The roads were slush, the winter was coming to an end and the melting snow made the walk very treacherous. Luckily, I took my good old Quechua shoes that decathlon gave me during the floods. Any time there is particulate matter and a natural disaster together. Quechua boots have helped me thread. This time, it wasn’t news. On the way there would be blocks of ice and I would crush it and laugh like a diabolical giant who just obliterated a colony of Lilliputians. ( I think that didn’t happen cause it was children book, if it did, tell me.)
The line of trucks had no end, it meandered with the road. Until we reached the point of the landslide. There was an excavator clearing the debris. Showkat Boiya says that landslides can be cleared as fast as 30 minutes since the emergency crews are always the first responders. But that doesn’t hide the fact that if you are one of those people who get caught under the slide, then the lions share of the time, don’t expect to see day light again. We pass that scene and we move towards a small town. This is the first time I notice the changing ethnic distribution. Now skin colour gets whiter, beards longer and the pherens becomes more frequent. I ask them if we are in Kashmir yet, cause that is all the vibes that I am getting. They say, not yet. We have to pass through the tunnel. Then, we are in the valley. And into heaven.
Firdous bhaiya says something now in Persian. The melody of that phrase really resonates with me. The meaning of it is getting more and more validated with every step.
“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.”
– “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here,”
The Mughal Emperor Jehangir said that. And he knew what he was talking about.
The mountain ranges are getting closer and more magnifique. The boiyas point at houses on the slopes of the mountains with snow having covered the roofs. They say, imagine their lives living in this condition. I romanticise that for a moment and take a picture on my phone. Then I am brought back to earth when my palms feel frosty and I put my gloves back on again. Every moment of grandeur is interrupted by the undercurrent of tension between the people and the military. I passed through at least 3 barracks in that 4 km hike and when you see someone holding a weapon, with a gaze that subjects every human being to the suspicion of a lethal attack, it is damning. Especially after the events of two days ago. Imagine the mind set of that soldier. I think there is a dehumanising effect which affects your psychology when you see other humans as a threat for so long. In India, PTSD ( Post traumatic street disorder) which effects veterans is something I have almost never heard anyone talk about. When soldiers leave the line of duty and return home, integrating back to life is not easy. ( I learned that later on this trip when I met a BSF soldier from Thrissur in Jammu)
I want to smile at them, they obviously know I am from the mainland. And they always glance at me for that extra one second. But something in my psyche stops me from doing it, I regret it now. No Kashmiri will ever smile at them. And for those who have left their family behind to come and stand in the cold Kashmiri wind, braving the odds and with people who don’t hide the fact that they don’t want them there. A smile would have meant something. If I could go back and do this all over again. That is the only thing I would change. Give that jawan a smile.
Shoot on sight
Remember Irshad boiya. Of all the people in that group, I had this special affinity towards him. He had the body of a 15 year old kid, but the visage of a man who looked like he had a lot of wisdom to give. And he always reassured me things were going to be alright. When things got tense at the railway station, it was his calming gaze through those brown eyes which made me feel at ease.
He was doing this hike in his chappals. You wouldn’t believe it, but look at it for yourselves. With the temperature just above freezing and with slush and snow making what used to look like a road feel like a marsh. This legend was walking in his chappals. But when I looked around, I realised, it was just me who was feeling the cold. For everyone else it was business as usual. Growing up in the mountains puts hair on your chest.Literally.
And now comes the first real conversation about the whole issue of Kashmir. Irshad Boiya asks me what would have happened if I had not met them. And by now, the whole experiences of yesterday coupled with my hermitage at the mosque and my first contact with snow made me tell him vehemently that all of it wouldn’t have been possible without them. I was over the moon at that point. Then he brought things down back to earth. He asks me that if this was what I had anticipated ? Answer to which was no. I said, my inherent biases had made me question if I would be welcomed here.
He said Kashmir is heaven on Earth and Kashmiris the most peaceful, loving people. And like how Sir Iqbal would have wanted it, their actions put solid foundations on their words and I witnessed both. But then, he sobers down the excitement and asks me.
Why do we have that barracks there ?
It was time we talked about the military presence. He states that Kashmir is different. It is isolated and I can vouch for that. He asks me how I would feel if outsiders would come, stand around your homes with assault rifles and then tell you what to do. When the news writes only bad about your people. When a politician uses your land as poker chips to entice his herd of sycophants.
He tells me, the injustice which is being dealt on them is unspoken of. Their lives turned upside down. Their path home threaded with dangers. They live in other lands with fear and trepidation. Any time one rotten apple does something malignant. An entire orchid is torched. He says Kashmiris don’t have any hate towards the people of India. They want to welcome Indians to their home. But the Indian state is something which they do have a problem with. He wanted me to know that difference.
But most important of all, he tells me, what the entire nation lacks the most is empathy and he says he doesn’t blame anyone for it. Some people don’t want the truth to come out of Kashmir. And he said if my perception of Kashmir and Kashmiris have changed. Then tell my family and friends the truth and let them come there and see it for themselves, the kindness and love people here have to give.
It was at that moment it dawned upon me that, now I have a responsibility forced upon my shoulders. I have had the privilege to be in a unique position at a unique time and in a unique place with a unique group of people. And I need to tell that story. I promised Irshad Boiya that I will write about Kashmir. And tell the story to as many people as I can. They didn’t understand the writing part then, but I hope when I send it to them that they will.
Usually I would have been writing about Real Kashmir’s starting 11 and their story so far in the league. But here I am writing every singe incident chronologically and introducing each and every character. That is because this trip didn’t go at all to how I planned. The travel gods have made sure that this would be a trip which would change a lot of things on how I see people. Or as my Kashmiri friends would say.WHAT KHUDHA HAS WILLED UPON ME.
TO BE CONTINUED…….