Jammu did not quite prepare me for Kashmir. As we sped towards the Jawahar tunnel on the Jammu-Kashmir Highway, there were glimpses — army convoys moving to and fro — of what could lie on the other side. But the hilly highway had its distractions: oval-faced monkeys that stared at us from the rocks on the edge; a shabby, single-menu joint that served only rajma-chawal and a signpost which said ‘Go slowly on my curves’. The landscape changed abruptly as our Bolero crossed the 2.5-km long tunnel. The view of the Pir Panjal became more spectacular; the mountain air, chillier; the grass, quite literally, greener. I was in Kashmir, the land of my parents and grandparents, after 20 years.
Half an hour later we were stopped by the police. “Where are you from, where are you going?” the cop, his gun dangling at the waist, wanted to know (the question, or some version of it, as we would later realise, is an integral part of the strained securitymen-Kashmiri conversation). We told him we were tourists from Mumbai. But he was not really interested in our answers. His tired eyes scanned us instead. Since most of us did not look and sound Kashmiri, our first security check got over quickly. As evening turned into twilight, we entered Srinagar. The air was stuffier now, the streets were filled with honking cars. The chaos on the roads could easily pass off as that in any other Indian city. Dal Lake, in particular, was alive. Hotels and restaurants across Boulevard Road, which runs on the edge of the lake, were lit up. Tourists and locals strolled across the road. A hundred hawkers followed them. A couple held hands. And the Dal itself was welcoming. The houseboats rested silently on its placid waters, the colourful shikaras and kashtis looking like they were trying hard to please. Levels of violence in the valley, and Srinagar in particular, had gone down in the last few years — that was the one thing everybody seemed to agree on. And yet, even in those first glimpses of the Dal, it was impossible to miss the men in uniform, armed, ready and tense, strategically placed every 10 to 15 feet across the length of Boulevard Road.
The next day, as we came out of our beautiful houseboat, crossed the lake in a shikara and stepped into a surprisingly warm Kashmir morning, we saw more armed men — in bunkers, behind barbed wires, atop towers, the shade of green or brown depending on where they were from — the Army, Border Security Force, state police or the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). They were other guns too, unseen and often more sophisticated, in the hands of militants, renegades and other shadowy figures. For those of us coming to Kashmir — the post-1990 Kashmir, the Kashmir which had long lost its innocence — for the first time, it took a while getting used to so many guns. I had read somewhere that your preconceived notions of nationalism, of Indian nationalism, are severely tested in the valley. They were.
And that, perhaps, was more difficult to come to terms with than even the guns. Wherever we went, we were almost invariably referred to as the “guests from India”, not with malice, but casually, incidentally. Coming from places where we take our Indianness — whatever that is — for granted, it was a strange feeling. In the week that we were there we spoke to a cross section of the Kashmiri middle-class — lawyers, doctors, professors, journalists, NGOs and, students.
Day three in Kashmir, in the sprawling, scenic Kashmir University campus, we sat on the ground next to the canteen: about 10 Kashmiri students, many of them members of a newly-formed students union, in a semi circle, and nine of us from Mumbai and Delhi completing the circle. They did most of the talking. And it was here, among the generation next of Kashmir, that the angst against India, was most intense, most articulate.
Towards the end of the trip, I undertook a very personal journey to search for the house where I had last been when I was eight: my maternal grandfather’s house. The address was scribbled in my diary and I took a rickshaw, a meter-less wonder like all Srinagar rickshaws, to wherever the address was. We trudged along sad, alien streets of the inner city. There is something melancholic about certain Srinagar streets, even when they are crowded; maybe it comes from the knowledge that people have died on them. The colony’s name was still the same. Middle-class homes, all bungalows, some cozy, others huge. I had told the Kashmiri Muslim rickshaw driver that I was a Kashmiri Pandit trying to find my grandfather’s house. He had understood. I did not have to narrate the whole saga of how the house was sold, under duress, a few years after Kashmir erupted and the Pandits fled.
He had never seen me but he recognised me. We entered a thin lane. House number 19 was certainly somewhere here... 6,7...11,13,15... a dead end. A U-turn and then a right turn and we were there. I knocked on the large, wooden door. A woman with a headscarf said no one by my grandfather’s name ever lived there. It couldn’t be. I re-checked the diary. Perhaps, I was looking for house number 24, she said. It turned out that the number plates had been changed some years after the Hindus had left. She took me to the right house. I recognised the narrow outdoor passage where I played cricket with my brother and cousins, the garden in the front, the rooms, the first room on the right — my grandfather’s room. I did not stay there for long but went to a neighbour’s house who seemed to know my grandparents well. We spoke about shared memories.
In the rickshaw back to Lal Chowk, the heart of Srinagar where the others were waiting, I thought of my grandfather’s Kashmir, the Kashmir he was born in before the first World War; the Kashmir he spent his life in; the Kashmir where he taught generations of students; the Kashmir he loved; the Kashmir he was forced to leave in the last years of his life. A constable, CRPF I think, stopped the rickshaw and my thoughts. He had never seen us but he recognised us. Finding two Kashmiris inside he asked us for our identities. My Mumbai press card and Pune driving licence helped me win this round.