How easy it is to compartmentalise people. Good, evil, ugly, beautiful, Hindu, Muslim etc. A lot of my views on these theories of compartmentalisation were challenged when I visited Kashmir a few months ago. It was a trip that was being planned since long, on being prompted by a Kashmiri shawl seller, who had been a regular visitor to our place for over seven years. Our plans finally materialised this summer, when our family along with a few friends decided to take a 10-day break from the scorching sun and visit Kashmir.
While we were planning our journey, we were warned by several people to be careful of Kashmiri natives, who apparently are innocent by looks but wicked at heart. A week before we were to start our journey, we informed the shawl seller, Gulzar bhai, of our plans. His excitement knew no bounds.
We got several calls from him, asking if we had booked a place to stay, whether we were travelling by air or by road. Sceptical of his intentions, we gave him the least possible information, thinking that he might have plans to fish out money from us.
Our last stop for the tour was Pahalgam. It was here that Gulzar bhai stayed. During the entire course of our journey, he had been in regular touch with us. We kept growing suspicious with each call, trying to figure out why was he so keen to see us.
When we finally met him, he greeted my father with a hug and welcomed us with great hospitality. He told us that he had booked us in a small resort that his uncle owned on the outskirts of Pahalgam. It was getting late and we were eager to check in and get some rest. He got into our car and guided us to the resort that was 8 km away from the town. The roads were deserted and it was getting difficult to drive in the dark. In our hearts, all of us were fearing the worst and praying that he would take us to the right place. As the resort loomed in sight, we felt relieved and rushed inside.
It was located in a secluded area and we were very uncomfortable with the silence and the darkness surrounding us. But Gulzar bhai assured us that we would enjoy the scene around us in the morning, something that couldn't be seen from the cluttered town below. And he was right. The sight in the morning was breathtaking and beautiful. Snow-covered mountains, water gurgling in streams, birds chirping all around, it was paradise. Bhai served us breakfast with steaming cups of kahwa. The day was spent visiting tourist spots around town, shopping and enjoying the local delicacies. We were so engrossed in fun that we didn't realise it was getting late. It was a little over 11pm when we finished dinner and headed for the resort. Almost halfway through, we realised that we were lost.
Gulzar bhai was promptly given a call and he guided us through the jungle, in the right direction.
Around 2 km from the resort, we found a man with a torch on the road signalling us to stop. Who else could it be than bhai himself. He had walked down all the way, to make sure that we didn't get lost further.
When we were leaving, he refused to charge us anything, saying that we were like his family from Punjab. On insisting, he agreed to charge us nominally only for the rooms that we had occupied.
The borders and boundaries are more blurred now than they seemed before as I now have a brother who resides in Kashmir.