Srinagar – The City of Sadness

“Clouds of sadness looms over Srinagar”- Pic Wasim Khalid

Srinagar is mourning. It is not the first time. It won’t be the last. I have grown up seeing its grief. The city always appears sad to me. I have heard it was a magical city which attracted travelers from the East and the West. It was a confluence of cultures. The Jehlum River and the glittering water streams of the city had enthralled emperors. From the skies, clouds hanging over this city look like soft cotton balls; a chain of balls merging and separating as if they were children playing hide-and-seek in the sky; the changing colors of the city, crimson near the greyish-blue mountains fading to show tiny stars in black rekindling hope.

Hope nurtures freedom; the freedom to do things at will. Those impressions of freedoms are embossed in arts, architecture and aesthetics of our shrines, gardens, poets, intellectuals and the fine heritage houses in the city. How can we forget crafts? Shawls and handicrafts which brought Europe to Srinagar.

Srinagar or Shahr-e-Srinagar became synonymous with Kashmir, cashmere, kaschemere ….. Even imagining those times would make me happy.

Srinagar came into existence more than two and half century before Christ was born. America was not born then. Our city’s existence in the subcontinent, far-east and far-west, had a significance of its own on the map. Those were glorious times.

But Srinagar is now a sad city.

I remember in 1999 when I clutched the hand of my father to reach school. People had gathered in small groups, as if worried, on the way looking at those plumes of smoke rising and curling into the sky. It smelled of arsenic and gunpowder. The smoke enveloped the sky – clouds of sadness loomed over Srinagar. Rains of blood would drain its streets. It would turn into a grieving city.

The sadness continued till I grew up. It was the sadness of being fettered. Many a times, like a character in comic books, I would imagine holding a broom stick to brush aside the cloud bearing sadness in the sky. I wanted to see the world beyond them. The sadness persists everywhere. You could find it in the people’s laughing, talking and thinking. I wanted to unshackle this sadness. It was a feeling as if you have been put in a small room filled with smoke. You may have moments of comfortable breathings through small windows, but the smoke would ultimately wage a war on you.

Walking in the city during my college days, I would often look at half burnt buildings in Lal Chowk. They would stand like bombed structures depicting images from a war zone. Srinagar was at war. Sadness ruled its streets, its alleys, its buildings, its gardens, its fauna and its people. Sadness occupied and occupies the very essence of city.

During those days, I was unable to comprehend the reasons behind this sadness. I was more concerned to get out of this claustrophobia which entangled my very existence. This sadness challenged the existence of Srinagar and its inhabitants too.

In pursuit of ‘happiness’, I would prefer to stroll on the walkways, the Bund alongside Jehlum, looking at people. I would try to find happiness on their faces. I would always find them engrossed in their own world, hurried, worried, scared, brooding – sad faces. Not once, I would do it often. I do it now as well.

This sadness of Srinagar resembles the ‘Huzn’ (spiritual loss and grief) of Orhan Pamuk when he writes about his beloved city – Istanbul. Like Kashmiris, he too saw the residents of Istanbul getting reflected in that ‘Huzn’.

“To feel this Huzn is to see the scenes, evoke the memories, in which the city itself becomes the very illustration, the very essence of Huzn,” Pamuk wrote.

Our sadness is not Melancholy. You could be melancholic without being sad. Sadness signifies emotional loss, pain and helplessness. We suffer from all the three.

I wanted to explore this sadness as captured by others. Particularly in the Islamic context which strongly objects to hopelessness and sadness. I have seen Masjids and Shrines acting as counseling centers for sadness. Young and old assembling in those places, secluded, engage in meditation in the spiritual environs, attain salvation and get relieved. I abandoned the idea later only to experience the raw sadness of this city as I feel.

I have seen the sadness of defiance in Srinagar. In 2008, 2009, 2010. Angry people hitting the streets, holding green flags emblazoned with crescent, their chests bulging with vigor, making circles to perform a Ragda dance, shouting “We want Freedom”.

It would often confuse me. How could sad, broken, hopeless people be so defiant? Then I realized the defiance stemmed from the longing for hope, like the sun trying hard to pierce through dark, winter clouds.

I vividly remember in 2010 a police officer telling me that they were ordered to “break the back” of Srinagar – the nerve center of Kashmir which had risen against the sadness. He was instructed to crush the mutual bond where community base support kept the six month political uprising alive. Milkman carrying milk were beaten till their bones crushed, their milk spilled in drains carrying filth, and so the babies and adults cry for the want of milk. Vegetables were confiscated from grocers to crush them under the gigantic tires of military trucks. It was simple. Make living difficult. People would break to enter again in the lap of sadness. The aim was to create hopelessness by suppressing aspirations under olive jackboots.

But we always have been the best in our worst times. I have seen people eagerly working to support each other. Deep in our hearts, we always hated the creator of sadness. We have no faith in him. We have to be self-reliant. We long to be free.

Attempts were made to purge Srinagar of sadness by decimating its symbols. The crumbling walls of half-burnt buildings bordering the roads in the city center were reconstructed. Glossy and some ugly malls sprung up like mushrooms. Not to forget beautification of military bunkers. The clock tower housing a bunker in its basement which since college days remained for us the flag of “hope” was given a make-over. It was built in red bricks and wood. The clock did not turn back. Its needles stuck as they had been. Some structures damaged by gun powder were reconstructed. The rusted sheets covering the brick and mortar buildings were painted. Colors were applied to dangling wooden structures of sadness to look Srinagar “happy”. It was like you put a patient with heart ailment in a big house, give him all the comforts, except medicine. Then repeat to him, “You are happy”.

It would make me flustered. How could sadness be buried? I knew money could buy paints and colors, but not sad eyes and expressions of inhabitants of Srinagar. The shopkeeper, street vendors, money exchangers, shoppers and passer-byes – all are sad. Just look into their faces. Feel the sadness hanging heavy in the air. Even the corruption and creation of new elite, erstwhile benefactors of sadness, even could not wipe out the sadness of the city.

“Yahan tou sab theek hai (Here everything is fine),” I heard tourists and outsiders who would visit Srinagar often retort. “Log tou khush hai (people are happy)”.

Armed with media machines and money, this happiness narrative became stronger. I would often think as to why Srinagar had to always prove it is sad?

I always realized this sadness has clogged the sub-conscious of a Kashmiri. It is a perennial dizziness which hangs in your mind. It was the sadness Amir Bashir attempted to show in his film “Harud”. The sadness of ominous presence of occupation symbolized by concertina wires, bunkers, military man and jackboots continues to play in the mind of protagonists. They want to unshackle their whole being from the prison of psychology which squeezes them.

This sadness coming from such symbols of occupation plays a substantial part in our and our city’s grief. The pain coming out of this sadness is unbearable. If you want to feel the abstract pain of this sadness gripping our minds and bodies, you have to be born in this city; you have to grow and live with this sadness in Srinagar. It is not ‘alienation’. Neither is it ‘grievance’.

The nights in Srinagar have always been more killing and sad. How often during most of the year I have found this city sad. In cold wintry nights, I have seen houses and buildings standing like ghosts; my only companion would be my shadow under the moonlit skies and packs of dogs eating filth near garbage dumps. Those dark summer nights, the silence of houses, as if they had met the messenger of death; the silence of roads and even the silence of gun-toting phantoms of occupation. The only life would be of those occasionally whizzing cars which would beam flashlights on dust laden roads. Srinagar looks condemned and sad to me.

This sadness has not stopped people in Srinagar from living their normal lives. They go to schools, colleges, universities, do their business and work, fell in love, marry, sing lullabies to their babies, feel the pain of loss and happiness, go to picnics, and watch films. But they are unable to unshackle themselves from the world of ineffable sadness which plays in their subconscious mind and is visible on their faces, their eyes and their expressions.

It does not mean that people don’t celebrate sadness. Srinagar proudly celebrates deaths, it celebrates resilience and it celebrates resistance to cosmetic happiness. As Pamuk wrote, “The Huzn the people absorbed with pride and share as community”.

During the recent floods described as ‘extreme of the extreme’, Kashmiris, as a community, celebrated the resilience and resistance against the hopelessness. I knew people who have deep-seated hatred for the structure of occupation – the merchants of hopelessness – would never wait for them to come to their rescue. How can Srinagar accept the murderer of its freedom to rescue her out of the raging waters? For years, the murderers, crushing the sentiments under their jackboots, worked tirelessly to spread hopelessness. How can they become a ray of hope to save lives? Srinagar has already seen death and destruction. It has learned to live with death and hopelessness. The existential threat to their very being has taught them how to survive.

As a community, Kashmiris came together to provide succor to its own people. I have seen people making innovations to float on water to retrieve people trapped in homes. They did it. The Jehlum waters would testify to that. The floods even could not break the resilience. I have never seen such a feeling of belongingness to their land and people among fellow Kashmiris. I have always longed for it. The state structure, watered by money and resources from the occupier, could not withstand the fury. The resilience of sadness did.

I have never experienced Srinagar as sad as I have seen it after floods. First time after years, I got the postcard picture of sadness I possess in my memory since childhood. City has been turned into a big junkyard. Clouds of dust have enveloped the entire city including those painted structures, new buildings and ‘clock tower of happiness’. Mounds of garbage, stench, dead animals, mud cakes and clogged water lie everywhere. Residents and shopkeepers bring out their mud strewn clothes, groceries, books and shoes, and stuffing them on roadsides. Not to speak of collapsed houses and damaged bund as it has been bombed to Stone Age. Everybody looks sad, battered and broken. But nobody seemed to be hopeless.

“This was in our fate,” almost everybody says, “we would come out. We always have.”

I know Srinagar would come out of devastation caused by the Jehlum -the lifeline of the city and the Kashmir Valley. I know they have resisted the sadness. I know they have lived through this sadness when the gods sent blood instead of rains. They had lived. They would live with sheer dint of their resilience.

Like people sometimes, Jehlum too gets enraged over this sadness. In its belly, it has stored the secrets of the sadness. Tortured bodies were dumped into it. Carcasses of young men would be dug out by the sand diggers from its bottoms who would be still alive in the memories of their relatives while crossing the river in boats. People say Jehlum is always calm. I say it is sad.

I have always wanted to get rid of the sadness hanging in my head. I always wanted to unfree myself of this noose. Sometimes I would go outside Kashmir for long vacations to breathe in ‘free air’. Later I managed to get a job in Delhi. I worked for more than a year. But the sadness of Srinagar continued to play in my mind. The longing to live in sadness in Kashmir continued. It happened with all Kashmiris whom I spoke to.

A Kashmiri photographer friend sporting a stub with a bald head and pointed nose would often meet at Connaught Place to discuss the idea of clicking portraits of Kashmiris who want to go back to their native place. He would get surprised to know that the majority of Kashmiris want to go back. An observation he could not relate to the people pouring from Indian states that come to Delhi and settle down there. He wants to capture the sadness and longing on their faces which a Kashmiri only can capture. He knows the internal war of sadness.

I have always felt this sadness has to do lot more with addiction to Srinagar. We can’t run away from it. We have grown up in this sadness. We live this sadness. We love this sadness. We want to unshackle from this sadness. We express it in our dreams, in exile, in our day-to-day talks, in our subconscious and in our homes. Srinagar, with its sad beauty, has always been an unexplained longing for us.

Many poems of famous Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali, have revolved around Srinagar where he praises it, mourns it, longs for it and remembered its nostalgia. At some places, Srinagar for him too becomes synonymous to Kashmir. At some places, his words grieve for the sad city. But he knows the resilience of this city.

We shall meet again, in Srinagar,

by the gates of the Villa of Peace,

our hands blossoming into fists

till the soldiers return the keys

and disappear. Again we’ll enter

our last world, the first that vanished

in our absence from the broken city.

We’ll tear our shirts for tourniquets

and bind the open thorns, warm the ivy

into roses. Quick, by the pomegranate–

the bird will say–Humankind can bear


Srinagar will bear everything what it has lost. This sadness will live with a longing for hope and freedom – the fundamental right of a human being. We will live with this sadness, challenge it, negotiate it and resist it. Our elders did it. We are doing it too, and our future generations will follow us. I know the liveliness of Srinagar lies in its sadness.

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