National

Beneath The Anger: Kashmir Now And Then

The savvy and silent electric buses of Nouveau Kashmir

Photo: Manpreet Romana
Changing Times: A tourist takes images in front of the clock tower in Lal Chowk Photo: Manpreet Romana
info_icon

There is now a fresh cobblestone path by the famous Polo View in Srinagar, the brief avenue which not very long ago housed the Press Club of Kashmir, taken over in an ostentatiously mysterious coup. Along this avenue, not too long ago, were two motorable roads that went in and out towards and away from the main artery of Lal Chowk, shuffling between Maulana Azad Road, and Residency Road. The avenue, thankfully even now, is shadowed and shaded by the mighty Chinar trees, often only inches apart at the zenith of their foliage and yet several, several metres apart at their roots. Such is the might of the Chinar. Unless chopped down to make way for boutique stores.

These roads, albeit with cars parked along their peripheries, used to serve a purpose. People going into Lal Chowk for work, and coming out of Lal Chowk for work, would use these roads to go about their day, quickly skipping one parallel line for another. If nothing else, one could always take a turn around the corner to Jee Enn Sons, and grab an eclair pastry from this local bakery much adored by the locals, and much too local for the non-locals who would tour much of the Boulevard and only sometimes come to the city centre for shopping. The City Centre, after all, serves a purpose.

When climbing a local Swaraj Mazda bus in Yapoar Lal Chowk (the part of Lal Chowk on the immediate side of the bridge), one could travel through the entire length of this part of Srinagar, running parallel to the once-grassed-over-now-concretised-and-gentrified Jhelum Bund. Journeying in this bus, one would then reach the Apoar (the other side, over the bridge) Lal Chowk—the hub of much merchant activity, where one could also make a stop at the famous kulfi shop Dil Bahar—an old haunt for the locals, who adore the subtle tastes of Kashmir’s breezy and affordable dessert, far removed from the invasive and aggressive olfactory overtones of the western bakery—too rich and tricky in flavour for our palette. After all, tickle laughter doesn’t fill your soul, and jump scares don’t count for good cinema.

Sights to Behold: Tourists and local visitors wait outside the Nishat Garden
Sights to Behold: Tourists and local visitors wait outside the Nishat Garden Photo: Yasir Iqbal
info_icon

Surrounded by the mighty Himalayas, cradled by state of the art bakery in all assortments and permutations, the freshest air and steepest treks not too far from the city itself, Kashmiris have for long been spoilt for taste, coming full circle to realise that it is in subtlety that one finds true finesse, true beauty. Or so we think; and sometimes doubt, when faced with the voluptuous behemoth of consumerism that has found its way to our city ever since the floodgates of the city were thrown open on August 5, 2019. During my brief stay in Bengaluru in the months following the abrogation, I had spoken to my neighbour, a retired and decorated senior police officer from Karnataka, now in his late 90s. I had bumped into him on an August morning, and he had said, “What is this nonsense your state is being put through, Tabish? If it were up to me, every state in India would have a 35-A,” perhaps grieving over the state of his state, concerned deeply about the unfettered osmosis of human capitalist greed.

The geolocation of the sentient clock tower gave it a socialist air, of a revolution borne out of the worker class. Today, it is one step away from imitating Times Square of New York.

This journey from Yapoar to Apoar Lal Chowk, from here to there, from this part of the city centre to that part, would inevitably take you within the sights of the Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower set in the middle of Lal Chowk, also now gentrified and cobble-stoned, in the past having been a symbolic and architectural megalith of indigenous resistance against military rule/excess. Located within what is essentially a marketplace, the geolocation of the famous sentient clock tower gave it a socialist air, of a revolution borne out of the worker class. Today, it is perpetually one step away from imitating Times Square of New York, reminiscent of nascent capitalist excess, minus the underground plumbing.

It is at this place where the then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru made a symbolic megalithic promise to Kashmir, with the crown of the tower itself having hosted over the years flags of Pakistan and also flags of freedom, freedom from all that came from Yapoar or Apoar.

A shop displays Kashmiri traditional attire on the banks of Dal Lake
A shop displays Kashmiri traditional attire on the banks of Dal Lake Photo: Yasir Iqbal
info_icon

The newly revamped and reconstructed Ghanta Ghar of today, remade from scratch in 2019, is now surrounded with the same cobblestone as from the Polo View market, and morphed into a massive ornamented spectacle for the sitting, chilling and selfie-ng tourists, who, cradled among a massive armed fortification not very long ago celebrated their first New Year’s Eve in Kashmir, flooded and showered with the coloured LED lights of the Indian Tricolour. It is like sitting inside an airport which has no flights running. The Indian tourist, the sentiment was supposed to say, is not just safe in Kashmir, but happy too. The Kashmir dream has been realised, and all while fully awake.

“Kashmir celebrates,” the Indian media had exclaimed in unison. Kashmir badal raha hai.

Some news offices of the pre-2019 Kashmir era had their buildings situated in the Yapoar and some in the Apoar. The Yapoar Lal Chowk is filled with showrooms and ice-cream shops, and workers from these shops would often get in a vehicle and drive to the Apoar, from where they would procure raw material from the heavily footed markets. This shah-rag, the prime-artery, the road through, is now a tourist hotbed, torrented and tormented generously by an unprecedented footfall, which for a very specific reason has come to denote the pride of Indian democracy and the success of August 5, 2019. The spectacle of this celebration has been outsourced to the middle class of India.

Advertisement

If you sit around the newly gentrified, loudly demarcated periphery of the Ghanta Ghar, you will see, among colourful tourist confetti, dengue-esque bile-green water collected in places where plants have been commanded to be, by the state and by the military. The plants themselves; they have picked up the pieces, rolled up their frocks, and skedaddled away to the hills, only with the promise to return as cracks in the cobblestones. When the time is right, they say.

Aesi Bakheshzyav,” they were last heard saying, as they made a run for it, literally translated from Kashmiri to “forgive me” but really meaning “spare me this bullshit”.

Advertisement

In place of the former Press Club of Kashmir, on the Polo View, referred to in the beginning of this essay, deep into the cobblestoned territory, is now a fully fortified Jammu and Kashmir police station. This stretch of Polo View has been turned into a beautiful patch of pedestrian land with benches for sitting and LED lights meant to give respite to the tourists passing by. In case of a police emergency, I imagine the armed men would have to do quite a sprint before they could get to their cars parked somewhere on the other end of this cobblestone pasture. Needless to say, there is no dearth of security.

Advertisement

People want answers in the silence of their homes, or even the silence of their heads, and the electric buses and the smart city are not giving any.

Earlier, with the roads motorable and the faces local, a tourist would pause for a brief moment, maybe respectfully feel out of place, as if having stepped into a stranger’s living room, hesitate, and then think to move to more tourism-encouraging/enabling parts of the city. The garden, maybe. Now, however, the architecture, the cobblestone, the LED lights shining in full glory welcome the outsider—the person standing in Lal Chowk, the city centre, with no explicit reason of work, and the only explicit purpose of having a chill time. Not more than three kilometres away, downtown Srinagar drowns in clouds of dust and pitch darkness at night. It is not too different from the aesthetic brilliance of the movie Dune.

Advertisement

With its wounded arms now spread out to its utmost tensile limit, yanked wide open with the help of a smart city pulley, like a Viking’s Blood Eagle, the city now hugs the outsider, caresses it, and asks of it to have his wishes granted. At your service, it says, as it side glances at the local, who must now find snakier and better ways of getting to work in his hometown. While making this detour, the local mumbles to himself, “Khyesa chyei,” literally translating to “you only eat this”, also really meaning, “Oh for god’s sake, stop staring as you can have it; I will leave”.

Advertisement

Last night, at the end of a rainy day on this cobblestone road, coincidentally driving by the Polo View avenue, I was sitting calmly, barely driving in the Srinagar traffic at 9 in the night, (pertinent to mention we never had traffic jams/traffic post 8 pm until a year ago and now it goes till 11 pm) hands on my steering wheel, waiting for the car in front of me to move an inch to my destination. Just as the thought of the gleefully desolate curfewed past crossed by head, I shook in my place before I heard a loud bang. Someone had rear-ended me.

Advertisement

Behind me, on this fresh cobblestone path rivalled only by the Vatican’s gardens, an electric bus with the smart city azadi ka mohatsav sticker had struggled with the brakes, and silently skidded and crashed into my boot. He was certainly overspeeding.

The electric bus, you see, doesn’t have the limitations of a combustion dependent fuel engine and hence the acceleration is instantaneous. It is as quick as switching the living room lights on. The momentum gained by this hunk of metal, however, is still the same, and the brakes can barely keep up. The force generated is still mass times acceleration, and it does not matter if the mass is accelerated by means combustive or electrical. And hence, before I got rear-ended, I only heard the last-minute screech and not the roar of the engine that could have prepared me. In the distance, a policeman keeping watch scrolled another reel. Not a tourist car, he must have thought to himself, and ignored us at no peril to his duty. All’s well that ends well.

Advertisement

On this cobblestone path in the moment, with the front end of the bus smooched into my rear, I could see the bus driver who looked at me, sporting a sheepish smile. He did not step out of the bus to see the damage, and he did not stop smiling. He was employed, after all, by Naya Kashmir. At the mere suggestion of accountability, they would ask you to follow them to the “depot”—many of us have only heard whispers of, and one can’t tell if the depot in conversation is a real bus depot, or a euphemism for New Delhi. So, as a dutiful citizen and a loyal consumer of fresh democracy, we shall step back and let the bus float into the darkness of the night.

Advertisement

I continued looking at this man in shock and with a sigh, and he continued looking back at me with a smile and a shrug, a shrug that reminded me of something I had read in a social media post not many days ago. Another man driving one such bus had caused an accident, and perhaps even some bodily harm to a pedestrian. On being asked what had happened and also reprimanded, the driver of that bus had shrugged just as the man in front of me was shrugging and had said, “These electric buses, they are much too fast for us, man, so if anything happens, we are not really going to take much responsibility. We can’t, man, we can’t. This is beyond us,” he had continued, as he sped away in the bus. And just like that, in front of me, the bus driver in my story rode away, the traffic resumed, the phone scrolled further down or up, and we went on and about our lives. An eager resumption of life such as this has been characteristic of how the city has tried to ignore the possibilities of conflict, of all that could go wrong with everyday civil life, after all that we saw, and for what?

Advertisement

People want answers in the silence of their homes, or even the silence of their heads, and the electric buses and the smart city are not giving any, so the citizenry are now scrolling endlessly on their smartphones, screeching through online traffic, while driving through the city in a raging slumber, with pent-up rage erupting only once in a while at each other, sometimes even spitting at each other, only to sprinkle liquid matter on to the hot foreheads of their counterparts in misery, dissipating the temperature of the immediate surrounding through transpiration. The city is angry, and angry in a way a loser is—the losers of 2019—taking it out on the other losers of 2019, and bowing in a servile bent of spine to the drivers of these electric buses of a Brave New World.

Advertisement

As I was writing this essay, on my way from Srinagar to Budgam, I chanced upon a traffic jam. A Tata Sumo, the colloquial vehicle for local transport, was crushed and folded in half, and behind it, basking shyly along the other side of the road, was a large red electric bus, also with a broken anterior. Behind it, a volley of shaking fists and a smiling driver.

(Views expressed are personal)

Tabish Rafiq Mir is a writer, photographer, and illustrator residing in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, where he produces political commentary and satire. His work can be accessed at https://tabishrafiqmir.com.

Advertisement

(This appeared in the print as 'Beneath the anger')

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement