Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Valley Girl



You expect to see security when you land in Srinagar, but the sheer number of army personnel still takes you by surprise. I had promised myself to enjoy this break in Kashmir without getting involved in any political conversations, especially since I was totally unsure if you should strike up a conversation with the local fisherman about whether he preferred India or Pakistan. Is there any etiquette to this? Can it quickly become violent? Do I want this in the five days that I am here for some R&R?

Kashmir, you all know, is stunning. It was still winter there, so the landscape was a mix of grey and brown. One of the first things I noticed was that unlike other villages and small towns I go to, none of the houses were painted in colors. Especially in the countryside, the homes with their steel slanting roofs, remain true to their brick color. The few that were painted kept a low profile, opting for a muted green. As we drove to our hotel, the fantastic Dar-es-Salam on Nagin Lake, I couldn't help but smile at how completely different the landscape looked from all the other places I've been travelling to recently. I've become used to the Goan beaches, and the hills of Mussurie, and most small towns of India can't help but look alike with the malls, insane traffic and lack of trashcans. Kashmir felt different, special.

I have these memories of going to Kashmir with my family when I was really little. They've been made stronger over the years because of photographs. I don't know if I actually remember playing in the snow, or the apples, or my grandmothers houses, or if I think I do because I see pictures. It doesn't matter, really. Though unfamiliar, it just felt so familiar to me. But what I didn't expect to be smacked in the face with was the overwhelming sense of poverty. Maybe it was the bleak colors of winter, or the almost uniform sense of dressing (phiran), or the lack of tourists which made the city seem sleepy, gloomy, peaceful all at the same time, but honestly, I didn't know what to make of it. Kundan, from the region, told me that his father had told him that in Kashmir, people aren't poor, they still eat two meals of meat everyday. Looking at the fat cheeks of most kids around, I hoped this is still true.

Shops had Hurriyat posters, though my mother said that might have been for the same reason that in Mumbai people have Shiv Sena signs -- to be left alone. But, while looking for walnuts and salwar kameezes, it felt unsettling. But the people took that feeling away with their charm and simplicity. It is a place stuck in time, and the sense of waste -- of resources and of energy -- is overwhelming.

Let me explain -- we drove from Srinagar to Gulmarg for a night. We started at 10:30 in the morning and reached the small village of Magam, which we had to cross to get to Gulmarg. We were told that there there had been some trouble between the Sunnis and Shias, and two houses had been burnt. Trouble over land allocated for a mosque. All the taxi drivers who were also similarly stranded with us made sure they stressed that this was a "local conflict" as opposed to terror/freedom fighter/what-have-you driven. A convoy of army trucks loaded with weapons went into the village, and after an hour we wondered how long this would take. We are busy getting calls from friends in Gulmarg that this could take a few hours. I was on bbm with Kundan who told me that sometimes the curfew lasts longer than necessary, and local hawkers selling tea, coffee, biscuits and the like, make a tiny profit. Almost on cue, food arrived.

When we finally did make it through Magam, it was an odd sight. All shops were shut down, and since all shutters had been painted by Vodafone, it seemed like we were driving through a big commercial. The army personnel and jeeps station at very regular intervals brought an sense of danger and safety at the same time. If my cab driver hadn't been happily reuniting and chatting away with other cabbies during the curfew, I think we would have been rather worried. But normalcy of it all, coupled by the rain that seemed to say 'everyone get indoors' kept the mood upbeat yet under the radar. But our task wasn't over yet. Army barricades didn't allow us to go through although for no particular reason. One friendly army man told us to tell his senior up ahead that we were just going a little further up, to our house ahead of Magam. I thanked my Kashmiri last name, cause the story could be believable! It took a lot of cajoling and pleading. Finally, I think we were let go since we had place in our taxi for two people who needed a lift to their villages on the way to Gulmarg. I suspect some of the army chaps charge for providing this transportation service to locals. Once on our way, our cabbie was muttering that all the army guys are correupt and can be bribed. I decided to keep quiet.

Gulmarg was the amazing ski town I expected it to be -- and then some. To be honest, I really had no idea how popular it was. Not a skier, I was looking forward to a Gondola ride the most. Just as we were about to hop in and get a panoramic view of Gulmarg, a three policemen got into the same Gondola. They were with a senior government official, here for a visit. I tried to make conversation. "So who's here?" (No response). "Don't worry, I come from Delhi where all the VIPs of India live" (No response).

On the way back, a special taxi with snow tires was summoned to take us down from Gulmarg. Fifteen minutes into our downhill drive, we realised that traffic was backed up. 22 army trucks were coming up the hill and needed place. One of them hit our cab at the back. While we sat in the cab for an hour, our cabbie (again having reunions) brought all the taxi drivers and assorted hangers on to show them the damage. Finally, on the way down, when we passed some officers standing on the road, our cabbie called out to them to say "you have damaged my cab .. who will pay for this?" Once out of the army area, he told us that this (and a million other reasons) is why Kashmiris hate the army.

The next cab that took us back to Srinagar was driven by a more gentler chap. His father had been a cab driver, only to have his ambassador blown up 12 years ago in an attack. A hotel owner had been kind enough to help his family buy another taxi. Finally, I succumbed to all the questions in my head and asked him what he thought about India, Pakistan, Kashmir. A focused sort of chap, he just wanted Kashmir to have more tourism so that he could have more business. "Open up Kashmir to India and remove special status?", I asked. "Yes," he said.

Potential is the word that comes to mind after you have done being astounded by Kashmir's natural beauty. While on the shikara, enjoying a peaceful boat ride, enterprising salesmen come up to you, locking their shikara with yours and offer a range of products -- paper mache products, earrings, seeds. (Yes, seeds). At the Mughal Gardens, they waste no time in dressing you up as a local Kashmiri girl (for those who know me, yes, I was a very willing participant) and start taking pictures till you realise you cannot afford to get a whole portfolio shown. Even at the foothills of Gulmarg, where you need to change into a taxi with snow tires, you are caught by locals and told that the "government doesn't allow you to go upto Gulmarg unless you rent boots and jackets from them." (Ya, right!)

In the end, there is deep sense of belonging that people have in Kashmir, more than I have experience in any other part of the country. Maybe its because they don't belong anywhere else but here. Or that they still don't know what "here" is. There were times I felt relief that I was able to say "I am Kashmiri" or "Did you know Vimla Kaul of Srinagar?" because suddenly I belonged too.

I need more time there. So, the moment the flowers bloom, I'm going back!

17 comments:

Ishita Yadav said...

Really enjoyed reading this. I had a COMPLETELY different picture of Kashmir in my head and this piece changes it.

Alec said...

Excellent post. You have given a vivid descriptiom of state of affairs in kashmir. I follow your blog and like your lucid writing style. Do write more frequently.

Ishan said...

so basically delhiwallas , throw names even when they are not in delhi ! i dont think indian pm has the same ring in kashmir as say in any other part of the country

it is very sad that kashmir is stuck in a time wrap ,
blaming the army is like blaming the courier guy , hopefully there is a solution around the corner

!!! said...

And who told you Kashmiri's were poverty striken? Just coz u saw people huddled in phiran's during winter doesnt make them poor...hahahaa!

Even though Kashmir has been on very low on tourism revenue for 2 decades, how many starvation deaths did u hear of from Kashmir in those 2 decades?

Or - for that matter - its much much colder in Kashmir than on streets of Delhi in winter... But have u ever heard of anyone die of coldwave in kashmir?

Everyone there has a roof and two square meals for sure... The slums arrived only recently - all Bihari migrant labourers...

mahima said...

Listen you guys need to chill out. I am telling you what I saw. I am not claiming to have carried out surveys or a census or what have you.

For 'Ishan' .. I live in a part of town in Delhi where security for the PM, guests etc constantly means roads get shut down, offices too.. so I was trying to lighten the mood when I said that. I wish people would not take themselves so seriously, but sadly, we are a people who can't relax. But I do agree with you, being from an army background (my grandfather. and my uncle in the navy)... hope a solution is near. The army policing a town is unnecessary... we hope.

For '!!!' .. I never said everyone IS poor. I said you can see poverty around you.

mahima said...

Alec... thanks! I'll try and be more frequent.. and better!

Ishan said...

i am from delhi too , i understand where that comment must have come from ,

Alec said...

shall appreciate if you could check out my blog too and give your suggestions and comments. There is a piece on the media too which could be of interest to you. looking forward to your comments.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mahima - My name is Muzamil and I report for Express from Kashmir. I wanted to tell you how happy I felt after reading your blog. Your impressions about this place are very honest and sum up both the story of our lives and the times we live in perfectly well. You may have lived all your life outside Kashmir, your voice and the tone in this piece does not show that at all. You are a Kashmiri and trust me a Kashmiri remains a Kashmiri always. And yes, you will always belong here because the chasm – both real and imaginary - between communities and the divisive politics based on religion has not still made its way to the hearts of majority of the people. Hopefully, it will never so that one day, we regain the Kashmir of our forefathers when my grandma proudly announced that her great grandfather was called Datatari Ganesh Koul.

I was going through the few responses to your blog and it again reinforced my belief that one of the biggest tragedies for us is this never ending mutual mistrust. Even a simple blog based on observations of a Kashmiri who has returned home as a tourist for few days cannot escape politics. You too needed to invoke your family’s army background.

Regarding poverty in Kashmir, it is incorrect to think that every Kashmiri is born to privilege, lickin' on a silver spoon – if I may borrow a line from the lyrics of "The Wolf". There are two Kashmir’s – the bubble of Srinagar city with a five kilometer radius and the rural Kashmir where poverty is still a norm. My little village, on the banks of fresh water stream Arin, has had five Ph D’s in 1970 but even today you will see thatched roofs and shacks. Even education could not bring much change because the political turmoil and conflict have suspended real progress.

I too hope that a solution is near – this mayhem has been going on for too long now. Next time, you must try and dig a bit deeper – you will find pain behind those smiling faces. I have yet to find a family that has escaped a tragedy in last two decades. But then we grow irises in our graveyards too. Do keep coming and writing –

Regards,

muzamil

Anonymous said...

Hi Mahima - My name is Muzamil and I report for Express from Kashmir. I wanted to tell you how happy I felt after reading your blog. Your impressions about this place are very honest and sum up both the story of our lives and the times we live in perfectly well. You may have lived all your life outside Kashmir, your voice and the tone in this piece does not show that at all. You are a Kashmiri and trust me a Kashmiri remains a Kashmiri always. And yes, you will always belong here because the chasm – both real and imaginary - between communities and the divisive politics based on religion has not still made its way to the hearts of majority of the people. Hopefully, it will never so that one day, we regain the Kashmir of our forefathers when my grandma proudly announced that her great grandfather was called Datatari Ganesh Koul.

I was going through the few responses to your blog and it again reinforced my belief that one of the biggest tragedies for us is this never ending mutual mistrust. Even a simple blog based on observations of a Kashmiri who has returned home as a tourist for few days cannot escape politics. You too needed to invoke your family’s army background.

Regarding poverty in Kashmir, it is incorrect to think that every Kashmiri is born to privilege, lickin' on a silver spoon – if I may borrow a line from the lyrics of "The Wolf". There are two Kashmir’s – the bubble of Srinagar city with a five kilometer radius and the rural Kashmir where poverty is still a norm. My little village, on the banks of fresh water stream Arin, has had five Ph D’s in 1970 but even today you will see thatched roofs and shacks. Even education could not bring much change because the political turmoil and conflict have suspended real progress.

I too hope that a solution is near – this mayhem has been going on for too long now. Next time, you must try and dig a bit deeper – you will find pain behind those smiling faces. I have yet to find a family that has escaped a tragedy in last two decades. But then we grow irises in our graveyards too. Do keep coming and writing –

Regards,

muzamil

mahima said...

Thanks so much Muzamil...

You are right about digging deeper. And I really must do.

I didn't mention a few things when I wrote this - oversight - like how many men I saw, including my cab drivers - had scars from burns. One man had a missing finger. When I asked they always shrugged it off as a "minor accident".

Another was, the friendly army guy was carrying a tear gas can.

Speaks volumes!Thanks so much for your kind words though..

@ Alec, I certainly will!

Cy said...

Enjoyed this.

You should blog about this for Dawn - I think readers here would find it very interesting.

The Dude said...

ah.. I know just what you mean..
Its been about a year since my last visit and I began missing it even before I left to come home..

its like a land apart and outside of srinagar all the more so.. and poverty wise its better off then most of India, its just located in a shitty, shitty part of the world - literally stuck in the middle of some of the craziest people alive.

someday, someday..

辰原 said...

當我微笑時,世界和我一起微笑;當我快樂時,世界和我一起活躍。 ..................................................

egg style said...

Nothing’s awesome that’s not beyond us. Even so, any place that’s called ‘paradise on earth’ over and over deserves a visit, a revisit, a re-revisit, and then some. Kashmir, at its natural best, is the sort of beauty that lingers long in eyes given to beauty. Kashmir has sparkling streams, cool breeze, pristine pastures, and also, as luck would have it, some of the succulently ripened fruit (also a common metaphor for reward) that inspires so many clowns to get their tongues and libidos in a twist, drawing outrageous images busty enough to survive mythbusters :)

Anyhow, the point is: the beauty of Kashmir is not in the garble, but in the sense of peace it offers (okay, potentially... even if it’s only an outline, and a somewhat fuzzy one, at the moment). If you haven’t read Shalimar the Clown yet, suggest you do. And yeah, Nagin lake’s lovely, far from the bustle on the other side. There’s a small bridge next to the charming little hotel you speak of. On our last trip to Srinagar a few years ago, we stayed in a houseboat just off the other side of that bridge! A coincidence, but not beyond the realm of probability!

Anonymous said...

Mahima, have you read Basharat Peer's book Curfewed Night? It is rivetting, absolutely rivetting, the definitive book on the vicious cycle crisis of militancy and oppression there. The Economist of London has put out a glowing review as well recently, saying Peer has raised the political narrative to an art form.

mahima said...

Hi .. no I haven't. God I really need a lost of books. I picked up something at the airport but I've realised I need to stop buying books at the airport and spend more time at book stores like i used to do!