In search of something
This month for the first time in my life I went to Kashmir, which you Pakistanis think is yours and we think is ours.
In childhood, I would often say to classroom enemies:
Doodh maango ge, to kheer denge
Kashmir maango ge, to cheer denge
[Ask for milk, I’ll give you cream
Ask for Kashmir, I’ll slice you in half]
Of course, this message was originally made for you, my dear Pakistanis.
Let’s leave the past behind. I want to talk about the present. My first day in Srinagar was spent in the Martyr’s Graveyard in the old part of the town. It was crowded with men who, it is said, died in the struggle for an independent Kashmir.
The graves were covered with grass, irises and roses. The sky was overcast. It was cold. Inscribed on the gate:
Lest You Forget We Have Given Our Today for Tomorrow of Yours
A cobbled path snaked through the cemetery. One grave was draped with a sheet of blue silk. Another had a garland of plastic flowers. Some were surrounded by red roses. A few graves were left empty for tomorrow’s martyrs. A lamb was grazing on the adjacent lawn.
Far away, black clouds were coming down the pale blue hills that ring the city.
As it started to rain, a young man entered the cemetery, and stood beside a grave.
In the hotel, the manager told me, “Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq, our religious leader who was assassinated in 1990, is buried in that cemetery. His assassin too has his grave there. The Martyr’s Graveyard is Kashmir’s strangest place.”
The same evening I was talking a stroll about the heavily-guarded Boulevard beside the Dal lake. The sun was setting behind Hari Parbat. The ancient temple at the top of Shankaracharya Hill had disappeared from view. The boats on the Dal were reduced to their outlines. The lights coming from the houseboats had turned the water into strips of green, red and white.
As the night chill set in, a group of Gujarati tourists left the lakeside. Most boatmen, too, were seen preparing to head home. But one boat seemed to be stranded on the lake. It had no oar and no boatman.
According to a belief in this part of the world, when a man is killed, the sky turns red. That evening the sky was orange before it turned black. Perhaps nobody died in Kashmir that day.
The next morning I was at Jamia Masjid in Nowhatta, a neighbourhood in the heart of Old Srinagar. The mosque was a snug little world of mossy brick paths, grey pigeons, yellow poppies and smooth pillars made from the wood of Deodar.
Built in 1400 and destroyed thrice by fire, it has four wooden towers at four corners. The principal entrance looks to a bazaar that seemed to have seceded from India, at least emotionally. One chai shop was decorated with a framed portrait of your former president Ayub Khan. One wall was depicted with this crudely-drawn calligraphy:
It was dark in the masjid’s pillared hall. Burqa-clad women asked for alms, while devotees performed namaz or read the Quran. In the garden, the women sat under chinar trees, little boys jumped across brightly-coloured flower-beds, veiled college girls talked in low voices and crows made regular dips in the cool water of the wuzu pool.
There was a clear view of the faraway hill-top fort of Hari Parbat. Taken over by the Indian Army, it is barred to Kashmiris. But sitting in the Jamia Masjid garden, it was easy to forget that we were in an occupied territory.
The valley has two layers of beauty. The outer skin has superficial loveliness of snow-clad peaks and scenic lakes, a common trait of all the vulgar hill stations of South Asia. The inner layer reaches out only to those who are capable of feeling Kashmir’s violent past and uncertain future. This beauty is more delicate.
But one thing that you must do before you die is to take a walk down the Bund in Srinagar. A pathway by the Jhelum, it teems with Kashmiris, not tourists. In the afternoon, schoolboys sit on the riverside slopes, while schoolgirls stand around chaat stalls. Others lounge in a garden that is opposite Ahdoo’s, a hotel popular with Delhi journalists who periodically land in the town to cover the unrest in Kashmir.
The Bund has many tailoring shops and a few abandoned houses, whose wooden balconies look down towards the empty houseboats.
As the daylight fades, the mountains seem to come closer to the Bund. The world shrinks. It gets intense.
In its issue dated 21 April 2012, Open, a Delhi-based newsweekly, published a cover story on Kashmir titled “Sorry, Kashmir is Happy.”
The author Manu Jospeh asked: “Why is it obscene to accept that a historically wounded people are ready to move on?”
In the story, he wrote:
Srinagar does not have pubs or discos or cinema halls. Most young people there do not drink. A popular form of fun is sitting in a café and having coffee with friends. They are still uncorrupted by city slickness and there is an endearing honesty in their words.
Trying to search for happy Kashmiris, I found my happy Kashmir in an outdated guidebook. Kashmir Tourist Book was published during the 1950s when the Delhi-Srinagar airfare was Rs 172 and Srinagar still had cinemas (Neelam, Regal, Palladium, Sheraj, Naaz, Broadway, Firdaus and Khayam).
The guidebook delves deep into Kashmir’s happiness.
The happy vale of Kashmir is renowned most for its wonderful air, lovely scenery and excellent beauty. This is that happy valley where one can make life most enjoyable to different tastes and interests. This is that happy valley where spring appears in all its glory. This is that happy fairy lotus-land where the lotus blooms to greatest perfection. This is that happy valley where trees like chinar and poplar are most beautiful at all stages. This is that happy valley before which the title “Eden of the East” blushes and artists find undreamed beauties of colour and scenery for the brush.
Are you happy?
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos