Kashmir: A Calm Between Storms (cont.)
In the main areas of Srinagar, where tourists can be found and where business is conducted, you are never out of eyesight of the army. Driving through the poplar lined roads, past paddies, through orchards of walnuts, almonds, and apricots you spot them over and over. It becomes a bit like finding Waldo though usually a bit more obvious. Even on the highway to Kargil, a road dominated by huge convoys of military personnel, high in the remote mountains, you are always under the watchful eye of solitary sentries high up on hillsides, watching, watching, watching.
The valley of the Sonomarg Meadow (“the meadow of gold”) stretches for over six miles west to east at 8,990 feet, surrounded by high peaks, with their crenellated ridges and jumbled, tumbling glaciers dominating the views to the south and west. From here, every summer, tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims make the annual summertime yatra to Amarnath Cave, a cave with a large ice lingam formed by natural melting and seepage, revered by Hindus as a site inhabited by Shiva.
In the valley some basic facilities can be found as well as a sprawling Indian Army Base. I paid a visit to one place which hosted Hindu tourists on their way to the Amarnath pilgrimage: a tent camp, with brightly colored family tents, complete with queen-sized brass beds, a sitting room in front, Kashmiri carpets (what else) to cut down on the night. There were two dozen such tents, plus dormitory accommodations, and a mess tent. Wearing a cloak, an Afghan wool hat and a trimmed Captain Ahab-style beard, the host Hanif looked more like a Taliban elder than a septuagenarian Kashmiri native. His fierce look belied his hospitality and his love of nature and the outdoors; he had trekked all over Kashmir, Ladakh, Zanskar, Himachal Pradesh and even in the Himalayas of Nepal. We talked about trekking and the outdoors, but what he really wanted to know was about George W. Bush.
“I have one question,” he stated, perhaps too innocently. I sensed something delicate coming, but didn’t know what.
“What does your president have against Muslims? He attacks Iraq, he makes war in Afghanistan, in his speeches he makes many unkind statements about Muslims. What have we done to him?” He paused; at this moment, as often happens in South Asia when you’re the only American around, you mysteriously find yourself transformed through the perceptions of others from anonymous ex-pat to official representative for all American government policy blunders past, present and future.
I pointed out that Afghanistan, initially, had been in response to 9/11. But seeing how Hanif and his son were wearing very traditional Islamic garb, I didn’t push it. “But the US has made many mistakes in Afghanistan since then. And of course Iraq…,” I suddenly became inarticulate, my tongue flapping around as a host of blue epithets and standard, sarcastic political statements battled in the area of my brain that produces, usually, articulate speech. I merely gave them a Gallic shrug and said, “it’s one of the biggest mistakes in US History.” I paused, searching for that bit of emphasis that could, for this moment at least, smooth things over. “Most people think he is the worst American president ever. I think he is.”
Hanif and his son seemed mildly placated, but still I could sense a very palpable dislike of Americans emanating from the son. He was pale-skinned and had blue eyes like many Kashmiris, who claim that these features are the legacy of Alexander the Great and his men who stayed behind in the mountain valleys near the Indus River. With his wispy adolescent auburn beard he bore an uncanny resemblance to Johnny Lindh, the young American captured in Afghanistan by US forces during the initial invasion, a land separated from Kashmir only by the northern bottleneck of Pakistan.
We discussed many other things, including the prospect of Westerners coming back as tourists. Perhaps Kashmir could return to the peaceful times that characterized it throughout much of its history. But my host clearly didn’t want me laboring under any illusions, “I think that Western trekkers will be very welcome—Canadians, French, British, many. But … I cannot recommend Americans coming here to trek.”
With that thought to chew upon, I rejoined my wife in our jeep, and we headed back down the deeply cleft valley zigzagging from Sonamarg Meadows. We left the valley, and headed south down the national highway to visit in-laws in Udampur, just over the southern mountains that divide Kashmir from Jammu. From the temperate summer breezes we passed into the baking heat of the Punjab in mid-June.
Udampur, pleasant and featureless, should be visited only so as to avoid staying in the capital city of Jammu, which is far busier, and much hotter than Udampur. After a few days soaking up family hospitality, we passed through Dharamsala on our way back to Delhi. There on our second night back we turned on the television to find that Kashmir had erupted into violence again. Muslims, outraged over the government’s ceding of public land to a Hindu trust (as part of the Amarnath Cave pilgrimage site), rioted. Shots were fired by the army, people killed, tear gas used, and martial law declared. Three years of calm disintegrated. Later, in a clumsily attempt to defuse the situation, the government backpedaled and called off the land gift. Outraged Hindus in Jammu rioted. People were killed, and again martial law declared. Shops and businesses shuttered their windows. People had to scrounge for daily necessities. Highways were blockaded, and those who disobeyed curfews had their business ransacked, or burned.
When will it be possible to return? Even to see our in-laws in Udampur would be challenging; and while things seem to have calmed down in the past few months, it’s only a matter of time. The Muslims of Kashmir still seethe at the Indian Army’s presence, and are only slightly less angry at Pakistan’s self-interested manipulation of the state. Many still dream of an independent Kashmir, a dream as beguiling as the reflection of the mountains on the terraces of Shalimar Bagh on a calm summer day. That reverie is as fragile as images reflected on the placid waters of Dal Lake. One gust of wind and the illusion vanishes.
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