Notes from the Valley: A month of walking, writing, and being an Indian woman in Kashmir

As of today, it has been exactly a month since I arrived.

Travelling to Kashmir for the very first time, I called a friend and asked him if it was necessary to carry my passport. He laughed and told me, “The time hasn’t yet come for you to carry a passport to travel in your own country Nidhi.” A few days ago, as I walked to a coffee shop from office, two men on a motorbike stopped me. They asked me to get onto the bike with them. When I ignored them and continued to walk ahead, they did it again. After the third time, I couldn't hold myself back and angrily asked them to leave me alone. They looked shocked. One of them got off the bike and said, "Don't think you can come here and talk the way you talk in your country."

The identity crisis goes both ways. An Indian living in Kashmir can be just as disorienting as a Kashmiri living in India.

Another evening, as I walked home, two boys, probably in their early teens, came walking towards me. As soon as they saw me, one of them pointed at me and told his friend "Dekho, dekho, black beauty aa rahi hai (Look, look here comes the black beauty)". Within seconds, I was transported back to a few years ago when I had gone home, crying to Amma about the boys in class who had teased me for being dark. I realised how unprepared I was, to react to something like this. As I grew up, boys stopped teasing me about my skin colour and instead, relocated their misogyny to my breasts. And yes, I call it misogyny even when a five-year-old boy teases a girl for her skin tone. Familial, hand-me-downs of misogyny is what it is. I wondered if it is during such times that Kashmir manages to escape the weight of war and seclusion and suddenly becomes part of a masculine whole.

Men hold umbrellas to shield themselves from snow as they walk down a snow-covered street in Narbal on the outskirts of Srinagar. Reuters Image

Men hold umbrellas to shield themselves from snow as they walk down a snow-covered street in Narbal on the outskirts of Srinagar. Reuters Image

Some days ago, I realised I’ve stopped noticing the snow-capped mountains near the office and how the shikara walas (boat men) no longer bother me. I guess that’s what it means for you and a city to start getting used to each other. My life here has finally found itself some monotony, some kind of settling in. Routine-forming in Kashmir means reading and re-reading the chapter called ‘Paranoia’ until you can practice it in your sleep as well.

Last week while I was at work, my landlady's daughter called me and asked if I had applied for an ATM card. I said no. She said that our neighbour had come home to inform her that a man had come looking for me. He kept knocking on our door, till the neighbour told him that no one was there. Apparently, he asked her a lot of questions about me, why I worked here, where I was from and how long I intend to stay. The neighbour and my landlady's daughter were both very nervous about the entire episode. When I spoke about it with a Kashmiri journalist friend who now works in Delhi, he said it could have been some sort of data collection activity by the government or police or anyone getting curious about my presence in the area. He also added that this is normal and that it might happen again. That night, it got very cold. I remember being scared. The Kashmiri friends I had found my anxiety amusing while friends from other places sounded worried sick.

The writer, Nidhi Suresh, works for a daily in Kashmir

The writer, Nidhi Suresh, works for a daily in Kashmir

Here, it’s very hard to escape being conscious of my identity as a journalist. And it's not just me who is conscious of it; it's everyone around me as well. I'm starting to wonder if being a journalist is an identity or a feeling. Every time I write an article, I'm worried if I'm too biased, too opinionated. How do I not be biased? How do I strip myself of my sex, birth place or feelings? I’m constantly confronted with the word ‘objectivity’. While talking about it with a local friend, we concluded that maybe subjectivity is juxtaposed by itself. And journalists just have to do the tight rope walk between acceptable forms of subjectivity and unacceptable forms of subjectivity.

This whole talk of ‘objectivity’ scares me. Some days, I just don't want to succumb, even to acceptable levels of subjectivity. Especially not when I'm visiting a Nepali mother whose son wants to be a militant and she crumbles in tears in my arms. I came back to office that afternoon, tried to be ‘unbiased’ and ignore what her eyes had told me. And as her tears dry off my sleeve, I turned into a dispassionate journalist, who sat wondering if the boy was getting paid, if the mother was faking it, if I should call a bureaucrat and get a quote about what he feels about this. What will he feel? He isn't a mother; he isn't the mother who will have to flee the land when her son picks up an AK-47. I find it terribly difficult to ignore being a woman, hold back my emotions and obliterate her evocative eyes. I remind myself that I must be a journalist, which means, all of my body can feel whatever it wants, it can cry, laugh, bang itself against the wall but it must all stop a little before my fingers. My fingers are only allowed to carry an unruffled narrative testified by a faceless body.

On most nights, as I fall asleep watching House of Cards, I find myself thinking of home. The word 'home' has started to take on so many different meanings. My sense organs trace out bits and pieces of ‘home’ for me during the most bizarre times of the day. I really cherish those moments of limbo which don’t last longer than a song, smell, touch or taste.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2017 11:29 AM

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