I had waited all summer in 2010 for the clashes between the security forces and the people to end so I could go to Kashmir for a little while, but when the protests finally subsided it was the middle of autumn. As Srinagar is a summer capital, it comes to life only from April to September each year. I arrived there in November and the town looked gloomy. I travelled to Gulmarg on a day trip with a few friends but the hill station wore a deserted look. Most of the hotels there had already closed for business until the next summer.
We considered ourselves lucky to find a restaurant in a hotel open for lunch. However there were no diners inside. One of my friends asked the solitary waiter if it was possible to order some food. He said they had only plain rice and a dish of meat that is dry and isn’t usually served with rice. I thought it was courageous of the owners to keep their restaurant open when there were no tourists around.
The situation in Kashmir was relatively peaceful towards the end of 2012 and many foreign governments relaxed the advice for their citizens about travelling to Srinagar, and Gulmarg was heralded by the BBC as a new Chamonix. A Polish colleague brought a newspaper from Katowice with him to show me a feature published in its travel pages on Kashmir. I visited Srinagar again in September 2013 when the then German Ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, hosted a concert by the Bavarian State Orchestra in the Shalimar garden on the outskirts of the city. Zubin Mehta performed at this concert. It created a controversy, resulting in a shutdown of shops and businesses in Srinagar and I decided to go to Gulmarg that day.
We drove through a ghost town to reach Gulmarg in a little over an hour. A friend had arranged for us to stay in a cottage owned by the Jammu & Kashmir government. We dropped our bags at the cottage and walked to the far end of Gulmarg, found a newly opened hotel there and stopped by to have dinner in its restaurant. A receptionist at the hotel told me that they had about 20 rooms out of 80 occupied that night. We were having dinner when I received a phone call from the friend who had arranged the cottage for us, informing us that the caretaker was worried because we hadn’t returned yet. It was 10 p.m.
When I returned to Srinagar on 17 August this year, the authorities had imposed a curfew for a continuous 72 hours. An acquaintance of mine in London thought curfew in Srinagar meant that I couldn’t move around during the night but it was other way round – people in the town could venture out of their homes only in the evening.
I wasn’t sure if I had boarded the right flight from Delhi to Srinagar when I saw just a handful of Kashmiri people in the aircraft. The rest of the passengers were mostly moustachioed men in plain clothes who belonged to the security forces. A lone woman accompanying them had an Indian flag pinned to the lapel of her jacket.
A porter came rushing toward me with a trolley as soon as he saw me standing near the luggage carousel. I usually like to carry my own bags but I couldn’t bring myself to say no on this occasion. The main exit of the airport was closed and there was a row of uniformed military men who were perhaps waiting to receive one of their high-ranking officers outside a side door. When one of my relatives drove me to his home near the airport, I heard the crackle of gunfire again after a gap of two decades.
I had no access to the Internet or a phone line, which is ideal if you’re on holiday. But I couldn’t call my parents to let them know that I’’d reached Srinagar safely. The state government had cut off the Internet and most of the phone lines for more than a month to quell protest. I tried to make a call using a local SIM-card but the message that appeared on my phone screen read as ‘Congestion’.
A few hours later, my relative’s neighbour, who subscribed to a government-run mobile service provider and was able to make calls on his phone, appeared with his handset for me to talk to my parents. They had tried in vain to reach the airport to pick me up. It is such small acts of kindness that have kept the people going since the curfew was imposed in mid-July.
Knowing that shops in the town had been shut for many weeks, my friends and acquaintances in London were worried that I might starve in Srinagar if I travelled there. But a thoughtful relative had stocked up groceries for my visit. Visitors to Kashmir find that hospitality is usually elevated to a high moral principle in the Valley. Perhaps that is why an American head teacher in London suggested to me, when I was looking for a job, that I should work in the hospitality industry. I found that most of the people in the town bore their hardships with dignity and I felt guilty that my hosts had gone out of their way to arrange everything for my visit.
I borrowed a transistor radio from a neighbour of theirs to listen to Kashmiri folk music in the evening since the cable TV channels were scrambled. And I borrowed a book, The Veiled Suite by Agha Shahid Ali, from the bookshelf of my relative to while away my time in Kashmir.
It had been some time since I’d picked up the collected works of any poet – the last such book I had read was that of Czeslaw Milosz.
As soon as I started reading Shahid Ali’s book I began to relive the years I had spent in Srinagar in the early 1990s. He receives a neat postcard from Kashmir at his home in America and while holding the four-by-six inch card in his hand he gazes at the half-inch Himalayas.
He has a premonition that perhaps this is the closest he can now get to his ancestral home in Srinagar and the waters of the River Jhelum won’t be ultramarine by the time he returns to Kashmir. But he doesn’t mind if the idea he has of his birthplace is out of date because he knows that he can develop it into a fine portrait, like developing the negative of a photograph.
The current situation in Kashmir reminded me of Borges’ favourite theme of circular time in which things return to where they once were, as many things in Srinagar seem to have come full circle. Telecommunications were disrupted in the early 90s and sometimes people had to travel from Srinagar to Delhi to make an international phone call. I had to phone someone in Delhi to top-up a local SIM I was using. I could receive calls on it but couldn’t dial out. Shahid Ali witnesses the devastation in Kashmir during that time leading people first to despair and rage, then only rage, then only despair.
‘Srinagar hunches like a wild cat,’ he writes, ‘lonely sentries, wretched in bunkers at the city&’s bridges, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to kill’. Shahid has been dead for 15 years now and the scene he describes precedes his death by 10 years but it is a true description of the town right now. He quotes the Roman historian, Tacitus, reporting a British chieftain’s speech which includes the line ‘Solitudinum faciunt et pacem appellant’ – they make a desolation and call it peace.
The mood in Kashmir is one of resignation. However, having gone through the turmoil of the last quarter of a century, the people in the valley have become resilient. I found that socially it’s business as usual in Srinagar. I attended the funerals of an elderly relative and a neighbour and received an invitation to attend a wedding. Businessmen have become oblivious of their losses whereas those who are hard up are suffering in silence.
The groups of young men lurking in the back roads of Srinagar could easily get into trouble by throwing stones at the security forces to overcome their boredom. But it is very difficult for someone who is born and brought up in Kashmir not be troubled by the troubles in the Valley, no matter if the person is living in a faraway country. Shahid describes his émigré life as being like an Adam of two Edens, one who has lost paradise twice, and he has a nightmarish vision of being rowed through paradise on a river of hell.
I could get around in Srinagar on my pushbike. Rumour had it in the town that petrol supplies have been stopped. The petrol stations indeed remained shut and I saw children selling the tawny liquid in small water bottles by the roadside. I left my parents’ home early one morning to cycle to the house of a friend who lives on the slope of a mountain at the edge of Lake Dal and he showed me a stream which I had heard of but never seen before. We took a walk along it to reach Shalimar garden, accompanied by a chorus of cicadas. It offered me a panoramic view of the valley with Lake Dal in the foreground and Koh-e-Maran hill in its middle. The fort built on top of this hill in 1808 was opened to the public again recently after more than twenty years and many people said that Srinagar was going to be the next big tourist destination in Asia.
The peace is always fragile in Kashmir. Before I booked my tickets I’d asked a friend if August was the right time to visit Srinagar. He said it was never the right time to visit the Valley and I could only hope for a peaceful visit. I would have liked to stay in a guesthouse called Dar-es-Salam (which means
House of Peace) overlooking Lake Nagin but I stayed at my parents’ home and, while there, Agha Shahid’s The Veiled Suite transported me to a House of Sorrow.
The poet accompanies the coffin of his mother, who died of brain cancer, in a Lufthansa flight from America for burial in his ancestral graveyard in Kashmir. Shahid’s grief for his dead mother turns into grief for his lost homeland in the elegies he writes on this journey. He has imagined that he is the only passenger on a flight from Delhi to Srinagar. I was awoken from a similar dream when I flew from London to New Delhi to catch a connecting flight to Srinagar.
While cycling in Srinagar, I passed the high-school I attended and came across a private house at its rear occupied by security forces personnel, one of whom was watching the residents of this neighbourhood from a bunker built on the front lawn. The gates of Badamwari, where almond trees blossom in the spring, were closed and a plastic tarpaulin hung over them so that no one could have a peek.
The nearby temple of Amar Koul was padlocked. It reminded me of a long-haired Englishman who worshipped at this temple from morning till evening during my childhood. The road leading to the top of the Koh-e-Maran hill, once the route of my morning run, was barricaded and an alert paramilitary man armed with a machine gun stood behind a bullet-proof van. I walked down the road and saw a signboard pitched by the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation pointing toward a boat club.
I thought perhaps this road would lead me to a Ghat on Lake Nagin but I saw the watchtowers of the Central Jail along it. The road was desolate. There was a small house at the bottom of the road but I wasn’t sure if it was occupied by the paramilitary troops and didn’t want to trespass and end up in hospital in my beloved Kashmir.
The Statesman Awards for Rural Reporting will be presented tomorrow (16 September) at Kala Mandir, Kolkata and followed by a panel discussion on “It will take a lot for Delhi to regain the Kashmir plot”.