I see no network on my phone and immediately alarm bells start ringing. There were hardly 50 people on the aircraft and none of them seemed to be tourists. I am greeted with curious looks after I alight with a backpack at the Srinagar airport.
It was the early hour of 7 in the morning and the Tourist office was deserted (usual, you would say). I lingered around to see someone rushing toward me, ‘Don’t you know, yahaan haalat theek nahi hai.’ Translation : Don’t you know, current conditions are not favourable for travel? I was mildly disturbed to see my worst fears of the curfew coming true. This was the trouble of the 8th July case of Burhan Wani.
And so began my 2 week long ‘holiday’ in Kashmir in the curfew of July-August 2016.
The curfew means buses and shared taxis in Srinagar aren’t working. I am surprised to see people camp at the airport lawns in an effort to go back. I feel jittery walking out of the covered confines of the airport. There is a deafening silence even though there are many people around me. It seems like a sign of things to come. Momentarily, I consider going back.
I am in Kashmir without a plan (as always!) and have realised its better to cross Ganderbal and reach Sonamarg to find a way to be on the Great Lakes Trek.
The first person I speak to outside the airport tells me I should seek the army’s help; we all know how that goes. He told me to drop all plans of going to Yousmarg through Charar-I-Sharief and confirms that getting to Sonamarg is a better plan. I have a brief chat with him and in the course of the conversation we develop a little camaraderie; he already knows of my love affair with Kashmir and the culture and food and gestures me to sit in his Maruti Van. He asks me a few questions about Kashmir to know how much I know about local transport in Srinagar.
He has come to pick up someone at the airport and offers to drop me at the TRC (I still think he’s trying to fool me and there will be shared taxis running from TRC (Tourist Reception Centre) to Kangan. (How wrong was I!)
Of course, I can book a personal taxi and travel at 11:30 in the night when the curfew is relaxed and the army convoys ensure everyone’s safety on the Srinagar-Leh highway. How can I tell anyone how terrible it would feel to travel like a thief in the night in one of the world’s prettiest places? Where will I spend the day, hiding from whom? Will I be able to bear the deathly hush for some 16 hours? As if I wanted to reach Sonamarg like a man on a mission. I choose to sit in the Maruti Van.
They ask me to hide while passing the police check-post, thats when I realise the enormity of the entire thing. Am I not supposed to get out of the airport on my own? I wondered for a bit if this was the right thing I was doing; especially after my huge folly in Garhwal Himalaya. If the airport was deafeningly silent, here on the streets the quietness has an eerie feel attached to it.
It is almost 7:30 – the army is everywhere, there are no civilians on the street and yet huge trucks and jeeps stand proudly with grenades on top. There is a solitary chaiwallah’s shop that is open, the army are enjoying their morning cuppa on a cloudy start to the day. I can’t help but think, ‘I had just come to roam around. Oh no, not again.’
The air hangs heavy in trepidation. Nobody utters a word in the Maruti Van too, apparently they have spotted stones on the street and were worried. Thankfully, I have no such trouble and adore the houses of Srinagar when we pass the TRC.
When they finally speak, it is muffled laughter and conversation in Kashmiri – they say they have been wondering whether to think of me as stupid or brave? My heart beats a thousand drums, I cannot respond and am nearly in shock. The TRC is empty and completely devoid of any people and the shared taxis turn out to be a figment of my happy imagination. I nodded when he said its better that I come with them to their home, which would be good for me as it was close to the highway.
I had looked into their eyes and saw kindness, you have to trust someone in times like this and I don’t know yet if I have made the right choice. We are driving in the small lanes to avoid the stone pelters. Wait, what… A chill ran down my spine whey they said that, ever so nonchalantly. But their eyes give it away, they are as frightened as I am.
Stone pelting incidents are apparently commonplace here and the protestors don’t spare the local cars too. From conversations over the years, it seems tourists were not a target of these attacks.
That made me feel better. I am not alone in this. It is very funny how we humans hold on to anything that gives us hope. I even roll down the window just a wee bit and deeply inhaled the air; air for which two nations had been at loggerheads for almost 7 decades. Did it feel pure and pristine? I don’t know, I was too worked up in my brain to even notice.
We are at Nowshera; I am asked to get down in front of a home with my bag (Thankfully, I have only one backpack). The gentleman of the house is summoned and informs me I must cross Kangan and be far on the highway before 9 AM. That is supposed to be the time when the stone pelting really begins. I shudder at the thought of so much trouble but the gentleman asks me If I have faith in God and Kashmir? I say, I have faith in man. He smiles.
I see that the taxi guy gets paid Rupees. 2000/- by the guy whom he has come to pick up. That is more than flying from Delhi to Srinagar.
I am admonished by the lady of the house when I obliviously bring my shoes inside their house. I beg for forgiveness and am ushered into a room with a solitary window. A gamut of emotions runs in my head, I want to get out of here but I do not where and how. I don’t even know if I am being taken a prisoner in this house. They have just left me alone in the room and no one has come to even try and make a conversation.
Just as I am beginning to get restless, the gentleman (owner of the house – Mohd. Afzal) appears with a cup of tea and asks me if I have eaten anything since morning. I nod in denial. He asks his son to bring some biscuits. I nearly burst out crying in the process of dunking the biscuit in the slender cup of the sweet tea and before the biscuit touches my lips. I am hungry and want to have ten cups of tea but I don’t. He asks me to stay at his home for the night and pay a nominal fee. His plump kid is trying to recite some math tables and I realise the wretched truth of life in Kashmir.
I demand to leave and am firm and adamant that I want to get to Sonamarg. I figure in my mind that if I let them know I am scared they won’t let me go. Soura is only 3 km away, I am told. The taxi guy joins in too and tells me to stay here for the day and leave the next day. I lie about having a trek starting tomorrow.
If you Pray Somewhere in this world – Something good will happen. ~ Hafiz.
Afzal Bhai is genuinely concerned and offers me any kind of help I may require. He asks me to verbally promise I will come back to his home on my way back. The plump schoolboy is summoned; his father asks him to scribble the address on a piece of paper and put down their phone number on that (Even though no mobile phones in Kashmir are working).
The lady of the house tells me to come back if I am stuck on the highway or in case of any trouble. I ask them to fill my empty water bottle, Mohd Afzal has said he will personally drop me to the highway at Soura.
We are supposed to go on a motorbike and the taxi driver has already warned Afzal, ‘If any stone pelting happens, shout tourist tourist and they would let us go.’
Did I get to Soura and finally to Sonamarg?
Nothing mattered that day. My faith in humanity was restored. Kashmir love.
“Now that all your worry has proved such an unlucrative business,
Why not find a better job.” – Hafiz.