Sadly, I left Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley the other day without having visited the villages I wanted to see. My research plans were frustrated by the combination of snowfall-closed roads and the idiosyncrasies of elections in a disputed territory: general strikes, sudden blockades, and undeclared curfews. I will return to Kashmir in the spring or summer after temperatures warm and tempers cool.
The trip, though, was not a waste of time. Being in Srinagar for the elections was fascinating, if sometimes frustrating. There were three general strikes in the six days that I spent in the city. Each was a result of the Indian army shutting down the roads in fear of protests and marches against the election. With the streets closed, shopkeepers did not bother to open. There were soldiers everywhere, armed with rifles or batons, standing bored on street corners or building fires out of trash to keep warm.
Whatever tension the blockades may have caused was not apparent in the faces of the boys who, with a day off school, took their flat wooden bats into the empty the streets for impromptu games of cricket. Every block had its own game going, some overlapping with others, with cardboard boxes, traffic pylons and wooden planks standing in for wickets. It was a fabulous scene: the severity of men with guns juxtaposed with the happy clamor of boys with bats and plastic balls.
Bill Clinton once said that Kashmir was the “most dangerous place on earth.” This is a territory being fought over by two nuclear-armed enemies. The potential for an unfathomable disaster is as great here as anywhere. But it is important to say that while the political situation has, in the past, stumbled drunkenly towards crisis, and may do so again, the Kashmiris themselves are not brutes. Far from it. I was treated with generosity by everyone I met. One can be passionate about a cause, and one can live in a disputed place, but political frustration does not cancel out one’s impulsive tendency towards kindness.
There is a tendency of some travel writers to exaggerate the danger of the places they visit in order to come off as adventurous or romantically reckless. This sort of writing is lazy and offensive. Doing research for this trip I came across a two-part story by a Western journalist who travelled through Kashmir. He spent one night as the guest of a village family. They offered him tea and dinner and a place to sleep, but the writer kept repeating the danger he thought he was in. He mused over and over about his fear that the man who invited him into his home would eventually slit his throat, as if the offer of a meal and a bed was a ruse for murder.
First of all, if the writer was indeed afraid for his life, he would never have accepted the invitation. Of course not. Secondly, and most infuriatingly, the danger he manufactures does a disservice to the people he is writing about. Especially in Muslim Kashmir. In a world already sick with Islamophobia, it is irresponsible to tar all Muslims as potential murderers in a cheap attempt to paint yourself as brave.
But I digress.
My trip out of Srinagar had to start early. It was another strike day and I was afraid the highway would be closed once the sun came up, so I walked to the taxi park before sun loosened the thin crust of ice on the open sewers. I got on the last transport headed south. It was a rare road journey done in the daylight; I’ve suffered through far too many overnight bus trips in the last couple of months. The Sumo, an eight-passenger Land Cruiser-clone, climbed into and out of the Kashmir Valley, where soldiers walked through the morning mist with metal detectors and swept the roadside for bombs, and where men at the tea stalls sold saffron packets, wicker baskets and cricket bats.
The temperature began to rise as we descended the foothills of the Himalayas’ southern slopes to Jammu, Indian Kashmir’s ‘winter capital.’ The other passengers and I spent our time peeling away layers of clothing as the temperature rose, and complained as our driver stopped repeatedly for tea and cigarettes. Only I seemed amused by the hundreds of pink-faced monkeys sitting on the roadside like cranky old men waiting for an overdue bus.