I am sitting in Nandita’s apartment in Pune, enjoying the feeling of the hot summer breeze on my bare legs and shoulders one last time before we head up to Kupwara. I had braced myself for both the June Indian heat and the North Indian religious values, but somehow my brain had neglected to make the important leap of considering those two elements in combination. Nandu abruptly connected the dots for me as I unpacked my ill-planned wardrobe of tank-tops and cut-offs: “In Kashmir? Are you crazy?!”
As I soaked in the sights of this incredible new country on the drive from Mumbai’s airport, my head was a flurry of questions. Who was everyone honking at? Was the guy in a dress shirt who stopped and interrogated us on the back-road a real cop? Why was everyone sleeping on the fruit stands? And seriously, what was up with the honking?
Nandita has answers for “what” and “how,” but consistently furrows her brow every time I come to “why.” In a place with such a multiplicity of narratives, she tells me, “why” isn’t really a question one asks. Things just are.
After a few days here I’ve relaxed into a quiet observation that allows for this kind of unquestioning acceptance. I wander for hours through twisting streets that take me past garbage heaps leading to gorgeous perfumed gardens on pathways that appear and disappear with a logic of their own. After crossing a stretch of beach I arrive at a massive octagonal structure filled with pigeons and seeds, a sign attributing its presence to the Lodha Charitable Trust. Is Lodha trying to keep the pigeon population confined to this area of beach? Or does he just really like pigeons? Maybe he’s a Jain? These questions melt into a silent and goofy smile as I step back and observe this massive birdfeeder. Whatever the reason, it’s here in front of me now…and how weird and awesome is that?!
Nandita and I picked “Kashmir,” and everything else seemed to pick us after that. An organization running orphanages for girls affected by armed conflict has invited us to conduct a theatre project at one of their centers near Srinagar. Their level of support and hospitality has been incredible—even before our arrival in Kashmir they are on the phones with us constantly, sorting our travel and putting us in touch with some of the center’s older girls who are studying in Pune so that we can stay with them and discuss our ideas for the piece.
The girls tell us that based on their backgrounds, the theme of ex-combatants should come fairly organically and will be relevant and worth exploring. Nandu and I brainstorm side-projects and the issue of access comes up. If we reach out to combatants and ex-combatants in Srinagar, she counsels, we should stick to female fighters. This is purely for practical reasons, given who we are and where we are going. I smile inwardly and realize I’ve managed 9 months on this project without really having to grapple with the subject of gender. Strangely, this “restricted access,” the technical narrowing of our scope, doesn’t feel like a restraint or limit. I’m not too hung up on ‘why’ we’ll be working with women instead of men. Yesterday I was looking at an octagon full of birdfeed. Today I’m looking at sleeves in the sun, unparalleled hospitality, and the female perspective on conflict. That’s what is; that’s what’s here in front of me. Awesome.