Inside the Kashmiri train




And it was relatively very clean too. Now the excitement is building. 24 hours ago, I was stuck in a Bandh with no options to even move a mile. Now, I am on a train to Srinagar, by no reason of my own. Just destiny and the kindness of Kashmiris taking their course. It was insane. 

Inside the Kashmiri train

The train is moving now, towards the North.  Again, it doesn’t feel like I am in India anymore. There are sheets of snow towards both sides and the train slowly accelerates past that. I tell them that. They say we are still in India. We are not in Kashmir yet. Once we get to Kashmir, you will see real heaven. 

I open up my pack of Tamil Nadu’s finest saviours and Kerala’s finest export to the world after nurses, Idukki gold and the quintessential corner tea shop – Banana chips. The “ Boondhis” are fine, but I had to give a disappointing account of Kerala since the chips got cold and lost their crunchiness. But they liked it regardless. 

Now the train makes it way through the Banihal rail tunnel. The longest rain tunnel in India. It’s just above 11 Kms and it takes a good 10 minutes for the train to transverse through the dark boring under the mountains. 

Muzi gave me this idea to take the tunnel as it would reduce the travel time to Sri. Moreover, If I were to take the road, I would have had to pass through Pulwama and the exact place where the incident took place. Something which I wanted to avoid at all costs. Taking the train provides me with a really efficient option, at just Rs 30. 

Then the tunnel comes in, darkness eclipses us and we are going through this journey into the unknown. 

“ In the cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek” – Joseph Campbell 

Joseph Campbell is a person who I really admire for the work he did in creating what he called the Mono-myth or the hero’s journey. Dan Harmon ( The creator of shows like Community and Rick and Morty) once said in a podcast that Campbell grew up a catholic and he was really passionate about native American myths and started to notice these parallels between parables of christ and the native American folktales. Which predated Christ and also had no way of making contact for centuries. And he dedicated his life into comparative mythology and his book “ The hero with a thousand faces” is the byproduct of his life’s work. 

This video will give you a good idea about the mono-myth.

I just love the idea of the character arch and I think it applies to all of us. You don’t have to be a Luke Skywalker or an Amelia Earhart  to be the hero. Any one of us who wants to venture outside his/her comfort zone goes through the hero’s journey and if we finish the cycle. We come  out the other side, changed. 

If you want to learn more about this, I will attach these two videos.

One is a deconstruction of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” using the Mono-myth( Trust me, it changes the way you will look at that film again.)

The other is Dan Harmon’s version of the Hero’s circle.

The duration inside the tunnel felt like eternity. ( 10 minutes ) And they have been hyping me up about what lies of the other side. They tell me paradise is just on the other side of this tunnel. After all that I been through, I didn’t find that proposition hard to believe. And I see it. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

From what looked impossible 24 hours ago. I am here, at the end of the tunnel. And like how a foetus becomes a baby when it passes through the cervical canal and into the world. The Banihal tunnel passed me onto Kashmir. It was an out of the world experience that. For a few seconds I am blinded. I close my eyes, I can’t see anything. The sun coupled with the reflection from the snow makes my eyes hurt. Then slowly the aperture of my eyes adjust and then I have seen it. The light at the end of the tunnel. 

I have reached the promised land. I have reached Kashmir.

“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast” – Emperor Jehangir

(If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here..)


It is true. I don’t know how Emperor Jehangir came to Kashmir. But if he had passed through the Bahinhal tunnel. He would have written an entire Persian poem on just how beautiful this place is. He called it heaven then and life came full circle as he died on the way from Kashmir to Lahore later in his life. Guess he didn’t have to make a long trip to paradise. He was already there. 

The snow is now deep, the sun smiling upon you with no clouds to impede that positive energy. Naked trees swinging in the wind after surviving yet an another winter. The spring is coming. Everything is pointing towards that. But when you are at that sweet spot where winter is refusing to leave and spring is trying to force its way into the room. It is this beautiful phase where you can appreciate the best of both worlds. 

Birds are making their way back I think. I can see a flock, and I have to assume they might be coming back from a migration down South. Who knows? But now the tangible vibe has changed in the compartment. Everyone is a lot more at ease. That feeling you get after you go home after a semester in college. I think that is what they must be feeling now. 

They welcome me to heaven. 

I stare out of that train and I still cant believe how fortunate I am to be here. I look at my gang and I just smile at them. They made me a promise that they will get me to Kashmir and they are 30 minutes away from fulfilling it. In EP 5 I said I trusted my gut and decided to follow these people I had just met a few hours ago into the heart of the biggest national security incident in a decade. And that decision just felt justified. I have so much more respect for my gut now. There was a time where I would second guess my gut and do the opposite of whatever my gut told me. Not anymore.



With the gang in Banihal 4




At this point, the bag is weighing me down, but I feel we are getting closer. There are cabbies asking us if we want a drop to the station. Since we had come this far, let’s just keep walking was the consensus.

And then, at the distance, I see the most amazing railway station in the world. It is the most picturesque station that my imagination is capable of envisioning. With sheets of snow carved up with what looks like waves on either side. A ravine running under a bridge over which we pass and on the backdrop, mountains scooped in snow like an ice cream. It was the most amazing feeling, and when the smell of chai and some hot bread kisses your olfactory receptors, Pavlov would have been proud. I start salivating like my dog Nani.

Banihal Railway station



We put our bags down, and we head over to the mosque to wash our hands and faces. This is when I start walking on the snow. It was proper sheets of snow and when you feel the covalent and hydrogen bonds of the ice crumbling under your weight. Its super fun. You have to experience that. 

I decide to have more fun with it. I take a piss on the snow and start writing my name on it with my piss. I expected my piss to cut through it like a lightsaber. But I just left a yellow taint on the snow which slowly permeated into the base of the snow sheet and disappeared. ( Not as fun as when you piss at 0 degrees. Literally steam comes out of your woody woodpecker) 

I sort of realised my exploratory advances with the snow was in and around the mosque’s lavatory. In retrospect a poor decision.

We sit down for chai. 

In Kashmir, tea and breakfast are a grey area. What they call tea. I would call a hearty breakfast. 

A glass comes out and a kettle with tea is served. And then there are 5 different varieties of bread. Some sweet, some salty. And you can refill your chai as many times as you want. By the end of that I was pretty much stuffed. I tried all the varieties of Kashmiri breakfast savouries and anything dipped in the tea tastes great.

It’s time to call Amma again and I tell her about all the things which happened. And for the first time, she is not concerned. She asks if it would be a good place for them (my parents) to come, maybe in the summer. And I said absolutely yes.

The next person was Jeevan. Jeevan is like my best mate from Kochi. He is the only person who has seen the best of me and the worst of me and still looks at me the same. And he was also interested in the trip. But our last trip up the Himalayas ended up with him losing a year from college due to attendance issues and having to go to court to get back in a college again. So I didn’t encourage him to peace out of college again.

As I was explaining to him all the amazing things which had happened over the past 24 hours. I start taking about Shuhail. And I tell him how sad I am that I couldn’t give him a good bye. 

And just like that, the travel gods give me one more surprise. There goes Shuhail and his fellow Jamaat members towards the mosque. What are the odds?  I looked up at the sky for one second. I ran towards him excited and happy. And I let out the happiest Asalaam Walaikum I ever said. He was also surprised in seeing me. He said Walaikum Asalaam Yadu. We hugged and I told him I wanted to say good bye but I couldn’t. He was in a hurry, it was time for Namaaz and he had to go. I asked him if he is on Instagram. He didn’t answer, he told me he will be with us and we will see each other in Sri. And with all the magical things that were happening around me. I said yes. We will. 


But the travel gods might have thought, some relationships are best left ephemeral. It just took him minutes to have an effect which most people I have known my entire life couldn’t. I think that moment would have lost its magic if we had got to know each other more. And just like that. It was my last good bye to my friend Shuhail. ( Mate, if you are reading this, I will meet you in the summer. In Pratap park on the SECOND SUNDAY OF JULY. Between 11 am and 2 pm. Don’t respond to this, just be there :D) 

Light at the end of the tunnel 

Now we had a little bit of time to kill. The train was like in an another 30 minutes. So I just got reminded of the fact that I was carrying this 2 Kg camera bag with a camera in it. And the Banihal railways station is exactly the place where only a DSLR can do justice to the landscape. But when I take the camera out, there are shards of glass. 

Fuck, did the lens break? And unfortunately it was affirmative. It was the wide angle lens. I borrowed it from a mate. I feel culpable for not taking care of it good enough. I still don’t know if it broke on my journey. The previous user of the camera handed it over to me in the last possible moment before I was about to catch my bus. I didn’t check it. Which was a really bad choice. 

So I switched over to the zoom lens and started taking the pictures. My gang was excited now. They put on their coats and sunglasses and start posing. We had so much fun clicking photos in front of the station.















The Banihal station has this huge parking space where white tempos and cars almost camouflage with the white backdrop of the mountains.

White on white

There are these small teashops all across the place and due to the low temperature. The steam coming off the kettles look amplified and it is almost like going to a sauna. You absorb the latent heat of vaporisation every time you walk into a chai cafe room. I think its done deliberately to warm the place up and also draw customers in. 

The chaiwalla ( No, not that one :p ) in one of the shops was one dude who was on the bus with us yesterday. Small world I guess.

Now, the train slowly makes its way into the station. This was a really unique train. Looked more like the trains I saw in Russia. The locomotive looked slightly more aerodynamic than the usual Indians locos. And the compartments were insulated. There were heater outlets which blew jets of warm air into the compartment. 

Kashmiri train.








high snow



The roads were slush, the winter was coming to an end and the melting snow made the walk very treacherous. Luckily, I took my good old Quechua shoes that decathlon gave me during the floods. Any time there is particulate matter and a natural disaster together. Quechua boots have helped me thread. This time, it wasn’t news. On the way there would be blocks of ice and I would crush it and laugh like a diabolical giant who just obliterated a colony of Lilliputians. ( I think that didn’t happen cause it was children book, if it did, tell me.)
The line of trucks had no end, it meandered with the road. Until we reached the point of the landslide. There was an excavator clearing the debris. Showkat Boiya says that landslides can be cleared as fast as 30 minutes since the emergency crews are always the first responders. But that doesn’t hide the fact that if you are one of those people who get caught under the slide, then the lions share of the time, don’t expect to see day light again. We pass that scene and we move towards a small town. This is the first time I notice the changing ethnic distribution. Now skin colour gets whiter, beards longer and the pherens becomes more frequent. I ask them if we are in Kashmir yet, cause that is all the vibes that I am getting. They say, not yet. We have to pass through the tunnel. Then, we are in the valley.  And into heaven. 
Firdous bhaiya says something now in Persian. The melody of that phrase really resonates with me. The meaning of it is getting more and more validated with every step. 
“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.”
– “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here,”
The Mughal Emperor Jehangir said that. And he knew what he was talking about.
The mountain ranges are getting closer and more magnifique. The boiyas point at houses on the slopes of the mountains with snow having covered the roofs. They say, imagine their lives living in this condition. I romanticise that for a moment and take a picture on my phone. Then I am brought back to earth when my palms feel frosty and I put my gloves back on again. Every moment of grandeur is interrupted by the undercurrent of tension between the people and the military. I passed through at least 3 barracks in that 4 km hike and when you see someone holding a weapon, with a gaze that subjects every human being to the suspicion of a lethal attack, it is damning. Especially after the events of two days ago. Imagine the mind set of that soldier. I think there is a dehumanising effect which affects your psychology when you see other humans as a threat for so long. In India, PTSD ( Post traumatic street disorder) which effects veterans is something I have almost never heard anyone talk about. When soldiers leave the line of duty and return home, integrating back to life is not easy. ( I learned that later on this trip when I met a BSF soldier from Thrissur in Jammu) 
I want to smile at them, they obviously know I am from the mainland. And they always glance at me for that extra one second. But something in my psyche stops me from doing it, I regret it now. No Kashmiri will ever smile at them. And for those who have left their family behind to come and stand in the cold Kashmiri wind, braving the odds and with people who don’t hide the fact that they don’t want them there. A smile would have meant something. If I could go back and do this all over again. That is the only thing I would change. Give that jawan a smile. 

Shoot on sight 

Remember Irshad boiya. Of all the people in that group, I had this special affinity towards him. He had the body of a 15 year old kid, but the visage of a man who looked like he had a lot of wisdom to give. And he always reassured me things were going to be alright. When things got tense at the railway station, it was his calming gaze through those brown eyes which made me feel at ease. 
He was doing this hike in his chappals. You wouldn’t believe it, but look at it for yourselves. With the temperature just above freezing and with slush and snow making what used to look like a road feel like a marsh. This legend was walking in his chappals. But when I looked around, I realised, it was just me who was feeling the cold. For everyone else it was business as usual. Growing up in the mountains puts hair on your chest.Literally. 

Who needs boots anyways ?

And now comes the first real conversation about the whole issue of Kashmir. Irshad Boiya asks me what would have happened if I had not met them. And by now, the whole experiences of yesterday coupled with my hermitage at the mosque and my first contact with snow made me tell him vehemently that all of it wouldn’t have been possible without them. I was over the moon at that point. Then he brought things down back to earth. He asks me that if this was what I had anticipated ? Answer to which was no. I said, my inherent biases had made me question if I would be welcomed here. 
He said Kashmir is heaven on Earth and Kashmiris the most peaceful, loving people. And like how Sir Iqbal would have wanted it, their actions put solid foundations on their words and I witnessed both. But then, he sobers down the excitement and asks me. 
Why do we have that barracks there ? 
It was time we talked about the military presence. He states that Kashmir is different. It is isolated and I can vouch for that. He asks me how I would feel if outsiders would come, stand around your homes with assault rifles and then tell you what to do. When the news writes only bad about your people. When a politician uses your land as poker chips to entice his herd of sycophants. 
He tells me, the injustice which is being dealt on them is unspoken of. Their lives turned upside down. Their path home threaded with dangers. They live in other lands with fear and trepidation. Any time one rotten apple does something malignant. An entire orchid is torched. He says Kashmiris don’t have any hate towards the people of India. They want to welcome Indians to their home. But the Indian state is something which they do have a problem with. He wanted me to know that difference.
But most important of all, he tells me, what the entire nation lacks the most is empathy and he says he doesn’t blame anyone for it. Some people don’t want the truth to come out of Kashmir. And he said if my perception of Kashmir and Kashmiris have changed. Then tell my family and friends the truth and let them come there and see it for themselves, the kindness and love people here have to give. 
It was at that moment it dawned upon me that, now I have a responsibility forced upon my shoulders. I have had the privilege to be in a unique position at a unique time and in a unique place with a unique group of people. And I need to tell that story. I promised Irshad Boiya that I will write about Kashmir. And tell the story to as many people as I can. They didn’t understand the writing part then, but I hope when I send it to them that they will.  
Usually I would have been writing about Real Kashmir’s starting 11 and their story so far in the league. But here I am writing every singe incident chronologically and introducing each and every character. That is because this trip didn’t go at all to how I planned. The travel gods have made sure that this would be a trip which would change a lot of things on how I see people. Or as my Kashmiri friends would say.WHAT KHUDHA HAS WILLED UPON ME.
Who needs boots anyways ?



Long walk to freedom
Waking up in the morning has never been my forte. Sometimes I need a spike of oxytocin to be released in my brain to wake myself up (Google the rest yourself). So when it is the coldest time of the day (4 am to 5 am), your mind tries to make sure that your appendages don’t respond to its stimulus. Or I might have gone limp due to frost bite (Highly unlikely). I am just being lazy. 
Firdoz boiya does this ingenious trick of folding his blanket right on top of my face. The dust and the wool particles from the blanket instantly makes me sneeze. So instead of the oxytocin, it was the histamine which wakes me up. I get up to try and control my sneeze. 
This is an ingenious way to wake up lazy fucks like me. Water has been thrown on me, the fans been turned off, my dog’s tongue has been unleashed on my face and even the news of Sir Alex’s death has been used as a strategy to get me up. But none as subtle as this. Respects Firdoz boiya.
Everyone is almost set, I am still in my thermals trying to fold the sleeping bag. When it is that cold, your fingers lose their dexterity. It was like all my fingers were responding to stimulus like Internet Explorer in the 2000s. I try my best to pack the bag up. Everyone is almost out by this time. Now I am rushed and they keep calling – Kerala, Kerala hurry up. I packed all my shit as fast as I could, put the wrong socks on the wrong feet and then without even saying goodbye to Shuhail and my man crush, I left the mosque. I looked back at the door for a millisecond and said thank you. 
I learned that you never know when it’s your last goodbye. So make every single one count.
We walk towards the place where the bus stopped. I am tempted to ask for a cigarette. Russia taught me the nicotine somehow makes me perceive my body temperature to be higher than what it should be. But I fight that urge. The last one was at a mountain top in Munnar. Let’s not start again up on another one. At the bus stand, there is a convoy of two vehicles. One is already full. The second one has just enough seats for us. I imagine what the fuck I would have done if I had made this trip alone. The only reason these vehicles are here is because of the Boiyas. I thank the travel gods again. 
I throw up my rucksack. I ask them if there would be any rain or hail or snow. They trust the weather reports enough to assure me that my bag will get there, dry. I make myself comfortable in the back of the SUV. It was one of those Tavera type SUV’s that people only use to ferry tourists through treacherous roads up a mountainside. And that is exactly the roads we are taking now. 
I put the camera bag on my legs and doze off.  I could feel the locomotion and I drift in and out of consciousness in intervals. It is still pitch dark and the roads are empty and eery. Time would be around 5. The sun is still hidden by the clouds. We go around a turn and the car stops. The vehicle in front of us is already stationary. We get out the back and stare at a ditch. It’s dark and all I can see is a chasm which has no end. Everyone is staring at that and I can only assume that something must have gone down. One of the Boiyas tell me that the locals heard something crash. A vehicle must have probably gone down. I don’t see any skid marks or visible signs of an out of control vehicle. We get back in. 
Remember what I told about “inshallah”. In Kashmir, they mean it when they say it. There are a lot of variables which are not within our control and we have to respect that. Absolutely respect that. 
My respect for the driver just went up 10 fold and I make a small prayer that the supposed crash was a false alarm and that no one is hurt. I don’t think we could have done anything more in that condition.
I drift back to sleep again. 
The vehicle moves on and at one point I get up to adjust my posture and I see this giant block of ice on the side of the road. No, not snow, but a giant block of ice. I look around I see snow-capped mountains. Usually when I do that, I am marvelling at it from the bottom. Now they were in my line of sight. I have reached the altitude where the snow caps are. Holy shit, I have reached the promised land. 

A childhood of watching Hollywood movies during Christmas has conditioned my mind to consider snow to be the most amazing experience a person could have. Ice age, Home Alone, Frozen, Titanic, Die Hard. Every single one of them romanticised snow (With acutely varied outcomes). And every time I go somewhere where there is suppose to be snow, I miss either because it is not the season or some weather anomaly has delayed winter by a month. But now there it was, in all its beauty. Winter has come.

Now, our motion was a bit haphazard. We were stationary for a good interval of time and then the traffic in front of us moves just a little bit and we would come to a stop.  That day, the traffic was unidirectional with trucks and cars being let in from Jammu to Sri. With roads that twist over a cliff and margins of error too tight to take a chance, I can see why.  There are an array of supply trucks all halted. The small vehicles are making their way through the space which the trucks leave. It is like the drivers have set up camp inside. And that was exactly the case when I saw a Punjabi driver brewing a chai over a small campfire he set up on the side of the road.
That small halt turned into what seemed like the end of the road for us. We decided to ditch the Tavera for our feet. Yup, at that point I was more in favour of walking with 20 Kgs on my back, with freezing winds drying up my lips, than waiting mundanely in the cab. Like most things in life, it is what you don’t do that you regret more than what you end up doing. Good or bad.
I pay my fare, around Rs 250. If I was a tourist, without any Kashmiris with me, I am sure a zero would have been added to the extreme right end of that figure, cause that’s how much difficult it was to get up there. Again, I thank my stars for making me cross paths with the Kashmiri boiyas and also I thank the driver for getting us so far, safe. 
Now I get this instant shot of energy I had been looking for. Again this adventure went up a gear. We get news that a landslide has blocked the road further ahead and we are 4 km off Banihal railway station. I am marvelling at my surroundings, it is a sensory overload with the landscape leaving you breathless and the fact that you are hiking up a Himalayan road literally making that the case. Like in Munnar, the cold alpine air makes your lungs appreciate the ether of the world. It’s like the bronchioles can sense sweetness in the air. The last time that happened, I vowed never to smoke again. This time, I wanted to take in that moment forever.
The main hall of the mosque



                                                                بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
                        BISMILLAHI RAHMANI RAHIM 
       In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. 
I am going to be sheltered in a mosque in Kashmir. Let me repeat that. I, the South Indian Hindu male, is going to be sheltered in a mosque in Kashmir. The place which reportedly is associated with fundamentalist, extremist Islam.  The place which is reportedly not safe for tourists. Where reportedly Indians are not welcomed, where reportedly terrorists and stone pelters run the streets and where your life may be at risk at any moment. 
If you have noticed, I have used the word “reportedly” multiple times.
I have a friend who works for the news aggregator app Inshorts. I asked her how they verify their news. She says unless an official statement is out, they use the term “reports”. They try to find other reliable sources and then put the news out when an official statement is out. 
So, just because the news comes with a nice image, sounds well written and has a journalist’s name that may or may not sound credible; the fact is when it says “reports” there is as much chance of it being true as of it being false. But we don’t pay attention to that, do we?
Social media hit a new spike of fake news while I was writing this. With the capture and release of Wing Commander Abhinandan by the Pakistani armed forces, the amount of articles going around skyrocketed. It was impossible to separate the bullshit from the credible ones. A single article might be harmless, but the consistent wave of news articles will only cement the confirmation bias which someone is trying to sell. And Kashmir has been the biggest victims of that in my opinion. That doesn’t mean there are no anti-social elements who are trying to disrupt peace. I am saying the smear campaign at the anti-social elements has had great collateral damage which has painted the entire populace of Kashmir as the threat. 
Again, on a tangent. Let’s get back.
I was confused, excited and slightly self-conscious when we planned to go to the mosque. Confused as to how to conduct myself inside a place of worship, excited as I could get to tell this story to you and self-conscious as I knew I didn’t belong there. But somehow, they didn’t feel so. They saw the tired, sleep deprived human first. I don’t think they even cared for the fact I had the last name of a Hindu god. 
We keep our luggage on the periphery of the main prayer hall. We go to the nearest hotel and eat some rice and Rajma (beans). It was dry, salty and honestly terrible. But since all of us were famished, dopamine was released when the saline taste hit my tongue. I was starting to hallucinate since I was starving, now I am complete. We split the bill and make our way to the mosque. I still don’t know what to expect. I start thanking them as I am flushed with this outpour of gratitude at that instant. I should be sleeping on the platform of Jammu railway station right now. The entire trip should have been an epic failure. But inshallah and thanks to my friends, I am going to sleep inside a mosque and I am halfway to Sri Nagar now.
My gratitude knew no bounds at that point and best part is, it is only going to get even better from here.
I ask Iqbal boiya what I should do before I enter a mosque. He politely told me to wash my hands, feet and my face. Then walk in. The water was freezing. Like literally the temperature was just above 0. The mosque was on a cliff, the mighty Chenab has meandered its way through Himachal and into Ramban. There isn’t a lot of water flowing, I couldn’t hear a current. I guess the glacial waters of the Himalayas temporary stop melting during winters. Chenab has a long way to go. Nurturing the Punjab plain and crossing the border into Pakistan to conflux into the Indus. 
There is a huge infrastructure project running parallel to it. A huge construction of railway bridge running parallel to the river at a great hight. Iqbal comments that by 2022 the project will be completed. Inshallah. And then Kashmir will be connected with the rest of India. Jammu and Sri Nagar will get this railroad link. He says that with a damming tone. He isn’t looking forward to that.  He wants that exclusivity to be protected.
Even though we had to risk our lives to make it this far. I start conjuring up the stories of how the Spanish conquistadors went to the Americas and inadvertedly decimated the native population by spreading smallpox. I start to realise that the exclusion of Kashmir is one of the reasons why the Kashmiri mentality is so different from the rest of us. They treasure that, and I am starting to come to realise that it is something worth treasuring. 
Do we want to spread our diseases to them? 
By the time I enter the mosque, everyone was under a blanket sleeping. I was searching for Suhail and my crush, but with 3 dozen bodies slumbering under a blanket in the cold, I knew chances of me finding them are as slim a Liverpool winning the league this season. I pull out my sleeping bag and I hit the floor. There are mats on which they perform Namaaz. That keeps my heat from dissipating into the hard cold floor. The interior of a mosque, or at least that hall of the mosque didn’t look too special or holy. It was a hall. That is it. I could gather from the direction of the extension of the hall which way is West. And that is all that is relevant in the interior designing of a mosque I believe. It should be in the direction of Mecca. 

The main hall of the mosque

I sleep in the same direction. With my anterior facing West and my posterior facing East. The sleeping bag is not very good at insulating temperatures near freezing point. But my body compensates by producing more heat. I slowly start to doze off. Not knowing if this dream might end with sleep or would I just keep on dreaming. This day couldn’t have gone any better. I see no other way. All obstacles were thrown at me, and due to no reason of my own,  just chance, kindness and the Kashmiri conscience, I am about to head North. North to Srinagar. 

But beware. Winter is coming.



I’ve been a regular at Daria madam’s Russian classes at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture. A reticent building behind the iconic “Welcome Hotel”, it doesn’t have the in-your-face gravitas of the American consulate down the road, under the Gemini flyover. Nor does it try to camouflage itself with the surrounding buildings in Poes garden. Something which the Swedish consulate does an immaculate job of, just a 5 minutes walk down the street to the west.
The RCSC, is the Russian government’s cultural centre in Tamil Nadu with the objective of promoting Russian language and Russian culture. It is similar to a cultural club. And as my new level A 1.2 instructor Valentina madam describes,  a клуб ( cultural club) in a small Russian town is where the townspeople meet to do fun things like celebrating the passing of winter (Масленица, Maslenitsa), hold cultural and social meetings which celebrate the work of great artists and acts as the epicentre for the social sphere in the average Russian’s life. 

Maslenitsa celebration at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture

And the Russian expat community in Chennai really do appreciate the RCSC. It has been doing exactly that since ’72. So when I saw that there was going to be a photo exhibition on the FIFA world cup, I was over the moon. Finally, the world cup is coming “home”. I have been going for Russian classes so that I could remain in that bubble. I still wanted that world cup hangover to keep my mind sedated, remembering the most amazing month of my life. 
Sobriety is the curse upon the living which the well rounded man carries.
I don’t want to be that man.
Wall of fame 
Braving the heat wave and the arid winds which sweep through Chennai post 9 am these days, I enter the exhibition hall. The air-conditioning feels like the final whistle in extra time when your team wins and you collapse in jubilation. I can’t collapse, just let out a sigh of relief. 
Then the nostalgia trip. There were too many moments across that hall which took me back to a particular memories from Russia. Photos, well framed and captioned, hung on all 4 walls of that well-lit room. There was a line of school kids making their way through the room. I eavesdrop on some girls saying – “That is Messi, no that is Di Maria” The football fan amongst them knew exactly who it was. “It is Messi vs Nigeria where he scored the first goal”. She says with an air of authority. My proud smile makes contact with her eyes. She was right.


Too many memories on that wall.



Kids at the exhibition

I watched that game on the television inside a metro car in Moscow. I was in transit. Argentina vs France games takes me to the memory of me getting on a flight with Argentina leading 2-1 and landing with the score as 4-3 France. The final and the memory of the rain which turned the party on its head in the fan zone. Each and every image had something which took me back in time, to Russia. It was an amazing feeling.
Then there was this illuminated placard about the photographer who took the images. And that was the first time I heard the name. Seshadri Nathan Sukumar. And the first thing which surprised me about him was obviously his age. He looked as old as my grandfather looked when I was like 6. The second and more pertinent thing which surprised me was the events he has covered. Get ready to have your mind blown. His CV includes – The Olympics, Asian games, ICC cricket world cup, 3 FIFA world cups, US Open, Wimbledon, Moto GP among others. 
I am sure everyone one of us has seen at least one of his images. From the context of the Indian sub-continent, the cover picture for Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography, “Playing it my way” was shot by Sukumaran Sir. That book is reserved a place alongside the holy books for cricket fans, may it be in the bookshelf or the prayer hall. 

Iconic image with an iconic sportsman

It just dawned upon me that I have the privilege of meeting a person who is a trailblazer in his industry and shares something which I have, #fortheloveofthegame. I needed to capitalise on this opportunity to tell you his story. I made up my mind then that I am going to do a podcast on him.
An entourage of legends 
I see Sir enter. Smartly dressed in khaki pants and a blue shirt. He has an entourage of who seem like really important people, but I have no clue who any of them are. The only other person I recognise is Mr Gennady Rogalev, Vice-Consul and Director of RCSC Chennai.

A lineup of legends

They give a tribute to him for the media gathered there. That is when it started to dawn upon me just how rich the sporting legacy I had around me then, and how much they respect Sukumar Sir and his work. There was the former captain of the Indian hockey team which won the gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A former athlete who has represented India in 4 Olympics and also became the first women to carry the national flag during the opening ceremony of an Olympics tournament. President of the Tamil Nadu athletes association as well as a former striker who played for East Bengal in his heyday and the current coach of the Chennaiyan FC U-23 team. This was a serious ensemble of sporting pedigree.
There was also a respected IAS officer, Shri Chandra Sekhar Sakhamuri; member secretary of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu, who was the talisman in this group of dignitaries. And Retired IPS officer W.I Davaram; President TN athletes association.  

Showing how its done

Now the crowd in the exhibition hall permeates into the auditorium. The dignitaries take the dais. Everyone rains down praise on a career which spans 40 years, which has covered almost every major sporting event and has taken some iconic photographs which all of us take for granted. Best part is, this career is still going strong.

After the book launch and the felicitation function, I go and say “Vanakaam” (Hello in Tamil). I tell him about my Russia trip and also propose to him the prospect of interviewing him for the blog. He was very gracious and accepted it. He gave me his number and was kind enough to give me his card too.

Throughout the day, he was the epitome of humility and class. Taking every eulogy and compliment with a mature sense of acceptance and grace. Something a lot of young people including myself can learn from. 

I emailed him that night and we scheduled a meeting the next day at 11 am. 
These are the excerpts from the podcast I did with him. I am attaching the full audio file below and you can have a listen to get to know the whole story of this amazing person. 

Beckoning the seagull 
What do you do in a gap year? 
Most youngsters these days don’t have to even ponder this as they are already admitted in the nearest coaching institute and they are busy preparing for their next educational or vocational venture. But in 1977 a young boy from Madras asked himself the same question and decided that it was time to learn something new and add a bit of value to himself. 
He fancied photography and thought a camera would be essential if he wants to follow this pursuit. He quickly gave the word out that he was on the hunt for a camera as you did in the days before quikr and olx. Soon enough, he got an offer from a journalist in a Tamil newspaper.  
Rs 1200. (Current price Rs 24,415. Converted for inflation) was the offer made.
Which is quite a substantial sum for any college student who was not working. 
So this boy thought he got something more than what he bargained for and said he is willing to pay just 50% of the price, hoping the offer will be retracted. But as fate would have it, the offer was accepted. The father of this young boy made it a point that once an offer is made and accepted, an honourable man shouldn’t fall back on his word. 
Commerce and trade functioned for centuries on the strong foundations laid by honourable men’s word. And this father’s honour got the boy his first camera. A Seagull 120 mm.
Moreover a lesson for life which the boy carries with him and reminisces with pride. 

The Seagull Camera

Senescence is inevitable. And while his beard has turned white like an alpine winter canopy, his eyes radiate this sharp, ephemeral energy which draws you in. I think that hasn’t changed since the day he got his first camera. 

The boy grew up to be Sukumar Sir and that moment set in motion a career which has lasted 4 decades and is still going strong. The Seagull is an iconic camera brand which still produces the old fashioned cameras. I don’t have a really good technical base on photography, but I can say the image quality is absolutely sensational for a camera which still uses film.  Check out these amazing photos by this Chinese photographer from a slightly modern variant of the camera

I asked him if he was a sports fan as a kid and to my surprise, he answered in negative. It was something which he integrated himself into. He wouldn’t even call himself a supporter. He uses the word “observer”. I think that level of stoic detachment from the subject of his craft is required to really capture the most tense and iconic moments. If you are engrossed in the atmosphere of the event, then I believe you become part of that and can’t see things from an objective reality. Something which he reiterates in his interview with Doordarshan. 
In the ’70s, a sports photographer needed to carry 3 cameras at one time. One for black and white, one for transparency and one for colour. All of which can be accommodated into one single piece of hardware today.
He states, gone are the days when professional cricket used to get a meagre sum of Rs 500 per series and struggle to have to make ends meet. Today the professional cricketer figuratively makes one lakh rupees per ball. 
The sports media field has also grown into this mammoth industry where TV rights deals can make billions and entire clubs use it as their main source of revenue. A SKY sport Premier league package in England costs around 40 pounds a month. Which translates to almost 32 k rupees a season. That is the price it takes to watch the premier league football at home in England. We get to watch it for Rs 300 in Hotstar for an entire year. How fortunate are we !
He explains that back in the day a photograph would take a lot of time to end up on a media print. It had to be processed and in the days before the internet, they had to use something called a teleprinter to send pictures over to cities which are far. 
Nowadays, the camera can instantly transfer over the file to the computer and before you know it, the photo you took is the cover picture for The Guardian’s post-match report. 
Autonomy over money 
In any creative craft, there will come a point where you can either sell your skills for a price or decide to do things your own way. I believe one of the reasons art and culture flourished in the Renaissance period Europe was because painters and sculptors never had to compromise their creative processes for money. They had patrons who saw value in their work and financially supported them till they achieved a certain level of fortune. An example of this would be the Medici dynasty in Florence who supported the works of immortals like Da Vinci and Machiavelli. 
But city-states of medieval Italy don’t mint coins anymore and as Marx said in his theory of alienation – The worker loses himself in his labour process and doesn’t derive the value from the goods or services he produces or provides. That is capitalism and that is the reality we are living in right now. 
But the true greats have always maintained their autonomy. Stephen Spielberg with Amblin entertainment produces most of his own movies. A company he founded by himself. Darwin’s journey into the Galapagos aboard the H.M.S Beagle was funded in part by his father. He didn’t have to answer to a boss.
The point I am trying to make is that in any creative endeavour. Autonomy and freedom are paramount. And Sukumar Sir realised that early on. He has never affiliated himself with any big media house. Even though that would have provided him with more material wealth in the short run, remaining autonomous helped him decide which competitions he wanted to cover, which matches he wanted to shoot and gave him the space to experiment with his work. 
Sometimes when he needed to affiliate himself for some competition like the IPL (Indian Premier League), he says with gratitude that many newspapers offer help to him.
That is what I respect the most about him, he did it for the love of the craft and not for the adulation or the money. It took him 40 years, but now he gets the respect and credit he deserves. He made a collage for the Prime Minister of India and he had the honour of having an audience with the Prime minister while presenting his work to him. Regardless of what your opinion is about the person who holds the office of the Prime minister, the position as the highest representative of the people of India holds immense value.

Sukumar Sir with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Sukumar Sir has reached a point where he holds the frame. The Indian Olympic Committee contacted him to go to Tokyo to cover the Olympic Games. Imagine being in a situation where you have so much value that people come to you. I am pretty sure that at the start of his career it would not have been the situation, but when you become an expert in whatever you are doing, opportunities come to you. You don’t have to go after them. That is why I find the idea of campus placements stupid. You are trying to convince someone that you are good enough to work for them. If that is your frame in that interaction, then trust me, you don’t get to decide the terms, you will have to accept whatever they are willing to give. Never be the seller in a buyers market. 

Dipa Karmakar Rio 2016



Saina Nehwal Rio 2016


Chinese couple proposing at Rio 2016


Carolina Marin Rio 2016


PV Sindhu Rio 2016 Silver medal

The beautiful game and its beautiful moments 

England Vs Columbia FIFA world cup 2018


Paul Pogba with FIFA world cup


Igor Akinfeev after saving penality vs Spain


England after losing to Croatia FIFA world cup 2018



Ronaldo Vs Iran FIFA world Cup 2018



Messi at FIFA world cup 2018


Vladimir Putin with FIFA world cup


Best player and Best young player of the tournament FIFA world cup 2018



Hugo Loris with FIFA world cup

The most iconic picture of the World Cup 

Iconic Iran Fan crying Vs Portugal FIFA world cup Russia 2018

I am sure if you had followed this world cup, then you would have remembered this picture. It became this iconic image for what the love for the game means to the fans who made the trip to Russia and also of how Iran would have qualified if they had won the game, to which they came so close in the dying embers of the game.  
Just a handful of photographers got that iconic picture and chances are, the version that you saw was taken by Sukumar Sir. When I was browsing in the exhibition, this image was what caught my eye.
But it was not an easy click. There is a story behind that. 
Sukumar Sir had to make his way to Saransk from Moscow. There were no trains available and no buses too. Flights were overbooked. This meant he had to make his way there somehow with the clock against him to watch the last match of the group where Portugal play Iran. The group was so tight that the proposition of Iran qualifying at Portugal or Spain’s expense was a reality. Group B was hot. 
So he went to the taxi stand and found a cab which would take him over to the game. He got there just as the match began and struggled to find the media entrance. The media team sent out volunteers to escort him into the stadium. He had to set up his equipment and he wasn’t allowed onto the pitch until the second half. And that is when it happened. All this effort and stress and what came out the other end was what the single most powerful image of this world cup. It was something else. 

I can imagine myself doing all this. And I have had similar episodes of races against time in Russia with a 11 Kg cycle on my shoulder. But what makes things different is I was 21. He is 64. 

I can’t imagine someone taking so much effort and going through so much stress to do something like this unless he absolutely loves it. That passion keeps him young. No matter how old he might look. That photo is a testament to passion. Both of the man in front of, and behind the lens

A well deserved rest with the tool of the trade



Every photograph is a gift 
When you are immersed in a skill for years and also creatively engaged in it. It changes the way you see everything. A music producer won’t listen to a composition the same way we do. He will be able to hear notes and frequencies which most people won’t be able to perceive. He had to train his ears for that through years of practice. 
So I framed a question, if he had developed this ability to predict into the future. At least a few milliseconds into the future. I have been watching football for 10 years now and most of the times when a player produces a moment of magic, I am caught off guard. So how does a photographer know where to place that focus at that most crucial of times, when a player like Messi does something extraterrestrial and shows that he is not human.

Finding the exact moment (Rohit Sharma)


Rafael Nadal ( Rio 2016 Olympics)


Faf du Plessis in the air

Sir acknowledges that he has developed this ability to predict. He says that he has to be aware of the game that is happening and pan the pitch for the next pass. Then focus on the player while he receives the ball. His pictures are predominantly the phase after a player receives a pass on the ground or in the air and right before the opposition defence starts to press him. 
But much more important than that, he attributes all his best work to a divine touch. He says he prays before every click and he attributes that to the way how his images turn out. He is quite a spiritual person he admits. Spending time with his 3 grandchildren and inside the sanctum of a temple, are parts of his life outside photography which he likes to talk about. 
I wondered if he had any pre-match ritual or mental exercises which he did to get into the groove of a game. He didn’t feel so. He says it’s an automatic form of self-expression which just comes when he is in the zone. I agree. When a person is immersed in his or her creative endeavour, the conscious and the sub-conscious overlaps and that releases the connection with the something extra which produces great work.
Leaving a trail to follow 
Naive me always has this agenda on the back of my head. It is that India should qualify for the FIFA world cup within the next couple of decades. So any discussion I have about football, I inadvertently ask the person, when does he or she think India is going to qualify. 
Sir politely refused to comment on that since directly, it is not his sphere of influence. But, he did make it a point to show that the opportunities in the sports field, both on and off the field have grown exponentially and that the ecosystem right now supports players as well as the auxiliary verticals like coaching, journalism and event management related to sports. He uses the IPL to reiterate his point. 
He says that once you identify what you are passionate about, then 18 to 20 is when you should start grafting. He says by the time you are in your mid-twenties, you would be mature enough and your skill well honed. Then he says by the time you are 35ish, you will be well established and people will come to you to ask you to work with them. Remember the frame I was talking about. This is exactly what he is saying too. It takes a long time to reach that point, but once you get there, you hold all the cards. 
I come from a caste in Kerala who traditionally were involved in the toddy tapping industry. So our proverbs usually centre around a coconut tree, funnily enough. There is one adage which goes something like this. 
“It takes a coconut tree 10 years to flower. But once it flowers, it will give coconuts for a whole generation.”
But does that mean the first 10 years are insignificant? 
No, it is when it is at its most crucial. If it is watered enough, given enough fertiliser and protected from fungal infections, your returns will last a generation. 
That is why the grafting period is the most crucial period. You might not seem like you are getting anything back, but you are investing in yourself and your future.
We are celebrating Sir’s inflorescence and the years after that. But we shouldn’t forget the graft years behind every single photograph. The struggle. Usually, it gets understated. I don’t want to make that mistake. 
But this exhibition was more than a celebration of the works of a pioneer in his field. Sukumar Sir says that seeing his pictures, kids will be inspired to take up photography and he is more hopeful that seeing his pictures, kids would want to be like Ronaldo and Messi. A professional footballer. 
That is the instant when our thoughts vibrated in resonance at the highest frequency. That is exactly what I hope I can do with my writing. Make kids dream that it is possible to be a footballer in this country. My generation was robbed of that hope. It took highly exceptional individuals, a lot of struggle against a system which makes it systemically as hard as it can be possible, to be a footballer in this country. I have seen my friends who were supremely talented in football give up on that after a point. They surrendered to “growing up.” That is the moment they gave up on their dreams. They struggle to find a reason to get out of bed these days. 
But stories like these fill us with hope. They inspire. They make us believe. 

Remember the line of school kids I saw on the first day. A particular institution called Jeppiars was there. A gentleman who represented them talked about how that institution is a conveyor belt of talent for the Tamil Nadu junior categories as well as I- league clubs. The current I-league champions, Chennai City FC has their protege within their ranks. I thought it was a really important gesture by the institute that these kids were brought here, to see the word of opportunities football has to offer to them. 

And maybe one day, I hope that the petit girl who reaffirmed her friends that it was indeed Lionel Messi, would captain the Indian Women’s football team and would attribute her career to that one day, when her school took her to Russian Centre of Science and Culture. The day she saw the world from the lens of a sports photographer.

A living legend that all of us can learn a lot from

конец ( THE END)

If you want to see more of Sir’s work check out 
Russian Class Alert !!!!!

Russian Classes will start Soon. Enrol to have fun on weekends learning Ruski. 😀




I doze off on the leg of Shuhail. I wake up at one point and we were going through a tunnel. It was really long, like the bus was inside for 5 minutes and the tunnel still goes on. I move back into the other side of consciousness. 
In my mind,  I reminisce about this scene from a movie which meant a lot to me. “Perks of being a wallflower” (2012). There is this one scene where the 3 kids go through a tunnel and Charlie says this monologue after kissing Emma Watson (every high school dude’s crush). 
He stands on the back of a pickup truck, lets his arms out and gets intoxicated by the wind. Then he says,
“I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive. And you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song on that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear…We are infinite.”
You have to watch that scene. It is such a beautiful scene.

I like to think that I came out of that tunnel a little bit different than how I went in. 
They put on some Quranic verses on the speaker system of the bus. One person would read it in Arabic and then another person would tell its meaning in Hindi. I could garner something from that. After the FIFA world cup, I have been fascinated by Arabic. It is like a language that connects countries which have nothing to do with each other football-wise. When Tunisia was playing England – Saudi fans, Egypt fans, Morocco fans and small pockets of fans from even Indonesia were supporting them. It was absolutely insane. Arabic and Islam have created a bridge between their cultures. (If anyone is down to teach me basic Arabic, let me know. I learn fast.)
The bus comes to an abrupt stop. But I am sure we haven’t reached Sri yet. It’s too soon. I  ask my mates where we were. I get Ramban as the reply. He said that the bus won’t go any further and we would have to find a way to move further. Inshallah. 
We move out and start unloading our stuff. Now a lot of curious people come and start saying hi. (I mean Asalaam Walaikum). I feel the love, so much. They say that I am safe now and they will get me to Srinagar. Somehow. 
It puts a little spring in your step when you hear people you just met making it their mission to get this football-crazy idiot to Kashmir during a lockdown. This is where I start to notice that the Kashmiri hospitality and kindness was not a statistical lottery I won where I met some really nice people. Up here, being kind and helpful is the norm, not the exception. I will reiterate this point as we go on, but for now, let me plant that seed in your head.
This is when my crush comes up to me. I had been glancing at this person on the bus, and I guess he caught my gaze. He comes up to me and says Asalaam Walaikum. 
You know that feeling where there is a rush of adrenaline to your diaphragm and lower chest when you make eye contact long enough with a cute girl. That exact same feeling, but this was a guy. The most handsome male specimen this pair of eyes ever had the pleasure to glance at. How do I describe him? He had the most amazing beard I have seen. Black, lush, strong, with an air of confidence and gravitas which radiates to the rest of his visage. The most symmetric face I have ever seen with a beard. His cheekbones structured like it was there to defend a fort. His eyebrows were dark and thick, but each hair follicle was placed with the stringent discipline and symmetry of what you would expect from a platoon doing marching drills. And then the money shot. His yellow iris which was trying to find the right aperture in the dimly lit night. He had Kajal drawn on his eyelids. Something traditionally reserved for the fairer sex in most parts of the country. But in his culture, it doesn’t undermine his masculinity. It celebrates it. 
I have never seen a more handsome male. And this was him after spending days on a train. Sometimes, no matter what orientation your sexuality is, beauty like this just makes you look and appreciate how amazing creation is. 
Stupid me couldn’t get his name though. I was just chatting about football, Kerala and other stuff, that I forgot to get his name. Idiot.
My friends were calling me to go get something to eat. So I told Suhail and my man crush that I would be right back and we will talk in a bit. But as fate would have it, that would be our goodbye. I would never see my handsome bearded Kashmiri friend again. 
On the way, we try talking to many SUV drivers who had set up camp in the Ramban bus stand. We wanted to get to Sri asap and we were bargaining and negotiating with everyone. But I believe it was a seller’s market and with exuberant fares and very few willing drivers, we realised moving forward tonight would not be an option. 
What now? 
The time was very late and the temperature was dipping with every passing hour. Standing out in the open was not an option. That is when one of my mates (Don’t exactly remember who) said we should sleep in the mosque for the night and then get on the first ride out of here in the morning. 
That was the moment I realised that this trip would be a story worth sharing. Cause I never expected anything to go in the trajectory it was going in. I made plans and the travel gods chewed it up and swallowed it whole. And they gave me this course where when things looked like it’s going south, the most amazingly unexpected turn of events put me in situations like these. 


Wow, that went on a tangent. Let’s get back.
I awkwardly make my way down the bus. Nodding and smiling at anyone who makes eye contact. I am crackling inside as to how weird the situation is right now. I ask one of my Kashmiri boiyas if the bus is taking us to Sri Nagar. He says yes then, but he will contradict himself soon. The bus is full and there are no seats. That is when Irshad Boiya tells me that these are their Jamaat brothers who came from somewhere in Maharashtra after a religious conference and that they were trying to get to Sri Nagar like ourselves. Now I got the whole context. The subway surfer sprint over the tracks was to get to the bus on time. They had been waiting for us for a while. This is our ticket out of Jammu and into Kashmir. At that point, I realised that this trip just went up a few gears. I am now going to experience something which I won’t forget for the rest of my life. 
One dude smiles at me, I say Asalam Wallaikum (May peace be upon you). I was slightly concerned that they might think I am trying to be phoney and the cultural appropriation would be cringe-worthy. (Like white males trying to talk like Black hip-hop artists. Wait, I am guilty of that too.) 
But I didn’t realise that I was wishing the nicest thing you could potentially say to a human being. May peace be upon you. Such a beautiful greeting, isn’t it?
He offers to hold my camera bag. Aww, what a nice gesture. Then there are whispers is Kashmiri across the bus and I am certain it was about me. A few of them talk to my friends and then I hear a lot of ‘Kerala’ in quick succession with an air of astonishment. I look at them, smile and acknowledge. The person closest to me looks at me and I say Asalam Walaikum again. He asks me where I am from and what I am doing here, in Hindi. My reply makes him switch to English. 
He looks around my age, albeit the only Kashmir over the age of 13 without a really strong, lush beard. His name is Shuhail. He looks really surprised when I say I am here to watch Real Kashmir. (Who wouldn’t?) 
The person in front of him also looks really interesting. It was the first time I was seeing a beard which was yellowish in colour. Not white, but a taint of yellow like a mango milkshake. I found that fascinating. I am slowly feeling comfortable here. By now, the news had spread around the bus that the Indian dude in the orange down jacket was from Kerala and he wanted to see a football game and that he was en route to Sri Nagar like the rest of them. The bus was now in motion. The commotion dies down and soon people doze off. We are still standing in the middle.  
Then a very nice person offers a big towel and my friends lay it down on the space between the two columns of seats. We can sit now. Wow, that feels good. I am starting to feel alright now. I am highly dehydrated cause my water rations were shared between us, and hungry as fuck after “The great escape” from Jammu. Not to mention I hadn’t seen a toilet seat in like 3 days.
The bus abruptly comes to a halt.
Remember that sinking feeling I was talking about before. It comes back. There is a convoy of military personnel who from the onset wanted to inspect the vehicle. That would be a really precarious situation for me since the question will be. 
WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE? In a bus full of Kashmiris? I would stand out like a sore thumb if anyone just takes a looks through the window. 
I ask Irshad, what should I say if they ask me anything. He says, tell the truth. As noble a deed as that sounds, I don’t think Indian military forces who have lost 40 of their comrades the other day would find it even curious that someone would come to watch a football game there. It’s downright suspicion levels raised to 12. And a trip to the interrogation room.
But inshallah, they don’t inspect. A small hiatus and we are back on the road.
Shuhail could feel the restlessness in me. My mind was not at ease and he could sense that. The energy you radiate is more tangible than you imagine. Anyone who has a dog or a cat or any pet of sorts knows that they know what mood you are in much better than your mates. It’s this way of how energy communicates with itself. 
But Shuhail could garner something from my fluctuating restless mind. And he did the most humane thing any stranger has done to me in my life. He offered to let my head rest on his outer thigh. I was taken back and I said with this surprised, thankful smile that I am ok and thank you for offering such a deed. 
Now remember what out friend Sir Iqbal said.
“The Qu’ran is a book which emphasis “deed” rather than the “idea”.
Shuhail slowly puts his left hand around my head and guides it to his left outer thigh. I didn’t want to react too fast and maybe make him feel bad for touching my head. But I was taken aback. I gradually yield to submission. I look at his eyes and we share this moment where I tell him I trust him and he tells me everything will be alright. Not through words, but the most subtle nuances of eye contact. 
I lay my head on his leg. I feel safe now. Safe and secure in knowing, no matter what happens. I have a friend with me who will protect me on this journey to places unknown.
The roads start twisting now, we are gaining altitude and my eardrums pop up at every hairpin turn. I was feeling dozy, but the bus goes through some rough roads and I am thrown off the floor for a second. I look around to see what is happening. But a hand comes to the posterior of my head and instantly I let my guard down. Shuhail guides my head to his legs again and tells me, everything is fine. This time he keeps his hands on me. To reassure me that there will be tough times ahead, but I have someone looking over me. He slowly starts caressing my hair. At first, I raised an eyebrow, but that melted into the widest smile I had in years. 
Only one other person can make me feel like that. 
My Achan. 
We aren’t really that intimate or share a lot of moment of affection. But when he touches my head and caresses my hair, every single cell in my body is flushed with a barrage of affection. I can’t describe how happy I feel when he does that. 
And here I am in Kashmir, with a person I met 30 minutes ago giving me the same love and affection that my father gave me when I was a little kid. I go back to my childhood and emotions were getting the better of me.
In the dark, dimly lit bus. Tears start rolling down that Quechua  jacket. I had to come to Kashmir to learn that love transcends everything. I mean everything. 
I am also guilty. I cry out of guilt of all the misconceptions I had had about Kashmiris and Muslims. From thinking everyone would want to carry a Kalashnikov on their shoulders to shoot at Indian armed forces, to thinking I wouldn’t be welcomed because of my religion. (I made it a point to not hide the “Krishnan” in my name when I introduced myself.) 
I have never been proven more wrong in my life. I felt so guilty for thinking so badly about what I would describe as the best collective group of people I have met in terms of kindness and humanity. 
I am sorry Kashmir, I don’t deserve you. You are much greater than what I could ever become. (And this is just the start of it.)
There is a wide smile on my face, and there are tears rolling down.
 That moment, that moment in the cold Jammu highway was my moment of catharsis.
Bus Journey into Kashmir


I wouldn’t say this after visiting Kashmir cause I know it is not true, but these people were the images that come to your mind when you think of a terrorist. Specifically an Islamic terrorist. (If you were ignorant like how I was before Kashmir, or if your culture doesn’t have a lot of Muslims you interact with regularly.)
All of them wearing skullcaps and a beard which reaches their waist. All in the “pherens”, which is like a traditional Kashmiri suit. Many had misbaha (beads Muslims use while praying) and these people definitely did not look like the Muslim bros I chill with back home. They didn’t have a moustache and I could figure from all this, that these guys were not normal Muslims. They had to be either clerics or Imams.
We need to go down a little bit into Islamic theology and social theory for me to describe the next part. I want you to meet the Tablighi Jamaat. (You can watch this video by professor Barbara Metcalf from the University of California. She gives a  pretty good account of them if you are interested in knowing more) They are a movement of Muslims (The largest Muslim movement in the world in fact ) who are really interested in learning the Quran and shaping their lives based on the codes of the Prophetic behaviour laid down by the Quran. They also help their fellow Muslims to learn the Quran. They are usually the ones who know how to read the Quran in Arabic and practice all the religious practices the Quran lays down. In other words, they live their life by the book. 
I know what you are thinking. These are the fundamentalist and the extremists. And I wouldn’t blame you for thinking so. (If you haven’t been here and only read the “news”)
 But wait.
I am quoting the first line of the first book I read while I was in Kashmir. The book was “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” by Sir Muhammad Iqbal. He was a poet and philosopher and inspired the Pakistan movement. He is known as the “Spiritual father of Pakistan”. 
The first line is…
 “The Qu’ran is a book which emphasis “deed” rather than the “idea”.”
There are many ways to interpret this. I am doing it based on my experience with the Jamaat. 
The way the Jamaat sees life is very similar to how Hinduism views karma. If you do good, you get good. Your deeds decide what outcome you will get in the future. So the Muslims who are really interested in learning the Quran, then teaching it and also running social organisations which help the less fortunate (Muslims and from other communities) and live their life with the doctrines of the Quran at its centre, are usually the Jamaat. It’s not an exclusive division based on birth like the caste system or based on material wealth. It’s basically how you want to see the world and conduct yourself, which decided if you are a Jamaat or a Sunni or a Mujaheedin. They might sound similar to a group of evangelicals or Jehovah’s witnesses since they try to teach their interpretations to others and go around teaching their holy scripture. But in the Jamaat, there is less talking and debate and the imperative is on the deed. They are also apolitical in their standpoint, to varying degrees of success depending on the region.
The very first time I saw the Jamaat in action was during the Kerala floods. My mate Mishal’s house was submerged for a day. He had enough time to evacuate with the most important items of furniture and other belongings. But cleaning up the alluvial silt from all nooks and corners of that house was a challenge much harder than we expected. All of my mates where there, for 3 days trying to help clean things up so that Mishal could move back in. With our limited manpower and lack of any real experience, it was proving tough. Until a gang of boys our age from Kasaragod came down, and within a day they cleaned that house up, painted it and made it look brand new. 
( Least we forget the people who helped us during our most needed)
We didn’t know them, but they had come down from their homes, in the middle of the floods to help rehabilitate the people affected. 
Who were they? 
College kids like myself, but who was organising this – They said the Jamaat. 
That’s when my interest piqued in the Jamaat and here I am again. 3000 Km North and it’s the Jamaat again which is there to help me.
I haven’t even read this by then, but now I know what Sir Muhammad Iqbal meant.
“The Qu’ran is a book which emphasis “deed” rather than the “idea”.”
And the Jamaat does exactly that.
Now imagine yourself. The only non-Kashmiri, the only non-Muslim in that bus. Just sit down and imagine what must have been going through your mind when you walk into a bus full of people who are the “other”.  That is where fear is created, in our unfounded perception and ideas of the “other”. While writing this, an entire nation’s cyber warriors want to go to war with Pakistan. 
Did Pakistan do any tangible harm to them or their families? Highly unlikely. Do they have anything to lose in the diplomatic and political skirmishes which are going on right now? 
Their pride, courtesy of the jingoistic ego which our government has been encouraging over the past 4 years.

For the idiots spreading hate on the internet. That is all they have and that is all they have to lose.

The “other” is really not that different from us, to be honest. I have had the good fortune and privilege to go to Russia for the FIFA world cup and there I met many Pakistanis. They are just dudes like me. He likes Arsenal, I love United. He doesn’t like menthol cigarettes, I used to love menthol cigs. He studies in Pakistan’s top B-school in Karachi, I “study” in India’s top engineering college in Madras. We had more in common than I realised. 

Years of social conditioning to see the “other’ as a threat made my prejudices build a wall. 
When Ahmed asked how is it possible to smoke the leaves and not Hashish as they do in Pakistan, that wall crumbled down like a house of cards. I realised that we were really brothers divided by a border which we have been told to fortify in our mind. We are really just homies in two different parts of the world.
Plus, when you say you are from the South of India and we don’t speak Hindi here, they don’t look at you like your education system has failed you. They just acknowledge and move on.
On the train Jammu To Udaimpur



You could see the fear in their eyes. But at this point, I still didn’t ask them anything. I trusted their judgement and we waited for the next train to Udaimpur. This is the station between Katra and Jammu. A train comes, we get into the compartment and make ourselves comfortable. In retrospect, I understood that we were running for our lives. But at that moment, it felt like we were on this grand adventure. In the train, we start talking about our lives. Showkat boiya ( brother in Kashmiri) has a kid. His name is Faisal. He lives to the North of Sri Nagar and his area of specialisation is Economics. I start telling him about life in Kerala, my Russian trips and also show him some artworks from the Kochi Muzhiris Biennale. He looks confusingly at the artworks inside Aspinwall house in Kochi. We create rapport. Then he goes down to charge his phone and Firdous Boiya comes up. He is “the character” of the group. With the charisma of SRK and the humour of a very toned down Bill Burr, he was the fun guy of the group. We start talking about him. He studies Urdu studies and he teaches me how to write my name in Urdu. Later in IITM, I make my friend who knows Arabic read it and he can read that. Urudu is basically Hindi written in Arabic script (Please do tell me if I am mistaken). We try writing a lot of things in Urdu. He taught me a new word – Khudha. It means God. I don’t know why we were saying that, but that was a lesson which I won’t ever forget. 

“Yadu” in Urdu

Subway surfer in real life
Again more chatter on the phone in Kashmiri. I look at them hoping they will tell me what is going on. No voluntary acts of easing the clueless “Kerala”. That is my name right now between them. 
We reach Udaimpur and its a run for the exit. Hurry up “Kerala.” I try to keep up. The freezing Jammu night air makes my palms swell. We reach the front of the station and look around. There is absolutely nothing. Like literally it is the middle of nowhere with no vehicles what so ever. I ask them what are we looking for. I get no reply. Now we start running in the direction of the station. And the armed guard at the front stops us. We have to put our luggage through the scanner. It’s like there is a countdown and we are against the clock and that sense of urgency makes me frenzied. But I have absolutely no clue what we are running after or from. We run towards the last platform. Like I told you, it’s the middle of nowhere and there is absolutely nothing there. They jump onto the track and start running. From the perspective of the railway police officer with an assault rifle, we looked like cross-border insurgents staging an attack in the dark, with huge bags filled with god knows what. I was praying to myself that at no point anyone should mistake us for any tangoes. Cause after the Pulwama attacks, every security personnel in Kashmir is on edge. Anything they perceive as a threat can be apprehended. Figuratively and literally, they would have the safety Off on their guns.  I was scared for my life as we ran across that track through the pitch dark February night. We reach a marsh. I see two buses waiting at a plateau towards what I perceived was West of the station. We make our way through the marsh. The sense of urgency makes Showkat and another boiya climb up the bus and we throw our luggage at them. I was slightly concerned if it will get wet if there be any precipitation on the way.
The elephant in the bus
I have grown up with this feeling of not belonging anywhere. It’s especially true of the department I study right now. So it is not a new feeling for me. Family functions, parties, classes from school, even a dinner table with the wrong people. I believe a lot of people feel that, but not to the pathological extent I do. Maybe I am wrong, but I have this funny feeling that I feel that more than most people. 
The only place where I universally feel welcome, where I feel I am a part of something and where I can unapologetically be myself is at a football stadium. May it be in the 81,000 seater Luzhniki stadium which hosted a FIFA world cup final or the no seater Sangam ground where Alaknanda was going to play the game of our lives against Jamuna. Football stadia is where I truly belong. That’s why I do all this. To feel loved by people. People like me. That’s it.
But sometimes, 
There are places where you are so sure you don’t belong. You stand out like……I don’t know. I don’t have any clever play with words to describe it, so I will describe it as it is.
I board the bus, it’s dimly lit by this almost psychedelic blue light. I expect it to be full of people and it was. They all look at me in unison. Imagine being the object of gaze of 50 people, all focused at you. I smile awkwardly. They keep looking at me in curious bewilderment. I nod and try to get a sign of approval from any of them. They are still looking on. I start laughing on the inside now. I tell myself – Yadu, of all the awkward situations you have been in, this has to be at the top. I develop this grin and it turns into a bewildered smile of my own. I think that diffused the tension. They look at each other and think to themselves. Who is he?