From Drass to Sonamarg
JOURNEY FROM KARGIL
We left Kargil in the wee hours, passing through Drass, looking at the peaks on the other side, where apparently the Pakistan army had a good view of us. Everytime I wanted to take pictures I remembered being told that it was not a very wise thing to do, especially if any Indian army camps were in the frame. A strategic security concern.
I can’t deny that driving along the border I felt strangely loyal to my country but every time I had to think twice about taking a picture or encountered a passing army truck filled with our jawaans, I wondered why this piece of heaven on earth couldn’t remain peaceful.
All the people we met along the way to Srinagar carried an air of innocence, always smiling, tending to their daily chores and sharing whatever little they had with passers-by. I don’t think they wanted freedom from anybody, they were free. They enjoyed a kind of freedom that we educated city-dwellers could mistake for lack of ambition.
Religion didn’t seem to be a big issue either. Everyone was wanting to help everyone else, to lead a mutually beneficial life in which religion really has no part to play. From a tourist’s point of view the three words that best describe the people of Kashmir are patience, humour and camaraderie.
As we neared Sonamarg, the true virgin beauty of the Kashmir valley hit us. The land is excruciatingly beautiful, endowed with every gift of nature…almost as if it is God’s favourite child.
I had to constantly ignore the presence of soldiers dotting the National Highway to enjoy the moment. Their presence was both disturbing and reassuring. It was the 29 July 2010, parts of Kashmir were seeing violence for more than a month then, but we were lucky enough to find a brief period of lull and the soldiers gave our driver a go-ahead for the onward journey to Srinagar.
The stillness along Dal Lake
We tried to keep close to a team of other vehicles so that we were not caught alone in any sort of an unpleasant situation. The roads of Srinagar were empty, barricaded in places, checkpoints everywhere. The stillness of Dal lake reflected that of the city. Everything looked still. We almost lost our way, a few moments of desperation, before finally reaching our houseboat on Nageen Lake.
Having arrived safely in the houseboat as I stepped on to the balcony, for the first glimpse of the lake, the right words would be ‘Subhaan allah’. I think something changed inside me at that moment and I started to feel extremely sad for the land and its people. It must have been the cumulative impact of the journey from Leh to Srinagar, from arid to lush, and yet from peaceful to tumultous, from carefree to guarded.
Blooming regardless of curfews
We cancelled the trip to Gulmarg the next morning because of various stone-throwing incidents. Instead we went close by to visit the popular landmarks in the city itself. In the Mughul Gardens we saw all kinds of incredible delicate colorful flowers. On the streets we saw children being taken to school in BSF (Border Security Force) buses. In Hazratbal dargah, I felt torn. On our return journey we got stopped by soldiers from entering the only road to our houseboat because there was some trouble brewing on the same lane. Some other vehicles were allowed to pass though, apparently they had a curfew pass, we didn’t. In fact nobody ever knew if there really was a curfew, we got different answers each time, nobody knew when it starts and when it ends. Yes, I could feel the frustration of the locals.
After some socialising with the soldiers, pleading and playing up the fairer-sex card, we were allowed. A discovery we made all along our journey, yes the soldiers don’t like to be there either and they seem lonely, eager to talk and reconnect with old memories.
In the shikara, on the lake, we shopped and discovered that the prices for most items were much lower in Srinagar than in Leh. The tourist season is short, the protests and curfews lower daily earnings, even food items like fresh meat remain unavailable or are bought in back-alleys as shops remain shut. Yet, the houseboat service remained impeccable. Nothing seemed to connect! We were asked to leave at 4am the next morning for a flight which was only in the noon, a precaution following some more deaths the previous night. The situation did get worse, while we waited at the airport to go back to our comfortable lives.
TRYING TO MAKE SENSE
The difference between Leh and Srinagar was so stark. Leh has seen progress, the Indian government has definitely had a part to play in it. It is not all about commercialization (of the wrong sort) but about educating and enabling the people of the land and allowing them to earn their daily bread too.
I can’t imagine any reason why the Indian government would not want to bring the same level of security and progress to the rest of Kashmir!
And therefore the nagging question I am left with is what will the so-called pro-independence Kashmiris do with their freedom in the end? The concept of ‘freedom from’ always overshadows the concept of ‘freedom to’. They want freedom from the constant presence of the Indian army, freedom from India, from Pakistan, from insurgencies, from long persisting hatred and anger etc.
I do hope some of those angry stone-pelting young ones are thinking about how they will use this freedom…”Freedom to do what?” To just be called a Kashmiri and have your own identity? And how different would that identity be from what it is today and how capable would they be of achieving their undefined dreams on their own?
Co-operation from India would be an important assumption for their future and isn’t that what India is asking for anyway?
I admit I know very little but this is how I felt at the end of my journey – that I absolutely can’t understand what the fuss is all about and whether it is even worthwhile. Yes, I felt the unjustified presence of the troops on the roads but those are preventive measures as long as violence (whether internal or external) remains. I feel absolutely confident in saying that the soldiers do not act unless provoked and most of them would leave Kashmir given half a chance.
In either case, I wish the land and its people the best and definitely hope to visit again…as an Indian who loves the land of Kashmir and its people. May sense prevail!
PS: Incidentally, upon my return I heard Mori Araj Suno by Tina Sani, and I can’t think of a better song for Kashmir …
Iss surat seh
Kitni sadiyaan beet gai hain
Ab jakar yeh bhaid khulla hai
Jis koh tum ne arz guzari
Jo tha haat pakadnay waala
Jis jaag laagi nao tumhaari
Jis say dukh ka daaroo manga
Toray mandir may joh nahin aaya
Woh to tum hi thay
Woh to tum hi thay