Tuesday, March 02, 2010
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!