Lal chowk is the stage on which the drama of Kashmir is enacted. It is not only the buzz of the crowded bazaar, the harsh honking of hopelessly jammed traffic, the chaotic sprawl of pavement vendors, but also the hangover of history and the play of day-to-day political theatre that make this market square a throbbing heart of the Valley. But three weeks after the flood sank it, the receded waters have left behind a deafening hush and an unrelieved spread of black and grey where once garish signboards and bustling retail stores competed for attention.
The Jhelum had overflowed into the market on the evening of 7 September soon after breaching the bund near the mooring place for boats. Water rushed down to the road, catching people unawares, sweeping away cars and entering the long rows of closed shops, offices and restaurants. Overnight, it rose inch by inch to touch 10 feet and more. The residents in the area ascended to the second and third floors of their houses, and those who had only one storey, rushed to the tallest structure nearby.
The office boys at regional English newspaper Greater Kashmir could barely carry some desktops to the second floor of their two-storey building when the rising waters forced them to abandon the effort and head to the adjacent four-storey apartment-cum-office block.
Like most of Srinagar, Lal Chowk was under water for 10 days with boats criss-crossing its inundated roads for relief and rescue. The flooded Lal Chowk, with the marooned Ghanta Ghar, a red-brick clock tower, became the defining image of the deluge.
And Lal Chowk, which has been retrieved from the water after days of draining with heavy-duty pumps, is now a wasteland. The destroyed merchandise lies outside shops in rows of giant muddy mounds — rotting provisions such as rice, spices and dal, slush-soaked ready-to-wear garments, hotel refuse, books and stationery heaps, strewn televisions and desktops, scattered jewellery cases and a bewildering variety of goods sold at the market.
A JCB machine hauls the dump on to the waiting tippers to be deposited at faraway designated spots outside Srinagar. Owners clean the gapping hollows of their shops with hosepipes. Some of them tired after the work, draw on cigarettes on the steps outside; others salvage whatever they can from their soaked merchandise. Fewer people walk the pavements, still fewer vehicles ply.
The familiar landmarks such as the clock tower that once stood out in the bustle have now merged in the undifferentiated expanse of grey. And in their place, hitherto obscured features and spaces are pushing themselves into view — old hotels I never knew existed and the small lanes I had never seen.
This includes the now open space of the portion of the square where it all began for Kashmir — the state’s own version of the original sin. It was here at a public meeting in 1947 that Jawaharlal Nehru pledged a plebiscite for Kashmir, a word that has since recurrently echoed through the troubled political discourse of the state and its multifarious narratives. Ever since, Lal Chowk has been the destination of countless political rallies, protests and dharnas, which referred to Nehru’s Lal Chowk speech.
All small and big politicians have headed here to increase the reach of their message and benefit from the limelight it offered. In January 1992, it was the destination of the then BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi, who visited the square with his supporters to raise the national flag on its clock tower. And by his side was an inconspicuous Narendra Modi, now the prime minister of India.
Lal Chowk has also been the scene of numerous shootings, grenade blasts and fidayeen attacks, which have shed the blood of scores of people. And it has also been the stage for activists and non-governmental organisations of all shades to flaunt their concerns, and for social and trade organisations to air their issues.
But the stage is now empty. There are no players and no audience. And for once, the unremitting Kashmir drama, which fuelled political and ideological battles far beyond its borders and kept India and Pakistan preoccupied, has stopped playing.