May 7, 2009
If there’s anything that makes me feel cheated while traveling in India, it’s air travel. When you care the least about getting a window seat, like when it’s cloudy, there is always one available. When you really want a window seat, like when you are going to fly over the Himalayas, you will be seated between Mr. Corpulence and Mr. Mal-odor. If you are luckier, there will be a toddler kicking your seat throughout the journey, as it happened with me on a recent visit to Srinagar.
I was on a journalistic assignment, the tourists were returning to Kashmir with a revenge. We had been booked into the Centaur Hotel, beautifully situated, right at the DAL lake. There’s a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about that hotel, maybe it is the peeling walls, the stale smell in the rooms, bad service, random people ringing your bell in the middle of the night… The next day we shifted to Green Acre. A smaller, cosier place, with big airy rooms and warm hospitable service. It is an old bungalow transformed into a hotel. They have an old section with wooden ceilings and beams and a new concrete block. It has a beautiful garden, which was in full bloom. Although there is no telephone in the rooms and the service a little slow, you can be sure your food is coming from a safe and clean kitchen. There’s no menu, there’s standard fare for each meal- Lentils, Meat, Vegetables, Curd, Rice and Chapatti (bread), and it is always excellent. Not all rooms have wi-fi but the connection in the hotel lawn is good. It is run by the family, they live in one section of the hotel. Friendly, polite and helpful, that’s the place I’m staying next time as well.
On our first day at the Dal Lake which is the centerpiece of Srinagar, the long-boats (shikaras) were full of domestic tourists. The lake has very romantic associations for the generation that grew up in the 60s. It was a favourite location for many romantic hindi films, ‘kashmir ki kali’ being one of the iconic ones. Shammi Kapoor romancing Sharmila Tagore at the Dal is an image burnt on the brain of the regular North Indian middle aged man, embedded in his genes. Several relatives of Mr. Corpulent and Mr. Mal-odor were busy romancing their respective partners, literally rocking the boat. A surefire sign of the good times. Didn’t take long for things to return to point zero. A new political controversy gripped Srinagar’s fancy, residents took to the streets, gathering numbers by each passing day. Within three days, the lake was empty, the shikaras were on strike and the romantic dream of the domestic tourist was effectively tear-gassed. The only people in the street were the protesters, press and the police. Stones and burning tyres versus sticks and guns.
We pasted the Press sign on the windshield and went news gathering, from one protest party to another. Shooting a protest where adrenaline is high and emotions at an edge is a tough deal. We soon learnt that we need to keep a sharp eye on the road, ready to spot the hand tightly grasping a stone, muscles tense with anticipation and the look of accusation and an utter lack of fear. We would stop as soon as we saw anyone looking at us suspiciously, wave the camera out of the car and wait for permission to pass, shoot or turn around. It is a little like approaching an animal that you feel may or may not attack you. You let it inspect you for threats before making any physical moves. Sometimes the protesters welcomed us as one of them, at other times we were pushed and abused, which was the time to quietly turn around and make an exit. The rallies gradually grew to massive proportions, the air crackling with apprehension. Flags flying, tyres burning, people whispering in little pockets, perhaps also discussing how to arrange for daily groceries…
Before the situation within the city got serious in terms of safety, we made a day trip to some villages near Baramullah and Uri. We were meeting families still reeling from the after-effects of the 90s. Ex-militants without any rehabilitation assistance, divided families, with sons or husband across the border and no valid visa to visit them, old men still praying for the kidnapped wife to return. The Army, BSF and CRPF seem more visible than the residents. We were told that they have to comb the Srinagar-Baramullah highway everyday for landmines. Armoured vehicles had started making a frequent appearance on the highway. Srinagar looked like a city under siege.
Our driver, a devout Muslim with a sense of humour, invoked Allah’s name each time we approached a protest group. Such dependence on an intangible figure made me rather nervous. We were left to our own devices, trying to assess the situation on the fly. I must have giggled nervously once at his invocation, Arshad (name changed) realized I am bey-deen, ‘godless’ and wanted to engage me in a creationist debate. Of course my persistent refusal discouraged him and he instead chose to sing a cheerful ‘yeh Kashmir hai’, a song from a 60s Amitabh Bachchan starrer. Following which he wanted me to join him in slogan shouting, he wanted me to finish his ‘we want…’ with a throaty ‘…freedom’, the next time we saw tyres burning in the middle of the road. Needless to say, I refused.
At the end of the shoot we went to the heavily guarded and super expensive Intercontinental Hotel for an alcohol fix. A glass of wine later Arshad looked at us searchingly for signs of intoxication, miming a drunk person, unsteady on her feet. I asked him if he knew that his cough syrup has more alcohol than a glass of wine. I had hoped to shock him but he didn’t even bat an eyelid, instead smiled indulgently.
On our way back, the airport was spilling over with fleeing tourists. On the runway, I turned around once to get one last look. The mountains stood majestic, cool and casual, unimpressed by the unrest unfolding around them. Two kids fought with me for the window seat. I didn’t give it to them, so they took the seat behind and kicked my chair throughout the journey. Oh, and it was cloudy.
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