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Inside Kashmir

The first time I celebrated Eid was in a house beside one of Srinagar’s lakes, in the summer capital of The Kashmir Valley, up in the Himalayas of North India. I was nine, I think, young enough to remember certain things in great detail, and the greater things barely at all. We sat on a stone floor to break the final fast of Ramadan with dates from Jordan, and I spat out a partly-mulched almond that had been pushed inside the date, more out of surprise than anything else. It was my first stuffed date. No one seemed to mind.

Photos by Justine Hardy

I remember the floor, a dichotomy that worked: thick stone that should have been cold and ungiving except that it was warmed through from underneath by hot bricks that were constantly reheated in a fire out in the kitchen courtyard. I fell asleep part of the way through dinner, probably lulled by the warm stones and the lilt of Kashmiri chitchat. I did not particularly notice the thing that was the most remarkable about that night. I spent Eid with Kashmiri Muslims and their Pandit neighbours, their Hindu friends; another dichotomy that seemed to work, a religious separation that was surmounted by what was deemed to be a greater thing—to be Kashmiri.

The Sûra from the Qur’an that was used to break the fast that night was this:

The servants of the Merciful are they that walk softly on the earth; and when the foolish speak unto them, they answer, Peace!

Kashmiri Muslims used not to believe that it was a crime to copy Sûras from the Qur’an, an act deemed a form of sacrilege by most strict Muslims. So the verse of that Eid night was given to me on a piece of paper that I have kept, handed to me as though I was a child of the family with whom we were staying, though I was neither Kashmiri nor a Muslim.

It was this tolerance, this ease of religious co-existence, combined with the all-encompassing nature of the Sufi tradition of The Valley, that made Kashmir such a great prize to the various invaders of the subcontinent. It was a fecund place of fruit trees, trout streams, lakes, poplars, of women fabled for their beauty, a place where Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians seemed harmonious. Everyone lusted after it: the Mughals for its lushness, the Brits for its temperate sense of home after the desiccation of the plains, Bollywood film makers for the bursting-forthness of mother nature, a place that they could use liberally as a suggestive backdrop to thousands of navel-swivelling dance numbers.

Photos by Justine Hardy

And the tourists came too, from all over the world, filling Srinagar’s houseboats, and then filling up their backpacks with locally woven carpets, pâpier maché, shawls, carved wood, and indeed substantial lumps of Afghan gold, the smokable variety. Everything and almost anything was easily and charmingly available from the shikara salesman as they cross-hatched the waters of Srinagar, Dal and Nagin Lakes, in fairground boats, their fleet of waterborne Surreys-with-the-fringe-on-top taxis, with their Super Deluxe, Xtra-deep, Xtra-sprung seats. Heike from Heidelberg could sink into them and canoodle with Peter from Poughkeepsie, such was the travel equality of a time when the five-star resort culture was only just beginning to create the great divide between the travelling rich and backpacker brigade.

For twenty years the lakes of the Kashmir Valley hummed with business and international long vac love affairs in super-sprung shikara seats funded by student loans. But while the people of the Valley were managing to co-exist, bound and blended by the transcendent sense of being Kashmir, their giant neighbours, Pakistan and India, had begun to fight over the valley, even as Independence had been declared, and as Pakistan was forged as a new Muslim nation in August 1947.

The mutual tolerance within The Valley ended in 1989. A minister’s daughter was kidnapped, student separatist bodies took up the gun and, for a heady moment, they believed they could win freedom for their state from both Pakistan and India. The Muslim majority finally vented a latent historical sense of rage at being the underlings to the minority Pandit elite of Kashmir. Srinagar was in flames. The Indian Army clamped down, and insurgents began to cross the border. They were ready jihadis, “defenders of Islam” honed by the Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-1989, the same Cold War conflict in which America, Britain, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and many other European countries had contributed extensively to the funding of the Mujahideen, the “holy strugglers” who had been fighting against the Soviets forces, one Osama bin Laden being amongst their number.

Photos by Justine Hardy

With the arrival of the jihadis the insurgency of Kashmir became a war. We should have been paying more attention.

While the escalating conflict in Kashmir perennially slid down the agenda at the UN, and India determinedly declared it a domestic problem, extremists poured in forcing many of the more Sufi-based Kashmiri Muslims to convert to being either Sunni or Shi’a. We could have watched more closely as the different parts of the state began to divide, as villages turned against their neighbours, families against families, and as various factions claiming to be soldiers and warriors of Allah used a mutating notion of their god as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon. The security forces rammed back with all that they could bring to bear on the militants, insurgents, and anyone else they believed might be sheltering or harbouring any of the fighters.

Within the conflict the people of The Valley began to lose all faith.

Having travelled to India extensively with my mother as a child I began to write from there as an adult in the early 1990s. I was writing about The Valley, albeit as a greenhorn young journalist, but getting clear stories out was almost impossible. This was partly because there was random censorship, understandable in some ways, a standardized if denied part of any conflict. But with hindsight the reason that seems actually sad is that editors from Sydney to New York simply did not think Kashmir was an interesting enough story. My pile of article and essay rejection letters was testament to this lack of interest. The subject has since proven itself as a working template for many current conflicts: Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

The worst of that time has passed, for now. The Valley still has a heavy military, paramilitary and police presence. The violence continues, and the peace brokers and bridge-builders continue to seek new ways of constructing more than just a temporary truce, but for now there is relative calm. This fragile peace carries another lesson. Many at the political table believe that this quieter time has arrived because of their actions and rhetoric. Neither thing would have had much effect if it had not been for that fact that the Kashmiri people had been ground down by conflict, by hardship and the blanketing depression that comes with the attrition of war. It is only then, when the people cannot tolerate any more, that, with carefully matching smiles, the politicians can hold up their statements of intent in front of banks of flashing cameras.

In the heart of the city of Srinagar is the old Hindu quarter, a place of winding streets whose tall houses virtually obscure the high blue sky, their filigreed Juliet balconies almost touching each other across the narrow divide, hardly a space between. This place was once the hub of the city, the commercial centre flanked by the great wooden mosques where women and foreigners can still go, such was former easy local habit, such was the rhythm of Srinagar. If you stand in the heart of those streets and close your eyes you can almost hear the throb that once was. The reality is that the wooden frames of the houses are burnt out, roofless ghosts, shadows of the Pandit community from that time of tolerance in The Valley, when it was championed by soon-to-be-Independent India’s prime minister-in-waiting, Pandit Nehru, himself of Kashmiri origin. The rupture of India’s Partition in 1947 slow-burned within The Valley, turning Kashmir from happy valley into the steadily fermenting hot house that finally blew in 1989.

But what can you expect when you visit a city that has been an area of war and conflict for a generation? Can you really return and find the things that were there before: huge and gracefully cedar-carved houseboats; chugging, belching motorboats that used to haul optimistic tourists up out of the lake weed on antiquated water-skis: fringed shikaras for skittering to and fro across the lakes; the easy slide by of days on the water as seen from the cushioned verandas at the back of those absurdly romantic little floating hotels? And, perhaps most of all, what is it like to take holiday among people who have been ground down by a generation of hardship and death?

Well, some of the lake weed has gone, though it is an on-going battle. Nagin and Dal lakes were suffocating until the good burghers of Srinagar bandied together. They realised that if the conflict eased and tourism was to return there was not going to be a lot of lake for it to return to. They also knew that the great dollops of money that had come from the central government of India for the preservation of the lakes had curiously evaporated twixt central coffers and preservation projects. Their action has cleared some of the weed, and the lake water itself is cleaner too in parts.

Before the insurgency began in 1990 the tourist overload had been bearing down in some unsupportable ways that both floated and sank. In short there was just too much effluent being pumped out into the lakes. Eighteen years of almost negligible tourism mean that parts of the lakes are clean enough to swim in again, though the problem is far from solved as the waterside villages that cling to the banks still regard the lakes as their personal and bottomless garbage sites.

But while the tourist figures creep up, and great efforts are made to spruce the houseboats back to their former scented-cedar glory, the houseboat owners know that the days of Heike and Peter have gone. They have been replaced by a new generation of credit card dinkies hailing from a broad sweep that reaches from New Delhi to New Jersey. They come with a heavy requirement for instant gratification, a notion that is an antithesis to the world of the lakes where everything eventually comes because you do have time to wait.

While a shadow play of life is returning to the lakes, the situation in the rural areas remains hard and often brutal, smashed down by both the conflict, and then again by nature, like in October 2005 when an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale pulverised a whole belt of Kashmir that stretches across both Pakistan and India. (Just as a marker, the earthquake that devastated Los Angeles in January 1994 measured 6.6 on the Richter scale.)

And in all this there are some things that have not changed. Eighteen years ago I used to sit on the back veranda of a Nagin lake houseboat watching the sky fall down into the Himalayas above the poplars, slides of colour that get lost amongst adjectives and hyperbole, light that roots itself in your core and lodges there. Mr. Marvellous, the number one Nagin Lake flower seller, came to sell me roses, and we used to talk about business and life. His real name has faded, and he is simply Mr. Marvellous the flower man, as was his father before him. During the eighteen years in between I went on sitting with my heart wrapped in the falling light, listening to gunfire from the city. Mr. Marvellous still came, not to talk of life, but of loss and mourning, both for the state of his business and for his friends and young male relations who had “crossed the border” to train as militants, and to become part of the body and soul count.

Now I can sit again in the eye of this unchanging scene and Mr. Marvellous is back to talk about roses and how well his children are doing at school. We hope to go on talking this way.


Justine Hardy

Justine Hardy has been based in India as a journalist and writer for over 18 years. Much of this time has been spent covering the conflict in Kashmir. Her book, The Wonder House, a novel set in The Valley, has recently been published by Grove Atlantic.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2007

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