Book Review: A journey through the heart of Kashmir

Book Review: A journey through the heart of Kashmir

Mir Khalid’s Jaffna Street is Srinagar’s downtown of our imagination, people’s stories, and ravages of war

In the hot and humid month of June 2017, I got a signed copy of Jaffna Street from its author Mir Khalid while sipping Cappuccino in one of the cafés in Srinagar located on the Jhelum embankment. Unsurprisingly, we ended up discussing Kashmirs current socio-political landscape and geopolitics while trying to find an answer to a question: is Kashmir a forgotten conflict in global context?

Our interface reminded me of the many thought-provoking shopfront discussions on Kashmir dispute and world politics, which were a norm in downtown Srinagar of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s.

Srinagar downtown’s waane pyaend (shopfront gathering) would act both as intellectual and cathartic space during the continued battle for existence and identity of Kashmiris, and also in the initial years of the 1989 armed revolt against Indian rule.

As the State intensified its crackdown on public gatherings, pro-freedom rallies, and other social and intellectual spaces, Kashmiris among many prized possessions almost lost their waane pyaend, too.

“A small step in understanding the times we lived,” Khalid wrote on the title page of the book right above his signature. His seemingly simple one-liner somehow turned the clock backwards, at least for me, a downtowner myself.

I began revisiting a collection of childhood memories from the early 1990s, my days of schooling in Safa Kadal and growing up in the Kashmir Vale when sounds of the bullets fired by the gun-toting Indian soldiers and Kashmir’s rebels, carrying AK-47 rifles on their young shoulders, had almost replaced the recess bells in our schools.

A masked militant brandishes an AK-47 rifle in downtown Srinagar in early ’90s
Photo: Kashmir Research Centre

Honestly, reading Jaffna Street was disquieting in many ways. It wasnt easy to read what all of us have witnessed and endured over the last 27 years. Those who survived the war in Kashmir are eyewitnesses to the times we lived in and to thetales of life, death, betrayal and survival”. Yes, in post-1989 Kashmir!

Jaffna Street begins with Zee who crosses the Line of Control (LoC) to receive arms training in Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK) like hundreds of Kashmiri boys did during the peak of militancy. For Zee, the aim is to fight Indian rule in Kashmir. As a determined rebel, Zee refuses to get bogged down by the sub-zero mercury during Chilla-i-Kalan (the annual coldest winter period that lasts for 40 days from 21 December until 31 January) and leaves everything behind to join the departing group. In the open-air classroom for arms training, Zee’s knowledge of conceptual physics comes handy in the training camps.

In Pakistan, “Zee resisted his own urge to meet Marina Khan, his long-time love fantasy.” In the training camps across the LoC, the sharp-minded Zee gets disillusioned over why the supposed benefactor Pakistan would create divisions in the armed militancy in Kashmir by forming various groups espousing competing ideologies. Zee finds an upright mentor in Ace, a renowned rebel commander. Ace had a rural upbringing while Zee was a city boy. With deftness, Khalid has described their compatibility with each other and their respective understanding of the war.

“He (Ace) was part of the pioneers, the pilot batch of men who had stealthily crossed the LoC to train in arms under the aegis of the Pakistani army trainers in early 1988,” Khalid writes. The then Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq had felicitated and welcomed the group of which Ace was an integral part. Zee’s discoveries inside the training camps are attention-grabbing. And what happens to Ace in the end is anybody’s guess!   


The author has stayed away from polemics and platitudes. In his literary journey in non-fiction genre, Khalid introduces his readers to Mac, a former head of the city-side boys’ gang, who, like many boys of his age group, disappears from the scene to receive arms training in PaK after crossing the LoC at the end of 1989.

Mac, one of Kashmir’s most feared student gangsters in the 1980s, joins the ranks of the rebels to challenge India’s rule in Kashmir. Mac’s newfound freedom is short-lived though. On his return to Kashmir as a decently-trained armed militant, Mac is arrested by government forces. He spends many years in prison to realise that “every churning, every human process incurs its costs on us!”

Mir Khalid

By profession Khalid is a surgeon. By temperament, he is a writer gifted with richness and flair. His account is neither a journalistic piece of writing nor a Kashmir chronicle compiled with an aim to document tragedies or triumphs alone. In fact, Jaffna Street is an authentic attempt at putting Kashmir story in a wider global context

Through Mac’s arduous journey, the author narrates heart-wrenching tales of torture in some of the most feared dungeons that the government forces had to offer in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.  “You know they talk of Gitmo [Guantanamo Bay]. We suffered that years before,” Mac tells Khalid.

Mac’s trajectory from a charismatic student gangster to an armed rebel and then finally to a detached businessman makes the author wonder “whether war is actually a catalyst for human evolution, for good or for bad?”

Khalid’s unbiased commentary makes readers conscious of the socio-psychological and economic impact of war on Kashmir and Kashmiris. In Khalid’s work, the readers get to know about the forgotten people of Kashmir, what conflict did to them and how the war changed their lives and stories. The book brings to readers the neat stories of both ordinary and extraordinary men and women of Kashmir. The author acts as a conduit. And, in the process of telling peoples’ stories as they are, he perhaps finds his own voice in their voices.

Relying primarily on oral history, in-depth research and perceptive personal interviews, the author recounts unadulterated stories of people, who are perhaps heroes of their stories in their own smaller worlds.

For someone like me born in the heart of Srinagar’s downtown, a stone’s throw away from historic Jama Masjid in Nowhatta, both literally and metaphorically, reading Khalid’s work has been like a flashback journey to revisit my childhood days with a sense of nostalgia, hope and melancholy.

For any downtowner, Jaffna Street is simply unputdownable. It appears as if Khalid is narrating my story, too. His work is indeed a refreshing departure from the mundane. The author brings to his readers the stories which others before him couldn’t narrate or chose not to, for whatever reasons.

To tell as complex a story as Kashmir is, you need to have an eye for detail and an analytical sweep to interpret events in a dispassionate manner.  Khalid, as a prolific writer, possesses the required skill set. With an eagle’s eye, he knows the art of storytelling in a no-nonsense manner.

Spanned over 290 pages, Jaffna Street is divided into 17 chapters that are broken further in three sections viz The War, 1990 Onwards, Reveille, 1950-1989 and The Past As Memory, 1947-1950.

In my opinion, at least six chapters— Guests and Contras, Ganglands, The Butcher’s Wife, The Downtown Leftist, Downtown Train, and The Saint of Shalimar stand out.

Talking about Rod Steward’s album song Downtown Train released in March 1990, Khalid describes Srinagars downtown of his imagination. He draws parallels between Stewards downtown with his own childhood sketch of Srinagar with its own version of ‘Brooklyn’ girls. Yes, minus the underground trains! The author gives his readers a sense of socio-cultural landscape of Srinagar of the 1980s and 1990s.

“There were many ‘Brooklyn’ girls, whose affections were actively sought or passively fancied. Some were part of the somewhat class conscious crowd, belonging to upmarket areas and schools, many of whom adored Tom Cruise—whose Top Gun was making wavesto the extent of pasting his photos in their notebooks,” he writes in Downtown Train.

On the one hand, the author gives a description of Srinagar city of the 1980’s with its vibrant culture of reading, a tradition of discussions on literature and debates on politics, devotion to literature, music, cinema, art, etc., and on the other hand, he documents the horror scene of a horrible civilian massacre carried out by Indian paramilitary troopers on Srinagar’s Gaw Kadal bridge on 21 January 1990.

“One of the cousins who was attending to his wife who had just delivered a baby daughter too had drifted into the march with thousands of others, but had a miraculous escape after a close brush with death on the Gow Kadal bridge”.

The author also narrates the story of Noori Maasi. She is a woman from a waza (traditional chef) family who married into a butcher household. Khalid describes her as “a known Sufi”, a regular shrine-goer. As a preteen, the author remembers Noori Maasi’s bravado of publicly manhandling a neighbourhood bully who had bullied her grandson while playing cricket on the Safa Kadal streets. “She not only punched and slapped the tall bully; she also proceeded to spit on him while hurling invectives.”

Later, Maasi also publicly thrashes a popular fakeer from south Kashmir’s Badasgam, who would bless his visitors by beating them with a walking stick. On witnessing Maasi’s courage to publicly hammer a know fakeer, many disciples and followers of the latter gather in support of the former.

Once she also protects a Pakistani armed militant in her house.

Recalling an anecdote narrated to Khalid by a renowned ophthalmologist, the author records that Maasi, after being denied entry into the state Secretariat once, created a ruckus at the arrival gate. She blocked entry of the then Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah, forcing him to step out from his old black Mercedes.

“Much to the surprise of everyone, he (Sheikh) walked up to Maasi, conversed briefly with her in a reverential tone, led her to his official car and drove her in personally,” Khalid writes.

Anyone born and brought up in downtown Srinagar will relate to the character of Noori Maasi, as there’s always one such daring Maasi in downtown lanes and bylanes.

Why I insist that Jaffna Street is a welcome departure from the humdrum is because the book is written with literary finesse and it focuses on the many shades of Kashmir story, not just one side of the coin. Khalid’s work is about the shades of grey, a case of not peddling a black and white narrative or falling prey to the usual binaries. He talks about truths, half-truths, versions and stories of people as told to him by the characters quoted in the book.

In The Downtown Leftist, Khalid introduces Nazir Gaash, a man who owned a decrepit provision store in Safa Kadal. Gaash was no ordinary shopkeeper. He was an avowed Leftist whose analytical sweep of the Western philosophical oeuvre was envious. At ease, he would talk about Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Teilhard de Chardin, Kant, Hegel and Sartre with a grip over “recent political histories and the post-colonial angst to subaltern themes”.

‘If you want to be a writer you should learn something from Robert De Niro,’ this is a lesson on originality that Gaash once delivered to Khalid after the latter had shown him a sample manuscript to the former as a novice. Gaash argued that Hollywood actor De Niro had his own style, a good enough hint for Khalid to develop a style of his own as a writer.

“In the throes of the ongoing conflict, I discovered the relevance of Camus at that shopfront (Gaash’s). The French philosopher’s work became a catalyst for the evolution of a definitive understanding of the world around me.” “Gaash’s best time ended as the insurgency broke out,” Khalid writes.

I will resist myself from revealing here what happens to Gaash in the end.

Khalid takes readers to Srinagar of the 1970s when a culture of student gangs was widespread. The student gangs like the Gow Kadal-Batmalyuna axis on the one side and the Dalgate gangs on the other were competing with each other for gaining control when “knifings were uncommon, but murders were unknown”.

Nearly two decades before the outbreak of a popular anti-India armed rebellion in 1989, the usual clashes between the rival student gangs would stir controversies.

In Ganglands, Khalid records that “a fine line existed between student gangs and professional gangsters, but over the years the lines got blurred”. Even Ashfaq Majid Wani, the then upper-city student leader who went on to become a commander of pro-independence JKLF, once ambushed a local Punjabi boy from Khatri community at the swimming pool of Tyndale Biscoe School in Srinagar.

Apart from The Downtown Leftist, another personal favourite chapter in Jaffna Street is The Saint of Shalimar, the penultimate one. It is in this chapter that the author talks about Ala al-dawla Simnani, grandmaster of the Kubrawiya Sufi order. Simnani greatly influences his nephew Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani (1314-1385), a famous Persian Saint, who after spending some time in Badakshan landed in the Kashmir Valley in 1379 with an entourage of 400 disciples. It is exactly when the mass conversions happened in the Valley, as Hindu Brahmin Kashmiris converted to Islam en-masse.

An elderly man walks through the interiors of Habba Kadal in downtown Srinagar
Photo: Faisal Khan

In The Downtown Leftist, Khalid introduces Nazir Gaash, a man who owned a decrepit provision store in Safa Kadal. Gaash was no ordinary shopkeeper. He was an avowed Leftist whose analytical sweep of the Western philosophical oeuvre was envious. At ease, he would talk about Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Teilhard de Chardin, Kant, Hegel and Sartre with a grip over “recent political histories and the post-colonial angst to subaltern themes”.

Mir Ali Hamdani’s arrival in Kashmir was instrumental in spawning a culture of mystical aesthetics. Visiting shrines both for spiritual solace and cathartic experience has since become an inseparable part of Kashmir’s mystic culture and Sufi traditions.

In this chapter, Khalid also introduces Meerak Shah Kashani, a revered Sufi mystic of Qadiriyah order, and two other mystics, Ghulam Muhammad Andrabi of the Aminiya Owaisi order and the late Ghulam Ahmad Zargar, aka Ama Saheb, of the Kubrawiya Sufi order.

Since I have had the privilege of meeting Ama Saheb, aka Masterji, aka Zargar Saheb, many a time, I relate to the point that the author makes so poignantly about Kashmir’s rich Sufi traditions. Zargar Saheb would always downplay his own stature. At his home, he would serve kehwa to all guests and never accept any gifts from his disciples. He was a selfless Sufi, a giver.

I vividly recall how one day he threw away top quality incense sticks brought by one of his most loved disciples from Kolkata. Only after the disciple agreed to accept the printed amount on the incense sticks’ packet did Zargar Saheb keep them. The most striking thing about Zargar Saheb was that despite being an uncompromising pro-Pakistani at heart, his spiritual companions and disciples included Kashmiri Pandits and Buddhists. He belonged to a dwindling breed of selfless, disciplined and devoted Sufi saints.

View of the Nallah Mar in downtown Srinagar. This photo was clicked by legendary British photographer Samuel Bourne (1834-1912) during his visit to Srinagar in in June 1864
Photo: Kashmir Research Centre

Khalid isn’t a careless chronicler. His work isn’t a monotonous and dull documentation. Though Khalid has resisted the temptation of being judgmental about people or events, his sympathies to Kashmir’s struggle for the right-to self-determination are too obvious to ignore.

By profession Khalid is a surgeon. By temperament, he is a writer gifted with richness and flair. His account is neither a journalistic piece of writing nor a Kashmir chronicle compiled with an aim to document tragedies or triumphs alone. In fact, Jaffna Street is an authentic attempt at putting Kashmir story in a wider global context

Khalid’s work addresses the wider English-speaking world. His work isn’t an attempt to play to the gallery, draw pleasure from glamour shots or achieve quick fame. His isn’t a work of propaganda writing or merely a literature of conflict or resistance. Not something written with an objective to push any stakeholder’s agenda either.

The only criticism I have for Jaffna Street is that it could have been edited a little better than it is, besides Khalid’s nuanced denunciation of the work done by the fellow natives in English writing or his pessimistic opinion of people he describes as “wannabes”. Kashmiris writing fiction or non-fiction in English is a work in progress; they have only recently started their journey of writing in English. Therefore, I am just not sure whether we should be so concerned why we haven’t produced Sartres, Pamuks, Naipauls, Murakamis and Edward Saids as yet.

Concluding, Mir Khalid has a command over the written word. His prose is poetic. It flows like waters in a stream. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Jaffna Street is one of the best works in non-fiction I have read from a native Kashmiri writer in the last 25 years or so. Jaffna Street is a welcome addition to the list of must-read works on Kashmir.

The book review appeared in January issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy, contact [email protected] for details

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