September 26, 2004

Careful (or maybe not) in Srinagar

Being in Srinagar is a strange feeling, or perhaps I should say a strange mix of feelings.

On the one hand, there's the very visible presence of the Army, or the alphabet of armed forces (CRPF, BSF, RR, whatever). You see soldiers everywhere, all with guns, you see barbed wire and bunkers with tiny slits (check the one on Court Road off Lal Chowk) and you see something I've not seen elsewhere -- armoured cars right out of Damnation Alley ('70s movie; you young sprouts, never mind), all with interesting names painted on the side. On the road out of the airport you pass a Maruti Gypsy riggedup as a machine-gun vehicle, with three or four men sitting on its ides and one standing, manning the gun. There do seem to be fewer soldiers about than I saw on my last (and first) visit, last April; perhaps that has something to do with elections that were on at that time. But still, there are enough visible even now that you wonder two things: one, what is it like to live under this constant armed presence? and two, what is it like to be a soldier in these circumstances?

You can puzzle out answers to those.

On the other hand, everyday life carries on. Buses run, their operators shouting the same unintelligible syllables I think I heard them shouting when I used to wait for buses to Pilani. Different destinations, same incomprehensible shouts. The football tournament at the U of Kashmir is on, with teams from Nainital, Delhi, Patiala, Chandigarh, Lucknow and elsewhere. Lal Chowk is buzzing. Blue darting kingfishers flit along the Dal, as do ponderous herons and elegant egrets.

Before, everyone who hears I'm going to Srinagar raises an eyebrow, as if to say, you sure it's safe? Friend I called in Delhi says to find out if it's possible, and safe, to make a trip here with a bunch of academic friends, as they did to Lahore. Yet if they went to Lahore and loved it, why should they worry about Srinagar? I feel no different here than I have done in Alang, or Jammu, or Bhopal, or anywhere. (Despite the armed men). And maybe that's the key. Come here and find out how much the same this place is to everywhere else you might go, and that's the key to normalcy.

Aside: trip to Madagascar in 1991, in the middle of a nationwide uprising against dictator Didier Ratsiraka. Same thing: raised eyebrows, you sure it's safe? But once there, I felt fine, never a moment to worry about. I did run into an American woman who had a hunted look in her eyes, clutched her bag to her chest, kept gesturing to all around to stay away. Nothing had happened to her, but she behaved this way as she roamed the country, which only fed her fears some more.

You could be such a clutching, hunted person here in Srinagar too, an I'm pretty sure you'd go back home and tell all, Srinagar is a frightening place. You also could just roam around like anyone else, anywhere else, and go home to report that it's no more frightening than anywhere else.

Yet I did mention a mix of feelings. The last time I was here, my host Amir had another guest, Kamal, visiting from Delhi. Kamal is a short, wiry dude with long hair. Seems this was enough for someone among the neighbours to report to the authorities that Amir had a suspicious guest. You know, perhaps a militant or something. (This happened after I left, while Kamal stayed on, so we're pretty sure that it wasn't me who was reported suspicious. Not that I'm crowing about it). Late one night, some of these authorities showed up at Amir's door, asking loud and rude questions, issuing threats. It all died down, but not before leaving Amir's already fragile temperament somewhat more frayed. So when I arrived yesterday, Amir said simply, be careful. How, he left to me.

So I'm careful as I stroll the city. As I watch the kingfishers. As I stop at the little dhaba I used to frequent the last time ("How's Bombay?" asks the owner as he recognizes me and flashes a huge smile). As I stop to watch Patiala knock Delhi out of the tournament, 5-3 in a penalty shootout. As I write a postcard to my son.

I'm careful. I have no idea how, really. Is that a key too?

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