Many find their way to the Valley—a place where beauty mingles with conflict
Kashmir is contested in the imagination for an average city dweller. On one side is the whole paradise on earth while on the other is the violence we hear through news reports, as we stay outside the real Kashmir. This June, I planned my trip with a good load of guilt. It seemed wrong to be planning a holiday to a place so rife with violence. But, perhaps that is the nature of a true tourist, they know how to get their money’s worth anywhere, the fly-by-night seeker. I did realise after a while in Srinagar that conflict was seeping into my tourist experience quite comfortably, like it was not violence anymore, like history changes the meaning and effect of it. As we drove inside Srinagar, my driver often pointed towards places where ‘famous’ attacks (his words), encounters had taken place in the past. Those empty spaces still carrying evidence of what had happened. Just at times the young fellow also pointed at the structure and provided a short commentary, his version of the event, like those tourist guides on historical sites in India. History, memory and violence sit together all over the world: museums, memorials, abandoned places like Chernobyl. I have visited many with a tourist map in my hands. Ticked them off my to-do lists.
Every decade adds so many. More memorials. More abandoned cities. Hiroshima. 11/26. Bhopal. Syria. 9/11. We were still planning when my sister asked me if Kashmir was safe. I shrugged. A tourist visiting Kashmir has normalised a visceral injustice. We ask—is it safe? We want to be reassured of our safe return, forgetting that this is that place where so many live in constant turmoil. An aunt said there is a truce between the army and the terrorists during peak tourism season. “Business is a white flag,” she said. She sounded so sure that it almost seemed like she had seen the paperwork. But my sister was unconvinced and so she called a travel agency that organises group trips to Kashmir. She asked the same question. Is Kashmir safe for a holiday?
The lady on the phone (I suspect a closet philosopher) said, “Kashmir is always safe and always unsafe.” We landed in Srinagar early in the morning. Srinagar seemed like any other overused dreary mountain city, tuning in to its daily life. Girls were walking to school and half-awake men and women were hurriedly going about the morning chores: getting milk, bread, grocery. Some rituals make all places the same. I looked away. It was too much like Delhi.
I had imagined checkpoints and loads of army men on my way from the airport to the hotel. The absence made me uneasy. An average city dweller’s engagement with the army is fairly limited. We know them as a relative’s handsome son who is a major in the army. Or we hear about their glory in the evening news. Army presence did not threaten me; instead at the onset of the holiday it comforted me. This is evidence of being an outsider, someone estranged from the realities of Kashmiri life.
We were driving back from Sonmarg when we found ourselves behind a caravan of army trucks and jeeps. Almost all the men sitting inside the trucks had masked faces. A colour we call armygreen covered the lower half of their faces. Only their eyes were visible. They all looked the same: well-built brown men in leaf-green overalls. They stared at us from the back of the open trucks. The nozzle of the gun pointing out at us. Our driver, a young Kashmiri boy, kept honking to overtake the army trucks. I thought perhaps watching those men made him angry. I asked him to relax and drive behind them. “I do not wish to land in the valley!” I shouted, so I am heard despite the loud music in our vacation car. He chuckled, “Do you feel lucky today? These convoys are favourite targets. Why do you think so many of them travel together? They are scared. Look at them. Travelling in packs. I have to get ahead of all thirty and only then are we actually ok.” Safe and unsafe change tropes in Kashmir. Being around the army meant being most vulnerable now. As we overtook the trucks one by one, slowly snaking ahead of all of them I felt sorry for the young men sitting inside. Perhaps they were counting the days left before their Kashmir posting ended. Their families praying they return alive and get a peaceful family station the next time. I felt equally sorry for the men they were supposed to protect us from. A spiral of many uncountable injustices.
As soon as we reached the hotel we found that a group of 22 members of the Parliament was in the hotel for a conference. The hotel had been transformed into a guarded fortress. Huge scanning machines had been installed on all the gates. BSF jawans were lazing in small groups watching television news in the hotel lobby. As evening fell, the activity intensified and the lobby seemed like an army base mixed with a sarkaari office. The internet had been jammed and the network was intermittent. After sunset, a man (I was later told a Member of Parliament from West Bengal) entered the lobby. He had just been on a shikara ride on the Dal lake. Seeing him enter suddenly, all the uniformed men stood up, in attention, like men in uniform do. The MP stood in the lobby in a white kurta pyjama encircled by the army men within minutes. “Can I get a ‘foot boll’?” He asked the lobby manager. “Get me ‘foot boll’?” Despite his best efforts, the lobby manager failed to understand his accent. Finally a BSF jawan rescued the manager, “Sir means fruit bowl. Sir is asking for a fruit bowl!” The lobby manager rushed to arrange the same, leaving our parliamentarian comfortably surrounded by the army. I noticed the army men now—visible name tags, bending, obliging body language, smiling without reason. The guns were strategically hidden behind their bodies. They were so different from the men I had seen in those trucks. But of course they could also have been the same men.
As we crossed the lobby to go to our room the parliamentarian from West Bengal stopped us. “Hello!” he said. “So where are you from?” “Delhi,”I said. “So, do you feel safe here?” “I was feeling safe till this evening,”I smiled to compensate for my brusque reply.
“Why? But why?” demanded the MP from West Bengal. I rolled my eyes at the huge group of army and BSF soldiers around him, pointing towards the obvious reason for my unease. The soldiers were amused by my answer. Most of them laughed. The MP was not. He looked away. I was from Delhi. A Kashmiri saying the same would have got a different response in that lobby.
The route to Pahalgam was inundated with soldiers, one every three feet or so. Most of them looked bored. They seemed to have been standing there for ages... much like the mountains behind them, witnessing things they had long lost interest in witnessing. A sleepy me was breezing past them with equal disinterest when I saw two soldiers taking selfies, posing against poplar trees and the Pirpanjal range. I wondered if the photograph would be messaged to their wives. Perhaps she will see the selfie and start her day? Despite his dislike for the army, my driver, an ardent fan of the selfie, softened. For a minute there was a connection, a young man in the car was looking at two young men, outside. “Look at them!” He pointed and smiled.
Every place has its colloquialisms. They evolve over time. The collective living of a people over generations gives them form and currency. Two lines were quoted to me quite frequently in Srinagar. Perhaps an average Kashmiri’s mind dwells between these two lines: Dar ke aage jeet hai, one wins if one conquers fear, and Koi baat nahin, nothing is an issue. The elderly man rowing our shikara chided me to be brave when the low boat shook dangerously on the Dal lake. “Madam, dar ke aage jeet hai,” he said more than once. The young tea seller said the same line in another context. The travel guide we hired in Sonmarg did the same when I refused to take the cable car all the way to 24,000ft. He immediately asked, “Have you not heard the line, “dar ke aage jeet hai?” Perhaps the line is a trope for the relationship a Kashmiri has with fear and the mechanisms of finding a way to free oneself from paralysing quotidianness of that fear. I noticed that there was a theatrical pride in being fearless.
On the other extreme was this existential line: Koi baat nahin, nothing matters: an engagement with the world that bordered on indifference. Ennui. I heard this line so often that by the end of the trip I was using it to quell my anger.
We were sitting in a restaurant and at the adjacent table a family was celebrating a little girl’s birthday. Suddenly it seemed I was back in Delhi: the rituals, the birthday song and the gaudy pink cake—all of it was the same. The family sang for her. The little girl blew the seven candles and bent to cut the cake. Just that she kept cutting, cutting it insistently, without stopping, with quiet determination. The big pieces, then smaller pieces, then more. She only stopped when her mother held her wrist, pulled her arm back and screamed at her. The friends and family shared an embarrassed laugh. The mother got busy, separating the whole pieces from the messed-up ones. I looked away. I thought of living in the shadow of violence. I met another little girl in Srinagar as I stood waiting behind her in a queue to use the toilet. Just to pass time I asked her name. She said Swati. Before I could ask anything more, she asked, “So are you Hindu or Muslim?” The first question this eight-year-old asked me was to register my religion in her head. The question was obviously fundamental for her. My sister wears a bindi, so I pointed at her and said, she is Hindu and I am a Muslim. The little girl gave me a doubtful smile. Before I could ask more, the queue moved and she went inside the toilet.
This was not the only moment when these fissures became visible. Our hotel manager had asked us to venture out and enjoy an average Kashmiri house’s hospitality. “You will know how warm- hearted Kashmiris are,” he said, but very softly he slipped in a line to my sister, “Just remove that bindi when you go.” Or my young driver who refused to tell me his full name and kept repeating a religiously ambiguous pet name he had obviously devised for tourists. Or when the same driver made fun of the Sikhs living around Pampore—by shouting, “See the papajis still live here. Oye, balle balle.” Or at the Delhi Airport, the GoAir employee enquired if the two Sikh men were going to Leh? They winked and answered, “No, yaar, to Pakistan.” The GoAir employee chuckled and left. It was obviously a common joke.