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.