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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Eternal and ethereal Kashmir

Kashmir – the word conjures up images of unparalleled beauty and the reality more than lives up to those images. If anything, it’s so mindblowingly lovely that when the locals quip about not wanting to leave ‘jannat’ to even visit Mumbai, I know the feeling. After just 10 days there, Kashmir has now entered like a narcotic in my bloodstream.

The people are very polite and their blend of Kashmiri-Urdu-Hindi patois is pleasant on the ears. And they seem genuinely happy to have people come visit Kashmir because tourism and selling of handicrafts is the only income stream for them as of now, as things are slowly coming back to normal there. In fact, since the Prime Minister has promised a rehabilitation package of Rs 4,000 crore for Kashmiri Pandits to go back and - resume their lives, there is hope springing up there.

Everywhere, I went – Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Udhampur, Anandpur, Jammu, Srinagar - had a lot of military presence, so ironically instead of creating an environment of fear, I never felt more safe in my life, than when I was there! There are five different paramilitary forces there maintaining law and order – the Army, the Indo-Tibet Force, the CRPF, the BSF and the Jammu & Kashmir police force. So, with so much show of force, it is advisable for tourists to respect the effort that is being made by them to adhere to rules and any spot checks that they may conduct.

For instance, there were some places where we were told to not shoot photographs, in other places, we were told to keep our bus windows shut. In many places, we were told to get out, so the bus could be searched because if a local Kashmiri is found travelling with us, we could find ourselves in prison! One is not allowed to stop on the National Highway 1 and dilly-dally and even near Dal Lake in Srinagar, we had to be prepared with our belongings and wait in the aisle before the bus stopped, so we could get out as soon as possible. It’s patently clear that the army rules there and I for one saw the difference! The roads were far better maintained – much cleaner and broader. In the mountains coming from Jammu down to the valley, the roads are frequently washed away by massive landslides and the armed forces painstakingly rebuild it again and again. If one sees the massive boulders that have been flung down into the Tawi river, one knows that the task is very commendable. And ofcourse, there are men standing in full combat gear even high up on those mountain ledges, where as far as I could make out, they just had clouds and some stray goats for company!

Hats off to you guys - you are doing a fabulous job there and I didn’t hesitate to tell this to a soldier who was only too pleased and touched. He said he was glad that their contribution to the country was being recognised by us. I did also ask him how things were going between the civilians there and the armed forces and he said that trust was being built slowly and they were offering help like medical facilities to them. He did admit that to dispel suspicion that has accumulated over so many years was not an easy task because so many families have been at the receiving end of strong arm tactics from both sides – the terrorists looking to recruit locals through an atmosphere of fear and intimidation - and the armed forces who had to get information out of these recruits once they were nabbed.

This is really the Catch 22 situation that Kashmiris find themselves in. But with unemployment levels being high – I saw a lot of men loitering around in front of abandoned shops, market junctions, bus stops on weekdays, when they should have been at work. So, it is really obvious why such men are ripe for the picking by terrorists. I wish Indians would start investing in their own way, in Kashmir’s future and not wait for the government to do it all. I mean, do something simple like start travelling to Kashmir and create opportunities for people there to start earning money. Even, if you did something enjoyable like booking a holiday on a houseboat (and I know this is a memorable experience because I tried it and loved it.) and follow it up with some shopping (which everyone loves doing) and you’ve spread your money around in a state, which needs it, despite the massive subsidies.

At the moment, Kashmiris get a subsidy of Rs 4,000 per family member, so if people are not weaned off this, they will have no incentive to work. The women have a hard life but since they live in such a beautiful place with such wonderful climate, they hardly seem worse for wear. During the spring-summer season, they farm and maintain vegetable gardens, apple orchards, flower beds, kesar (saffron) fields and during the colder autumn-winter season when tourism dries up almost completely, they bring out their sewing kits and do the intricate resham work on dress materials. They embroider everything from large bedcovers, complete saris to tiny kurtis for children. The Pashmina shawls and Kashmiri carpets which are handwoven are expensive but worth every penny. Pashmina shawls can be priced as high as Rs 15,000. Pashmina saris are also available.

I also tried Kashmiri pulao and qahwa, which is a drink that has no milk in it but an amazing amount of other ingredients like green tea leaves, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, honey and all of this boiled in hot water and served and I loved it. Especially, in the cold (we Mumbai-ites considered it cold but it was really spring there in April, but the temperature in Srinagar hovered at 17 degrees and it never gets much hotter than that!) weather, this was a really ideal way to soak up some warmth.

And what’s more, I had this in the home of a Kashmiri. They welcomed us with open arms and let us wander through their beautiful lakeside home, which we people in this city can only fruitlessly dream of ever owning. I thought to myself, that this was the real irony....that this family which makes money by taking tourists out water skiing during only few months of the year made less money than the Shahrukh Khans and Anil Ambanis of the world. But neither Khan or Ambani can ever boast of a beautiful home in paradise, which is exactly what Kashmir is.

That home was a simple but spacious wooden cottage but it just might have been a mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Actually, because it’s our, own dear Kashmir, it’s even more precious to me than Switzerland will ever be.

Facts
Jammu & Kashmir is separated by the Jawaharlal Nehru tunnel, which one has to pass through to get to either place. This tunnel is strictly manned by security personnel. So, on one day, traffic movement is allowed in one direction on the next day, it moves the other way. This is pretty standard practice all over J&K and something that Mumbai should mull over.

Jammu and Kashmir is administered from two different places. In the winter months the administration setup is in Jammu and in the warmer months from Srinagar. And yes, our indefatigable armed forces escorts files and bureaucrats across the state during this transition. During that time as well, civilian and tourist movement is kept minimal, so the date of such a move is announced in advance.

Flying to Kashmir takes 3 hours and by train, it's a 36 hours journey from Mumbai and a 2 days-2 nights voyage from Pune! But I heard that the Konkan Railways may be building a line all the way to Srinagar.

As of now, the only way for outsiders to live permanently in Kashmir is to marry a local (and the men are delicious and a sight for sore eyes but most are unemployed!) But with Kashmiri Pandits being asked to return, there is hope that Kashmir will soon start pulling its weight and contributing to India's GDP - then nothing can hold us back except shortsighted politicians.

Written for the Spark Magazine

1 comment:

alok said...

njoyed every word of your travelog of kashmir.
and thank God u r back from "delicious" men!