Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Srinagar today

Srinagar. March 16, 2009.
I try to spot familiar landmarks from thirty years ago. Nothing seems the same. Apart from the Dal Lake – which seems to have shrunk miserably since – and the imposing backdrop of hills silhouetted against the clear sky, duplicated in the silent waters below, nothing seems the same. While the rest of India seems to have progressed, this part of the world seems to be caught in a time-warp.

Srinagar, sleepy, grey, dull. Nestling in an age-old hollow, guarded by Shankracharya Hill on one side and the Hari Fort on the other. Somber sentinels, silent witnesses to turbulent phases in the history of the province. Shikaras glide half-heartedly across the glassy surfact of the Dal. The embankment by the lake has some activity -- families promenading on the walkway. Men, women and children with red apple-cheeks. Tall bearded men in windblown phirans, loose sleeves flapping against lean bodies. Hawk-eyed, rugged features. Peace seems to have returned to the valley although the tourist biz is yet to pick up.

But is it really peace or an uneasy clam? I sit through an academic session, part of a seminar where the women sit on the left side of the hall and the men on the right. The women – most of them – have their heads covered with the hijaab (is that what it is called?) but a few daring ones are bare-headed. I am told that they love wearing the head-scarf as it "gives them a sense of security and an identity". All of them wear salwar-kameez. Some are in burquas.

A group of young women crowd around the visitors and ask – “What does India think about us?” The question takes me by surprise. I do not know what to answer.

This is a seminar in honour of the golden jubilee of one of the Departments. Several alumni have been invited and are honored with the gift of a Kashmiri shawl. They have come from other states, some of them have returned to Kashmir after several decades. They are nostalgic, talk about their youth on the campus, and generally feel good about returning to scenes of the past.

And then, in one of the seminar sessions immediately following the "honoring" ceremony, the host turns aggressive. He starts belting out an impassioned speech on “Kashmiriyat”. Anti-India sentiments are whipped sky-high, Kashmiri nationalist slogans are raised. A good number of us visiting from outside Kashmir remain silent and frozen but the delegates -- all academics, students and teachers -- clap and cheer. The speaker, encouraged with their response, becomes more vocal. We, the visitors who have been honored just an hour ago, squirm in our seats. This is an academic seminar. We wonder why it is taking a political turn. Outsiders “from India,” we feel trapped.

I feel terror creep down my spine I tell myself it can’t be true. I must be dreaming it.

Mercifully, the session closes. Really closes. Perhaps the hosts have recalled their duties as hosts because anti-India sentiments are not revoked again. Tentatively, gropingly, we try and normalize interaction with the locals.

Why are girls so timid? So withdrawn? They have gone through so much, comes the answer. They have been abused, brutalized, raped. A local delegate informs me that he has personally supervised the burial of 43 members of his family when – at some point of time – there was open fire on their village.

Open fire? By whom? – I want to ask. But my question remains unasked because I am afraid of the answer. I do not wish to know. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” With the previous display of hatred against India and the Indian army, I think it best to leave some questions unasked.

Being driven around the city in the assured safety of a host’s vehicle, I look around and take in what I see. Crumbling walls, broken doorframes, smashed glass, and blackened windows – all mute witnesses to a not-so-old history. These were homes of Kashmiri Pandits who were driven out of the valley two decades ago. Ruins that once belonged to them have been cordoned off. There are boards sealing the area, keeping out encroachments.

Desolate. Dilapidated. There was life here once. This rubble was once a happy home with life and activity. The patter of children’s feet in the courtyard, Family dinners around a bukhari. Sounds of happy voices in times that were green and golden.

What do I see now? Remains of happier times, dusty and bare. Dry torn branches with a stray rook cawing in desolation. A curious cat sniffing around a heap of garbage. On the remains of a blackened first-floor window sits a dog silently surveying the scene. Like an alert sentinel on guard looking down at the aftermath of a battle.

Where have all the flowers gone?
This is not the Kashmir I wish to know. This is alien territory. I have seen enough.
Let me go back home now.

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