By Shreen Vaid:
It was Michael Ondaatje’s seventy-third birthday a couple of days ago. I was a little surprised to know that the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author and poet wasn’t very popular amongst readers in my friend’s circle. A shame really, because he is every bit a great writer as any of his contemporaries.
Then I remembered something that I had read in his Booker Prize-winning book, “The English Patient”. But because I wasn’t sure of the exact statement, I went through my notes to dig up the exact quote. It read,“Do you understand the sadness of geography?”
I thought about it for a long time. I was deeply lost in my thoughts and feelings thinking about the question he posed when my phone buzzed with a news alert, “Curfew in Kashmir Valley on Eid, Choppers And Drones To Keep Vigil.”
Suddenly, I paused. My overloaded deep line of thoughts came down to nothing as soon as I read the news alert. I was 100% blank. As I gulped down my saliva and heard it making all the way down to my throat from my mouth , forming a lump there, I remembered something I’d read on Facebook, a couple of hours earlier. I had been sending a close friend Eid greetings when I read a status from a Kashmiri friend who wrote about how the Kashmiris were abstaining from celebrating Eid this time in remembrance of all those who lost their lives or were wounded or blinded.
Now back to Ondaatje’s question, “Do you understand the sadness of geography?” Do we understand it or do we just turn our heads and look the other way?
Over the last two months, these are some insightful things I’ve heard from random people during metro journeys, at work, in coffee shops etc on Kashmir.
“Ladkiyan badi sundar hoti hain.” (The Kashmiri girls are very pretty), “Unki shawls best hoti hain, haan haan, aur woh pheran (long coat or cloak) bhi. Mein toh do-chaar laayi thi jab gayi thi wahan. Bade kaam aate hain sardiyon mein” (They produce the best shawls, and yes, the pheran‘s too. I had bought a few of them when I visited. They’re so handy during the winters)
Deep, aren’t they? These conversations? While a whole population is under a strict curfew – immobile, and most of the times without basic facilities – this is the best we come up with and then ask, “but what problem do they have?”
The ‘sadness of geography’ is such that most of us, (I’m talking about each one of us who is comfortably on phones or computers, reading this), don’t understand life in the valley. I am sitting around 800 kilometres away from Srinagar and I don’t get it. And it is sad because I won’t get it either.
Do I really know what it’s like to grow up restricted by barbed wires? Of course not! When I read poems and stories about children playing with tear gas shells, shivers do travel down my spine, of course, they do; but then, once I get out of the house for my evening walk and see the children in my neighbourhood running in their bright coloured swimming costumes towards the pool or bicycling around, my heart becomes warm again and I move on. At that moment, the whole world becomes normal again because of the hundred of kilometres that exist in between them (the Kashmiris) and me.
The distance between Delhi and Srinagar isn’t that much, but the ‘sadness of geography’ is such that, the lives in these two places are poles apart. While I’m going for a biryani party today and would probably binge eat lots of desserts and share much laughter with my friends, people will have choppers flying over their heads for surveillance. Now that’s a cherry on top, isn’t it? We all, sitting in the plains, do we understand what it’s like to be under constant scrutiny, do we? The ‘sadness of geography’ is such that today, during celebratory moods, people in two different (but close enough) topographies are living in two different times, leading two different lives.