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Prison Tales: Watching Them From Hillock

Some old black and white photographs are evocative as scent, years after having been clicked they fill the air with fresh fragrance and bring a blush even on cheeks crumpled as withered leaves. Of late, posting pictures of Kashmir clicked long ago by European travellers and photojournalists on social media and microblogs is a new hobby that is catching up with some friends as an expression of their love for the land.
Many of these pictures culled out from archives tell a whole story that historians have glossed over out of expediency. In 1948, a French photojournalist, Henri-Cartier-Bresson, a big name in photojournalism considered master of ‘candid photography’ during his visit to Kashmir had snapped lots of images that besides telling tales about the political situation as obtained during the troubled times also portray the social and cultural scenes of the times. Some of the picture, like those clicked on the Koh-i-Maran hillock, in the grounds of Makdoom Sahib with lots of women draped in white Koshur Burqas’ in Makdoom Sahib is more captivating than thousand words essays of Charles Lamb and Francis Bacon- these make one feel nostalgic.
It was one of Cartier-Bresson famed frames clicked on the Kastoor pend, (abode of thrushes) overlooking translucent Nageen and Dal Lake with women dressed in long pherans touching their ankles, Kasaba (headgear) and long white muslin scarfs covering their backs and white Koshur Burqas raising their hands in supplication towards the skies that reminded me of dim and drooping faces of my classmates and friends.
Those days, that were our days in the lower middle at the school, through worst coercive tactics; including denial of monthly ration the voices of the dissent had been muzzled. Nonetheless, a few years later the resistance movement had picked up once again with more vigour, grandfathers and fathers of some of my classmates and friends had been jailed and lodged in the Srinagar Central Jail. Then, the slopes of the iconic hillock of the capital city had not been invaded illegally, except for a few modest houses of the children of the Raja family, there were no dwellings on the slopes of the Koh-i-Maran. The ancestors of the Raja family had been detained in the Srinagar Qila on the top of the hillock after Dogra commander Zorawar Singh had invaded Baltistan- after that they had settled on the slopes of the hillock. From the Kastoor pend the ramparts of the Srinagar Central Jail were distinctly visible. On Thursdays and Mondays, men, women and children thronged this small plateau with a majestic Chinar in the middle. Lots of women sat around a small three-step pulpit under the canopy of Chinar tree and with rapt attention heard sermons of the green turbaned cleric- he had a sweet-toned voice. To catch a glimpse of his father behind the high walls, one of my friends climbed on a nearby boulder and stood on his toes- but could not look inside the jail. Father of my other friend was also in prison; his mother had told him that his father was lodged in the Jolaha-Khana barrack with some top leaders. To get a better view of the inside jail, and locate Jolaha-Khana, my mates and I many times made it to the top of the hillock, all that we could spot were only long barracks and some human activity. In their disappointment and desperation, my friends at their high pitch cried names of their fathers, that did not echo and with drooping faces, we descended into the Badamwari from the Kath-i-Darwaza side for enjoying some roasted water nuts.
For quite some years the word Jolaha-Khana ringed in my mind. In the mid-sixties, G.M. Sadiq, under the smokescreen of the policy of liberalisation had detained hundreds of students under D.I.R and PDA. For all the years of his rule, the stories about life inside the various barracks of the jail including the Jolaha-Khana were heard on the campus lawns and inside the only canteen of the university.
‘That the Jolaha-Khana barrack was just adjacent to Khadi-Weaving Centre inside the jail, where prisoners sentenced to Qaid Ba Mushaqat weaved Khadi that was supplied to the government offices and utilised by jail for making uniforms for prisoners. This prison area had a long history; many resistance leaders in the past had been lodged in the four rooms of this prison area. Some poets and writers lodged in these rooms had enriched the literary landscapes of the land. After dusk when rooms were latched the poetry of Amir Usmani and Sahir in synchronisation filled the desolate lawn of Jolaha-Khana.
In the late sixties and earlier scores of students professing different ideologies passed their days of detention in harmony- and to be friends in future.

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