JOURNEY The ground reality in Kashmir is very different from that portrayed in the media — regular people carrying on with their lives despite the presence of the army.
“There is absolutely nothing to worry about, it’s perfectly safe over there…” an acquaintance, Jai Krishan Raina, assured me over the phone. “Just go and enjoy.” I will keep in touch with you at all times as well as my friends there.” He forwarded me the numbers of Mr. Sajjad, who happened to be the Inspector in Jammu Police Head Quarters and his younger brother Mr. Zahid, who was to pick me up in Srinagar.
Thrilled at the prospect, I booked my tickets and waited with bated breath for the day I was to board Swaraj Express from Bandra Terminus for Jammu Tawi. I was a bit sad that there were no direct railway services to Srinagar where I had to attend a National Conference on Web Resources being organised by the University of Kashmir. So, I was bound to go by train to first Jammu and then by bus to Srinagar.
Unlike expected, the 32-hour journey did not leave me exhausted, a fact which Mr. Raina’s relative in Jammu, Mr. Shingloo too remarked when I visited them for the night stay. It may because of I am going to visit Kashmir, the paradise on Earth, realising my childhood dream, I quipped.
“Tomorrow morning, you can take a Sumo or Tavera to Srinagar. It is an eight-hour journey from Jammu to Srinagar. And that too hilly!” he said, “Nobody goes by buses anymore. It is uncomfortable and plenty of risks involved. But, nothing to worry about. These cars ply on this route on routine basis. It would take only Rs. 500 as fare.” The annual shifting of the “government” during freezing winters to Jammu is one reason behind it, explained my acquaintance. I got reminded of the annual shifting of the imperial regime to Shimla to escape the scorching heat of the mainland before independence. I wondered if the two could in any way be related. He was amused.
“Kashmir has its own constitution, own rules and laws,” he told me and advised to take precaution during the journey and my stay there. Mrs. Shingloo, in fact, wondered how I was allowed by my family to go practically all alone there, since not many people would take that risk! My dream was too sanguine to be overcome by reasoning. I cited my firm faith in my acquaintances in defence. My hosts were, however, more connected with the reality than I was, I must admit. No amount of factual statements by people back home and at IIT Bombay hostel had been successful so far to home in on me the fact that I was going to a militancy-prone area. And that ideally, I should, be worried. Hearing the same fears being voiced by my hosts, right there in Jammu, was different and it appropriately made me apprehensive for a while. I wondered if visiting that paradise could really be that risky. I hoped that facts that we read everyday in our newspapers was just a sham! And who knows the reality, I reasoned before going to sleep, after all, people do live there, don’t they?
Next morning, I was all geared up for the dream ride to Srinagar. As they say, fears reign only during dark. Night being over, all the fears vanished in thin air and romance returned with full gusto. I imagined the snow-capped mountains lined along my way to the Valley, beautiful phoolwalis carrying baskets of flowers by the roads for tourists and, who knows, an occasional skier yelling “Yahoo!” on the peaks like Shammi Kapoor. My hosts, graciously enough, made sure that I had taken Avo-mine before boarding the Tavera. “That will take care of your vomiting, in case if you have. Long hilly journeys often make the passengers throw-up,” Mr. Shingloo reasoned. But for that, that joy-ride could really have turned into a nightmare with no one to take care of me as I was the only female passenger among the seven passengers in that Tavera. That was scary for my mother back home, but Mr. Sajjad and his brother in Srinagar kept noting the details of my journey over phone. That did the assuring trick!
As our car rolled on that hilly terrain, taking deep circuitous turns, at times innocuous, at times dangerous, I kept wondering about the scenery about me. Bare, rocky terrain! No snow, no chinars, nothing. I waited for the snowy peaks to turn up any moment, but none turned up. It took me more than an hour to admit that these were not that beautiful, after all! ‘Even Shimla ranges are more beautiful than these. Is this what they called Kashmir?’ I speculated rather gloomily. It had to be since geographically speaking I was in the state of Jammu & Kashmir at that time! The fact squeezed lemon in the milky joy-ride. I got disappointed. Where was the Kashmir we had seen in Bollywood romances? was not that rock-strewn cliffs, without snow, without green chinars that were spread about me. But, I could not delude myself for long — the fact was all there.
The route was busy, however, as I was told. Plenty of Sumos, Taveras, Safaris and even Marutis I saw plying – riding passengers from Jammu to Srinagar. A few personal, family cars could also be seen. All of those heading to Srinagar. Not many were coming from the other side, which naturally would take 8 hours to reach where I was at that time. Our driver made stop-over at Sarmoli for breakfast by 10′ o clock. Mr. Sajjad was quick to infer, “That means, the car is at right place. By 4 o’ clock, you will reach Srinagar. Zahid will come and drop you at university guest house.” That was relieving! With a tummy-full of tea and sandwiches, the journey became a lot more different. Though, the bare-mountain fact remained as before, but now I could see a lot of other things which I had overlooked earlier.
The occasional skimpy falls flowing down from the heart of bare-cliffs, bridges, people clad in firans, fleets of CRPF buses coming from Srinagar carrying half-asleep soldiers, small temples, and yes, the dhabas! The best sight of all! I could not have imagined that I would see something like dhabas in Kashmir, dhabas that are so northern, so peculiarly… ours! But guess what? A whole range of dhabas - Vaishno, shudh-shakahari, veg-non veg, and even Punjabi dhabas! The signboards instilled once again the feeling that I was not in a foreign land (as some concerned ones back home had commented), but my very own country. That boosted my self-confidence. If anything that connects all the places of India together, whether rural or urban, conflict-zones or peaceful, is the presence of these dhabas on its roads. Their sight on the road leading me to a place called Kashmir – the supposedly militancy-infested region for ages, was so pleasant, so reassuring that nothing that is reported in papers, news-channels, internet mattered at all! If dhabas, the face of travelling India, can survive, we will! One must not miss, at this juncture, the famed rajma - chawal of Peeda - a wholesome bowl of rice dabbled with small-sized rajmas with good amount of desi ghee sprawled over it! That’s worth all the fame it has!
The dhabas continued to spell their charm when it all of a sudden got taken over by something I had waited for earnestly. Six hours gone, and the famed Jawahar Tunnel was right in front of us. It is a three-km long tunnel built by carving the entire mountain from the middle. This connects the valley of Srinagar with Jammu. Across that tunnel starts the Valley. It took almost 20minutes to cross that tunnel. And when we came out, it was suddenly as if we had stepped into something unearthly.
All of a sudden, vast expanse of green steppes greeted our view, surrounded by snow-capped mountains yonder. One sign-board welcomed us with “First View of the Valley.” I was enthralled. My belief in the stories, pictures, and those Bollywood-romances returned with zeal. I craned my neck outside the window to feel the fresh whiffs of air sweeping by me. As our car rolled down the road leading to valley, its beauty unfolded layer by layer, with views of chinars, rural villages, and of course, the snow-peaked mounts overseeing as if the panorama beyond. Each one appeared one by one with coquettishness of a doyenne, as if. Kashmir is like that only. As a flower unfurls itself, petal by petal, so does the beauty of Kashmir — it presents itself to the viewer, layer by layer.
By 4.20 something in the evening, my stopover was made at Lal Chowk, the central market of Srinagar. Colorful mini-buses, cars and autos elbowed their way from the evening rush hour of the busiest area of the city. I was picked up by my host, Mr. Zahid, who had come along with a friend, and dropped me at University Guest House.
For the next three days, I was kept busy at the conference, but evenings were all mine! A guest from Delhi at the University Guest House forwarded me the number of an auto-driver. We got to have of some others as well, as our sight-seeing progressed. It was then I noticed the omnipresence of telecom giants — Reliance, Tata, Vodafone in markets. Large hoardings domineeringly overhanging the roofs of the shops! You name, and they have it! But, only post-paid. The auto-driver, Rashid, who looked more a teenager, grumbled on our way to Mughal Gardens, “They don’t allow us having pre-paid. Why can’t they? It is allowed in entire India, no? It is so difficult affording a postpaid with little business that we have.” On being asked why he doesn’t give it up then, he replied tersely, “Cant. Work need.”
I was speechless at the sight of Hazratbal, Mughal Gardens, Nishat Bagh, Badamvari; all of which leave you wondering at the might of the Mughal empire! What a place they chose to realise their architectural dreams — 5200 feet above sea level! Badamvari, the big garden of almond trees, snuggled quietly at the foothills of Akbar Fort perched on top of the mountain adjacent to it! “But this is closed for tourists for about ten years,” one of the hosts, Prof. Nadeem, accompanying me said. “At present, CRPF has its posts there. It gives them a wholesome view of the valley that is why!” The full-bloomed garden with white flowers seemed to cast a mockery at the iron above.
Mughal Garden, with snow-capped mountains overlooking it so closely that tempts you to lift your hand and just touch its snowy forehead! The moment you try, the sheepish you become at your own effort. Some things just can’t be touched! That legendary couplet comes to mind instantly. It was here that Mughal Emperor Jahangir had said, ‘If there is heaven on earth, then here it is, here it is, here it is…’ The emperor was right for once in his life, at least! (Historians excuse!)
Like the gardens, Dal Lake too did not have many tourists. “During the season, you will find plenty, both Indian and foreign,” said our shikarawala, Gulzar, a lanky youth of 23. “It starts from mid-April to September. In winters, this lake freezes and people walk over it.” He seemed to be a friendly chap. While presently, his companion, Mehraj the other shikara-rower, got busy with saying his evening prayers, he kept on rowing. I asked him if he too would not like to pray. He said that he would forego today – work first! He showed us the method of rowing a shikara and how it is owned by everybody there, “just like cycles are owned in your city by everyone, here every family owns a shikara.” While telling us about the buildings on surrounding hills, and hotels, he gestured, “that is Pari Mahal.. and that is the house of our CM.” I asked jokingly if their CM too knew how to row a shikara, he sneered, “Why does he need to? He goes by aeroplane.”
The joy-ride on the shikara came to the happy ending with the two guys showing us the celebrated houseboat in the row of scores of houseboats. They showed us the house-boat where shooting of “Mission Kashmir” was done, and pointing further, “there, you see, that is the hotel where Preity Zinta and other stars stayed.” I found quite amusing the occasional references of few of the films that were shot in Kashmir, even as old as “Jab Jab Phool Khile”! While driving to Gulmarg, just before the ascent begins, our driver pointing toward a village sprawled beneath remarked, “Have you seen the old movie, Aarzoo? It is in this village that the scene of Sadhna (the heroine) about to amputate her legs while sitting on a tree-trunk sliding inside the log-cutter is shot.” Luckily, I had seen the movie (another 60’s classic)! I tried recalling the scene, but soon, the ascent with its mesmerizing Chinars overpowered me. In the lap of the Himalayas, surrounded on all sides, Gulmarg appears like a bowl of kheer (sweet rice pudding). as if. When the ascent begins the car rolls upwards, zig-zag on the chinar-laden mountain with no sign of snow are seen anywhere at first; and then occasional blotches of snow scattered here and there on the way. And suddenly, at the top, when you cross over to the other side of the mountain through a narrow opening, your eyes come across a vast expanse of snow. In the mid-March, 7-8 feet snow is a feast for the tourist, when most of the snow has already melted. “It will be all gone by April end,” our guide told us – the team of three. He motioned towards the adjoining hills where, “shrines of all the religions are there. Temple, Gurudwara, each on its respective hill.” Around that was vast snowfield where at the far end a small crowd of tourists were busy enjoying, “When the snow would melt entirely, the lush greenery will appear, and then, no sledges will run here. Then, horses will ply.” He hired sledges for us at the rate of 700 per head. “It is discount for you, otherwise they charge thousand per head,” I looked at the three people supposed to pull our sledge. While the other two were adults, the one that was supposed to pull mine, was a teenager.
The shimmering snow in the bright daylight soon made us wear our goggles. Touched with bare hands, snow almost froze my fingers, but at the same time, it reflected so intensely that our eyes our literally dazzled. The sledge-pullers rode us on that vast field for around two hours. We would occasionally get off and try walking, but exhaustion and panting would force our return on sledge in no time. I could not help marveling at the stamina of our sledge-pullers and of course, our guide, who neither wore goggles, nor stopped for a bit to heave a sigh.
Next, we reached the base of the overlooking mountain and boarded the Gondola — the world’s highest cable-car ferrying tourists from Gulmarg base to Seven Springs above, at a height of 10,000 feet. From there, another Gondola carries people to Kongdori Mountain, 13,500 foot-high. At Seven Springs was a large crowd of tourists playing all sorts of games! “Another gondola goes from here to the top of that mountain there,” our guide pointed towards the peak beyond, “It will charge only 500/-. Across that mountain is LoC, you can see that from telescopes installed there.” It filled us with excitement! We did not know we were so near to LoC. However, we decided dropping the second phase as it was already afternoon and it would have meant nightfall by the time we reached Srinagar. At the Gulmarg base, a numerous dhabas, including Punjabi and a Khalsa Dhaba, could also be tried, but we chose to take a quick snack at restaurant at 10,000 feet height itself and headed back.
We returned by a different route blotched with remnants of tourists’ visits before. You can’t miss noticing the empty water bottles, polythene sachet-packs of chips scattered here and there. Our guide was a middle aged cheerful fellow. My two companions, a couple from Panjabi University, Patiala, lagged behind, and he got talking to me. A bit later, he asked me earnestly if I had really enjoyed being in Gulmarg, or rather in Kashmir itself. Of course, I was having enjoyment of lifetime, and Gulmarg was literal paradise, I told him animatedly, “Only this junk, I did not like. This is such a vast snowfield, but not many dust-bins around can be seen.” Tottering clumsily by his side on thick snow, I said, “There should be more dust-bins put here and there. This junk defaces….” He interjected, muttering, “The tourist himself should also have some civic sense, no?” I gaped with wonder, while he continued, “You know, I tell you one thing, all this litter that you are seeing is the work of Indian tourists. These foreign tourists never throw junk anywhere. They would carry even the wrapper of a toffee to mile, but throw only in dust-bin if that is not nearby. But, Indian tourists…. they don’t bother, they just throw wherever they please.”
I asked if he insists those Indian tourists to kindly throw the junk in dustbins only. He smiled, and said, “How can I say so? Tourist is just like God, whatever he says, we have to admit.” With that, he turned serious and said, “Look beta, the tourist here comes not like any other part of India. They might act decent in other places, but here, they don’t really bother. If we would say anything, why, the tourist will say, go to hell, we don’t come here at all, then what? Already, the tourism has so badly affected. It will take years to stand it on its feet…”
I realized the condition to be between well and the pit. I wondered what the management of that place was doing. He sighed, “Nothing. They don’t do anything. This government is of no use!” He went on to detailing practically everything what shikara-walas had told me earlier. I asked him the same question of choosing alternative, and I was amazed, when he gave the similar answer what those guys had given, “Everybody would be like them only. What’s the use of choosing? That’s why, I don’t vote.” His grievance, too, was more with the state government than the central; he too had the same solution of keeping out – not voting!
It was there, ironically, that I realized the need of voting! Something that had kept popping on one or the other way throughout my stay! Whether it is the illiterate rural folk that Prof. Sumeer talked about, or semi-literate shikarawalas or highly educated that political science fellow – the solution of keeping out of system by not voting, just because we can’t change it and just because everyone that would be chosen ‘will be like that only’ – appeared pathetically farcical to me. It is pathetic because such means of reaction, the system has reduced us to! Powerless, frustrated, annoyed, we feel our choice to not choose will keep us from suffering if we did choose and that turned out to be evil. But it is farcical, because if we won’t choose our representatives, then somebody else is going to choose on our behalf. Choice will be done, nonetheless. And when it will be done, we won’t have any right to complain the bad choice, since by not allowing good choice, we chose bad representative to come. Anticipating ‘like that only’ to be the result is not going to buttress our escapism. It’s not magic; you wield the wand, and system changes overnight. It is democracy, and things change by and by here. But, for that, everybody has to work.
Kashmir held many lessons for me. Earlier, I too used to be out of voting system, out of lethargy, but there I realised how important it was to vote. But, most importantly, I learned the image-difference. The Kashmir portrayed in the media and what it is in reality are different. Kashmir is not about militancy alone as the media portrays it to be, it is about people— their hopes, needs and aspirations, their daily struggle to keep alive with dignity.
Talking of politics…
I talked to Gulzar and the shikarawala about politics. The duo fumed at the Central Government’s prejudice against Kashmiris, as expected. However, what I did not expect was their disappointment with the local government as well, which was rather more than their regrets with government at centre. “What the [state] government has done so far for the people?” while their hands kept on rowing, one of them said agitatedly, “Nothing, absolutely nothing. They just know how to fill their pockets without caring for the poor people.” I shared my knowledge of Sher Abdulla to which Gulzar remarked, “Yea, he was a great man! But that is a thing of past long ago! Here is now his grandson. What he has done?” I asked about his tenure which he summarised in three lines, “He has done nothing but building a few roads so far. But people need education, jobs, electricity and so many other things. You can see when there is no season, it becomes hard to make both ends meet for us.” I discerned it to be true. All the houseboats were practically empty, shikaras lined up by the bank waiting for the occasional tourist. I asked if there was a better alternative for the government at the helm. He replied indifferently, “All are like that. They only know how to exploit people. What is the use of choosing the other man? He will do the same thing. I hate politics,.”
The most amazing thing was that not once did they mention militancy. They brushed it aside saying, “That was years ago. There has been no major militant activity in the last six to seven years. Small shoot-outs occur, but don’t they happen in other parts of the country? Business is booming for the last few years, but the problems we face are largely due to lack of basic facilities: education, business opportunities and practically no jobs! What should we do?”
The youth are struggling, disgruntled, and disappointed. His choosing not to vote and not be a part of this dirty business seems a natural way of giving vent to his disappointment. As one local participants at the seminar — a young, educated man from the political science department — said, “I don’t vote, and I never will.”
What you see…
While going to the Mughal Gardens, we saw an army man carrying a rocket-launcher on his shoulders in an open jeep coming from the other side. A couple on their bike rushed past us from behind crossing him in a jiffy. For a moment the two vehicles were together, Prof. Kanmadi wondered, “What if the media showed only the army-vehicle cropping the happy-go-lucky couple on their bike?” And then answered it himself, “People will think only the army plies on the roads of Kashmir.” This is how images are created!
Bollywood’s dream setting
The joy-ride on the shikara came to a happy end with the two guys showing us the celebrated houseboat where “Mission Kashmir” (in pic) was shot. Then, “There, that is the hotel where Preity Zinta and other stars stayed.” There were quite a few references to the films shot in Kashmir, even as far back as “Jab Jab Phool Khile”! While driving to Gulmarg, just before the ascent begins, our driver pointed to a village sprawled below and remarked, “Have you seen ‘Aarzoo’? That’s the village where the shot of Sadhna (the heroine) trying to chop off her legs was shot.”
Gagan is a Research Scholar, IIT Bombay, and a freelance writer.
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