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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Native Tourist - by Rajesh Razdan

The Aerodrome

The plane was packed with tourists eagerly awaiting to be transported from the punishing heartland heat to the salubrious climes of the valley. The short flight from Jammu to Srinagar is about thirty minutes but to the jaundiced native eye the difference in green is conspicuous as soon as one crosses over Banihal and the terraced paddy fields emerge. Native senses can feel Kashmir before they actually see it.

As the plane touched ground and sprinted down the asphalt, darker army-olive dots whizzed past on the soothing green landscape. Sentinel towers book-ended the strip, the camouflaged hangers and the terminal. From the plane window the ‘Aerodrome’, as we used to call it back in the day, did not look very different from the one where I had taken off from more than twenty years ago, but the sepia image in the mind was quickly replaced by the reality of the new and impressive terminal.

The new terminal is impressive - spacious with high ceilings, airy and clean. My friend, whom I have known since childhood and who now lives in Delhi, had decided to meet me and my family in Srinagar. His flight was to land in about an hour. I decided to hang around, waiting for him while my family proceeded to the hotel. In many ways the strangeness of this visit had started three months ago. I had been advised to reserve hotel accommodation early as it was expected to be another busy season. I travel all the time, I book hotels all the time. But it’s the strangest feeling in the world when one has to book a hotel when visiting what in one’s subconscious is still home.

Looking around I spotted some seats outside the VIP lounge. VIP lounge, I could hear a voice in my head as I strained to peek inside expecting a politician or two lounging inside. Isn’t that what is meant by VIP? Almost as if on cue, two security officers in olive green walked out. Hmmm ok. Eyeing a row of blue chairs facing the luggage conveyor belt, I decided upon the middle one. I sat down and started to take in the view.

A mother and her young daughter were sitting not very far from where I was, seemingly waiting for someone to arrive. The mother’s head was covered in a scarf and I wondered if this was part of Kashmiri mores now. I tried to remember how things used to be back in the day but could not recall anything with certainty. Just then Inspector Asgar walked past - the crisp uniform, polished shoes and upright gait exuded authority while few constables hurriedly followed to keep pace. I remember the name because it was embroidered in gold on an epaulet-like black stitched name-tag. Nothing like those small safety-pinned nameplates of the past.

Inspector Asgar did not cover her hair. It was neatly arranged in a rather muscular braid held together in a back knot. No head scarf, the voice said. I looked at the mother again. I think she looked a bit different this time.

A nattily dressed Sikh gentleman sat in the chair next to me as a new set of arrivals was announced over the public address system.

It’s hard to decipher what is being said over this PA system,” I said, trying to strike up a conversation.

Yes, can never understand what they are saying. Do you know if Kingfisher has arrived? One would expect a better announcement system in a new airport.

I’m visiting after a long time, twenty two years,” I said.

Are you a Pandit? The face does seem a bit familiar. Trisal’s  from Gogji Bagh?

No, My family lived in Sanat Nagar, just north of Barzallah. Razdan.”

Ah, OK. It was very sad what happened.

How are things now?”

Getting better. Certainly better.

How about you? Did you also have to leave?”

No, we never left. Always in Raj Bagh. My kids are in US now though.

Were the Sikhs never targeted or did the descendants of this martial race simply decide to brave it out, I wondered. A few Kashmiri Sikhs I knew were entrepreneurs. One Mr. Sahni owned a beautiful large bungalow close to our house. The PA system blared Kingfisher and the Sikh gentleman got up, shook my hand and left.

I shifted my gaze to a bunch of tourist receptionists/handlers waiting with named placards.    

“Alhamdulilah. The person has not arrived. Yes, the flight arrived and we were here on time, waiting. No one came up. What do you want us to do? Wait for some time? The other passenger has arrived. Do you want us to send him in the car? His post? Joint Secretary. OK, we’ll send the car down then. - Hyo walla, ye trawnoo shahar (Hey come here, drop this person off to the city).”

The quintessential tourist handler with his entourage of few young men was going about his hospitality business in this ‘paradise on earth’. The Joint Secretary was ushered towards the exit, Aaye Sir” (This way, Sir). Two young men were asked to stay back and wait for the other passengers that the group was supposed to pick up. The young men nodded and earnestly held up the placard, occasionally smiling at the incoming passengers but mostly at each other.

Another flight landed and a rush of new passengers started to gather near the luggage pick up area. Young men in jeans and T-shirts stenciled with odd slogans, young besotted couples, teenaged siblings immersed in their iPods etc., and older folks too - both men and women. Most were from hindi heartland but a few from south as well. They all wore a confident demeanour - a certain tourist strut that conveys ‘pamper me if you want my business’. This was in contrast to my own anxiety - not about anything in particular but one created by that monkey on your back. I was also struck by the fact that I hadn’t yet noticed even a single Kashmiri Pandit face in this sudden influx. I don’t why but it felt a bit strange. Hundreds of happy heartland tourists were there to enjoy the cooler climes but not a single Pandit. It felt a bit strange.

I looked again towards the two young men (tourist handlers) who had been deputed to look out for the expected guest. By now they were a bit restless and seemed distracted by the petite IndigoAir employee who was ushering passengers of the just arrived flight towards a different luggage conveyor belt. Clearly, she was not a Kashmiri.

Hya bochh ha laej, kihin khaw ne su pyeth. Ayem aisiya soochmut wyen gasiye hartaal.” (Buddy, I’m hungry. Haven’t had a morsel since morning. I think he must have thought it might get unruly and cancelled his plans). The young man was referring to the burning of a sufi shrine the previous day in what was being reported as accidental fire due to an electrical short circuit. Hurriyat conference, an amalgam of many separatist organizations, had given a call for a shutdown.

In 1989 I had taken off from this very airport the day after Shabir Shah had been arrested and violence spread in Kashmir. In 2012, encouraged by the reports of normalcy and air of optimism, I found myself once again in Srinagar International Airport, with downtown reportedly shuttered in protest.

Suddenly someone slapped by back.

Oye, Kahan Khoya hai!

My friend had landed. 

Driving into Srinagar

The airport lies about 15 miles south of Srinagar in Budgaam district. Budgaam used to be part of Srinagar district before being carved out as a separate district in 1979. I am a bit familiar with Budgaam. Not in the physical sense but from stories of my childhood, narrated by my grandmother during my yearly summer visits. Budgaam in those stories was one big farm -  lush green and a purveyor of blessings that manifested year round in our Thaal (dinner plate).

As a young man my grandfather would often make trips to Budgaam on his bicycle to visit the family farms. He was spared these arduous trips soon after his father’s death, which coincided with land reforms ushered in by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah at the dawn of independent India. I digress.

We stepped out and into a waiting Scorpio and started towards Srinagar. The initial miles along the Old Airport Road are enveloped by plain and simple bucolic beauty that is typical of any countryside. Kashmir’s version presents few men walking languidly along the road, small groups of schoolchildren - always in uniform - and few general merchandize shops. Also dotting the landscape are characteristic Kashmiri dwellings, two levels most of them with the top level often just a shell with holes that will someday get a window. All houses have slanted metal-corrugated roofs, few brightly colored but most left unpainted.

And then the pattern emerged. Like recurring milestones, soldiers, mostly in ones and twos, started appearing along the road. The heavy security presence around the airport itself had acclimatized the eye but only now did their pervasiveness started to register. Like milestones they kept flashing by, seemingly rooted but with a listless oscillating gaze that betrayed their transplant relationship with the landscape. The tourist felt reassured, the native wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

Soon I was distracted by flush of memories as we entered the outskirts of the city. I knew this place but it looked a bit different now. The area along the airport road was less developed in my recollection. I started to look for the small lane that connected airport road to Sanat Nagar, a neighborhood located roughly parallel to this road where our family had built a new house in early eighties. I spotted one that looked similar but I’m not sure if it was the same one. The small connector roads of the past probably still exist but are very hard to find now.

Moving on we crossed Ram Bagh bridge and the landscape was more recognizable now. Sports stadium, then Jehangir chowk (square), hopping over Amira Kadal (bridge) onto Residency Road and cutting over to Maulana Azad road along the famous Pratap park or ‘Polo ground’ as it used to be commonly known. I wondered if it had a new name now. I looked out for SP College road that would take you to Barbarshah, our ancestral neighborhood in the old town. Golf Course, then the ever crowded Dal gate area and finally we reached our hotel on the boulevard - a peripheral leafy road that hugs the lake.

As I alluded to earlier this was going to be my first time ever staying in a hotel in Srinagar. Lounging comfortably in our room overlooking the Dal lake, my wife offered to order in some hot refreshing tea from room service. Qasim bhai’s welcoming charm had already made the native tourists comfortable.

Ghat No.13

Qasim Bhai seemed about seventy years old, but I might have misread his age. Ravages of conflict often reflect from visages of those who have lived through it. But there was no mistaking that sharp, slightly aquiline Kashmiri nose and spry gait. Qasim Bhai’s job can be described as a room keeper, but that’s not quite accurate. Tiny bits and pieces of a bygone era remain embedded in Kashmiri life. Houseboats on the Dal lake, introduced by the British, are one - but there are other less obvious ones. Khansama, something of a cross between  chief of kitchen staff and a butler, is one such legacy. Khansamas are best described not by what they do, but how they do it - which is very attentively and with utmost affection towards their patron. Qasim Bhai is perhaps better described as a Khansama, albeit in today’s hotel hospitality setting.

Qasim Bhai poured tea from the flask and handed me the cup. Wal se, yapaer te de byaakh cup” (Please serve us another cup too), my dad said. Vyun unn mahra” (I’ll get it right away, Sir). My dad seemed very much at ease - choosing to sit cross-legged on the bed instead of the couch (sofa). It’s an old habit from days when it was common to have a Diwan in the Kashmiri living room.

I looked out the bay window at what can only be described as a multi layered canvas. A row of houseboats with anglicized names - ‘Duke Palace’, ‘Hill View Queen’, ‘Royal Glory’, ‘Joan of Arc’ and on and on - with a backdrop of tall trees on floating gardens - a cluster of tiny islands in the lake that are too small to be noticed individually but collectively host a community of lake dwellers. Behind them all and engulfed in a shower of sunshine stood Hari Parbat, a large hill with an imposing eighteenth century fort at the top. No one particularly cares about the fort but what makes Parbat more than just a hill is the troika of Sharika (Shakti) temple, revered by Kashmiri Pandit community, Makhdoom Sahib, an important sufi shrine and Chatti Patshahi, a Sikh gurdwara (Sikh temple). The hill is visible from far and wide of the city - as if Gods conspired to set an example of harmony for its residents. Humans of course are known to miss irony even when it’s staring them in the face.

My friend suggested we take a Shikara ride in the lake. Shikara is a row boat with canopy, spring seats and cushions - a Kashmiri gondola if you will. As we stepped out I again started looking for familiar and observing the new. The place was teeming with people - tourists and those catering to them. The old hotels were still there, some operational, other decrepit - but here was something new: a row of vegetarian restaurants. Not just vegetarian, Nathu’s vegetarian restaurant, punjabi veg. dhaba, gujarati thaali and a ‘pure jain’ restaurant thrown in for good measure. If you could curb your enthusiasm and not look towards the lake, you’d think you were walking down Paharganj outside New Delhi Railway station. I love Dhabas as much as the next guy, but sometime I do wish they never left their home by the highways.

We crossed the road over to the lake front. The way you get to the Shikaras is by stepping down the steps from the bank and into a waiting Shikara. There’s a word for these descending steps  - Ghat.  Bund (Embankment) and Ghat have always been part of the local vocabulary but I don’t seem to recall words like Ghat being used on public sign-boards. For last twenty years the rhetoric in these parts has been ‘Kashmir is not India’ and here I was descending down “Ghat No. 13” facing a row of sixteen types of north indian style vegetarian dhabas. This native tourist couldn’t help but feel a bit of cognitive dissonance.

We sunk deeper into its springy seats as the Shikara gently moved away from the Ghat. With every paddle, the faces on the shore started to shrink - slowly avuncular mountains started gazing down at us and the lake started whispering a balmy breeze. It was a beautiful vista but as I looked past my reflection in the water, I unmistakably heard “Look inside me, I’m dying.”

© Rajesh Razdan

Originally posted Rajesh's blog "Zoon Dub" http://zoondub.tumblr.com/

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