Before Surankote became infamous for being a militant base, it was widely known for its beauty. "Pahalgam of Poonch" that's how people would refer it. One Army man has rightly put it on a blog: "Surankote will be called honeymoon destination of India one day. It's a pleasure being here and serving here."
I know a Hindu family in Surankote. The family has lived here for the last 40 years, of which 20 years passed amid militants and Army ambushes. My father has been sending a card on Navreh – Kashmiri new year -- to them for the past four decades without fail.
So armed with a name --- Shyam Sunder Verma --- and the name of the shop he ran --Verma cloth House--- I arrived at Surankote.
Now in Delhi or Bombay that kind of information might mean next to nothing. But in a one-horse town like this one it worked very well. In fact, it hit bull's eye at the very first go.
The otherwise nondescript medical shop caught my eye because of the name written on top of it in bold lettering. Kiran, incidentally, was also the name of Verma's wife. So purely on a hunch I got off the car and walked to the shop and after a moment's hesitation asked the 20 something man at the counter if he knew anyone by the name of Kiran who owned a cloth shop in the market.
As it turned out the young man was the late Kiran Verma's son. The next few minutes were spent in exchanging eager pleasantries after which Rohit took us home.
Kiran was no more, but at their house we met an aged Shyam Sunder Verma. From what the family said, the years between 2001 and 2003 had been a nightmare. Militancy was at its peak, and normal life was at a complete standstill. Two swamis from the neighbouring Dhunduk temple got killed.
The streets were full of security personnel and the Vermas and many others also had J&K armed police guarding the house.
Those years the business suffered as well. The shop had to shut early and because people were not venturing out of doors there was not much buying happening. In fact, at one point the family left for Poonch. But it was upon the insistence of their Muslim neighbours that the Vermas returned. Says Shyam Sunder, "Our Muslim friends and colleagues had always been supportive and they were feeling insecure once we left. They asked us to come back. So we did."