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.



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?
Mob menality kashmir


Weirdly, I wake up to the cold Punjabi morning and feel very positive. Like I am getting this warm hug from someone or something. The news is not good, the body count has reached 40. Things don’t look good. But I put on my layers and change into my boots. Now the temperature is really getting to me. There are these two Punjabi mothers and their kids with me in my section of the compartment. We don’t talk but acknowledge each others presence. They feel reluctant to talk when my instinctive reply doesn’t come in Hindi. They look like good people. I help them get their luggage out of the train near Jalandhar. A bit of good karma never hurts.
I lose the signal on my phone after Pathankot. You know what that means, I have crossed over to the boundaries of the great state of Jammu and Kashmir. Now some of my constitutional rights are suspended, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act enforced upon me and this meant that some of the things which I took for granted as a citizen of India is now questionable. Starting with countrywide roaming cell service.
For the first time in my life, a train in India reaches the station exactly on time. I get off and have this flashback to another part of the country – Siligui in West Bengal. This station feels so much like Sili for some reason. The weather, the terrain and most importantly, as the last bastion of railroad upon an imposing Himalayan range. 
I scout the station. That is the first thing you should do. Get your bearings straight. There will always be the autowallas (auto drivers) willing to offer life advice to you. But don’t heed. Explore what all option the station has. Waiting room (check), ATM (check), Wifi (check), charging ports (check). This meant that I could set up camp in the station if I want to. I usually do this every time I go to an airport or a railway station where I might have to spend the night. There is a real possibility that I might have to spend the night at the station since Hilal Ikka told me that Jammu was on bandh (Strike). Which meant the chances of finding transportation to Sri Nagar was going to be difficult. Once I had my contingency plan sorted, I started to explore the station. The next priority was to get a SIM card. There was a store right outside the place. It looked shady as the shutter was half open and they were selling nuts and spices inside, but SIM cards outside. It took 20 minutes but I had a number. First call – Amma. Second call – Hilal Ikka. 
“Ikka, I am royally stuck, no transportation whatsoever. I might need to spend the night here and try coming tomorrow morning.”
That was a possibility which I didn’t want to exercise, I would be losing a lot of time if I were to do that. But you have to be prepared for the worst too, and also expect the best. It’s imperative you don’t get negative. I will explain just why.
Hilal Ikka told me to go to the bus station and see if there are any buses. I was kind of reluctant to venture out on a bandh day and I stalled on that idea.
So, I eat some kachoris and channa and I am pretty much vagabonding around, persistently asking if there is a way, any way to get there. One dude suggests I walk to Sri Nagar. We laugh it off. 
I am a believer in the law of attraction. They say, you are the energy that you attract. This principle came into play when I saw a group of Kashmiri dudes. There must have been like 10 of them sitting with their luggage not knowing what to do just like me. I open in Hindi, “Gaddi hai kya? To Banihal Abhi?” The dude asks me to come sit down next to him. He asks me if I am comfortable in English. (Finally a North Indian who doesn’t condescend my lack of fluency in Hindi.) 
This small gesture, where he asks me to sit down next to him set in motion a series of events after which I don’t think I will look at people the same way ever again. 
This is the important part. Saying hi to a stranger. The most amazing acts of kindness and the most rewarding experiences I have ever had with a human being came out of saying Hi to a stranger. So I cant stress how imperative it is, if you want to have an adventure of a lifetime. 
Go to some strange land, just prepared enough to know when you are getting there and when you are going back and let out a 100 watt smile and say hello.
That is how I met my first Kashmiri brother. (Trust me, I have a lot of brothers after this trip.) His name is Showkath. (He has this uncanny resemblance to my mate Madhav from high school. Madav, if you are reading this, sup yo? ) 
He asks me to put my luggage down and ease into the lethargy of a bandh day. They were as stuck as me. They wanted to get to Sri and they also didn’t know how. I learnt that most of them were graduate students from Bhopal university and they are returning back after their exams. All of them, luckily for me spoke great English. 
We get acquainted, and they tell me to join them and decided to go to Sri together. I was elated.
When the situation is fucked, and you been dealt a bad hand, it’s important that you keep your head up and remain positive. The travel gods will shine a light on you. This has happened to me so many times that I can’t call it a coincidence anymore. The travel gods are real and all they want is to see you respect chance. Once you do that, the chances of something like this happening is exponentially high. 
So now I am at ease, I have my tribe and we will go together to Sri. I open up my bag of Tamil savouries and we eat up some Kadala Burfi. I slowly doze off on top of our luggage.
I forgot to tell you that the internet was blocked in Jammu due to the bandh. The government wants to stop all forms of social media and messaging apps from spreading news (real or fake) and wreaking havoc. So I had no clue about what was happening. When I woke up the mood has changed. The tension was palpable. I ask them what’s up and they reply rather nonchalantly that everything is fine. But I knew something was up.
All of them start getting the phone calls, they are getting angry and frustrated. Both at the calls and at each other. A group of slightly senior Kashmiris split away from us. A lot more beedis and cigarettes are lit than usual. The indecision makes me frustrated, but I have no clue what the fuck is happening. So I just look at them and try to make sense of what’s happening. Hilal Ikka calls me around this time and tells me not to go anywhere near the bus stand. That had become the epicentre of the violence and the mobs were targeting the people trying to get to Kashmir. 
I felt like I had dodged a bullet. Now I start to comprehend, there is violence on the streets, aimed at Kashmiris. That is why these guys were getting tensed. Their safety was at stake. From getting some sun on the pavement, the situation pivoted into an escape mission, from which the Kashmiri’s perspective would look like an ethnic cleansing (that word carries a lot of responsibility while using it, and there are various degrees to the evil that has been associated with that word, but when I was with them, that is exactly what I felt it was. A certain community targeted and an evil which wanted to see them disappear.) 
After some more squabbling over what to do, we decide to make a move for it. We pack up and move. They told me that we had to get out of Jammu. I still didn’t know exactly what the plan was and I didn’t press them cause it felt like they weren’t too sure themselves. At this point, you have to trust them at face value. I personally think I trust people very easily. It has given me memories to cherish for life and has also got my brand new phone stolen. But I listened to my instincts and decided to go with these guys and trust them. The gut is better at judging people than drunk me.  ( That Russia story is coming soon.)
This is when the mob incident happens. It looked like a candlelight march, but also had nationalist slogans being raised. It was to honour the martyrs, but when the individual loses his identity in the crowd, anything can happen. And it was happening around Jammu.
Right now, mobs in this country terrify me. Lynchistan is the term used to describe organised violence by mobs where the law or what they perceive as natural justice is taken into the hands of vigilantes and exercised with no restrains. Usually on a minority community. And Jammu is very much a part of Lynchistan. 
One PHD scholar from my college is also on the list of victims. Guess I don’t have to go really far to fear my own safety.
To be continued…….


Full disclosure 
I hadn’t told my parents I was going to Kashmir (Remember rule 15 from 15 life lessons from cycling uphill). I did say that I might go, way back in December, but they didn’t pay too much attention to that (surprisingly).
But the main problem was that I was doing this in the middle of the semester. I just couldn’t fit the football schedule around my vacations and if I were to make the trip, I needed to do it now. Cause Real Kashmir was in the title race and if they won, it would be a pivotal moment both football wise and socially for the whole country. I absolutely needed to be there. It was like a biological urge that makes you perform life functions. The cost would probably be this semester. But I was willing to pay that price. Cause honestly, I know I have more value to gain and more value to give outside the walls of the classroom of the Humanities and Social Sciences department here. Even if I go to class, I will be staring at that door, thinking what a wonderful world there is outside to explore, while my mind was sedated with class. But no disrespect to the amazing people who spend their entire lives learning a discipline and becoming amazingly competent at it. For most people that environment is conducive. Unfortunately, I am not most people. This is my personal opinion, and by no means should it be interpreted as an insult to the department. But honestly, that place sucks :p
Imagine explaining all this to your parents.
I thought I would reach Delhi and break the news about Kashmir so that they would stress for one day less than they have to. 
I was so wrong. 
I take the call.
“Where are you?” 
It’s the instinctive maternal tone of enquiry a mother has towards her baby whenever something bad happens in the world. I lose my voice, I say I am on a train, near Delhi and I am moving towards Jammu. 
(I just realised being my parents is a really stressful job. They don’t get enough credit for that.)
She wasn’t happy. She couldn’t wrap her head around why I would want to go to Jammu. The moment I said football, she was like “not again”. Of all the drugs that the great god has created in bounty for us on earth, football is the most potent one. She knows her son is a junkie on that and his decision-making skills are questionable whenever a game of football is being played. 
She was still very upset, she asked me what I was going to do about classes. As a bandage of an answer I said I would fake a medical certificate and try to get by, but both of us knew that was not happening. 
She asked me what should she tell Achan. She told me to tell him. I can waltz into a war zone, but the former was something I really didn’t want to do. I expected her to ask me to get off at the next station and come back asap. I really did. But she didn’t. We need to take a trip down memory lane for that.
I think I was in second standard. Amma sent me to get some meds from the local pharmacy. It was like 30 meters away from my house. But it was closed. So I came back empty-handed.
Then she told me something which I would remember in that moment of doubt in Andaman express. She told me, if you go out to get something or set out to do something, don’t come back until its done, until the mission is accomplished. She probably won’t remember it. But little Yadu was pissed and he walked all the way to Palarivattom cursing his luck cause he was running an errand at 5:30 pm, when Pokemon was on Cartoon Network. It didn’t make sense then, but the impression it left on that little kid subconsciously made me think; Well, you have travelled halfway across the country. Why stop now? 
What gave me the courage to not turn back was Amma. She didn’t contradict herself from all those years ago. She knew I was going there to do something. If she had asked me to turn back now, my entire childhood paradigm would have been compromised. But she didn’t do that. She told, “Go carefully. You know how to take care of yourself. Call me every day and update all your moves and please go back to class as soon as you can.”
Those are what I call values. These foundations of thought and conduct which have been imprinted in your subconscious that tells you what to do. Even when you have no idea what you are doing. I like to believe that my parents have given me great values to work with. You can disagree with me on that, I don’t mind. 
From nadir to a ray of hope, Amma changed the entire dynamic of that difficult situation. I respect her and love her so much for that. She was always the person who got things done in our family and having a strong woman with conviction around you while growing up really helps you in a situation like this. 

Thank you Amma.

After that I get calls and messages from a lot of my mates asking me to come back, or to be careful. I absolutely love all of you guys and I am so thankful for your concern. My answer to all this however was, I am going forward with the trip. I will get to Jammu and see how the situation is and make a decision there. 
Hizrat Nizzamudhin passed by. I knew I had passed the point of no return and in the process, proved to myself just how much I wanted this. 
Good night. 
To be continued………


 The long sleep 
I pack up my stuff, borrowing things I don’t have from my mates. Went around to get munchies for the Kashmiri mates I’d be meeting. I get Kadala burfi (peanut candy), banana chips and then kara boondi ( perfect touchings) for Muzi and Hilal Ikka. Hilal Ikka also asked for some dry fish and after searching in and around IITM campus for hours, I finally found the last two packets within the 4-mile radius of IITM. (I feel like a winner now) 
I started packing, charging all my electronics and I also borrowed a DSLR camera from a friend. I check my list and I am kind of set. 
I say goodbye to all my mates and I make my mate Mikey a promise – “I will make the Kashmiri fans chant for Alaknanda.” Alaknanda (my hostel) had this really important game against Jamuna (another hostel) where we were in the last chance saloon. If we didn’t win, we were out. 
With the symbolic last supper of chicken Ankara kebab and 3 Kerala porattas from Zaitoon, I am off to Decathlon to say goodbye to my mates there. I collect the jacket and my mate Madhoo drops me off in Central station. The last goodbye in Chennai and I am sitting on the floor of platform number 1. Waiting for the PSG game to start. 
Then a dastardly attack by heavily armed aerial forces left me stunned. They dropped the payload in one fine stealthy swoop, completely catching me unaware. The payload fell on my camera bag, exploding into this slushy, stinky ooze which went inside the honeycomb of the bag’s support. I can’t get the shit out from there. A pigeon targeting me with an ordinance like a laser guided bomb might not have seemed like a coincidence then, but it was a sign of things to come.
( This was written before the dogfights between the Indian and Pakistani airforces, And no, I am not a psychic)
United lost two important players in the first half and lost the game 2 nil. The trip was not off to a great start. 
The train comes, S7 21. I put my head down and I am gone.  
I woke up some time past noon with a bad taste in my mouth (no it was not the pigeon shit). This was United’s first defeat under Ole Gunnar Solksjar and I didn’t like that feeling at all. But it was inevitable. 

The train ride was very mundane, to be honest. I slept, I read, I brushed (on some days) and the people near me kept changing. Over and over again. Only I was constant. I suppressed the urge to shit for 2 days. The thought of a railway compartment toilet makes my bowls go on indefinite strike. No matter how long it takes. (When I say I don’t give a shit, I mean it.)

Then the odd Hijra comes in every state. I always carry change for them. One episode of indecent exposure and another of touching without consent had left emotional scars in me and so, I always pay Rs 10 to have a nice interaction and receive a blessing. They are good people, if you give respect, trust me, you will get it back. Plus they always have a lot of change. If you want to break a 100, they are more than happy to help.

This cycle of reading to sleep and sleeping to kill time and finally not being able to sleep at night culminated in me deciding never to travel such a long distance by train again. Like many people who have travelled the Trans-Siberian rail says, it loses it’s romanticism fast and turns into an ordeal which you try to get over as soon as you can. And I being in the top berth for 80% of the time, didn’t see any “sights”.
“Some people just like to watch the world burn” 
The internet connection on the phone was good. I was listening to music throughout. Then my browser pops up with a news alert. 
Remember that feeling in school when you don’t know the answer to a question the teacher asks, and she is scanning the class to see who she should ask it. You are there, with your eyes moving all over the place, but never making contact with hers. Your tongue feels these spikes of bitterness from the adrenaline assaulting your bloodstream and you start sweating as your hands become red. Then you feel like throwing up that day’s breakfast and you are holding in a fart through the sheer force of will, the likes of Shaolin monks balancing a stone between their legs. Then there is a chill running through you which makes your nipples get hard and your hairs stand up. The fight or flight response mode has been initiated by the reptilian part of your brain. 

And then, of all the 42 students in class, she asks you the question. You stand up, trembling, without the courage to make eye contact. You are dead inside.Yeah, that’s called a panic attack. 

I haven’t had one in a very long time. But when I saw that headline. It was Mary miss’s English class in 2nd standard all over again. 

 “Suicide bomber targets convoy of CRPF jawans in Jammu-Sri Nagar highway. 23 killed. More casualties expected.” 
This was past Bhopal. The news came around 5 pm. At least no one lost their lives in Mary miss’s class. Now I was literally heading right towards the epicentre of the worst terror attack in recent memory at a speed of 90 km/h. Remember the bad omen I was talking about. It was leading up to this.
Slowly the news permeates across the train. People start talking, and with my limited Hindi, I could understand that everyone was talking about this. I was getting more and more restless. I started receiving messages. 
“Bro, did you hear the news?” 
Everyone was concerned. I messaged Hilal Ikka. For the first time, he sounded incomprehensible. Not knowing what to express, I asked him for news. His being in the department of communication for the J&K government meant that he received news faster than the rest of us. He forwarded to me the pictures from the site. 

Convoluted mass of metals. Dismembered bodies. Splatters of blood and the burns from the blast. I haven’t seen a more gory image in a very long time. I instantly deleted it as I didn’t have the stomach to look at it again. That was the nadir. I pulled up my blanket over my head and went into limbo.

What an unfortunate event. What a shame. 

I concluded a few things.
  1. My safety was in danger if I go forward with the trip.
  2. It’s not going to be status quo in Kashmir.
  3. The chances of the game getting cancelled were exponentially high.
  4. I should call Amma.         
And just like that, the call comes. 
To be continued…..







I had quit decathlon in late November to focus on my Russian classes. So now, I am pretty much perpetually broke and if I tell my parents I am going to Kashmir in the middle of the semester, they will probably ask me to refund the semester fee and never come back. 

So I thought out this ingenious plan were I would be making almost 500 rupees per day exercising. Yes you heard it right.


Read this article and you will realise how an insane idea can get you fit and also get you money. ( COMING SOON)

But that plan didn’t work out as my knees developed this acute pain every time I cycled over a long distance. This came as a result of the run against time trip to Sreehari kotta. I didn’t want to put my long term health at risk so I dropped the idea. Now I was broke and counter productively, came back fat after the December break. Not how I expected things to go.

But in early January, Akash gives me the number of a person he met in Kashmir. Akash told me that he was the guy I should talk to with regards to anything concerning Kashmir. His name is Hilal. I started calling him Hilal Ikka (brother in Malayalam). Cause, (trust me, you wont believe it, unless you see it for yourself) he speaks fluent Malayalam. No, not the “Ennik Malayalam korechu korechu ariyam” (the most rudimentary phrase in Malayalam that means ‘I know a little Malayalam’). But he talks like he’s lived there for a while, and with the infamous Thrissur accent. He is an enigma, and a person who will be a recurring character in this story. He might be the only Kashmiri who speaks fluent Malayalam. But you never know. 

I call him up and we get acquainted and we develop this relationship where he would send me the weather, road and other relevant news for me from Kashmir. But most of it was about a landslide which killed 3 people and how incessant snow fall had cut off the highway. But he never hid anything from me, I respect him for that. He made me aware of the fact that getting there would be a bit of challenge and he didn’t sugar coat anything. This went on for a few weeks.

Then Dassapan comes into the picture. If you don’t know who that is. Check this out. 

As I mentioned there, his insatiable appetite for adventure put some renewed energy in me. He was all in for the trip and even put out this story on Instagram claiming that we would do the trip in less than Rs 4000. Too good to be true? Let’s see. 

But there comes a time in a man’s life where he has to prioritise himself and his family above all else and Das had to do that. I was really looking forward to going with him, but as fate would have it, I would be flying solo. But I can’t underplay the influence Das had on the trip. We were literally minutes away from booking a ticket for ourselves before I told him to not to come and to prioritise himself over the trip. 


So Hilal Ikka suggested I get in contact with someone who was part of Real Kashmir’s fan club. At that point of time, there weren’t any pages on Instagram which identified itself as a fan club of RKFC. So I just went to Real Kashmir’s official page and I messaged up the first person who made a comment. It was a certain muzi_khan958. I just said Hi and a few days later I got a reply. We developed this habit of wishing each other well before every Kashmir game. And soon enough, Muzi offered to host me at his house when I made the trip. I was ecstatic at that point, I was dancing in the library bathroom when he said that. Now, I could get the authentic experience of staying in a Kashmiri household and could really immerse myself in the culture of the place and build relationships with real people. I was on cloud 9 at that point.

One last favour from Decathlon

Even at that point, I was still broke and had no clue what to do about the money. I was caught in this quandary as to how to make this happen. But like a divine omen, I get this message that almost 11k is credited in my account. Oh my God, this is the money I got once I sold the shares I had bought when I was in Decathlon. It took almost 2 months to process it, but the money couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. I was over the moon, it was like the universe telling me – “Yadu, you have to make this trip.” And I decided it was time to listen to the universe. Since I didn’t have enough money for a flight, I booked a train which treads 2800 Kms through 9 states, taking 60 hours for the journey. The longest train journey of my life. Train number 16032, Andaman Express. I think I was be the only passenger from the starting station to the end. Chennai central to Jammu Tawi. (Technically the last station is Vaishno Devi Katra, Tawi is two stations before that.) 

And I booked my ticket.

When you book a ticket, it’s like making a statement to yourself, that you are committed 100% to this. 

I booked my tickets in such a way that I would be able to watch UNITED vs PSG in the station and then get on the train and sleep it off. (Ironically, I didn’t wanna wake up after Di Maria walked out of Old Trafford with that grin on his face.)

So a few days before the game, I go meet my Periya Annan (Big brother) figure, Raja. He hates when I say this, but he was my boss at Decathlon. Luckily for me, he had gone to Kashmir just a week before. Decathlon was conducting this skiing workshop in Gulmargh, Kashmir and I was so lucky to get some much needed insights from Raja. The most relevant insight was that our SIMS (prepaid) wouldn’t work within the borders of Jammu and Kashmir. I didn’t know this till the very last minute or otherwise I would have converted my SIM to postpaid early on. That was a pointer which would help me save so much time. Decathlon and Raja were generous enough to lend me a down jacket and a fleece so that I wont die of hyperthermia. Decathlon is one family I can always go back to. 


Rajappan and Sharanya in Gulmarg.



Real Kashmir


In sha Allah.

First time I really gave some thought to this was when I was on a train from Thrissur to Ernakulam. A gentlemen to my left was calling his wife. She asked when he would get to ERS station. He said “6:30 inshallah”.  I thought about that statement for the next half an hour. I knew what inshallah means – “God willingly.” But why would he say that when he is already in Aluva and it is almost certain that we will reach Ernakulam South station in the next half an hour?

At that point in my life, I had a conflicting relationship with god and organised religion. So I was very skeptical of that person’s statement and I pushed it aside as something very stupid.

Fast forward a few years.

I ask Irshad- “When do you think we will get to Kashmir?”  

He replies – “Inshallah soon.” 

It’s clear he doesn’t know the answer to that question. But that phrase “Inshallah”, derived from a Quranic command in Arabic now holds a whole different meaning. Our lives were not in our hands. There comes the threshold where chance and luck supersedes human will and we were at that point.

There was an angry mob out there looking for blood. According to my Kashmiri friends, a dozen  Kashmiri vehicles were torched and 3 Kashmiris were killed in the aftermath of the Pulwama attacks in Jammu by mobs.


The closest article I could find to verify this was THIS. Credibility of source is up to your discretion.


An army truck with soldiers drove into the railway station, a turret with a machine gun scanning for any sort of trouble. This was the first time reality dawned upon me. I was in a war zone. Not my usual football trip. The mob raised nationalist chants at the vehicle, clearly expressing their solidarity with their slain martyrs from the day before. The vehicle moves in and the mob follows. I see the tri colour. I wanted to record it, but I felt scared. Scared of offending anyone in this minefield of emotion and thirst for vengeance which our country’s conscious was passing through. What looked like a candlelight vigil turned into an intimidating chanting mob very fast.


I saw my Kashmiri friends hide themselves inside the station, you could feel the electricity and tension in the air. They were genuinely scared for their lives. And for the first time in my life I saw the tri-colour; something which every Indian prides as a symbol of the values which make our country great, symbolic of courage, sacrifice, peace, truth, faith and chivalry; suddenly became a symbol of hate. Hate towards a group of people which we want to call our own, but we treat as outsiders. For the first time in my life, I felt my safety was at stake and it was in the hands of people who were waving the flag that had fought for the very freedom with which I was standing on.


Now, I understood the real meaning of Inshallah. There are just so many moments in life where you think you are the captain of your own destiny and then destiny does a U-turn on you and you realise – chance is something which is greater than all of us. And we should respect that. 


At these moments, you realise why respecting chance is something which can help you.


Inshallah, keep me safe.



The whole idea for the trip came out of a chance encounter. Remember the time those two dudes who were cycling across India on two basic cycles came to Chennai and I hosted them in Alakananda hostel. It was the butterfly effect from that interaction which lead to the whole Kashmir episode.

Akash and Rahul were the most amazing people I had met in the last year. With two basic cycles, a shoestring budget, a thirst for adventure and a life philosophy of the ilk of Alexander Supertramp from the movie- Into the Wild (2007); these dudes gave me insights into their odyssey. (You can listen to their experiences here, in this podcast) And one part of the country which they would rate over everywhere else is Kashmir. I was surprised at that, cause at that point of time, I was very ignorant of Kashmir. A place which is dangerous and with people who might not be very welcoming to outsiders. (ie, what the news tells us about Kashmir and Kashmiris). 

That caught my fancy and I let the idea simmer inside for a while. Then came the football. In December, I really wanted to visit Calicut to watch Gokulam Kerala FC play. Gokulam is an I-league (2nd division, if you consider ISL) team out of Kerala which was doing very well at that point of time. They were on the top half of the table, playing good football and with the way Kerala Blasters were, in such an abysmal situation, my thirst for entertaining football took me up North to Malabar country. That is when I proposed the idea to my mate Abhijith (Who is a Gokulam fan) that we will hit Kashmir in early Feb to support GKFC vs Real Kashmir. Which would be the reverse fixture of what we are watching right now. .

We didn’t lay any solid foundations for it, but it was like a manifesto point running through our minds. We wanted to do it, we promised to do it and we told others we will do it. But we had no clue how to. 


Shifting gears

 Slowly the obsession for the trip grew in me, and its zenith was when Adidas released this video. 




I still cry every time I see that video. Cause it elucidates everything which I believe about football and what it can do. And I truly believed that an ostracised community and state can get better through football. Cause from all my travels, from Russia to Kolkata to anywhere else, when I meet people who love football, it’s like we have known each other for all our lives. Our shared experiences makes it easy to empathise with each other. And Kashmir is one subject where empathy comes at a premium for a lot of people. I thought for a second, if I could come here and do the story of what football means to the people of Kashmir. And just for a second, just for one second make us forget the politics, the violence and the acrimonious history of the place. Maybe just for one moment, make us all feel like we are part of this one giant family where the love for the game is our mystic river and we are all rowing through it, together as one. 

That might have sounded like an idealist on cocaine, but I believe if anything can bring people who are so different together, and make this world less shitty for at least  90 minutes, then that is something powerful and I want to accentuate that.

That is my mission statement. 

Get the story of football out of Kashmir. And tell it to you and maybe, just maybe, as the video states- ‘When you see Kashmir through the lens of football, you will see the real Kashmir.”


And there is alway a “but” before anything epic happens. 


To be continued….