Kashmir: odd & even moments

Ashis Dutta reflects upon a time when Kashmir wasn't caught between different phases of militancy...

A houseboat in Jhelum river, Jammu and Kashmir

Could earth be really so beautiful?” That was my first reaction from the flight window as we climbed down to land in Srinagar. That was way back in 1986. I had gone to a water-skiing training camp, my first visit to Kashmir. And I knew I would come back again, and again. Our water-skiing camp was at a secluded part of Nigeen Lake, and we, a happy bunch of a dozen young men and women from all over the country, would take the local bus from near our dorm in the thick of Srinagar. Surinder, the extrovert from Patiala, was the one to scream — “Aag, aag,” (Fire, fire).

It was a cold morning. We were in a crowded bus, jolting its way to Nigeen. In that swarm, Surinder screamed seeing fumes coming out of the clothes of an elderly lady next to him. All hell broke loose. The bus screeched to a halt. People hurried down in near stampede. The elderly lady started screaming and swearing at Surinder, in Kashmiri. Why was she shouting? What was she saying?

Eventually, from beneath her pheran, the long robe that Kashmiris wear, she brought out a kangri — the portable fire-pot Kashmiris carry to keep warm. Still brooding, poor Surinder never spoke a word when in the bus for that entire stay in Kashmir.

After exhausting days of water-skiing, I often slipped away alone by the Dal Lake. Most of the houseboats were moored at the middle of the lake. There were a few by the edge. And here I found Majid Hussain in his houseboat. He beckoned me – “Aiyee, janab” (Come up). At that age, hardly anyone had ever called me janab.

He was smoking hukkah, but offered me kawa, Kashmiri tea, from the pot on the burner. Sitting at the balcony of his houseboat, facing the lake and the green and snow-clad mountains beyond, sipping steaming kawa, we got into a friendly conversation. “Aap India se aye hain?” (Are you from India?) First, I stiffened. Then I decided to carry on the conversation.

Remember, this was three years before the Kashmir agitation began (in 1989). I was experiencing its fore-rumblings. Neither I nor Majid Hussain had any inkling of how torturous the future of Kashmir would eventually pan out. I asked him about ‘this Pakistan thing’. His gaze avoided me. His anger with New Delhi was palpable, but so was his discomfort about Pakistan. We parted after charming hospitality, but with disturbed minds.

Twenty years later, our car had stopped at the check-post at the base of Shankaracharya Hill in Srinagar. The friendly driver, Ghanii, who had been driving us around for four days, got down to talk to the security. One of them, in army fatigue, came over and asked for our passports.

“Why passport?” I demanded. “Why should Indians need a passport to come to Kashmir?” He looked at us quizzically. “But your driver said that there are foreigners in his car.” When I accosted Ghanii, he kept quiet and looked the other way.

My shikhara glided across Dal Lake and came to the largest houseboat of Srinagar, ‘Neil Armstrong’. Its owner, Mr Chapri, welcomed me graciously. “Why Neil Armstrong?” Mr Chapri, an avid mountaineer, had just returned from an expedition and came to know of man’s landing on the moon. “I immediately decided to build the largest houseboat and name it after Armstrong.” We sat in the ornate drawing room of the houseboat, draped in silk and light grey upholstery with cushion covers in shades of blue Kashmiri chain-stitch designs. The walls were in intricate lattice wood-work. “For all the woodwork, we use cedar, commonly known as deodar,” said Mr Chapri. “With time, cedar takes on a light golden hue.” His ancestors were the earliest houseboat builders and my visit was to know that story. He began, how one General Dunlop started putting wooden bodies on the donga boats. Thus, between the years 1880 and 1885, the donga boats on the Jhelum river slowly transformed to the houseboats of Kashmir.

I was returning from Pahalgam – that shepherds’ village of elemental beauty, as if the maker had taken time off to adorn a beautiful woman with full adulation.

Our car had stopped at a tea-stall beside the rippling Lidder river. The owner, Yasin, was an enterprising young man of 30. Soon, we struck a conversation. “Your first-time in Kashmir?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “I first came here decades ago.”

“Oh! That’s before militancy.”

I realised, Kashmir had these phases of modern history — before militancy, militancy and post-militancy, an era that it had just started dawning. Alas, both I and Yasin were proved wrong on that count.

“How do you like Kashmir?” he asked.

Jannat jaisi, like heaven.”

Haan,” Yasin took a deep breath, “kisi ki boori nazar lag gayi thi.”

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