I land at the airport, unusually greeted by the sight of army bunkers, armed troops and a strange excitement in my heart at the prospect of having made my first trip to Kashmir. Kashmir holds the title of the most romantic destinations in India – glorified of course by the bollywood of the 70s. Its appropriate that I am making this trip with my first love.
The route to the hotel is stunningly quiet, the driver not volunteering too much information. My eyes greedily take in all the sights. I feel nervous and curious at the same time. The army presence looms large. The shops and streets look deserted. We pass various landmarks – Abdullah’s mansion, Mufti’s house, Karan Singh’s estate – all important pawns/actors in the political destiny of Kashmir.
A perfect start to the holiday with a shikhara ride on the Dal Lake. The lake is tranquil and beautiful on the surface – reflecting many colours and shadows and constantly fighting a battle of supremacy against the weeds which threaten to overcome it – not too different from the plight of Srinagar battling for peace against invaders, governmental and otherwise!
My husband and I share few words during the ride – furiously clicking photos to permanently capture our memories and enjoying the serenity of the lake. I am pleasantly surprised to not see too many shikharas crossing our paths. We drift around and get a slice of kashmiri commerce. The floating shops selling tibetan jewellery and dahlias. The kava man with his sweet almond concoction. The wily gardener with flower seeds for the “hot weather”. The photographer with his boat studio, fully equipped with traditional costumes. “Madam, Kashmir ki Kali jaise photo lo”. Every scene living up to the stereotype of Kashmir, yet absolutely enchanting.
I suddenly catch sight of two women in pherans, locals from their appearance, furiously rowing a boat. I ask the Shikharawala and he explains that locals commonly use boats as a means of transport. It was a glorious sight – a paradox of sorts – burqas with boat rowing skills!
Starting off another day. Our hotel concierge reminds us of the expected curfews on account of independence day – today for Pakistan, tomorrow for India. We better stay indoors! What a disappointment! We however decide to make the most of today.
Our driver, ghulam ahmed, is again a local and fortunately much more talkative. We spent a pleasant half day visiting the famed Mughal Gardens – Nishat bagh and shalimar bagh made a big impact on me. The lovely fountains, the sweet tinkling of water and the beautifully carved wooden pavilions. Heard some explosions. Was worried for a couple of minutes. No one around me panicked. Guess all’s normal.
We ventured off to Hazratbal. The army jawans stopped us at the gate and whispered that its namaaz time – not a great idea to enter. We were better off walking around the mosque. We took the back entrance. Felt completely out of place – like intruders, invaders. Everyone turning and staring. Maybe my sunglasses or the lack of an odhni or perhaps the cameras – desecretion of a holy place?
Women, not permitted to enter the prayer hall, were washing up and saying their prayers on the mosque lawns. Eyes closed, hearts devout, yet not equal to men! Men rushing with polythene bags, possibly containing their prayer mats and qurans, a little late for their prayers. Boats with devotees streaming in from the Dal Lake. I took in the sights and felt a sense of the real kashmir. The gardens were for the tourists. This was the real congregation place, the great equaliser for all kashmiris.
Got a glimpse of the old city – charred houses, broken windows and again army checkposts. A warzone set up against the peace of the holy shrine – on one unfortunate occasion, also pervading within the shrine. Was tempted to take a stroll, but couldnt gather courage. Felt drawn to the stalls selling ramzan sweetmeats outside the mosque – but again felt awkward and out of place.
Srinagar confounds me. Makes me proud that it is a part of India – with all its beauty and charm. Yet makes me strangely guilty and ashamed that the Indian Government in no small measure is also responsible for its current state. I hear from the locals that Nehru had the naturally cold spring water from Cheshmashahi, the royal springs, flown to delhi. As one of the key architects of this problem of Kashmir, I wish he had got his priorities right!
I gave baksheesh to an old beggar woman and then the mali at shalimar. Certainly uncharacteristic of me ! Appeasement of this subconscious guilt.
Such a deep cover of peace and beauty shrouds the valley. I wonder how one could be roused to violence amidst such stillness, what strong triggers would be needed? My days in Srinagar mean a break from the routine – my chance to grab peace and happiness – ironical that I seek peace in a city which gives its residents nothing but curfews, blasts and protests. No restaurants or shops are open till late. No nightly celebrations possible for iftehaar. Nor can you take a leisurely walk alongside the Dal without being questioned. Employment suffers as peace does – tourism wanes. The local leadership builds golf courses, while the state burns. A constant vigil is needed to spot outsiders – potential militants. The distrust of neighbours. Forcible evacuation of houses by the Dal Lake for security reasons. I can sympathise with the resentment. And with the need for Kashmiriyat.