Thirteen hundred miles away from home, amidst the lofty snow capped peaks and sprawling green meadows, I saw the innocence of the valley pierced and shattered by the presence army personnel; they say one soldier for every six inhabitants of the region.
Abandoned brick structures and deserted homes dot the landscape of the vale where tourists once frolicked in the snow on skies and sleds. Curfews and riots are an everyday affair where a five year old going to school in the morning might return in the evening only to know that his father and uncles have been “kidnapped” by the armed forces or even worse find his house ripped apart due to a blast in the vicinity.
I was finally in Srinagar, a place I never thought I’d actually visit. We did most of the “touristy” things – a cable car ride atop the mountains that marked the borders of the two nations of India and Pakistan; some frolicking about in the snow, a dip in the rivers and streams, some rafting on the rough choppy waters, visits to the local bakery (it had the most delicious cheesecake), a ride in the local town bus and conversing with the inhabitants, but every step in the open was marked with fear and trepidation.
I was there only for a week and I knew I was returning to my cozy life in Bombay very soon but it pricked to see my fellow citizens cower with fright at every approaching government vehicle. And for once I understood what it meant to be treated like a second-class citizen in one’s own country. While we were there, we also heard of an explosion in a tourist bus, parked outside the Hazratbal mosque, just hours after we had visited that place.
Before leaving a friend insisted on making a quick trip to the famed Moghul Gardens known for their ornate floral beauty and watering systems. We had already been there once and I just couldn’t understand why a guy would be so keen on a second glance of the floral paradise. But once we got there, he took out his camera and started looking for an “appropriate” place to film. And then he stumbled upon it – the walkways; aligned with intrinsic flower arrangements and entangled within those delicate little things were a bunch of barbed wires – and all he said was, “This is what this place means to me, where breathtaking beauty is accompanied with an immense magnitude of pain and suffering!”
That one memory summed up that entire trip for me.
I revisited this trip after I saw Onir’s I am, a few weeks ago. While I loved the entire film, there’s one dialogue by Manisha Koirala that will always stay with me. It went something along the following lines: “Agar yahaan aman aa jaaye, toh yeh wire banane wale ka dhanda toh kharab ho jayega na!”