As the evening call for prayers from Srinagar’s Hazratbal mosque resounds over the Dal Lake, Ajaz walks through one of the city’s many graveyards. The young man in worn-out jeans and a body-hugging T-shirt swaggers past unkempt tombstones, counting friends and family that are buried there—all 21 of them. He tells me how he can still see the smiling face of Mushtaq, who was his senior at school, and who would have been 27 this year. He tells me about another friend, Javed, who was his parents’ only son. The day he died, he was wearing Ajaz’s clothes.
Also See At 8 Ball, a snooker den in central Srinagar frequented by 15- to 20-year-olds who’re innocent but trying hard not to be. The den is a place where they can forget the violence and the bandhs of the old city.
Ajaz, 23 (centre), has no interest in studying or any real aspirations, except to have fun. He and his friend Sajid (extreme left) smoke at a fair ground in Srinagar. The conversation meanders, as it always does in Kashmir, into what they call the ‘Kashmir masla (issue)’. ‘Keep us this side or that side, how does it matter? We just want to get on with our lives,’ says Sajid.
Kashmir finds itself in the grip of a religious orthodoxy, where it is not socially acceptable for young Kashmiri women to wear Western clothes. But the young men have almost abandoned their traditional clothes for T-shirts and jeans.
Ajaz at a snooker parlour at Dal Boulevard. Even though all such hangouts in Srinagar have been bombed at some point or function as Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) bunkers, fashion stands its ground here. Low-waist jeans hold up a small reminder.
Twenty-one-year-old Farhana is Ajaz’s girlfriend. She sips her beer in a shikara on Dal Lake—one of the few places she can be herself, away from the prying eyes of Srinagar’s moral police. Farhana drinks and smokes discreetly and thinks of the two vices as acts of rebellion and modernity, both at once.
Scuffles, usually a result of bets gone wrong, often break out at the snooker parlours.
Javed was 23 and had spent the night at his house. Ajaz remembers that 6 hours after his death, when they took his body for burial, blood was still oozing from his bullet wounds.
Every epitaph here tells a story—the tragic story of a generation lost. Ajaz lingers for a bit, staring glassy-eyed into the distance, till he eventually snaps out of it. “Enough of this tragedy, let’s go have some fun.”
Ajaz is part of Kashmir’s “lost generation”, an entire generation of youth that has grown up in a Kashmir ravaged by 20 years of turmoil. They are an age group with no real ambitions or motivations, just a preoccupation with survival. Ajaz spends his days at 8 Ball, a smoky snooker den at Lal Chowk in the city centre. The parlour is inhabited by 15- to 20-year-olds. And this is their home turf, a place where they escape the tear gas and rubber bullets of the old city—to gamble and smoke all too many cigarettes. Some of the older boys such as Ajaz sometimes walk to the football ground nearby to show off their hairstyles, their sunglasses, their cigarettes, their tattoos and, sometimes, even their girls.
At the parlour, Ajaz lights up a little block of hashish and watches it crumble into his palm. Sajid, a boy with hard cheekbones and a black jacket with a woven trim, empties tobacco from a cigarette with his long fingers. He looks slightly mad for some reason.
Look at these boys closely and there’s a sense of overgrown teenage urgency and escape, the sense that all these details—the parting of the hair, the length of the fingernails, the jacket trim, the cigarette grip—matter greatly.
“Smoking up is haram (sin). But I can’t go through a day without rolling one. It helps us forget,” Ajaz tells me as Sajid grunts in approval.
Ajaz’s cellphone rings with a polyphonic rendition of a song from the Hindi movie Ghajini. It’s his girlfriend Farhana. They flirt awkwardly on the phone, the conversation no different than one two lovers would have in a Mumbai college.
This is the signal to step out. Ajaz first stops at Broadway Cinema, a bombed out theatre, the upper floors of which have now been converted into a bar. A couple of beer cans are procured and cigarette cartons are refilled. Ajaz then picks up Farhana from a pre-decided spot.
Once all of us are in an autorickshaw, Farhana lets Ajaz light her cigarette. She is dressed modestly in a salwar-kameez but she admits to wearing only jeans at home. “I want to go to Mumbai or Delhi, so that I can wear a skirt and be free—just like in the movies,” she tells me as the rickshaw speeds towards their hangout den, Dal Boulevard.
Ajaz waits till we’re in a shikara, or houseboat, to surprise Farhana with a can of beer. She pops it open and takes a sip. The boatman frowns but nonetheless, he manoeuvres the boat further away from the orthodoxy of Srinagar. The couple steal a kiss as a dark plume of smoke makes itself visible over the city. In Srinagar, there’s no time for love.
Photographs by Akshay Mahajan
The writer and photographer of this piece is a 23-year-old photojournalist based in Bangalore and a member of the online photography forum Blindboys.org. Earlier this year, he spent three weeks with the youth featured here. These pictures are part of a larger photographic series documenting youth culture in South Asia.