Random notes on Kashmir
"Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
This is home. And this the closest
I'll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won't be so brilliant,
the Jhelum's waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
And my memory will be a little
out of focus, it in
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped".
Lines from Post card from Kashmir by Kashmir's greatest modern poet in English, Agha Shahid Ali (1949 - 2001).
These days not many people go to 400 years old Pari Mahal built on a snow-capped mountain overlooking the majestic Dal Lake. Like most monuments, Pari Mahal is also in ruins. Some pervert tourists have inscribed their names on the century old stonewalls, defacing the monument. But last two summers; the wall was defaced with a large graffiti tag. While many local residents were horrified by the vandalism, the tag remains a part of the Pari Mahal. Recently, the wall was hit yet again, with an even larger bubble-letter tag covering most of the memorial.
Like rest of India, graffiti writers even in Kashmir are increasingly targeting monuments, graves and national heritage sites. The visitors have to deal also with the intimidating look of the AK-47 weilding, stone faced security forces all over the area. They outnumber visitors in the valley. Some brave lovelorn youth stealthily enter the area and hide behind century old walls and ramparts to spend or catch a few intimate moments.
One must visit Pari Mahal at least to catch a full view of idyllic Dal lake, a wide expanse of placid water shimmering in the sunlight, houseboats standing perfectly still in the waters, snow capped mountains and majestic Chinar trees swaying in the breeze by the shores.
As a brochure of Kashmir Tourism says " the pictorial beauty of the Dal Lake in Srinagar will surely captivate you. Enjoying the scenic beauty of the lake and its surroundings while sitting in a gorgeous shikara is an experience that you can cherish throughout your life. Often you can see a kingfisher, dazzling your eyes with its color, giving a dive into the water. Adding to the beauty are the water lilies and other water flowers. Other than the houseboats, you can also enjoy kayaking, canoeing and water surfing in the Dal Lake ".
But, I was more interested in the surroundings of the lake. A long, aimless walk on the boulevard on the banks of Dal Lake is a liftime experience. On a freezing cold afternoon, I walked 13 KM from the crowded Regal chowk to Nishat Bhag, the glorious Mughal garden on its shores. Out of about five hundred gardens laid down in 16th to 17th century, only a few still survive. The Boulevard road is lined with Hotels and Restaurants suiting every budget. But, most are empty these days. Amarnath conflict and global recession have spoiled the tourism industry, which was almost dead for 10 years, during the height of militancy in the valley. It is very sad to see thousands of pale, helpless faces of tour operators, houseboat owners and hotel employees. I met only a handful of tourists during my 100-minute long walk on the boulevard by the lake.
Two boys (children of Shikara owners and boatmen) were playing Golf with a wooden stick and a worn out Golf ball on the banks of Dal Lake! They posed for a photo like Tiger Woods!
Locals say weather and ' situation ' can change in Srinagar in just a minute. Situation is a euphemism for incidents of blasts and gun fighting in Kashmir. For the outsiders, Srinagar still looks like a calm, quiet, serene, peaceful place lost in the time. Traffic looks normal, people wearing phirans jostle for space on the over crowded pavements and the shops of all sizes and shapes doing normal business. But, a minor spark can burn all that in a matter of minutes. Kashmiris know that better than anybody else. Because of that they refuse to buy stories about peace and development in the valley. Strangely peace and violence co-exist here.
Gulshan Books in Regal Chowk has a great collection of rare books on Kashmir. The informal atmosphere and its ever-smiling owner make browsing and buying a memorable experience.
" Kashmir sells everywhere. Muslims can sell it in the Muslim world and Hindus can sell it in rest of India. Both can sell it the West. A lot of fly by night journalists from Delhi and West spend a few days here, write books and call themselves Kashmir experts. We are tired and sick of these people. Only a Kashmiri knows what is right or wrong with this place " laments slamming his boots a top police official with the J&K government.
Young Kashmiri journalist Basharat Peer's ' The Curfewed Nights ' proves him right. In my opinion it is the best book on militancy in Kashmir written by a Kashmiri youth, who grew up during the most turbulent period in the valley. It is flying off shelves at Gulshan Books and doing well in rest of India.
" A former chief minister thinks that I am a Congress agent, a hard-line leader thinks that I am a Delhi agent, Delhi thinks that I am a CIA agent. But, I am none. The only agents with whom I have some kind of association are travel agents " laughs Carin Jodha Fischer, a Germany born US citizen living in the valley.
This very interesting, gutsy white lady moves around in the entire valley like a local resident.
Drinking coffee in a large mug and smoking a cigarette after a cigarette at Sringar's only Coffee shop, the elegant Coffee Arabica, Carin talks passionately about her new home Kashmir and its loving people. Her Non-Governmental Organisation Rafiabad Rural Development Foundation is trying to revive snow tourism by organising snow festivals and skiing competitions. She directs her ire at some fly by night journalists and writers from Delhi for their ignorance about the ground realities. After living in the dangerous Rafiabad near the Line of Control (LoC) for almost 10 years, she has now moved to Srinagar. " I had to deal with timber smugglers to security forces to military there on a daily basis. After a snow leopard ate my dog last year, I moved here. I love it because Kashmir is the most Westernized place in entire south Asia" she smiles before leaving Coffee Shop and disappearing in the crowd outside.
"Mera naam Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan ka nahin, Gulmarg ka " (My name is Pervez Musharraf. Not Musharraf of Pakistan, I am Musharraf of Gulmarg) smiles a porter at snow covered Gulmarg. He and hundreds of others mainly from the most backward Gujjar community eke out a living by dragging the wooden sledge on the snow ocean of Gulmarg. This Pervez Musharraf and most of his colleagues are illiterate and extremely poor. He blames both militancy and poverty for their pitiable condition. " These days tourists are very less. We get jobs once or twice a week.
Militancy has now declined. But, people have no money for tour. It is a paradise on the earth for moneyed people. Not for poor people like us. What is the use of snow and mountains for us, " he rues rubbing his hands in the sub-zero temperature. His fellow porters nod their heads approvingly. A young Kashmiri bureaucrat Syed Sajjad Qadri, echoes their sentiments in one of his poems in the following lines.
"These toxic colors have no sympathy
Their malevolence has no limits
Some corrupt the mind and some territory
Be it black face, own red blood or white snow
All are alike for poor Kashmiri".
The centuries old St. John's Church at Gumarg was buried under 3-4 feet snow. It was looking like a postcard picture from England!
"I don't want to go to Delhi or Bombay. They are full of bombs and guns. Kashmir is safe " my friend's 5 year old son innocently laughs. My friend's extremely graceful wife smiles approvingly. It may sound strange, may sound like a lie. But, it is not totally untrue. Most of the killings are either target killings or collateral damages in Kashmir. Ordinary people, mainly outsiders are rarely attacked here. I replied that I too agree with them! We live in a glass house and throw stones at Kashmir. No place is safe in India. Why blame Kashmir alone?
More about D P SatishD P Satish has been a journalist for the past 14 years. Born at the picturesque Jog Falls in Shimoga district of Karnataka, Satish did his graduation in English Literature. He is a post-graduate in Journalism from the prestigious Asian College of Journalism, Bangalore (now in Chennai). After a brief stint with the Indian Express Group, he shifted to TV. He also worked for an American news magazine called ' Image '. He has widely travelled and covered some of the biggest events from South of Vindhyas in the first decade of the 21st century. He is passionate about English literature, classical music, cinema, history, photography, jazz and Cricket. A self-proclaimed centrist, Satish keenly follows major political developments from across the World. He blogs regularly and spends hours searching for readable material from the Internet! He belives that journalism is a calling and a person meant to be a journalist, can't escape from it. A hillman at heart and by birth, Satish lives and works in New Delhi. But, loves Bangalore more than Delhi!
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