Even now, I find myself being taken back to the day I was seated at the pillion seat of a Royal Enfield Classic 350, as a friend and I drove through the two-lane fairway, hugging the ambling hillsides on one side, and the Dal Lake on the other, amidst a cold drizzle on a late summer evening in Srinagar.
It is nearing 9 PM, and we are longing for a speckle of comfort by trying to identify a chaai shop with a lake-side view to drown Kashmiri Kahwah, far away from the hustle and bustle of Central Srinagar. We cross a fearful amount of military check posts, anticipating that we might be stopped before too long, crossing which we enter a rambling horizon of shops serving chaat and chaai, before settling for lonely bench facing the lake, under the moon, and a momentary drift into the netherworld of a travel-induced subconscious state. It demanded the setting that is to reflect on what had been a pleasantly overwhelming experience in Srinagar and Greater Kashmir.
I recall, for instance, the post-apocalyptic setting that greeted us on our arrival in Srinagar, curiously, on the 15th of August, India’s Independence Day. The air was grey and thankless, not a pedestrian in sight. Political tensions in the region, over time, have played their dubious roles in insulating Srinagar citizens from a national feeling of one-ness, where shivers of a never-forgotten past stoke the ashes of an uncertain future.
Thoughts of wearing an Indian flag as a badge had crossed our minds, but we figured it might pass for a respectable response elsewhere in India, though with uncertainty in the Greater Kashmir outback. Scenarios here can change in a frightfully short period of time.
Boulevard Avenue, which we’d learn over time to be one of Srinagar’s busier neighbourhoods, welcomed us with an eerie silence, blocked communication towers and a light shower. A splattering of mid-range hotels constitute one side of Boulevard Avenue, notwithstanding the uninspiring restaurants, only on face-value, with open seating that dot the spaces between them. To our left, the footpath along Dal Lake is punctuated by signposts indicating the gate numbers referenced by shikaras when transporting tourists to their houseboats, and vice-versa.
Establishments and tables were empty, as far as the eye could see. We check into our hotel, Sunshine, after a frantic 30 minute exchange over a confusion regarding our reservations, and stop by an adjoining restaurant for brunch. We laze around all afternoon, walking up and down Boulevard Avenue in search of a map.
Our aimless wandering, soon, takes us to another neighbourhood nearby, where notice every bank establishment carrying the words “SAUDI RIYALS AVAILABLE HERE”, an indication that the Haj traffic during the holy month must be on the denser side. Pedestrians, though few, strolled around the empty streets with ineffable looks of discreet contentedness in their incessant gait.
With nothing to do, we nestle ourselves against an ageing tree by the roadside, on a tree-lined alleyway, beside a golf course, and take pictures, shamelessly, of ourselves, posing. A little further down the road, we descend up on a bridge running across the Jhelum River. The waters appear dirty, and do little to add any value to the lackadaisical surrounding we found ourselves in. We soon decide to head back.
In a matter of hours, Boulevard Avenue witnesses a remarkable turnaround in the aesthetic of its transitory crowds despite the presence of police in every virtual corner. Merchants of every delectable consumable set up their shops as the Saturday evening market slowly comes to life, while the voices of the endlessly persisting shikara owners, coaxing tourists towards their boats, begins to echo through the lanes. Shikara owners can be annoyingly relentless in their pursuits to make money off tourists – after all, come November, tourism shuts down until April, and most head off south to chance their trades.
The scene is hysterically amusing. We meander through the narrow streets of the market in hope of spotting a genuine chaai shop, while the shops – selling provisions, medicines, cameras, meat, fly-infested sweets and tobacco – were reacquainting themselves with the crowds they’ve always had.
Kashmir is closer to Central Asia than to Chennai, not just geographically, but also, as we understood through the progress of our travels, culturally. The local dialects other than Kashmiri, often, are a cocktail containing words and phrases from Pashto, Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi. For instance, a drive to Gulmarg, another day, to the north-west of Srinagar, took us through the town of Magam, a solitary Shia settlement in an otherwise Sunni dominated region. Understandably, the town is surfeited with posters and banners of Ayatollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran, and the global face of Shia Islam.
Srinagar, on the other hand, is a city of history and wonder, of Hindu roots and an Islamic present, of lush green gardens that once attracted Mughal medievalism and British rest houses in pre-Independence India; colourful, bustling markets that reverberate to the prayer interlace from a hundred mosques every evening and the illuminating light emanating from the Hindu temple on top of Shankaracharya Hill. The Hazrathbal Mosque on Dal Lake, a guide book said, houses a hair from the beard of Prophet Mohammed.
The city is deeply conservative in its approach to culture, yet, within the limits of public spaces and gardens mingled every walk of life – walking, laughing and sipping hot glasses of kahwah – though, in proper attire. The enormous expanse of the Mughal Gardens that surround the city is often filled with families and children dancing to the tune of the bent fountains. Although, we’d later find out, this isn’t the representative sample of Kashmir’s population.
The sky morphs into a dark and ominous orange. The view from the Lake Palace houseboat is breath-taking. I’m sitting in the deck alongside the proprietor Altaf Goona and his two sons Adeel and Umar. The Fort of Akbar, standing in a hill in the middle of the lake, reflects the orange shade of the sun.
We are back in Srinagar after a trek in the Upper Himalayas and while sipping yet another glass of kahwah, we observe the bustling activity around Dal Lake, which remains a source of livelihood for thousands of Srinagar residents. Floating markets – selling vegetables, flowers, souvenirs, and other provisions of Kashmiri origin – fill up parts of the lake with tradesmen hoping to market and sell fresh produce every morning, and dispatch the residues during the evenings.
“Fresh flowers sir. Beautiful!” the flower seller would cry as he paddled past the row of houseboats every morning. If you happened to be sitting by the deck, he’d attempt to paddle towards you in hope of closing a sale. Ignore him, and he’d paddle away.
Some tradesmen had their paddlers while some paddled the boats themselves; the paddler, in some cases, may be a young boy yet to enter his teens. In most cases, boys drop out of school to supplement family income. You would find them along Boulevard Avenue, casting an eye out for a tourist. They’d harry towards you, eyes as sharp as an eagle, pressing on you like a pack of hungry wolves, trying to impress you with their spectrum of English vocabulary, hoping to entice you towards a hotel, or a houseboat, to make their commission.
Start paddling in the lake and one can clearly notice the fish feeding of the weeds beneath the water surface, which, at one point of time, Altaf tells us, was clear. He tells us that the water levels have dropped significantly over the last few decades, and insisting, to our wonder and bemusement, that the levels were once as high as the elevation at which the Shankaracharya temple stood.
Altaf’s tales possess a scent of rustic struggles married to a pre-modern tourist confine; that the Dal Lake has both thrived on, and decayed by tourism. A quick look at the dirty waters throw a question as to whether it is weed thrash or overgrown grass sticking out. I couldn’t tell, but to comprehend Altaf’s fact that once, as a kid, he could swim with a whiff of carefreeness in the lake was to come to terms with the fact that enough wasn’t being done to preserve their main source of livelihood.
Over a sumptuous Kashmiri Wazwan dinner of Roti, Dal, Rice and Nadroo Yakhni (a medium-space yogurt based dish prepared with the stem of the lotus flower), he talks us through his times as a kid when, Kashmir as a safer haven, saw tourists aplenty from abroad, especially towards the houseboats which were a very vivid part of the Srinagar’s fabric, which, in turn, had contributed to Altaf and others picking up the English language a lot better than the locals not plying their trades in the tourism sector.
The walls of Atlaf Goona’s wooden houseboat are adorned with pictures of himself from his younger days when he had briefly flirted with the idea of chancing his luck in the Kashmiri film industry. Later, he’d take over managing the houseboat from his father and notes Israelis as being the friendliest amongst the foreigners he has hosted.
Up on closer reflection, he says, the war had provided sufficient cover for Kashmir’s political class to run roughshod over the constitution and ignore some of the state’s basic responsibilities. One such aspect, he’d noted – and we’d happened to observe while driving through rural Kashmir – was the lack of effort towards preserving arable land, a large part of which was being papered over as bungalows that the elite could afford.
Given the region’s backdrop of chaos and revolution, most Kashmiris, he says, shrug and bear it. Last summer, however, things had taken for the worse when the floods wreaked havoc to impact the produce coming out of agriculture. Yet, Altaf had shielded us, and other guests he’d hosted, from the signs of social breakdown which clearly seemed to have surrounded us.
One day, he walks us to the market at a bustling intersection of MA Road and Kargil-Skardu Road. A jumble of tourist vans and ‘share auto-rickshaws’ convene along a stretch of a sidewalk emanating out of Jan Bakers at one of Srinagar’s major intersections. There are garrisons on the road, and because they are such a common part of the environment, no one, other than tourists, really notice them.
Though you wouldn’t know it from taking a cursory walk, the neighbourhood is home to one of Asia’s largest genocides when hundreds and thousands of Kashmiri Pundits were driven away from their homes in Srinagar as part of the Islamic “ethnic cleansing”. Over 350,000 Kashmiri Pundits were uprooted from their homes across the valley due to Islamic militancy. They became refugees in their own homeland. Twenty five years later, their pleas have still gone unheard. Having forced to find homes in Jammu, and Delhi – very foreign to them – they received very little support from the state or the central governments.
Off the distance from such a setting, today, is a row of provision stores that Altaf has accompanied us to in search of dry fruits and kahwah powder we’d wanted to purchase. The street offers a familiar sight – makeshift table-tops along the side of the street host vied old conversationalists sipping their glasses of tea – as it stretches from the junction up until Shankaracharya Hill.
The shop-keeper is friendly, in his late forties and seemed well acquainted with Altaf, for he didn’t hesitate in offering us more than a decent sample size of his rations – figs, almonds, and dates among others- to try before we decided on a purchase. The shop is dusty and scarce, and despite his courtesy I didn’t feel the need to equip myself with anything other than the four bottles of kahwah powder I was after.
Bizarre encounters aside, more so with the shikaras, tourists receive a special treatment (besides commercial reasons) that borders on the extreme in Srinagar. Whether or not it is done in good faith is beside the point. People, known and unknown, have let me in to their homes with unprecedented hospitality.
Manzoor, a tourist agent I’d met, for instance, invited me over to his house for a vegetarian dinner one day without any obligation. He remains a good friend till date. Ijaz, a tea-vendor in Lal Chowk, refused to charge me for a couple of glasses of tea because he thought “people from South India were friendly”, and that one day he’d hope to expand his business in to South India with my assistance.
As I said good-bye to Srinagar and Kashmir after two weeks, I realized that behind the stale and crusty historical baggage of ethnic strife, Srinagar presented a honey-filled centre of pastoral sociability – placid people whose concerns were far inner, than outer: traditional, unassuming, hard-working, with a friendly sense of humour. All that despite the Kashmiris being historically oppressed, misinformed and poorly represented at a national circuit to reap any benefits from the Center.
If there’s one thing I realize as I fly out, it is that my tryst with Srinagar is far from finished. Until winter then.