Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Photos of Srinagar

Since it has been a while since I've posted any photos - and since I seem to be scamming someone's wireless signal in my Delhi hotel room - I thought it a good time to add some visuals.

All these photos are from Srinagar, the largest city in the Kashmir Valley. (The man in the close-up is the guy who made my new hat.)

Kashmir postponed

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.

Friday, November 21, 2008

In Kashmir

Winter came early to Srinagar this year. It is rare to receive snow in the Kashmir Valley before December. It reminded me of my home in Calgary, where winter always catches autumn unawares and snow chases the still-yellowing leaves from the poplar trees. At least here in Kashmir, winter seems to have realized its rashness and pulled back a little. The sky has cleared, the air warmed, and the snow melted into mud.

Still, Kashmir does not fully reveal its beauty in November. It only suggests it. Birds step across the green lotus pads in Dal Lake, but the flowers are not in bloom. The houseboats are shuttered and empty. The vegetables have already been harvested from the floating gardens, and the saffron already plucked from the purple crocus fields. The famous Mughal gardens are gated and their fountains dry. The Himalaya Mountains are faint through the winter clouds, like Gandhi’s face in the watermark of a worn ten-rupee bill.

Since the bulk of my travels in the last decade have been in the Islamic world, my arrival in Kashmir felt like a homecoming of sorts, even though the security at the airport made it feel as if I was landing in an army base. I feel comfortable among Muslims. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hinduism is a complete mystery to me. I can’t keep straight all those multi-hued and -headed gods, and I don’t understand the rituals or philosophy. But I understand Islam. It is refreshing to hear the familiar symphony of inshallah and salaam aleikum.

I’ve come to Kashmir to write about the Line of Control, the ceasefire line that separates the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir from the Pakistani-controlled Azad Kashmir. Since Partition in 1947, the battle for Kashmir has defined relations between the two neighbors. Not long ago, Pakistan and India nearly hurled nuclear missiles at each other over the territory. These days, though, Pakistan has other things to worry about: a resurgent Taliban, American air-strikes over its territory, and national bankruptcy. Here in Srinagar you rarely even hear the word Pakistan. The Kashmiris much rather talk about azadi: Freedom.

“Do not say that Kashmir is in India,” said the young man in the bookstore on Residency Road, even though I didn’t. For him, and for most of the people I’ve talked to, Kashmir is an undivided state that has been denied independence. “Kashmiris are living in a cage,” the man said. “We are tired of being slaves to India.” Elections are going on right now, and there are several independence parties, but none can claim wide-ranging support. There are no inspiring leaders, and Kashmiris, especially the young, are distrustful of the politics. Some parties have called for a boycott of the elections, and when polling happens here in Srinagar on Christmas Eve, few of the men I talked to will cast a ballot.

I visited with a retired history professor, Dr. Khan, in his home the other day. We drank tea and talked about the Line of the Control. He scoffed at it, and called it a “colonial conspiracy.” Dr. Khan said that the villages closest to the Line – the places I hope to visit – are where the people suffer the most. “They are constantly surrounded by military. They live in perpetual fear.” Then he added, “Whenever you draw a line, you commit an inhuman act.”

I will seek permission from the District Commissioner to visit border towns both here in the Valley and in Ladakh. In the meantime, I am happy to walk amid Srinagar’s red brick and timber neighborhoods, eat apricot kernels, and stare into Kashmiri faces. Winter may have dulled the landscape, but grey November does not detract from the beauty of the Kashmiris themselves. Great sloping noses. Eyes like dark honey. Women drape themselves in swoops of coloured scarves and walk through the streets like rolling gems. The chilly air reddens their cheeks while henna reddens men’s beards. The old men hide baskets of burning embers under their robes to stay warm. Deep wrinkles make every face a mountain range.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I am in Assam, I am.

Assam must be beautiful. Tea plantations spread over the slopes, rice patties flank the river valley, and rhinocerous lumber in the national parks. But I haven’t seen any of this. Trying to get my research done means I am spending my time in bland cities and travelling by night. The Assam I imagine is out there, but I can’t see it in the dark or in the streets of the capital. The closest I get are the rhino posters in the hotel and the beautiful Assamese tea I drink all day long from the road-side stalls.

The reason I am in Assam is to visit Bhogdanga, a village on the Bangladeshi frontier that is completely surrounded by the border fence. But I haven’t seen Bhoghdanga either. The border area is sensitive, I am told. A hotbed for militant elements. “Heaven for terrorists.” Certainly, too dangerous for a foreigner. I was forbidden to go anywhere near Bhogdanga, so instead I spent the other day in Dhubri, the closest city of any size. All day I was tailed by security forces, intelligence officials, and cloned policemen in identical tan uniforms, identical red berets and identical moustaches. They were there for my security, or so they said.

It became clear right away, though, that these men were not only interested in my protection. They were suspicious of me and my intentions here. When I telephoned a contact in the capital, one officer listened to the conversation over my shoulder. When I used an Internet café, two policemen went in after I left to question the proprietor. Four officers stood outside the shop where I got a shave and a haircut, and six men, one aromatically drunk, were at the bus station in the evening to make sure I really left town. It was a frustrating day.

It was hard to appreciate Dhubri while under surveillance and hearing the constant putt-putt-putting of police motorcycles following me all day. But now, two days later and in the capital, I see what a beautiful place Dhubri was. The town sits on the edge of the Brahmaputra River. Having nothing else to do, I watched the morning labourers arrive in Dhubri from villages across the river in great wooden boats. Hindu women in bright salwars and bracelets clinking on their wrists. Long-bearded Muslim men and their black-clad wives coming to barter for lambs. Sikhs here to pray at the gurudwara.

Muscular, barefoot men heaved sacks of onions and neatly bundled bamboo from overloaded carts onto boats for the return trip across the river. Bicycle rickshaw-wallahs argued for custom on the streets. Goats nibbled on whatever trash they could find, and cows – safe from the butcher’s block here amid the Hindus – lazed in the sunshine and dust.

At night, once the days commerce was over and the riverfront quiet, birds and bats rioted in the treetops. And a full moon followed the purple-smear of dusk to scatter shards of light over the Brahmaputra.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

After Meghalaya

I’ve just finished my tour of the villages along the Bangladesh border in the Indian province of Meghalaya. This is some stunning landscape: overwhelmingly green with slender betel nut trees, paan vines, rice patties and fruit orchards. Many of the people who live in these areas are known as ‘scheduled tribes,’ India’s official indigenous peoples. Most of the tribes in the area have adopted Christianity with vigour. There are churches everywhere, Bible verses painted on trucks, and statues of Christ along the roadside. Still, some of the old beliefs still persist. Yesterday at the main market in Shillong, a goat was slaughtered and his entrails ‘read’ as an oracle of the year ahead

Traditionally, the official border has meant little to the people who live on the frontier. The villagers here are used to passing freely across the line to sell fruit and betel nut to the Bangladeshis, and the Bangladeshis come north to sell meat, fish and imported kitchenware. Security has tightened in recent years, but India’s Border Security Force soldiers assigned to protect India from ‘infiltration’ are happy enough to let visitors pass through for a small bribe.

But times are changing. India’s entire border with Bangladesh is due to be fenced, and in light of the recent bombings in Gauhati which were blamed on cross-border militants, the government has made fencing a national security priority. Those who live on the borderlands understand this, and are resigned to the coming of the fence, but they disagree with its route.

According to an agreement between India and Bangladesh, no defensive structures can be built within 150 yards of the actual border, or ‘zero line.’ This means that for many villagers, their land will lie on the other side of the fence. For some of them, their homes will be lost. The government promises to build gates to allow access to the fields, and there are rumours of compensation, but no one knows any details. Where will the gates be located? How long will they be opened for and who mans them? Who decides the value of the land that is lost and when is the money paid out?

Also, the villagers worry about the security of their crops. Even now without a fence, villagers assign armed guards to watch over the fields during harvest season to protect against thieves from Bangladesh. Who will protect their crops when the fence is built?

The issue here is the collision of big, national interests with the ‘small’ interests of those who work the land. Big issues like terrorism and infiltration have louder voices than the small landowner who needs to sell his oranges or tend to his rice. I had tea with a village headman whose family home is close to the zero line. He will lose the house if the fence follows the planned route. Even if he is compensated for the house, there is nowhere else to build. He doesn’t know where he will go. “We are not rich people,” he said, “or big landowners. We are labourers. If the fence comes and we lose our land, what are we supposed to do?”

It may be small consolation, but they have plenty of time to consider their options. The newspapers are full of politician bluster about sealing the border quickly, but very little of the fence has been completed. I rode along one border road near Baghmara to see the progress on the fence. In some areas, the posts were up. In other areas the strip of land for the fence was still being flattened. Mostly, though, there was no evidence of fencing at all, and Bangladeshi traders were passing over the line without any problems.

Small black stones on the edges of the rice patties claimed ‘India ends here,’ but only in the quietest of whispers.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Archers of Shillong

Here are some photos of the daily archery stakes in Shillong. Archers fire arrows across a pitch at a tiny bamboo cylinder while on-lookers lay their bets with bookies around town.

Tomorrow I am on my way to the villages along Meghalaya's border with Bangladesh. It will be a fascinating trip. The fence that India has built along the border is formidable and, according to the Governor of Meghalaya, is important to counter the smuggling of cattle and, especially, the movements of militants across the border.

However, the fence is a hardship for some poor villagers who have always traded with villagers across the line. The fence makes this impossible. I hope to meet with these farmers and write their stories.