Kashmir, the paradise on earth; I visited Kashmir for the first time when my husband was posted in Leh. We drove down from Leh along with some friends and stayed in Srinagar for two days. I was awestruck by the stunning beauty of Srinagar, Dal Lake and Wular Lake, sky-touching Chinar trees and blooming almond and cherry trees. I fell in love with Kashmir at first sight. Since we had planned a stay in Srinagar for only two days, I promised myself to visit again, and plan a leisure trip next time. As if God was also in connivance with me; very soon, my husband not only got posted to Srinagar, but we stayed there for four long years. Four years is a pretty long time to know a place and its people. Our abode was Sharifabad, a beautiful garrison with flowers and orchards all around, small heaven indeed. Oh! How thrilled I was. It was dreams come true for me. In the initial days, I was told about the do’s and don’ts to be followed in that place. It was the month of June and marked as the death anniversary of Tufail Mattu. Therefore, the situation outside was not very friendly. It was not safe to venture out and we were asked to restrict ourselves to the garrison. Going outside the garrison was only in case of an emergency. Thank God, things soon came back to normal and we were allowed to go out. Voila! I was dying to explore the markets.
My first trip to Srinagar market was a memorable one. I had gone with a few ladies of the unit who had better knowledge of the place and situation in the valley. I was like a scared lamb, looking around suspiciously. For me, every person wearing a phiren was a terrorist. I wasn’t able to enjoy the outing. It was a huge relief to be back to my safe heaven…my home. After that, I couldn’t go out for a long time. But slowly, I started feeling comfortable with locals; however, I still had my inhibitions. Soon it was September, the unfortunate month when the beautiful valley of Srinagar experienced unprecedented floods. The entire Srinagar and areas around were submerged. My husband who was commanding an Army Aviation Squadron was super busy in flood relief operations with his helicopters, assisting the locals and army men alike. He along with his team would take off at First Light and after flying tirelessly for long hours, land back at last light. Then, until late at night, they would prepare for the next day. I felt concerned for them. At times, the pilots were on a rescue mission in hostile areas where people were pelting stones at their helicopters. Nonetheless, the rescue and relief work was on.
At the end of the day, he would be very satisfied and happy, having extended help to several people. Initially, I was only scared for the safety of my husband and his team. But, soon, I started feeling concerned for the people where I used to go for shopping, thinking about their losses. When the situation came under control, I went to those shops inquiring about their losses. That is when I understood how helpless they were feeling. I offered whatever help I could. But more than monetary help, they needed moral support. Life is miraculously healing. Srinagar was also healed soon and was back to normalcy with a bounce. Now I would go out to explore Srinagar more often. I had become very friendly with locals, having developed a good rapport with them. They used to treat me with respect and trust. The local shopkeepers place a huge trust in their customers. So many times, it happened that, due to some reason or the other, I couldn’t make a complete payment and they would not hesitate in giving the items on credit, without even being aware of my credentials. They never insisted on any guarantee, which I am yet to see in any other part of the country. My kids were studying in the Goodwill School. They became very friendly with the school students and favourites of all their teachers. In the month of Ramadan, seeing her friends keeping Rozas, my daughter also religiously started keeping Rozas. My son, who was a mere nine years of age, would not take his tiffin and water bottle to school so that his friends won’t feel hungry or thirsty. Parents of their friends started inviting my kids to celebrate Eid at their places, promising my kids’ safety and security. They would shower love and blessings on my kids and treat them like their own children. When going out, instead of taking our vehicles, we preferred hiring local taxis. There was one young taxi driver who would treat me as an elder sister. Whenever I used to get down from the taxi to buy something from the local market, he would become a sentinel and keep a vigil. When he was not comfortable with the faces around, he would ask me to get into the vehicle and bring me back to our garrison using safe routes. On the way to our place, there was a fruit seller, an old man, whom I used to call Khan Chacha. Whenever I bought fruits from him, he would always give me some fruits for free to eat on the way. I think that was his way of reciprocating to love and respect.
As I became more confident, I started venturing into the interiors of Srinagar town, be it the markets there or the places like Downtown. Wow! That was the real Srinagar. I was fortunate enough to visit Jamia Masjid and Hazratbal. I confess, although I loved visiting these places, where normally the tourists would never venture, I would always have butterflies in my tummy all the time, I was there. On one such day, while exploring that area, the situation worsened. I was at one of the shops and seeing the people rushing and putting the shutters down, I got scared. The old shopkeeper sensing my quandary told me that I was like his daughter and no harm can come my way. He, thereafter, guided me out of the area safely. I was indeed touched by his warm gesture. Soon, I was so quite comfortable with the locals and we started discussing the prevailing situation in the valley. Majority of them wanted to have regular lives, as frequent calls for bandh and strike were affecting their businesses and in turn their livelihoods. However, they were helpless. If they didn’t comply with the separatists and their dictates of frequent bandh calls, their life would be in danger and if they comply, they would find it hard to sustain their lives. Alas, the fruit vendor used to cry as his entire lot would rot if the shop got closed for even two days. I tried extending help in whatever little way I could; like by buying in bulk and sharing it with my friends. But, I couldn’t do it for the entire community. The innocent people were paying the price for the unrest in the valley, which they never wanted but couldn’t avoid.
A year after the floods, life started returning to normalcy in Srinagar. Srinagar valley had a maximum number of tourists that season. Tourism is the main source of livelihood for most Kashmiris. The economy revolves around tourism, be it houseboats, taxi operators, shopkeepers, everyone looked forward to tourists visiting the valley. The happiness was, however, short-lived. In Jul 2016, Burhan Wani incident happened. Burhan Wani became a hero overnight in the valley, courtesy the propaganda by our neighbouring country. The separatist exploited the opportunity with the aid of their masters. The entire Srinagar was burning. Violent protests erupted in various parts of the region. It was a complete shutdown for months at stretch, before things could get back to normal.
Once again as things were slowly getting back to normal, another terrorist, Subzar Bhatt got killed in an operation with security forces. His death sparked clashes and a curfew had to be imposed in certain parts of Srinagar valley. Once again, the locals who had nothing to do with these terrorists suffered as the bandhs were called by the separatists. For me, these bandh calls were the new normal. Young students were being brainwashed. They were supposedly paid by the separatists for stone-pelting. Some of them started leaving their studies to join the terrorist groups. Considering my educational background and bonding with the local school, I was entrusted with the task to counsel the young minds. When I started speaking to these young students, they seemed to be in no mood to talk. This is where my being popular with the locals and many parents, helped me finally reach the hearts and minds of the children. It did take me some time to make them open up. What I realized was, that they were as scared as any other child of their age. Their young minds were being tempered with. At this tender age, the mind is ready to believe whatever is told repeatedly. These adolescents were being made to believe that the army was their enemy and all the non-Kashmiris were there to snatch away what was rightfully theirs. They were being manipulated by the separatists for their benefit. I tried my level best to try and bring them to the mainstream. My heart would go out for them seeing how badly misled they were. Most of them realized that they were being catapulted in the hands of miscreants. I taught them what it was to live and dream about a good life ahead where they could become doctors, engineers, army officers and whatnot. After a month or so, they started discussing their future plans with me, where there was no place for hatred and militancy anymore. I was happy and thankful to almighty that I could make a small difference in some young, precious and beautiful lives. And in a blink, these blissful four years were over. It was time for us to move out of Srinagar. This period was a learning experience for me. I believe we can’t blame society for the way they behave or feel. They have their reasons, their problems. It is the bigger network which is to be blamed. I have fallen in love with this beautiful place and of course, with its wonderful people. I hope to return someday and make my contribution to the lives of those innocent children, who deserve nothing but happiness.