Hammam Talks in Kashmir: When their experience overpowered my profession


Mosque Hammams unlike vintage shop-fronts catch steam of their own when playing host of argumentative Kashmiris during winters. Recently when war was hovering over the valley, one such dissecting discourse ended up making a budding scribe a hostage of ‘know-it-all’ experience.

By Tabish Shafi

Few weeks ago, it was raining and the temperature had dropped few degrees. The usual shutdown and the scarce electricity, which comes as a package with winters, prompted me to move to our local mosque a bit early to have mosque Hammam’s extra warmth.

During winters, these Turkish delights of Mughal era come alive in Kashmir with raging discourses. Acting as informal parliament houses, they host some of the wildest as well as weirdest debates across the valley.

The moment I sat, an elderly man, clad in Pheran and a winter cap, was in the middle of some serious discussion with the other two septuagenarian men.

What I could hear from them was Kashmir, Pakistan, India, war and may be surgical strikes, too. I couldn’t hear more, as I was interested in the warmth that was soothing, thanking Mughals from the core of my heart for such a beautiful and economic gift—Hammam—to us apart from the gardens.

One among them curiously asked me after repeated attempts to break my silence, “Son! Where do you live?”

May be he was expecting me to indulge in discussion with them which I was completely not interested in.

“Just a couple of alleys away,” I replied normally.

“Actually, I haven’t seen you here. That’s why,” he said, now contented.

I thought the conversation ended there, but to my surprise another question was posed to me and never did I know my answer would escalate discussions rather disagreements among all three of them.

The question: What do you do?

As soon as he heard the word ‘Journalist’, he completely turned towards me ignoring the other two, who also reacted to it as if they were about to hear something ‘confidential’ from me, which majority of the people expect from us.

The expression, first one wore after hearing my answer was as if I had to be ready to answer all his questions which were coming my way, positioning himself exactly opposite to me to signify that all my answers to his questions, which had been making him curious, would now be answered.

His first ‘strike’ at me: Who do you think will win the war?

Actually, he was talking about the apprehensions of the escalations that were there between the two countries, which, according to him, was war. He had reached to the conclusion of the war which hadn’t even started.

I was about to ignore his question by wearing a fake smile, there came the second, “Who do you think is more powerful?”

I was mute, thinking ways to tackle him. It was then, another intervened, “Why are you silent? If you’re a journalist, you must be able to answer the questions.”

Although a journalist should be well-versed with the happenings around, but there I realised s/he should be well ‘aware of the powers of the nations’ too.

I, now prepared to answer him ‘rhetorically’, smiled and replied, “Both the countries are nuclear powers. Let alone to declare the winner, the consequences of war will leave both the nations devastated.”

My reply calmed him and he immediately seconded my view by quoting, “Yes, Jaanpan had met the same fate (sic),” referring to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two cities of Japan which were bombarded with atom bombs by United States during World War II. I was happy he knew that.

His calmness prompted the one who had questioned my silence to ask me, “The air strikes were real or it was you- referring to media- who exaggerated it?”

This question hit the bull’s eye. I had to answer him to save the sanctity of all those journalists whose ideologies do not match with the sensationalists. I told him that strikes did happen, but the causalities Indian media presented was a mere eyewash. I remained neutral here, as a journalist should, and accepted the ‘exaggeration’ on media’s side.

“But are they going to scrap 370?” another question, referring to New Delhi’s growing political posturing on JK’s special status.

It was there, I felt myself in a situation of ‘interrogation’—ducking every question that was posed to me.

This question, I thought, I can answer, but to my surprise, the first one, without thinking, boasted, “They will lose Kashmir there only!”

He started explaining just like a veteran political analyst would. He had spent his life as a driver and according to him, had the know-how of every political vendetta that prevailed during 90s, the era of militancy in Kashmir, and now post-Burhan Wani phase.

He had a take on everything. Had he been approached during the 2016 uprising, he said, he would’ve given the solution, leading to Azaadi

Meanwhile, seven minutes were left for prayers and footfall of faithful was mounting inside the mosque. Some directly went to the prayer hall and few, who I felt were fed up with the news flashes, demoralising their narratives, joined us to know ‘something more’, because Hammam is the junction of all disagreements. The newcomers also started to say their take, but respectfully, so that they don’t have to listen from mosque management later.

But sometimes, we Kashmiris run out of emotions, forgetting the consequences completely. I could imagine myself in one of the news debates where a person from one political ideology has to necessarily disagree with the other, to dominate their take.

The one who was interested in the Article 370, started to answer the question which he himself asked and that too vehemently to overpower the ‘political analyst’. He started explaining the article’s holiness to us and why it is important for peace in the valley.

“If they revoke this article, nobody knows what will follow. Situation will be horrible and everyone will be on roads,” he said, uncertain of the future.

One of the latecomers arrived praising Imran Khan for returning Indian pilot, who was captured by Pakistani forces during the recent dogfight. The dyed-in-the-wool Khan fan said this was the quality of a leader and justified it by quoting a cricket match between India and Pakistan when Khan as captain had allowed a whining Indian batsman to bat again after he was declared out and got him out on the next ball.

He was linking the quality of the captain in that historical cricket event to the pilot’s return. Going full-throttle with his praises, he was cut short by others, who apparently saved the situation from going south on Hammam. 

I was listening to everyone, so keenly, that I felt like a person who hears someone speaking effortless English for the first time, which he likes, but doesn’t understand.

I could see more people now coming and joining the Imam who was preparing for the congregation with some looking at us, smiling and understanding what I was in the middle of.

I stood up. The other two, ignoring the speaker in such a way which made me sure they were cooked by listening to all their ‘narratives’ since long, stood up, organized their caps, telling the speaker sarcastically, “Thawu  wayn… wuath… namaz weach” (Leave it now, get up, its prayer time.)


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