Chindu Sreedharan

I am a lucky devil. A very lucky one indeed.

Here I am, established in a pretty storybook house, overlooking a pretty storybook lawn, at a pretty storybook location...

No, let me amend that last part.

I am somewhere that is still pretty but no more out of any storybook -- unless it is one by Hitchcock.

For the sake of sounding a bit historic and, I hope, impressive, this is the same place that caused a certain Mughal gentleman to claim -- a little rashly, I would say -- something along:

"Hey, look! I have found Paradise on Earth!"

It isn't long since I arrived in Srinagar. But I am at home, in this two-storeyed house in Kursoo Raj Bagh, a grenade's throw from the cheerless concrete mass that serves as office for the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference.

It's a nice neighbourhood. A relatively 'sanitised area', the local people tell me.

For company I have a young, sprightly adjutant of 55, Subhan Lone, and patches of powdery white snow outside my window...

Though beautiful, there are many things about Kashmir that will get to you.

One, of course, is the tension. It is contagious. And far more than what it was earlier.

In fact, despite the cease-fire, or probably because of it, many in Srinagar swear that this was the tensest Republic Day they have ever seen.

If earlier you could expect sane attacks from militants, what you get today are suicide squads. Both the Kashmiri and the soldier are perturbed -- and it shows in their body language.

Over the last decade, Srinagar has turned into a city of high walls and higher iron gates.

Most bungalows, even in relatively peaceful areas, are hemmed in by such tall add-ons that at times all you get to see are tin-covered roofs.

You feel you are among a prison population, which, in a sense, you are.

Another thing that will spoil your stay here is the load shedding. Thanks mainly to that, you get to remind yourself very firmly, No, I have not stepped back a hundred years in time, just caught a flight to Srinagar.

On days when ordinary Johnnys like yours truly are model citizens and say our prayers well, we get electricity for about eight hours. Every three hours of lighting is followed by a six-hour spell of darkness.

In effect this means that the timing changes every 24 hours -- if you have power from 6 pm to 9 pm on Monday, you can switch on your laptop the next night only between 9 pm to midnight. And so on.

Which thoughtful arrangement seems to suit only Dr Farooq Abdullah and his cronies, who, I believe, have uninterrupted power supply.

Naturally, in a place where temperatures dip to minus eight degree Celsius, and people are forced to use expensive gas/kerosene heaters or huddle around their age-old bukharis, thoughts about the respected chief minister are far from warm.

There is, however, something that's absolutely heartwarming about Srinagar for a person like me.

Its Internet cafes.

Four years ago when I first visited the valley -- please note, dear reader, I am claiming I was the first Web journalist to visit Kashmir -- such facilities seemed aeons away.

The upper class had heard of something called the Internet. But of rediff.com there was no hear.

I was, I remember, on numerous occasions forced to introduce myself saying, "I am from the Internet."

Things have changed. Though it's sheer torture getting online from here, most people seem to know about the Web and email. Cafes (Cnet, Kashnet, Internet Zone...), all charging Rs 60 an hour, are plentiful.

Better still is the response I get when I say I am from rediff.com:

"Oh, yes! Your company is so fast! We watch your site for the latest on the Gujarat earthquake!"

If you aren't a good bargainer, Kashmir is just not for you.

Here everything, including your life, comes at a hefty price. If you can't beat it down, you are the loser.

Unlike many Kashmiris, I haven't had to bargain for my life -- yet. But, thanks solely to my good friend Mohammad Shafi, I am learning the fine art of haggling.

"You need a cook," he told me when I outlined my plan of renting a place. "I know just the man."

He reached me to a colony in Chinar Bagh, near Dal Lake. In a small wooden cabin, we found Subhan Lone.

The famous Kashmiri hospitality took over, and the game started after we finished the customary round of tea and polite-talk.

The haggling was in Kashmiri. Shafi translated the gist for me from time to time.

Lone is used to foreign tourists. They take him along on their trekking trips.

His price was suitably high, Rs 6,000 a month.

"You don't have to trek or guide," Shafi told him. "All we need is a cook."

"You are my friend. That is why I am offering you this price," Lone said.

"Too high," returned Shafi. "He cannot afford it."

"I will look after him like my son. If he needs money I will borrow and give him."

"Do. But charge him something affordable."

Lone came down inch by inch. Finally, after an hour and two cups of Lipton tea -- as opposed to the namkeen chai (salted tea) -- we fixed the deal at Rs 2,000.

From Rs 6,000 to Rs 2,000. Goes to show what enough patience and a moderately thick skin will get you.

Chindu Sreedharan is back with his first love: Kashmir.

Kawha and harisa

Design and illustration: Lynette Menezes

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