Monday, June 2, 2008

Sojourn in Kashmir

I've been out on holiday the last week, which is why my alarming prolificness was somewhat curbed (I wasn't absolutely sure there's a word like 'prolificness' but says there is. And who am I to question it? The internet is my god. Anyway....)

PASSENGER SHED, read the signs above the bus stops as we pass them on our way back to our hotel. Whether or not the irony of this registers on the users, it seems like an ominous reminder that here, more than in any other Indian state, people have been dying for so long and with such frequency, that their lives are now not worth more than cattle, and their deaths have less impact on the rest of the country’s mind than does a chicken-killing virus. As far as anyone outside Kashmir is concerned, these people have in fact become nothing more than statistics. We sit far away, safe and sound from the danger and shake our heads over another twenty dead in a bomb blast in Kashmir, and then move on to the next news item. Twenty…what? Twenty people; twenty men going home to their wives; twenty school children playing cricket and wanting to be Sachin; twenty girls with dreams of being doctors and lawyers; twenty humans; twenty cows…what does it matter? We no longer stop to think about it. Or care. But you can’t ignore it when you’re there, in the middle of these people, looking at their rickety houses and broken-down, almost non-existent infrastructure and feeling what it must be like to be those people we only see on TV.

Still, on the surface at least, Srinagar presented itself to us much as any other town busily living off its tourists. "Thog-er desh", my mom says dismissively. Loosely translated, that means 'city of cheats', and it's hard to dispute that. The shopkeepers bargain long and hard to try to sell us a bottle of mineral water for 25 bucks instead of the 12 it costs in Delhi. The horse owners demand Rs 500 for a horse and then come down to 20 when we threaten to walk away. The entire city seems out to get the tourists. Tall, lanky youths try to waylay us and offer to be guides. Bearded men lining the Dal Lake try to persuade us to take a trip in a shikara. Complete strangers accost us on our way and ask for money. It's all slightly disconcerting. It takes a subtle shift of perspective to see that they have no other way. In a state of war and chaos, no industries can survive and few jobs are forthcoming. The hordes of youths milling about in the middle of a weekday bear testimony to that.

Still, despite decades of bloodshed, despite deforestation and pollution and fires and bombs, Kashmir remains beautiful. It takes us a four-hour drive to travel to Gulmarg. "The valley of flowers", as it's called, is one of the loveliest sights we have ever seen. The entire mountainside is covered with flowers of different colours, swaying in the gusty wind as we make our way to the top. On both sides, we see huge glaciers partly or almost completely covering the mountainsides like enormous white blankets. It's an awe-inspiring sight. The river gushing out from under the glacier is deafening and icy cold. It froths, roars and crashes against the rocks on its banks with almost frightening ferocity. But it's the lifeline of the people. Farmers on both sides of the bank have diverted water from the river into channels to irrigate their fields, and the river meets all the water needs of the city below. On the way, we occasionally spot clumps of tree stumps. Our driver explains that cutting of trees here is illegal, but it's difficult for authorities to protect the trees from the tide of humans sneaking in here in the dead of night to get wood. This then is the reason why wood is so extensively used in construction of buildings in Srinagar. It's cheap and easily available, and no one questions where you get it from.

We are woken up at 4 the next morning by loud and insistent calls to Allah from the local mosque. In the cool dark early morning the sound is creepy as it floats over the desolate roads and sneaks in through our window. Disgruntled, we try to drown out the sound with pillows and fingers stuffed in our ears, but somehow it filters through. But despite our irritation, it's one of the charms of this strange valley town. In place of the many cows back home, you see mares dotting the roadside. The few cows look strange and unnaturally short and stocky. The people themselves are lean and strong, quite different from the fast food-eating, rotund breed of humans we're used to seeing in Delhi. The language seems to slide off their tongue with a lot of 'k' and 'sh' in their syllables, sounding not unpleasant in its smoothness. I've always thought Hindi's a very harsh-sounding language.

But the most enduring image of Kashmir I'll keep with me is that of the glaciers of Gulmarg. Far away from the cries of global warming and melting ice caps, the glaciers we saw looked gigantic and invincible. And surrounded by the river and the towering pine trees, it seemed impossible that they could ever admit defeat to those frail humans. I guess it's a reflection on the power of the human race that we can even talk of wiping out these giants of nature. But somehow I have the uncomfortable feeling that one day or the other they'll get even with us. And that day is coming.