"Pizza," it said.
As I checked into my small and very expensive hotel in Rajouri, the big yellow words on the restaurant window caught my eye. Someone was selling pizza in the heart of a city known for 20 years for death and conflict, in the battered Jammu and Kashmir town.
Was it my big city elitism? Was it my ignorance of what had happened in India's faraway small towns behind my back? A sign of the caterpillars of the back-of-beyond India, these sleepy ignored, looked-down-upon towns, aspiring to be butterflies?
As it turns out, it was the caterpillar story.
Rajouri, 150 kilometres north of Jammu, was once a part of the kingdom of Poonch. Traders trundled through here on their way to greater destinations, selling wares in the Kashmir Valley. But for the past twenty years, its Unique Selling Point was militants. It was a hub of militancy and gunbattles around here were common. Infiltration from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir was thick. And deadly.
Two years ago, something began to change. Militancy was losing steam.
And over the past six months, something even more dramatic was happening. Ashirwad Hotel began to sell pizza. The owners had a prize hire – a Nepalese cook who was instructed strictly not to talk to outsiders (including journalists), perhaps for fear of being poached by a rival hotel. My other favourite, the chilly mushroom, was priced at Rs 100 a plate, and my supreme favourite, the rasgulla, was a mindbogglng seven rupees apiece.
Such corporate churning was understandable – a huge opportunity is coming the way of this region, and there will soon be big money to be made.
The Mughal Road – used centuries ago by Mughal emperors as they headed opulent caravans on weary journeys to the picturesque Kashmir Valley retreats – is coming to life again. It is a project that has faced central government apathy for a few decades now, and a route that could have integrated swiftly with the Kashmir Valley and made huge economic gains was not encouraged – perhaps for the exact same reasons.
Governments – and the opinion leaders in Jammu -- probably believe that the integration of Rajouri-Poonch with the Kashmir Valley will wean it away from them and infuse the same pro-Kashmiri (read anti-India) sentiment that they are trying to battle in the valley.
As the road is constructed again, Rajouri is getting ready for the influx of traders and tourists. Three new hotels have come up in the past few months. The Nepalese cook arrived. Pizza began to be baked. The young men who developed a taste for that pizza – after growing up on Punjabi and Kashmiri food – also developed a quick taste for expensive mobile phone handsets with cameras and bluetooth capability. An expensive car or two is showing up too.
Land prices shot up. Many people are preparing to convert their roadside homes into hotels, buying up places inside neighbourhoods. Young men and women watch the sensuous, non-brotherly antics of young men and women on "Big Brother" in the afternoons.
But don't be fooled by the pizza and the cook. Outside the homes and the hotel, the town is a saga of the disastrous governance of the state. Roads are broken, power outages drive the life and plans of people, and employment is non-existent apart from government jobs for which thousands scramble.
Cows and buffalos graze in the town's only sports stadium, so the young people have taken to a new sport – drugs. When they cannot find something to snort, there is enough to inhale – from cough syrups to boot polish.
Next year, when the Mughal Road that passes by the town will probably be buzzing with new visitors, Rajouri will be dreaming even newer dreams.
When I return, I shall order pasta.