I am still in stupor. The Bangalore roads could very well be the Srinagar or Pahlagam roads – wet, weathered and bumpy with the frequent rains, chilly winds. The only missing element seems to be the presence of the army. I almost expect the conversation that flows past me to be in Hindhi or Kashmiri and when I hear Kannada, I realize I am back home.
Kashmir is a stuff of legends. Down south, we have grown up hearing about it; reading the news which frequently would carry some mention of Kashmir; consuming the stories of Siachen and Kargil; imagining the beauty of the snow capped peaks, lush valleys, gushing rivers, fair complexioned women; it felt like Neverland, sadly ravaged by terrorism and violence and off late natural disasters.
I still remember my excitement when I flew into Jammu airport 7 years ago, my first foray into the region. Thrilled, I took out my camera and started clicking pictures only to cause distress among the army personnel who came running to stop me. Little did I realize that airports are restricted regions where photography is prohibited for security reasons.
Until you are physically there, it is hard to imagine the reality of the security threat and the sensitivity of the region just as it is hard to visualsize how picture perfect the place is. The air was crisp and cool when we landed in Srinagar and everything looked deceivingly fresh and inviting. But as we headed out the airport into the city, the presence of the army was too real to ignore. The school bus with sleepy kids next to you at the traffic seems out of place. The roads are dusty and traffic smoke chokes you and you wonder what a magnificent tourist town this could have been if it had been left alone.
The beauty of the valley that Kashmir is so famous for takes shape as you drive out of the city and across Pampore’s famous saffron fields. Emerald green waters gushing through streams and waterfalls in every direction; Walnut trees laden with fruits;Apple orchards getting ready for the season; Peach trees ripe for harvest; Stores selling dry fruits and saffron came into view. And then the skies clear for a moment and there they are, the magnificent Himalayan peaks, towering over the clouds.
Stuff of legends! I could clearly see why everyone falls in love with the place and why Jawaharlal Nehru would have loathed the very idea of not having it as a part of India. After all, this was home for him in addition to being a place unlike any other in India.
After 3 gorgeous days in the Pahalgam region as we started our drive south to Jammu, Kashmir tugged my heart. An inexplicable sense of loss hit me. Kashmir was all that I expected it to be and some more.
We want to believe the golden story that is Kashmir. We would love to think that things are in the mend and tourism is back to its glory.
But then you see the conflict in every interaction.
The guide who takes you up Amarnath on his horse explains proudly how he can handle eight horses single handedly on the treacherous Baltal route but then switches to ask if you are traveling alone and suggests that you should “gift” your wrist watch as a token of appreciation for his services.
The main roads are well laid and are constantly serviced to keep the military vehicles running hiding right behind them the back alleys that are narrow with overflowing sewage and horse droppings.
The shikara ride turns into a mandatory shopping ride with your boatsman deliberately taking you close to other boats selling all kinds of junk and at the same time tries to get you to enjoy most of the Dal lake within the hours negotiated.
The influx of tourists turning hillsides into plastic graveyards.
The history that takes you completely by surprise when you walk through the imposing Hindu Temple ruins of Awantipura and Mattan.
The impressive handicrafts that are blatantly overpriced and you know for a fact is available close home for same or cheaper rate in the innumerable Kashmir Emporiums all over India.
The Srinagar you see in Professor Wakhlu’s engaging biography of Kashmir’s nightingale Habba Khatoon seems all but non existent. There is an entire generation that has grown up without a secure sense of home and depending largely on tourism and handcrafts for livelihood. There is a lack of leadership willing to put party differences aside and focus on reviving the culture, economy and the envrionment. Dose of reality strikes from time to time like when a terrorist was captured close to Udampur right in the middle of our stay at Pahalgam.
And yet the mountains smile and I can’t wait to go back again.