I get up around 730ish and open my four pairs of curtains with a series of eight great, metallic, I’m-up-and-alive-and-ready-to-take-on-the-day swooshing sounds. Hearing this, Hussain, the landlord Iftikhar’s employee and my “servant,” heads to the main house to get my newspaper, buttered Kashmiri bread, and milk as I put a pot on the stove to boil water for my instant coffee. “Good morning, SIR!” he says when he brings in the tray, and I respond in kind. (We have developed a “Sir”-ing contest – the winner being the one who can deliver the word with the most voluble and joyous intent. It’s good stuff.) Then I slowly read the paper and eat breakfast at my wicker coffee table by the window, noting stories I’m following and others for new ideas as the twitter of mynahs, the chirping of hoopoes and warming sun drift pleasantly in. Sometimes Iftikhar, the retired and rather wealthy lord of the manor, will pass by my window on a stroll through his gorgeous garden. “Good morning, sir,” he will offer, literally shouting from two meters away. “Ohhhh, what a pleasure,” he’ll continue, as pleasantly surprised as if we were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in ages. He invariably says this phrase when he sees me, and you have to hear it to believe how astoundingly sincere he is, no matter the circumstances. The first time he said it to me upon recognizing my voice over the phone I darn near burst out laughing. “Beauuuootiful morning,” he’ll add, rain or shine. “Do you have everything you need?” And as I answer in the affirmative he will continue, hands behind his back and prominent proboscis sniffing the air, on his solemn morning constitutional.
Then it’s over to the computer to jump online for a few minutes and perhaps work, for about an hour, after which I usually sneak in a little exercise. Sajjad swings by around 11am to pick me up and we head to Lal Chowk (downtown in local lingo, but literally “Red Square,” so dubbed in the 1950’s when communist sentiment ran high in the valley). Once at the office I hook up my laptop and check emails, flip through a few local newspapers and get to work on my story or stories for the day. Sometimes this entails heading out into the city with Farooq, to cover a meeting or protest or to chat with locals about some semi-pressing issue, or perhaps an interview, or maybe I stroll down Residency Road and bump into Abdullah the clown-haired ambassador of tourism and peace, or drop into Ahman & Sons bookshop to visit with the shy but pretty Ahman daughters who man the shop, but more often than not it means doing research online, making phone calls to local officials, experts, and politicians, and finally constructing the actual story. Then there’s lunch and more work and perhaps some editing, and around 8 or 9 or 10pm (the other night it was 1130), I head home with Abid, whizzing through the streets back to Zadibal, my predominantly Shia ‘hood. Upon arrival mi casa Hussain will materialize with my dinner, invariably half a chicken in some sort of spicy, usually red, sauce, with rice and sometimes a vegetable, and frequently very good. Finally I pour myself a whisky and soda and either write some journal entry, go online, or relax with a book or magazine, then hit the hay at about 1130-12.
I work six days a week, so there is very little free time. On my day off, Sunday, I usually relax and write and catch up on work and emails, sometimes go for a walk or ride a crowded bus into town for lunch or a newspaper or three. I have no television and my radio gets only one English language channel, the BBC World Service, which I’ve come to love deeply and curse when it is elbowed out by some Chinese station creeping over the apparently-not-tall-enough Himalayas.
Like all of Kashmir’s sedate Muslims, I never “go out.” The streets are deserted after 10pm, nothing is open and there is absolutely nothing to do. The final screening at the Neelam, for instance, is at 4pm, and the only city sounds after 9pm are prayer chants from some not-too distant mosque.
Although I should note that there are certain Sunday nights I treasure, when a bunch of us – Iftikhar and Irfan and Akhtar and Dr. Dhar, a pandit (Kashmiri Hindu, one of the few remaining) who was kidnapped and held by militants for 83 days in the early 90’s, and occasionally others I don’t really know – head over to the home of Agha Ashraf Ali (perhaps I have mentioned him before) for conversation and (oh my good gracious) alcoholic beverages. Agha, 84 and robust as hell, is the perfect host, with a full bar and helpful servants, and a reasonable moderator of various discussions on politics and the future of Kashmir. By 10ish he is usually drunk and calling everyone a bastard and to “stop talking rot!” at which point we head to our cars, thanking him and receiving the requisite, “Pleasahhhr!” in return.
A pretty simple life, all things considered. But after the last fifteen years of mostly forgotten parties and endless drinking and oceans of frittered hours – all of which I enjoyed and don't regret for a second – it is quite perfectly, productively pleasant.