hugging, joking and calling each other names like “hato, Lashkar waalyah” (‘Hey, Lashkar man’). One of them, in a boyish way, turns: “You videotape me and I will videotape you.” Towards the end of the amateur video, Wani makes a reference to Rajauri being “very close” and maintains “Pakistan is on the other side of (a nearby) “baagh’ (‘garden’)”. Among the group, Wani is the most good-looking and soft-spoken one. He could very well be an actor from a cheesy Bollywood movie or perhaps a prospective fashion model.

Soon after the videos appear, the mainstream Indian media pounce on the opportunity to turn Wani, an otherwise non-entity who hardly anyone knew before, into a most-wanted and dreaded terrorist – khunkhār ātankvādi is how a national television channel describes him.  Though he never crossed the border nor reportedly conducted any operations himself, he is introduced as a “commander of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen”, a terrorist outfit based in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. A bounty of Rupees ten lakh (i.e. Rs. 1000,000) is soon announced as a reward for any information leading to him. A similar coverage is given to several other youth, including Zakir Rashid Bhat (also “Zakir Musa”) of Nurpura (Pulwama). Recall that Zakir had just joined the ranks of Burhan in a dramatic way: at the end of a vacation in Pehelgam and Gulmarg with his college friends from Chandigarh where he was pursuing a degree in civil engineering. “Don’t try and look for me. Jihad is the only way forward. It is the only way to deal with the atrocities faced by Kashmiris,” Zakir wrote in a note for his father before he disappeared.

This was a time when the rise of the Indian right was being discussed in heated debates on the national television. In Dadri, a village in Uttar Pradesh, a 50-year old Muslim man, Muhammad Akhlaq, was mercilessly lynched by an angry mob inspired by the right wing RSS ideology after a rumor spread that the family had eaten beef. In a similar incident, Zahid, a trucker was attacked on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway with petrol bombs on suspicion that he was carrying “cattle for slaughter”. On his death, the murderer of Akhlaq received a hero’s funeral, wrapped in the tricolor. Several such ruthless killings took place in the name of “religious sentiments” since and the rise of the Hindutvavadi forces continued across the country mobilizing into vigilante groups and cracking down upon various groups and vulnerable populations on one pretext or another.

“Why is (Kashmiri) Muslim youth knocking at the doors of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen?” — Harinder Baweja of the Hindustan Times took up the question in December 2015 and traveled to Pulwama inquiring about the “Tral boys”, Naseer Ahmad Pandit, Sabzar Ahmad Bhat, and Afaq Ahmad Bhat. Nasir Pandit, a young Jammu & Kashmir police constable, Baweja maintains, was the “first to cast his vote” (in the assembly elections) and “among the few who cheered for India during an India-Pakistan (cricket) match” that had been held in the recent past. Yet, one fine day in 2015, Pandit disappeared along with his service weapon. In a press release, Pandit was “claimed as a trophy” by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. His father referred to the incident of the trucker burnt alive on the Jammu-Srinagar highway as one of the possible reasons behind his decision. In fact, Burhan’s father too made a reference to the two incidents related to the beef controversy as some of the reasons behind his son and boys of his age joining “Jihad”. “Beef is halal for Muslims,” he says on camera, “pehle khuda, phir bet̩a, Islam hamein yehi sikhata hai (‘First God, then the son; that is what Islam teaches us’).”

Wani was gunned down by the forces on July 8 2016 in what they called an “encounter”. An ocean of people attended the militant’s funeral. The dead body was carried without a shroud, his wounded face visible through his bloodied clothes and his uncovered feet on the wooden pyre as mourners attempted to touch him on all sides before his final rites. It was a spectacle. His brother Khalid had been killed in yet another “encounter” only a year ago when he went to meet Burhan at his “hideout”. But he wasn’t even a militant we were told. “Then how did they carry out an encounter of his brother?” people wanted to know.

Reit ki deewaar ko ek dhakka aur do; BJP sarkaar ko ek dhakka aur do (‘Give another push to the wall of sand; give another push the BJP government’) slogans such as these reverberated in the streets of downtown Srinagar in July 2016. The rise of the right wing parties in the Indian mainstream had made many people nervous about the “special status” of the state and the status and future of Article 370, which the BJP openly advocated to abrogate – a slogan it sort of relied its victory upon in the Jammu province. The newly formed PDP-BJP alliance didn’t go down very well with many Kashmiri Muslims, including PDP’s support base, who saw the alliance as a “sell out”, a “stab in the back”.

The role of the media in covering the situation in Kashmir has been pretty dubious throughout, providing only a murky picture for two parallel discourses have served different audiences. While heart-wrenching images of teenage boys and minors – dead, injured or blinded in firing by the security forces, wailing mothers and sisters, graphic images of injuries – took the front pages of the local newspapers in Srinagar, the national media generally glossed over much of the details of the ground situation in Kashmir, often not even covering it at all. Instead, they focused on such trivial issues like whether or not a certain Pakistani actor should be allowed to stay in India because they had “not condemned the Uri attack.” While the separatists and their supporters, including some valley-based newspapers, used exaggeration and hyperbole in whipping up sentiment in the valley, the mainstream Indian media would rather downplay the police atrocities on the citizens. At the same time, many nationalist Indians, chose to put the blame on the victims themselves, feeding into the discourse of hatred against Kashmiris, calling them “jehadis”, “Islamists” and “terrorists” on social media.

Close to a hundred young lives were silenced and many more injured in firing by the police and security personnel during protests and processions in Kashmir in the 2016 uprising. Many received life-changing injuries, and the majority of those affected were youth, including several minors. A large number of people, many of these youths indulging in violent stone-pelting protests and also many government employees and separatist leaders were arrested during the unrest, causing much outrage in various circles. “A state of anarchy” was how a senior journalist based in Srinagar described the situation when I talked to him on phone during the third week of my six-week long visit to Kashmir last summer.  Not to mention the enormous losses incurred by the endless shutdowns.

The 2016 unrest had the undertones of the uprising which took place in the aftermath of the notoriously rigged 1987 elections when the Muslim population of Kashmir felt disenfranchised and many young men crossed the border in a state of frustration and deceit. “Entire ballot boxes were thrown out the window,” a Srinagar-based senior journalist said in an interview to researchers at the Kashmir Oral History project. Many activists of the otherwise winning party, the Muslim United Front (Muslim Muttahida Mahaaz) ended up crossing over to Pakistan for arms training to protest against what was an outrageous failure of the democratic process.

Fast forward to early 2017. While more and more incidents of atrocities by vigilante forces continue to take the headlines of newspapers and television screens at the national level amidst a sense of fear among the minorities which was confounded by the outcome of the legislative elections in India’s biggest state (Uttar Pradesh), a parliamentary by-election in April triggered another spat of violent protests in the Kashmir valley. Voting machines smashed by the protesters, dozens of incidents of stone-pelting and several more young lives lost in retaliatory action by the paramilitary forces. Youth locking soldiers in polling booths and the soldiers using civilians as human cover against angry mobs — sentiments have been high and so have tempers.

In May 2017, Sabzar Bhat, who had succeeded Burhan Wani as the “Hizb commander”, was killed in a similar “encounter” followed by massive funeral processions and calls for Azadi and Nizam-e-Mustafa. More recently, we have seen attacks by militants on the police forces killing many, buildings set on fire by the soldiers after more “encounters” with the militants, and soldiers posing next to charred bodies of the slain militants in photo ops. We have also witnessed an angry mob lynching a lonely policeman mercilessly to death outside the grand mosque of Srinagar on what ought to be the night of prayers and value during the holy month of Ramadhan.

Again Kashmir is shrouded in grief. Every other day is yet another day of violence and uncertainty. More and more youth are on a suicidal path romanticizing militancy and gun culture, occupying places of worship and instigating violent protests, and cracking down upon institutions of learning and intellectual growth. Strengthening their grip on to symbols of a radical ideology, many of these “freedom fighters” are advocating a homogeneous society under the aegis of an Islamic state and the enforcement of Shariah (Islamic governance), thus shaking the very foundations of the syncretic culture that the Kashmir of yore boasted of. With a worsening situation at the hands of the vigilante groups elsewhere in India, the space for Kashmir’s liberals and secularists is fast shrinking. So what has really been achieved over the years and where are we heading? Some food for thought…




Yi gav lūka-mot
Lūka mətis kyah karizi
Yi čhu tufānah andɨ-god̩ rotsh
Apɨzis poz ta pəzis kor apuz
Zyaw nyanglə̄w tɨ əčhen ditsɨ pači

Gāmɨ-shahar yeli krekɨnād sapud
Mōsum bačɨ gəy dam-phuttẙ
Ta phryakh kheyi nōtvānav

Tse čhuy zan kunyar sanyōmut
Adɨ kava rōvukh pānsiy andar
Dopmay dapān hyenar hyetin grazin
Vyethi hund āb ti mā gav hokhyith?
Prath vati čhi vāndar kala tulith
Asān ta grāyi divān
Lači gilvān

Tse ditsɨth tshāl, mye lej və̄niji thaph
Nindrah trāvɨha ama sokh mā čhum
Kati kōr və̄tsɨs yath sahrāvas manz
Krenjlen āb barān, vatapeyd tshāran

Reshvāri hund Nunda mot kot sana gav
Mye vɨčhmay Lalded shām pətẙ
Ačhev khūn hārān
Shamshānan manz
Nāla divān

That Fable of Kashmiri Cultural Ethos

It is 18th of May 2013. A beautiful morning in Texas! I wake up to a message in my mailbox: “Hi! I must tell you this! Just a while back I was hosting you and your little girl in my Kashmir home. It was so real…. You are in a reddish sari looking really pretty and I bump on to you in our driveway. First, I pass by you without realizing that it is you, but in a few minutes we recognize each other and hug, etc. Then I see your cute daughter. I hug her too and invite you inside. My mother starts cooking [making] some nice snacks and then I wake up. I had to tell you this because the scene is still playing in front of my eyes.”

I read the message twice and respond: Oh! That is SO SWEET. Soon after I feel a strange kind of uneasiness gripping my soul deep within and my eyes burst into tears. Perhaps the dream would not have been as disturbing had I been the host and she the guest. I wish she hadn’t seen the dream. And why did she see me in a sari? That is not how I dress in Kashmir! I speak to myself. The message keeps bothering me, embarrassing me for hours before I sit down and grab a pen to write about it. The message is from a Facebook “friend” I have never met before; a “friend” who lives thousands of miles away and yet there is a strong and invisible connection between the two of us. I do not know a lot about her, but what binds the two of us together is a profound longing to reconnect with our roots, our homeland where we do not live any longer. Yet there is a stark difference that sets us apart. I am a “Kashmiri Muslim” and she is a “Kashmiri Pandit”. This religious identity, whether by personal choice or by default through inheritance from our parents and forefathers, is what makes us very different individuals when it comes to our personal experiences, our history and our connection with that dreamland, that “paradise on earth” we all, almost irrationally, continue to fancy about in great nostalgia — KASHMIR. It is that Kashmir which is so exceptionally “beautiful” and “serene” in our imagined reality that all the worlds’ beauties put together are rendered pallid in comparison.

Namrata lives in Delhi, only an hour long flight to Srinagar, and I live all the way across the globe in Texas in the United States of America. Yet she feels she is far more removed from the “homeland” than I am. While I visit Kashmir every year and stay with my family there, if Namrata wishes to go she must find a hospitable “host” or stay in a hotel like any other tourist in a place, which was once her hometown and where she grew up and spent her entire life until that fateful day when her family and her relatives had to leave Kashmir not knowing they would never return.

A friend of mine in Kashmir said one day, “Kashmiri Pandits should come back. We will welcome them wholeheartedly.” But the story on ground is quite different and disappointing. Only a week earlier, I called my father back home to arrange for a room for rent for another Kashmiri Pandit friend of mine. Ajay has a research project to work on in Kashmir. He needs to stay over an extended period of time. I try to look for an affordable place for him to stay before I arrive the following month. My father says to me on phone: I will do my best, but it is difficult. You know the situation here. If I cannot find a room, he is more than welcome to stay with us but at his own risk. This is Downtown, you know.

I am disheartened and decide to call one of my uncles who lives in another part of the city. The room is not a problem but the food, I mean….. I think my family may object to a Hindu eating with us in the kitchen. If he can cook his own meals……..ummm…… I tell him I would call again and disconnect. When Ajay finally arrives, like any other foreign visitor to the valley, he puts up in a guesthouse near Dalgate.

Ajay has an old ancestral house somewhere in Pulwama — a far-flung area in Kashmir. The house has been “taken care of” by some of his distant family who chose to stay back in those times of mayhem in the early 1990’s. Ajay and I visit the village, Sirnu (Siryun in Kashmiri) and his ancestral house a few weeks later and take pictures as souvenirs. We meet the Pandit inhabitants who tell us stories about their survival, their well-being and their times of struggle in what has become a largely homogeneous society.

Chuni Devi, an old lady of wit and humor, likely in her late 60’s, is eager to show us around. I take a picture of her standing in the doorway – she is defiant and confident. As Ajay meets some of his old family, Chuni Devi and I walk through a very narrow passage and cross over a barricade of jumbled outgrowth of bushes into her little vegetable garden across the corner. Fresh yellow blossoms adorn an array of huge green prickly leaves on the branches of squash hanging from over a prop. The witty lady shows me into the house of one of her close family and introduces me with the womenfolk. Most of them are housewives and spend their time largely at home. A young boy in his early teens comes in. I ask him about his school and his friends. “I don’t have many friends,” he tells me. He is probably the only Pundit boy in his classroom.

Later in the day, we are set to visit the village temple. Chuni Devi is the caretaker of the temple. She has also been actively involved in local village elections. Though there are only a handful of families there, she is steadfast in fighting for the minority rights in her area. As we move around, people of the neighborhood keep wondering, “Who are they?”

As we arrive near the temple premises, we see children of the locality bathing in a natural spring while Lord Shiva stays silent by the side in the muggy water. A small, old and dilapidated temple stands locked, facing the newly built mosque nearby. I ask Chuni Devi to open the door and she does. She shows us the remnants of the temple paraphernalia that had been vandalized many years ago and are still in the same condition. Mushtaq (another friend) and I exchange a few sad glimpses of embarrassment over the plight of the temple. We take some pictures and leave.

As I write about these experiences, I am deeply perturbed. It seems to me perhaps we have reached a point where cultural and religious harmony is a misnomer in Kashmir. Kashmiri society has become so homogeneous that it is hard to fathom a situation with a truly pluralist culture in the near future. This blatant fact manifests itself in more than one way. No doubt there are handfuls of Pandit (and other minority) families living in various neighborhoods, including some remote areas, but they live in considerable social isolation, with a degree of fear and suspicion. There is limited social and cultural contact even with neighbors and friends, and quite a few have sought police security. The only places where people of different religious backgrounds are to be seen in substantial “harmony” are tourist resorts, hotels and rental apartments, and some posh areas of the city, such as Rajbagh and surroundings. It seems the idea of cultural pluralism in Kashmir has largely relegated itself to memories and mementos as of now. Let’s hope it won’t stay that way.

© Sadaf Munshi