For the first time in nearly two years, tourism has been on the rise in Kashmir. But what does that mean for the average Kashmiri, ponders Abhishek Mande Bhot after a recent visit to the Valley.
Kashmir has always been a place of intrigue for me.
Sure, I'd visited it when I was three, but a lot has changed since the summer of '85 when things were slower, and the Valley was quieter.
It would be some years before s**t really hit the ceiling, when the quiet lanes of Srinagar and the dusty roads of Baramulla and Anantnag would routinely echo the pop-pop-pop of Kalashnikovs and the explosions of grenades. That's the thing about Kashmir: No matter how old you are -- 18, 35, 55, 73 -- you always associate it with violence.
Seldom portrayed well in the movies, the backdrop for nefarious intrigues and terror dramas, Kashmir has come a long way even in popular culture from the innocent times of Shammi Kapoor wooing Sharmila Tagore on a shikara on the Dal Lake.
Yet now -- following nearly two years of shutdowns, caused first due to the abrogation of Article 370 and then the coronavirus pandemic -- tourism seems to have returned to Kashmir.
In August alone, nearly 50,000 tourists visited the Valley. By the time I landed in late October, that number seemed small.
Official numbers are yet to be reported, but in the week of and the one preceding Diwali, the banks of the Dal Lake thronged with tourists. At Gulmarg, lines snaked out of the gondola waiting area, as tourists waited in freezing temperatures, even as it snowed so heavily that for a several hours hundreds of us were just stranded in that tiny market area of the hill station.
Had it been any another destination, I would have cringed; in Kashmir, I'm happy.
Anything that'll boost the economy, I can get behind.
Even as the tourist season draws to a close -- late November signals the beginning of winter and tourists thin out -- Kashmiris are hoping for a bumper 2022. Yet all the average Kashmiri can do right now is cross his fingers and hope no one pulls out a gun or a grenade.
It is this uncertainty that defines the everyday life in Kashmir. Beneath the smiling faces of tour guides and hustling taxi drivers is the latent fear of things going south all too quickly.
"Most of us are suffering from depression," says one Srinagar local who is showing me the old city.
"It's exhausting. Can you imagine, generations just living in constant fear of something going wrong?"
Yet they seem to soldier on.
Whether it was the aforementioned gentleman from Srinagar or Mehraj Ganai, the guide who was with me for a greater part of the week, or Imtiyaz Pari, our cab driver, or indeed the tens of other people who I met over the course of a fortnight, everyone seems to have accepted that uncertainty is their lot.
And yet, somehow that never seemed to come in the way of them being welcoming and warm. Wherever I went, chai and kahwa flowed, invitations for lunches and weddings are extended freely even if we met just a few hours ago, and time would fly.
But all it would take, for you to know that you're an outsider, is when you steer the conversation to topics like Article 370. Then, an invisible wall goes up.
If you didn't know any better, you will think they all rehearsed it somehow. Maybe it's a self-preservation technique. Or maybe it's a subtle hint suggesting that no matter how much we care or follow the news or read up about Kashmir, everything we know will likely always be theoretical. And that it's quite possible that we may never entirely be able to wrap our head around the situation here.
On the fifth day of my stay, I finally got the full Kashmiri experience. The mobile Internet was cut off and I was staying in a small hotel in Aru, some 14 km north of Pahalgam, that hadn't had power or phone for over 48 hours.
Around teatime I made my way to the hotel's kitchen, a small room from where Bilal would belt out delicious meat dishes with enviable efficiency.
To pass time in this power outage, Bilal was playing his flute and singing.
After discovering that I had little or no interest in contemporary Bollywood numbers, he decided to play me a tune that I thought I recognised from the 1961 movie Kabuliwala.
In the movie, the eponymous Kabuliwala, played by the legendary Balraj Sahni, sings Aye mere pyaare watan as he pines for his motherland, the faraway Kabul.
Bilal's tune, though familiar, was not that song. Unlike the Kabuliwala, Bilal wasn't pining for some distant land. He had his family here, his business too. This was his home. And yet, as he played it on his flute, there was a longing in his tune.
Eventually, he sang it for me. It's a Kashmiri prayer, he said, one that's sung in schools every morning.
The lyrics can be loosely translated from the original Kashmiri as:
Dear Lord, I depend upon you to lead me along the right path.
I went to bed that night thinking of that prayer. Of all the kids starting their day praying that they walk the right path, of the kids who were now adults living a life of uncertainty, and of all the kids who never had the opportunity to become adults.
And every so often, I think of that evening when we were huddled up in a small kitchen with no electricity, no Internet, and a young Kashmiri prayed to god.
Sahibo sath chum mein cheni
Wath mein aslich hawtam
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com