As the plane homed in towards the Srinagar International Airport, a burst of energy flooded up my heart. I peered through the window. I could see the Himalayan poplars standing tall like sentinels, the lush green meadows speckled with wild flowers, the freshly cultivated paddy fields brimming over with impetuous water, and the oriental plane trees spreading their arms wide open with love. This was my first visit after countless years of separation.
But, what a visit! In earlier times, when I was a student at the Sainik School Nagrota, I would come back home to spend summer vacation. The school bus carrying the valley-bound students resonated with the songs of joy and passion. As we emerged out of the dark Jawahar Tunnel, our enthusiasm would brighten up the dimming horizon; it would be evening by then.
But, today I came, all by myself, with my young and eager son. I looked at him. He was blissfully unaware of the commotion in my mind. He had plugged in ear phones. Eyes closed, he merrily tapped his foot to the beat of the number he was listening to. He had been urging me for quite some time to take him to Kashmir. He had enjoyed every moment of the flight. After watching the snow-capped Pir Panjal range of mountains, he had taken out his earphones and occupied himself with listening to music. He was the perfect tourist.
But, what about me? Who was I? A tourist? No, couldn’t be. The umbilical cord was too deeply embedded to be snapped off by any violence. Memories of an inconvenient bitter past came riding back. The insistent pounding of heavy gum boots and gun butts on the door… the icy tremors of fear… the breaking in of the terrorists… the flashing of swords in the dark… the blood curdling cries of ‘Allah-o-Akbar’, ‘Hum ko kya chahiye, Azadi/What do we long for, Freedom!’, ‘Kill the Batta, Rape the Batanya!’, and ‘Batav, raliva, galiva ya czaliva’… gunshots and the pumping of bullets in his father’s and mother’s heads and bodies… the stifling of his cries by his alert brother with a handkerchief… the shocking sight of their parents lying collapsed in a pool of blood.
The rumbling of the wheels ploughing through the length of the tarmac swept the memories away. As I stepped out on the flight of stairs attached to the exit, I felt overwhelmed with a paroxysm of emotions. The sky was clear with wisps of woolly clouds floating across unthreateningly. The poplar trees lining the boundary waved their rotund leaves welcomingly. The cool breeze caressed all conflicting emotions to rest. It was rejuvenating to be here. My son had unplugged his ear phones. He was enjoying the landscape. I could see a smile spread out on his innocent face. A cool feeling of delight sank deep in me. We walked hand in hand like comrades-in-arms towards the entrance to the airport.
My schoolmate, Rashid Lone, had come to collect us from the airport. I was meeting him after almost two decades. It seemed like ages had passed by. I had a faint recollection of him and was scarcely sure that I would be able to recognize him in the crowd of people thronging the exit gate of the airport. As we emerged out of the airport, I saw someone moving with hurried steps towards us. The smile on his face broadened into a grin as he came close. Even before my mind could register who he was, we were locked in warm embrace. My soul blossomed and my eyes welled up with tears. I had come home indeed. Normally indrawn and reticent by nature, Rashid was much too voluble with my son.
‘What’s your name, son?’
‘Nice name. Who named you, Dad or mom?’
‘Papa, of course.’
‘So, do you know Kashmiri?’
‘I can understand it. But I can’t speak it as well as Papa does.’
‘No problem. Is this your first visit to Kashmir?’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Good. You must see the whole of Kashmir. It’s your motherland, you know.’
‘Not motherland, fatherland.’
‘What? Oh yes, I get it. That’s a clever one.’
And he laughed, knowing that I had married outside the Kashmiri community.
We were headed to Rashid’s home at Rawalpore. He was himself driving the Maruti Omni. Reuben sat next to him, both chitchatting like friends, while I sat at the back enjoying the poplars lining the road on either side whizzing past us. It was a new locality. In the days gone by, it had been uninhabited, with cows and sheep grazing on the green grass here. Now, the grass was gone and replaced with a mushroom growth of concrete structures. The airport road dividing the houses was being turned into a four lane road. The men were at work. Black columns of pungent and repugnant smoke rose into the sky, tarring the beauty of the landscape.
Rashid drove the Omni into one of the lanes branching off from the road at Rawalpore. After driving a while, he stopped outside a beautiful bungalow. His family was out on a social call. He opened the gate himself and led us in. The courtyard of the house had walnut trees laden with raw walnuts.
‘Reuben, do you know what are these?’
‘Nope. Seem to be fruit though.’
‘That’s right. But, which fruit?’
‘Can’t tell. Never seen them.’
Rashid looked at me and smiled.
‘I understand, son. How could you? These are raw walnuts. Want to eat them?’
‘You said they are raw. So, how can one eat raw walnuts?’
Rashid smiled again. And so did I.
‘Why, did I say anything wrong? You mean, we can eat them raw too?’
‘Yes, son,’ said I, adding ‘And they taste better than the dry ones.’
‘Oh, really! Never knew that. How does one eat the raw walnut?
‘I will show you,’ said Rashid and he plucked a bunch of them.
Soon, he was busy cleaving them apart and wrenching out the kernels from within the cleft shells with a sharp knife. Reuben looked with amused eyes at the entire operation.
‘Here, eat these.’
Rashid offered the raw walnut kernels to Reuben.
‘Awesome. Can I also try taking the kernels out?’
‘Sure, you can. But, be careful, as you are not adept at it.’
The stopover at Rashid’s had relaxed me. As I sat in the cab headed for Gulmarg, I savoured the as-yet fresh memories of the moments spent at Rawalpore. The road near the Bemina Bus Stand was cluttered with unruly traffic that was a jamboree of rickety KMD buses and polluting Tempo goods carriers. Thankfully, the driver was adept at negotiating through that maze of traffic. As the cab emerged out of the city traffic, the air freshened up and the sight of the emerald green fields burst into view. Ah! It was indeed refreshing to be back. I couldn’t help noticing armed military personnel posted on either side of the road at frequent intervals. Some of them had deserted their posts, it seemed, as they were resting on logs of wood or standing in the shade of the willow trees some distance away. A little ahead there was a police barricade. The cab slowed down. A policeman motioned the driver to roll the glass down. He peeped in.
‘Tourists?’ said he to the driver.
‘Ahan Haz, Yes sir,’ replied the driver.
‘Kaagaz kadu! Show me your papers,’ said the cop to the driver.
The driver opened the glove compartment and took out a crumpled lot of papers. The policeman looked intently at them.
‘Kaagaz haz cchi saari baraabar, All papers sir are in order,’ said he to the policeman, who apparently did not like his interruption.
‘Cze cchaya zyada pataa! Do you know more than me?’ said he to the driver, adding menacingly in the same breath, ‘Bona vas! Bona vasa! Jala kara, mei cchuya na zyada wakhat, Get down! Get down! Hurry up, I don’t have all the time in the world for you.’
The driver gave the policeman a dirty look, fished out a hundred rupee note from his pocket and thrust it in his hand. A smile broke out on the policeman’s face now and he signalled for him to leave.
The driver saw the expression on my face.
‘Yim haza gayi saani nafar! Czoor saariya! These are our people Sir! All thieves!’ said he, greatly upset by the incident.
I listened patiently, giving a sympathetic look. I was myself disturbed by the incident.
‘Panani nafar ccha yaman foojiyan haandi khota kharab. Our people are bad compared to these soldiers. Yami yeli checking karan ccha, yami ccha sirif kaagaz vucchan te travan! Magar yemi panani nafar cche zin**ik! Yama cchana Khodayas ti khoczan! When they stop our vehicles, they only check our papers and then let us go. But, our people are ****! They don’t even fear God!’ He uttered an expletive to vent his anger on the policemen.
I only nodded, commiserating with him for his loss.
‘Why did you tell him that we are tourists?’ I asked.
‘If I hadn’t, he would have tried to harass you too,’ said he, adding, ‘In the case of tourists, they are afraid, lest you should lodge a complaint.’
Gulmarg was at the peak of its youthful beauty. There was a riot of colours in the flowers of many hues that had sprouted all around the bowl-shaped valley, though the sun was already folding up its resplendent wings.
Ghulam Qadir, the care taker of hut no. 534 of JK Tourism Development Corporation, was very happy when I greeted him in Kashmiri.
‘Tohi cchava Koshur! You are Kashmiri!’
It was more of an exclamation than a question.
‘Yes, we are.’
‘Sorry for asking that, because, most of the people who come here are tourists.’
‘We too are only tourists now.’
‘I guess you are right, though that is very sad. After all, this is equally your motherland.’
‘I thought so, once upon a time. No use thinking so now. It only gives me pain.’
‘Yes indeed, it does. Ami bandookan kari asi saari tabah. This gun culture has ravaged us all.’
I looked at him as if expecting him to speak further. And so he did.
‘Me osu lakut boye. Yima aaya aki doha tamis border apora nini. Me koda sa patim darwaza, te dopmus baaya czala yeti, yot gaczun cchuya tota gacza magar yiman yiyza na athi. Yim gaalanay. I had a young brother. One day, they came for him, to take him across the border. I made him escape from the rear door and told him, dear bro, run, go wherever you want to but don’t ever fall into their hands. They will ruin you.’
His story stirred a deep chord within me. I was anxious to know if his brother could slip away from them.
‘Then, what happened?’
‘They were furious. They knew I had let him escape. They wanted to take me away instead. I pointed to my old and ailing father. I begged them to spare me for his sake. They were spitting fire. They didn’t want to oblige. Right then there was gun fire outside. It seems the army had got scent of them. So, they ran away before they could do any damage to us.’
Ghulam Qadir threw open the shut windows after he had arranged our luggage in the corner of the bedroom. The view outside was very sombre, but majestic.
‘Papa, look out. How beautiful is the evening here. Let’s go out and take a few pictures,’ said my son.
‘Goda anhova chai ba? Shall I get you tea first?’ asked Ghulam Qadir in Kashmiri.
‘Son, would you like to have tea first?’
‘Yes, why not? But, not here. Outside,’ said Reuben.
As we sipped tea outside the hut, Ghulam Qadir stood some distance away, talking with fellow workers. He was tall and lean, sported a beard. It was difficult to tell his age. But, as far as I could guess he should be in his late forties. Though the view of the hills was mesmerizing, I couldn’t help stealing a look at him, from time to time. His words echoed in my mind. The culture of the gun had indeed torn into unstitchable pieces this land of Peace. Fear and Suspicion, the twin devils, romped in every heart with impunity. They did not discriminate on grounds of sex, caste, colour and creed. The man with the gun had no religion, except that of unbridled power flowing from the barrel of his gun. At this moment, a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear echoed in my mind: ‘Even a dog in Authority is obeyed’.
As the sun sank behind the horizon, the skyline spluttered in scarlet hues. My son had abandoned his plans to go for a walk and had instead put up his tripod to capture the beauty of the dying day. I looked at him. He was unconcerned about the storm of feelings pent up within me, or for that matter, within people like Ghulam Qadir.
The next day was fun filled. We went up in the ‘gondola’ to Apharwat, the topmost summit of Gulmarg, some 4390 metres above sea level. The sun and the wind were very obliging. The landscape wore a sun-bathed look. Reuben kept clicking photographs all the way up. At Apharwat, he was delighted to see the carpet of virgin snow. He took a sledge ride just as I would in my childhood. Seeing him speeding down the slope, I couldn’t help seeing myself in him. Yet, unlike me, he was so outspoken and carefree. On the way back, the Rain God showered his blessings in torrents. By the time, we could reach the open restaurant midway to Gulmarg, both of us had got drenched. It felt good to get wet. With rain lashing down and a cool breeze hitting our cool wet bodies, it was exciting to eat hot Kashmiri food, as my son jocularly put it- rogan josh ta batta, Rogan Josh and steamed rice.
We had to get back this evening to Srinagar. We had already packed our belongings. We had to only reach our hut to pick up the luggage and leave. As we climbed the steps to our hut, Ghulam Qadir came running.
‘Qadir, what happened?’
‘Tohi boozuv nah, didn’t you get to hear?’
I looked quizzically at him.
‘Qadir, what happened?’
‘Srinagar cchu fasad voth mut, Srinagar has erupted in a conflagration.’
I couldn’t contain my sense of shock and dismay.
‘Teli? Then?’ said I.
‘Ba naya dimhova tohi vunyaken gaczana, I won’t let you go there at this time,’ said he firmly, adding, ‘Tohi rooziv az yeti. Pahgah subhan vucchava haalath kith aasan, tomorrow morning we will check up the situation.’
‘But Qadir, my reservation is only till today.’
‘Don’t worry. I have already talked in the Golf Course Office. I will get it extended by a day.’
I looked at Ghulam Qadir and wondered at the simplicity of this man. No matter how much the enemy may try to sow seeds of suspicion and hatred in the name of religion, common folk like Ghulam Qadir will always call their bluff. If only the silent majority could be rallied to stand up like a rock against the vocal and insidious minority of Enemies of Humankind, there would never be genocides and homelessness.
About the Author
A doctorate in English from the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India, Ravi Dhar has taught in various Indian universities in India and the Ethiopian Civil Services College, Addis Ababa. A keen student of Indian philosophy and Integral Yoga, he blends the knowledge of linguistics, literature, communication, commerce, philosophy and mysticism in his perception of the dynamics of human life. A keen researcher, he has published and presented papers in the areas of Modern English Novel, Communication Policy, Online Communication, Human Rights and Development Economics. He has traveled to Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Ethiopia and Sweden. Presently, he is Professor of Mass Communication at Jagannath International Management School, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, India, of which he also happens to be the Director. Besides, he has been editing an international journal of communication Studies, Mass Communicator, for the last four years. He has come out with two books so far, one on Indian Management: Theory and Practice and another book on Global Perspectives on Media in the Swirl. He is also a poet, having published poems in journals and newspapers published in the Indian subcontinent. He believes in the creative evolution of humankind, a faith that he has inherited from his Guru, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.