In Photos: Pursuit of Peace

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As peace continues to drive diplomatic discourses and backchannel talks, the discord-dented commoners of Kashmir still wonder about the elusive calm in their homeland.


I pictured Manzoor Ahmad as a frown figure inside his rundown shop in Downtown Srinagar. The 65-year-old tailor was working on someone’s pheran. He enjoys working when the bright sunlight illuminates his sewing machine. It cheers him up and uplifts his gloom. But the man with a furrowed face and forehead mostly looks spiritless, as if life and old age are getting the better of him.

“I’ve been tailoring for past 50 years,” said Manzoor, with a sigh of despair, looking outside from his window-shop. “While stitching the pieces of clothes together, I don’t know how to stitch my way around in an uncertain political ecosystem.”

Life hasn’t been fruitful for the tailor and his folks back in the valley for years now. In an unreliable and explosive place, where a state of tranquillity has just been a dream, one tends to grow restless and paranoid, he says.

Tailor Manzoor’s labour of love. / Saqib Ali for MI

The unabated strife makes Manzoor’s homeland a ‘hung house’, which conveniently shields different shades of life and makes peace the most cherished thing for people. Seeking solace surges a person’s sadness. Not able to earn properly can be the cause of a person leading a depressed life. And tailor Manzoor’s case is apt in this regard.

His eyesight is dimming, while his wrinkled hands could barely pick a teacup. Yet, he’s tirelessly spinning his sewing machine. It makes him feel alive in the dunce state of destruction and depression around. While it’s hard for an elder to work properly, getting an idea of peace and striving to achieve it is even harder.

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“Wherever my diminished eyesight reaches, all I see is chaos surrounding me,” continues Manzoor. “Finding peace in Kashmir is not for a senile person.”

But for some optimists, who live with uncertainty and trauma, peace is only a state of mind. For them, it may be getting away from social disturbances such as conflict within the family, within society, within an individual’s mind. Peace for such individuals is freedom from disturbance.

Downtown’s last standing community cleaners. / Saqib Ali for MI

Away from Manzoor’s reminiscent workshop, shawls stiff with embroidery decorate the riverbank in old city’s Aali Kadal. They represent the ethnicity of Kashmir and remind one about the culture of the place.

But at the same time, when looking back at the situation of Kashmir, many see these shawls stained — rather than shimmering pieces of art. This conflicted identity only makes the cleansing process an act of whitewashing.

“A person living in Kashmir cannot find peace,” says a washerman on the banks of river Jhelum.

“As long as there’s conflict surrounding a commoner in the valley, it’s hard for him to find peace.” These hanged shawls, he adds, represent Kashmir “but the ongoing conflict represents our state of mind.”

Yusuf’s grim indoor routine. / Saqib Ali for MI

At a stone’s throw from this searing spot, an alarm clock beefs repetitively, that has been kept on snooze, which is doing its job to get my brother Yusuf back in this life. He’s willing himself to get out of the bed, but his mind won’t let him.

This kind of behaviour has been with him for the last many months now. Getting up at 11, lying awake in bed for an hour is a new normal. His mornings aren’t good anymore.

Yusuf, a 22-year-old student, sits all day in his empty room. The isolation has put a strain on his mind. And the kind of isolation and fear he is experiencing can trigger mental health conditions.

“Every single day I think about how to achieve peace,” Yusuf tells me in a grim voice. “I think about the madness, the madness about something that will get me out of my troubles. I try to find a way that will immerse me in a kind of whirlpool, where there’s no coming back to this chaotic world.”

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But all he’s able to do is sit back and attend a virtual classroom and consume social media.

‘Kandur’ and his Durdar. / Saqib Ali for MI

A common refrain among people remains that whenever anyone thinks about peace in Kashmir, it makes him lose his mind. Many even say that the moment a person is being questioned about ‘what’s peace for you?’, he takes a deep pause, weighs his words carefully, before answering the question.

Following the trails, I questioned a baker—Kandur—‘What’s peace for you?’ His glance started darting around, head turning, as if looking for answers. A look of puzzlement crossed his face. He paused and thought for a moment.

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The other guy standing next to him broke the silence and said, “Getting this thought in my head is itself frightening, yet what I needed was the opposite, a chance to regain my poise, my calm, my tranquil air. And to get out of this state of mind, I consume cannabis. And this in turn leads me to destruction.”

Seeking spiritual support. / Saqib Ali for MI

Clearly, the current pace of life has created an imbalance in many people’s priorities, especially in diminishing spiritual needs. Sensing that, Imran sits in the place where he feels most comfortable, where he experiences calmness. A place that is peaceful in its own ways. It is the place to go to get away from all his troubles. It is one place where he could sit forever, and never get tired of, and indeed it’s a mosque.

Salah is the time to relieve me from the hardships of life,” Imran says. “For me, Salah acts as a mean of comfort, pleasure and tranquillity. It brings me nearer to God and purifies my heart. There’s this saying, ‘Indeed, there is, in a body, a piece of flesh, which if it is sound, then the whole body is sound, and if it is corrupt, then the whole body is corrupt. Indeed it is the heart.’”

The mechanic’s melancholy. / Saqib Ali for MI

But beyond this spiritual solace that battered souls often seek in the valley of grief, lies a fire of daily routine — the routine held hostage by the very disputed nature of their lives. Or, the experimentations, that a commoner like Mehboob Khan witnesses every day.

At his oil-smeared mechanic shop, he makes the dead iron alive with his trained hands. And yet, he seems clueless about his children’s growing gloominess and his better half’s anxious nature.

“We’ve been living with this damn discord inside our homes since very long now,” Mehboob mechanic said. “But now, it’s tearing apart the very idea of life we once knew.”

While piecing together different parts of a vehicle, Mehboob wonders about the times ahead, so does the septuagenarian carpenter, in some other corner of the city.

The old hand. / Saqib Ali for MI

It has already been a long wait for master carpenter Sattar Bhat. While his folks have long faded in wait of the promised dawn, he’s living with the same old uncertainty.

“Back in my youth, they said peace is around the corner,” Rehman said. “But till now, when I’m already heading towards my end, it’s yet to come — despite devouring so many of our dreamers.”


(This Photo Essay appeared in the March 2021 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)

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