The Goodness of Strangers : Curfew in Kashmir (Part 2)

Continuing the (seemingly) action hero type narration travelling in Kashmir in the Burhani Wani curfew, I had been lucky to reach the highway village of Saura from the Srinagar airport. Already pleasantly surprised with the kindness of strangers, I couldn’t afford to relax or take it easy. The danger was real and I wasn’t in safe territory yet. The good bit was it was early morning and usually Kangan was the farthest point after which it should be relatively safer.

Read Part 1 : Here

The gentleman dropped me near Ganderbal because circumstances near Saura weren’t exactly calm; he couldn’t leave me on the road amidst trouble. CRPF vans and armed men with huge rifles (or Ak-47s?) patrolled the streets and I felt really crazy. What was I doing here? But now I was in the middle of it all and there were no two ways about it. I decided going ahead was a better plan than going back.

Life boils down to simple ‘yes or no’ dilemmas, in troubled situations like this.

Nary a shop was open; there were a few bakeries that sold naan and Kashmiri bread in baskets. People wore a forlorn look on their faces, some queued up outside a half open meat selling shop. I hung around the road in hope but hope is a precious commodity sometimes and doesn’t come easily. With hardly any vehicles on the road, I would literally have to hitchhike my way out of there.

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Gujjar Huts in Kashmir; Gujjars belong to the shepherd community and are semi-nomadic.

 

The air was fresh and I walked on the road, it was better than standing in one place and letting doubts creep into my mind. Two-three private cars didn’t bother stopping, they were in a rush and perhaps rightly so. After what seemed like an eternity, an angel appeared – It was tottering, in the form of a three wheeler luggage auto, painted brightly red. The tiny front cabin was already full and there were vegetables piled up in the open air carriage. A cobbler from Rajasthan was the sole inhabitant in that generous space, he lent me a hand to jump in.

Read : Autumn Colours in the Himalayas

It must have been one of the most uncomfortable rides I’ve ever had. I had to delicately find a way to sit while balancing my backpack and keeping the vegetables intact. We had hardly covered 3 kms before a customer stopped short our journey. He had agreed to buy all the vegetables in the auto. I had somehow reached Kangan and continued walking.

An old man on an activa (or scooty) gave me my next ride. The distance was only a kilometre or two, but the old man gave me a lesson that day. He told me even the smallest distance is important for me. In retrospect, that line meant a lot. I was close to Manigam on the intersection of the Bandipore road and suddenly it felt a lot better. This was Ganderbal district and things here weren’t as bad as they were in other parts of Kashmir.

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Later on the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek – with Mt. Harmukh in the background; this hut may be all that a man needs to be happy.

Broken glass lay scattered on the road as I walked – lush rice and wheat fields on my left even as the Sindh river flowed unperturbed on the right. The mountains presented a pretty silhouette as seen from the fields while I was quite surprised by the army officers asking me to reconsider my decision and go back (Funny they said that now that I was out of harm’s way).

Read : Stunning beauty of Kashmir, in pictures

This was the first time I had taken the cell phone out of my pocket after the airport. I happily clicked a picture or two and smiled at random Kashmiris walking like me to get to nearby villages.

A smile has the unknown power of making everything worthwhile, sometimes. Now I know, when. 

A religious cleric’s car stopped, he was called Haji Sahab and he offered to drop me farther ahead on the road to Sonamarg. The driver said that they haven’t helped any locals yet offered me a ride. I didn’t understand what that meant and chose to keep mum. They asked me loads of questions on Kashmir and what I felt and how I would like it to be. I think I gave them answers that they wanted to hear; I was left off near Gund and the driver even found me another ride toward Gagangir.

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Those forlorn eyes depict pain; this was clicked on the street in Kashmir. A rare photograph from the journey.

It must have been 11 or 12 noon by then. I brought some local apples for 50 rupees and watched a bakery turn out a round of Kashmiri bread. The aroma that wafted around had home wrapped all around it. Women travelled in the shared taxi and it was a big relief when I was told 20 rupees would be charged. It told me life was normal in Sonamarg and maybe I could go ahead on a trek to Amarnath and the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek.

The fairytale wasn’t over yet. The share taxi stopped midway and relayed us to another taxi which then relayed us to another. So finally after hitching rides with almost 10 vehicles, I had triumphantly marched into Sonamarg. It was a Tavera SUV and the driver was an ardent Salman Khan fan. I sang matching the tunes of a popular song, it broke the ice between us. He asked me to sit back and let the other people alight in Sonamarg.

Read : Trekking in Kashmir : The twin lakes of Tarsar Marsar

Immediately he asked me if I had called my folks back home and took me to the only working STD PCO in Sonamarg. In our chit chat, I had happened to mention I was hungry. The next instance was to help me begin an eternal love affair with Kashmiri bread. We drove to a small tea stall, where Kashmiri locals gathered for ‘nuun chai’ (salt tea) and crisp bread, generously lathered with butter. I hungrily gobbled two pieces while gulping chai after chai.

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Hope. Gujjar kids play cricket in Kashmir.

Oh, and he didn’t bother taking money from me for it. Then, as I mentioned the trek – it was decided that I was better off staying at a local’s home in Sitkadi village. My apprehensions were put to rest when I met the guy, he was warm and welcoming.

I felt as if I was in a dream; in the curfew and troubles of Kashmir, the locals had managed to make a solo traveller arrive unscathed with a mixture of rides and here I was in a tranquil village by the banks of Sindh river lazing in a 16 room home, less than 6-7 hours after landing in Srinagar. In retrospect, I think I was plain lucky!

Also read : Travel memories of 2015

Fairytales come true. Kashmir wins. Peace wins. Someday Kashmir shall get all the love it deserves. 

Ah, its time to quote one by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

‘Jo hum pe guzri so guzri magar shab-e-hijraan
Hamaare ashq teri aaqbat saanwaar chale…’

Translation : 
We went through hell, but all right.
Once this evening of separation is over,
Our tears would have,
Cleaned you for your next life.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Mehran Singh Katoch says:

    What an amazing post sir! The last picture is so atmospheric and goes amazingly well with your article. Excited to read more. Cheers 🙂

    Like

    1. So glad you liked it Mehran. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience :)) Thanks for checking it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kudos to your courage! While reading this story, I kept wondering what happens next? More to come?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks budding writers…

      Like

  3. I have stayed in Srinagar for almost 1and 1/2 year way back in 1999-2000 but couldn’t risk roaming freely even then. I wish it was a peaceful situation… Kashmir has so much to offer in its beautiful landscape.

    Like

    1. Wow, look forward to listening to the stories someday 🙂

      Like

  4. Vibhav B says:

    Ah! I’m glad you chose to focus on the humanity amidst the troubled times. Well written Shubham!

    Like

    1. Thanks brother. It was a post waiting to be written and the small piece of paper was a catalyst. Glad I poured my heart out. Thanks for reading 🙂

      Like

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