Tao Cafe Of Kashmiri Militancy

8 June 2008
Etalaat News Service

Srinagar: It may not have anything to do with the fact that Tao Café was the first restaurant in Srinagar that served Chinese food. But it is said that gossip and whispers emanating from Tao Café travel across the Valley spicing up local political discourse. 'Perhaps the chimney of my café is the source of Chinese whispers,' says the gleeful owner Ghulam Hassan. Hassan, 67, sits behind a 150- year-old wooden desk inside Tao Café at Residency Road, while politicians, journalists, artists and intellectuals sit under the more than 400 years old giant Chinar trees in the garden discussing rumour and reality with equal fervour. Ghulam Hassan has been running Tao Café since 1984, and it was his great-grandfather who started 'Suffering Moses' in 1840, perhaps the most well-known Kashmiri handicrafts showroom around the world. 'It is not for the money, but for our pleasure that we are running it,' Hassan says proudly. The garden is closed only when it snows and then regular Tao visitors experience the cozy interiors of this small restaurant. The café structure was built sometime around 1905 by a Parsi settler, Dhanji Bhouy, as his residence. 'I heard from my elders that it soon turned into a salon as Bhouy's friends would visit him all the time to enjoy the shade of the Chinars,' Hassan recounts. The house was sold in 1968. 'We still retain the vegetable garden and the well Bhouy had dug,' says Hassan. Bhouy was a mail contractor for the erstwhile Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir when mail and parcels were sent out via Muzaffarabad, now in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It explains why he built the house next to what became the General Post Office of Srinagar. Before insurgency erupted in the state in 1989, Tao Café was filled with foreigners. Some still come because of Hassan. 'It is as much a pleasure for me as it is for our customers,' says Hassan. 'And I get to hear all the news and gossip from across the world sitting here.' You will see journalists discussing stories for their newspapers, politicians keeping an ear to know what their rivals are saying, and others processing the tattle to make it real stuff. 'The Kashmir conflict plays out for me here every day in the most civilized manner,' says a visitor not wishing to be named. Even during the early 1990s when times were really bad, there was not a single day when the café was closed. 'We had to keep it open to keep the name going,' Hassan says with a certain degree of satisfaction. Tao Café has entered travel guides and travelogues written by numerous visitors to Kashmir. Hassan keeps the copies with great pride in the chest of his old wooden desk which he inherited from Bhouy. I asked Hassan if I could peep into his 150-year-old prized desk. He allowed it, and out came a comic strip done by a European visitor who had sent a copy to Hassan. It read like this: What is Tao?- It is that which cannot be named- Er…what cannot be named? Tao Think you just named it!...So you know what Tao is?- To not know Tao is to know it.- Hah! So I knew it all along.'