Valley of the Saints

by Rafiq Kathwari

My friend Irfan and I drove a Gypsy with faulty brakes to Baba's shrine nestled in the Himalayan foothills. “You must go show your respect,” Mother had urged when I told her I was flying to Srinagar. “Say a prayer for your health and wealth.”

Her father, Sultan Bastal, a prosperous cashmere shawl merchant, who made Kashmir home after wheeling, dealing on the Silk Route, had married three times hoping for an heir, but his wives had proved barren. “Or, perhaps, it was him,” Mother said.

And so, Sultan Sahib, invoked his faith in Sufism, went on a haj to Baba's shrine. He wore a white turban, customary in his era; rode shot gun as his tonga-wallah drove their one horse buggy on a dirt road fringed by miles of poplars all the way from Srinagar to Tangmarg,

where the dirt road ended and a foot trail started, a journey in those days, Mother said, of at least three days in late summer when past winter's snow melts. Sultan Sahib and tonga-wallah rested often to give their horse a break from his uphill task. Glacial streams laughed

by the road. Sultan Sahib flung his arms wide in wonder at a view of a virgin valley diffused in light. Clouds flirted naked peaks on the horizon. He trekked a pine-scented forest to the thatched-roof shrine, where he tied a thread to carved wooden roses, and wept as he

prayed for a son, “O, Baba, beloved saint, make me a model of your mercy.” And 90 years later here we were, Irfan and I, parking our rusty jeep in an ersatz bus stop littered with rubbish. Baba Reshi, resting for five centuries under alabaster, preached Divinity lives in the

garden within and in the wasteland without. The first thing I saw was a bunker, an example of many bunkers in the Kashmir valley: bold white capitals on blue tarpaulin:
RESPECT ALL SUSPECT ALL.

A fascist credo packed with sad irony, baring a strategy of the world's most populous democracy —a lie I'm tired of hearing—to subvert teachings of saints who brought Sufism to Kashmir, Kashmir to Sufism. I strolled around the barbed wire, a tote slung over my

shoulder, grinned at a para-military, an Uzi slung over his shoulder, his belly prosperous.
“Namaste,” I said joining my hands. “Where from?” he asked. “Mumbai,” I lied. “And you?” I asked. “Allahabad,” he said. “O,” I said, “Where Ganges and Yamuna merge.” He nodded,

waved me through without rifling my tote, but asked, “Where friend from?” “A local,” I said, realizing at once I had pushed Irfan under the clichéd bus. O, Fuck. “Open
bag,” para-military barked. Irfan did as told. “Who you? Why here? Where going?”

Irfan was concise, clear, sure. Para chilled. Lies and Truths: Mumbai and Kashmir. Respect and Suspect. “You dare not argue with an Uzi,” Irfan said later as we gazed through a smudged pane at Baba's tomb adorned with embroideries in gold thread. Instinctively, I

cupped my hands and raised them at the tomb, and murmured a prayer for my mother's well being, peace for her mind populated for most of her 90 years with whispers, only whispers of army generals, of hopeless men who partitioned families across the Cease Fire

Line (now the Line of Control), also partitioning my mother's mind. I prayed for a bright future for Kashmir, my ancestral home, an unresolved geography of the British Empire. “We adore our Sufi saints to love's horizon, celebrate their birthdays, mark their anniversaries,

raise funds,” Irfan said as we walked out, “Even want to rename the airport after Kashmir's patron saint, Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali, Peace Be Upon Him. That's far as we are willing.” We drove further up on a dodgy, pot-holed road, less-travelled, a shortcut to lunch at

Highlands Park, in the Meadow Of Flowers, boasting the world's highest golf greens. We saw grand trunks grieving, stump after stump after stump—no sign of reforestation. Glacial streams sobbing, choking on plastic bags, soda cans, Marlboro packs.

Of course the War on Nature is not exclusive to Kashmir, but her natural environment—flora and fauna, streams and rivers, even the melting Himalayan glaciers—is what attracts thousands of tourists every summer to the Valley, but it is a fallacy to think that

tourism is a cash cow, or a foreign exchange earner. It just seems so because every successive sycophantic administration has spun it so, organizing so-called annual fact-finding foreign junkets for their favored functionaries. Gone the days when a handful of bikini-clad blondes

created waves skiing on Dal Lake. Now, your average tourist is a desi escaping the heat and dust of India's plains, who will probably not eat in a Muslim dive, nor has the purchasing power to shop for fine hand-knotted Kashmir carpets, or delicately hand-embroidered

pashminas. So what is a cash cow now? Horticulture is. But, is there a firm administration policy to revive the decimated horticulture industry? I think anyone in his or her right mind would welcome a fact-finding foreign tour in the service of the horticulture industry.

Sure, predatory rapacious capitalism is on naked display all across India, but particularly in Kashmir, which is to the ultra right wing Hindus, recently called the “Neanderthals of
Nagpur,” what Palestine is to the Zionists. And those Neanderthals now want to create

separate “composite settlements” in the valley for Kashmir's Hindus, a whopping 2% of the population, who were fully integrated into Kashmir's secular fabric prior to the popular uprising that began in 1989, but were forced to leave chiefly because the

Neanderthal-in-Chief managing Delhi's writ in Kashmir at that moment couldn't possibly have flushed out the Pakistan-armed militants from the woof and weft of Kashmir's much – touted secular fabric. And the Hindus are demanding absolute guarantees of absolute

security before they return. Wait! If India's 750,000 troops in Kashmir cannot secure a 2% minority, what can they secure? It seems likely those security demands will be met, rendering “secular” and “composite settlements” Orwellian terms. Beware!

“Corruption has been institutionalized,” Irfan said as we attacked our greasy three egg omelets w/peppers, onions, cheese and a side order of fried chips, at Highlands Park. Our table, boasting a stained green and yellow check tablecloth, was near the window

overlooking a wildflower patch and the grey peaks of Khilanmarg beyond. “In the 1950's when the “Lion of Kashmir,” Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, was dismissed as Prime Minister of Kashmir and jailed for 18 years by Pandit Nehru,” Irfan said, “and the sycophant

Bakshi Gulam Mohammed installed, New Delhi started a process of ‘development,' pouring money to divert the attention of the masses demanding plebiscite sanctioned by the UN. Contracts were given arbitrarily to win over people. Forests were ‘leased' to family and

friends. The loot started and has continued to this day. Corruption, earlier an under-appreciated art, has become a science in Kashmir. It is in our bone marrow.” Irfan said, pausing to remove an embroidered tea-cozy from a pot. “Even a death certificate has a

bloody price, and it is usually the rich who want death certificates, and they can afford to pay high.” Irfan took a sip of tea, gazed at the wildflowers, “When contracts are awarded by each successive sycophant, including the son and grandson of Sheikh Abdullah, big money

changes hand.” Yet, we know corruption is not exclusive to Kashmir, however bad it may seem. But local corruption exacerbates the plight of locals. Powerful elites safeguard their interests by corrupting the system. No hope for sustained economic, or moral development.

Humankind/ Cannot bear very much Reality but Kashmiris believe they can bear all. We are The Planet's Most-Militarized-Zone, but the world doesn't know about it. India has been savvy at spinning our just claims as an Islamic fundamentalist uprising. But Kashmiris now are

telling heir own story. But we still burka our sins. We post photos on Facebook: White turbans on peaks, Himalayas sweeping down to Dal Lake, but dare we say the Dal is dying, and how our own gentlemen crooks have robbed foreign grants to clean it up.

Bridges we build wobble in less than a decade, and yet we build more of the same, chopping down grand Chinars, a crime under state laws to which the state itself is immune. More pretty pictures of what is being called Asia's Largest Tulip Garden, but after 68 years under India's

control, Srinagar has no sewage system to pipe the shit of a million and a half assholes: Open gullies only, seeded with fresh turds hosed daily into the Jhelum that sobs its way across the valley, reflecting ruined villages and towns, temples, mosques and shrines, through the

natural Himalayan gap that linked Kashmir to the Silk Route, again through the modern hydro electric station built with money from the World Bank (but the grid to serve Srinagar was never built; the power serves areas south, Jammu, with a majority Hindu population, and

as far south as New Delhi, and O yes, when electricity is stolen, power corrupts), across the Line of Control, through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, across Pakistan's heartland, finally those Kashmiri turds merge into the Arabian Sea, and the globe is enriched, surely.

We spin our nastiness. We put a flower in an asshole and call it a vase. And we want tourists to visit us and stick that flower in their hair. We build showy houses, with absolutely no regard for Kashmir's traditional Central Asian and Buddhist-inspired architecture, on land

where the wind once shook mustard stalks; no access roads, but we own flashy cars. We decorate rooms with big posters of the Kaaba, but toss our rubbish over gated lawns to feed stray, rabid dogs. I echo the truths, voiced by his holiness the Dalai Lama, often printed on a

cotton scroll, sold by Nepali vendors in heavily scented smoke shops in New York's East Village. But this isn't a rant with a slant from the cocoon of another country. It isn't about ‘sexually transmitted dynasties' trying to keep Kashmir quiet for New Delhi. It can't be about

the disappeared, fake-encounters, half widows, mass graves, kids in solitary, Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which immunizes India's army in Kashmir, even for rape. Kashmiris can bear very much reality. But in Kashmir human endeavor has utterly failed and

when human endeavor fails, Land Grab become the new Kaaba. For instance, after the deluge of September 2014, when the Jhelum took her revenge (as some had prophesied she would) on a conceited people, water rose over 25 feet in some areas, stagnating for weeks;

solid brick gabled houses in newly developed colonies collapsed, even in so-called posh areas; and days later, the ground still damp, unscrupulous opportunists stealthily started creating new land using debris from collapsed homes as filler: within days new houses rose.

No oversight. No plans. No nothing: Many palms were greased, surely. And four months after the Biblical floods, the Indian army in the Kashmir Valley advertised to fill 55 vacancies in their light infantry unit, usually deployed for airport security. Reportedly, 20 thousand

young men showed up for physical endurance tests. Wow! 20 thousand! What does this mean: Kashmiri young men love the Indian army? That is how India's corporate media spun it, especially whatshisname—the shrill talk show host in whose mouth Glenn Beck and Rush

Limbaugh meet? Never mind. Those young men showed up to try stake their claim in the social ranking ladder to improve their chances for a suitable bride. A “government” job (remember, ‘jobs' is an Orwellian term) seemingly carries more prestige than being an

entrepreneur, even though many Kashmiris I know are by nature brilliant entrepreneurs. Yet the complete dependency on military-administrative apparatus for jobs, destruction of local handicrafts cottage industry, being cut-off from traditional trade partners, mono-cropping,

rampant importation of what could be produced locally, deliberate mismanagement for years masqueraded as development and now, under extreme militarization, has shaped the despairing young Kashmiri man, loaded with testosterone, poised to rage at Love Jihad, at

the saffron robes for inventing yatras, no matter how those yatras accelerate environmental damage, the ideal of a Hindu sacred land reigns supreme: O, for heavens sake, just glance next door what has befallen the Land of the Pure, for if India were a sacred land, predatory,

rapacious capitalism wouldn't destroy the eco system in the North East, India's Ground Zero, decimating indigenous tribes, confiscating land from enraged farmers, selling land to highest bidders to mine iron, bauxite and manganese. Yes, I rage at rapacious capitalism, at

the robber barons of the Google Age, and at the breathtaking hypocrisy of Western liberal irrational democracies that overthrow elected governments to restore democracy. O, let me not count the ways. Or, in the immortal words of Tony Soprano, Foggedabouit!

Rather than curse the darkness, let's rage for light. But wait! After 68 years under India's control, there is only sporadic electricity in the Kashmir valley, yet Kashmir is the source of South Asia's five rivers, which quench the thirst of 1/6th of the world's population.

Well then, let me download a flashlight app on my smart phone and try transforming it from a device that banishes me into isolation to a powerful social media tool. I am a rebel because I am a Kashmiri. I was adopted by America. I am an Overseas Citizen of India as well.

I am lucky compared to the mass of humanity in Syria, Palestine, Central and West Africa who drown yearning for a better home, who have only a merciless sky as their roof. I can afford to rage my discontents. I must let the fire out raging within before it consumes me.

As a Kashmiri, I rage for non-violent social activism. As an American, I rage for it to be better than it is. And as an Overseas Citizen of India, I rage at Mother India to live up to her founding ideals: be a beacon for Liberty, a bulwark against Tyranny. She can if she wants to.

My ancestral home, under threat, is linked to the eco system. I do not live in a vacuum. I rage to provide the world with a context to my aspirations. All my grievances are connected. The Half-Widows of Kashmir are connected to the Cumartesi Anneleri of Istanbul, and to

the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo. I rage for solidarity with other progressive movements across the globe, an important element in progressives struggles that is absent form the rhetoric of ‘dissident' group which has splintered into factions, each faction testing

its own writ by declaring curfews. I rage against disunity. I rage for one voice, one goal. We live by symbols. I rage to merge my flag as an act of solidarity with other people's struggle I embrace. Chances are they will embrace mine. I rage to become a trusted partner working in

strong coalitions. I am deeply rooted in global culture. I arm myself, not with a Kalashnikov, but with facts. I rage against xenophobia, a virulent form of self-colonization. I rage for genuine alternatives: Another world is possible. I rage to bring forth my inner obligation, my

inner template engraved by the blessed Sufi saints of Kashmir. And I rage against the fading away of saints, and with them the power of oracles, of the human imagination: 90 years ago, weeks after he returned home from his haj to Baba Reshi's shrine, Sultan Sahib's fourth wife was blessed, not with a son he had so wished, but a chubby daughter with almond-shaped eyes who, a generation later, became my mother.

* * *

Rafiq Kathwari's book, In Another Country, is forthcoming in September from Doire Press, Ireland.

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