This August I travelled to Srinagar after a gap of five years. The fact that it is home to my elder sister and family for nearly four decades makes it less of a tourist destination and more of a home. The Kashmir of the late seventies when I first visited it of 2017 is so much different. In fact it was so different in 2012. While the scars of political battles were amply visible but thankfully Mother Nature seemed unaffected. But the flood fury of Sept 2014, appears to have taken a heavy toll both on the psyche of the local population as well as their surroundings.
Desolate and unkempt the huge mansions today give an impression of glorious yesteryears. Circumstantial migration of the younger people in search of safer and better job opportunities is never more evident than in Srinagar. Apart from the material loss there seems to have set in a gloom, a depression that may not be visible on the surface but rub a little and it is there in the eyes of each one, not withstanding the strata they hail from. The massacre of the Amarnath yatris a month before in July has also deeply affected the Kashmris. They are seething with anger at having been made scapegoats while politicians drew political mileage from this gruesome attac that has been condemned the world over.
“It certainly could not have been done by Kashmiris. How could we have cut our own economic lifeline, the yatris provided us business…” was how a shawl seller explained the attack on the Hindu pilgrims. But is anyone listening? Does not seem to. After this incident the world appears to have build stronger walls around itself to keep the Kashmiris out.
Some of the ‘journalistic trade tools’ I always use when attempting to gauge the true spirit of a region is to use local transport and to converse as much as possible with the locals and to eat their food. I did all these in 1995, too when the embers of militancy had still not cooled down. In fact I remember walked down several barricades and army posts insisting on locating my bank Central Bank Of India. It took a while and I discovered it finally cocooned inside the branch of Bank of Kashmir. I learnt that day that unlike what I believed till now anything with ‘India” was a potential threat and had to be protected.
Indeed a brave attempt for which I had to got a dressing down when I returned to the safety of the house. I was told not to take risks and go on foolish junkets as they could be life –threatening. But I still recall the joy I saw on the face of the banker when he saw that someone from as far off as Lucknow had come to do transactions at his branch. The poor man almost fell off his chair and was ready to even to raise my withdraw limit if I needed it. Maybe it was his way of protecting me from the risk of making another trip to the bank again. As I walked back I silently prayed for peace in the region.
But this time too despite strong reservation by my brother in law and nephew and their repeated r offer to drive me down I sneaked out several times embalmed with my journalistic spirit and a strong belief that for authentic psycho-analysis of a region you have got to mingle with the locals. I took autos and yes also the bus.
During my one week stay I was very keen to see how it feels like to be out on the streets of Srinagar on Friday. I was told that protests and violence outburst is timed after Friday prayers. I purposely chose to travel on Srinagar streets on Thursday and again on Friday.
I chose to travel by the local buses which have always intrigued me. They are actually shaped like the hearse carriers we see in our cites of Uttar Pradesh. V compact they have low ceilings and one has to bend to travel. I have in my infrequent travels not seen any eve-teasing through school girls and females form a large chunk of the travelers. In fact the people are very accommodating and a large section from even upper middle class travels by bus though automobiles are growing in numbers each year.
A sign in English stood out solely amidst Urdu captions and made me smile. It read “1-9 reserved for ladies” The line underneath read ‘handicapped seats.’ Thursday seemed like any other day. I walked down to the regional tourist Centre, there were tourists around and touts for booking passengers to different parts of Kashmir. I met a few officers I knew, did some shopping and returned home before it was dark. Friday morning I repeated the exercise. I chose the same area. To my surprise there was lot of force in these places which had none on Thursday. The floating population was sparse and I could feel a palpable tension in the air. I did not wish to keep my sister on tender hooks and returned home before Friday prayers started. It was a relief that the day remained peaceful.
Kashmiris are despite all that they have gone through are very hospitable and know how to treat visitors. Yet they have a complaint with the tourists. “They come here, enjoy our hospitality and scenic beauty and go back and totally forget to talk about it. Maybe they purposely do not wish to convey to the world the true spirit of us Kashmiris. This coming from a Kashmiri doctor made me think. Do they really feel helpless and cheated. Has deaths of near ones made them think so. In fact come to think of it death seems to have lost its seriousness in the Valley. I would like to illustrate this with a true incident. A carpenter who had left work incomplete at my sister’s house because his wife was ill returned after a gap. When asked by my sister if his wife was okay he said “Jee, wo ab theek hai,” My sister sighed in relief and was happy that Allah had shown mercy on his little children just to be told minutes later by my brother in law that the lady had passed away. When my sister asked the carpenter why he said otherwise he said,.”What can I tell, God’s will. So many young people are dying so how can I mourn her death.”
His statement left me speechless. It still haunts me. The man was being so honest and so blunt. In the scenario where young are dying in huge numbers, death appears to have lost its novelty, it is accepted as a way of life. Talking about it or giving it undue importance is sort of flashy.
During my flight back home I could not but think of the people of Kashmir. Their travails and their fight. Many of them have long left the place and found more jobs from what is regarded as paradise on earth. But their hearts and souls are still entranced in the valley. Those left behind are like zombies, focused on survival and sans any human emotions.