I get a call from a Kashmiri contact. ‘My brother has sent a screen shot. They have put up your picture in Kashmir Today.’ He sends it to me. For some reason, the Kashmiri press keeps stealing the picture from my blog, each time they want to claim how safe Kashmir is for tourists. It is and I don’t mind, too many people from the Valley have been nice to me. I will never be able to repay that.
But as I flash back to 2007, I smile. Who would have thought I would become the poster girl for Kashmir tourism of all things, after my first experience? When I am asked ‘why Kashmir?’ and I am asked that often, the reply varies from a question, ‘why not’ , ‘ to loss’, ‘ to a connection I can’t explain’. Yes, they are all true. But that is not the main reason.
I never state this reason because of how sensitive a topic Kashmir is and I love the place and the people , so I don’t want anyone to misconstrue my experience or become prejudiced against the place or the people. I write today, on this platform, because I have done my time, been there too many times for people to think anything unsavoury about the place. If it was the way I felt, the first time, I would have never returned.
Many years a ago, I ran a company with my ex. Through some friends we met a man who was from Kashmir and he had some contacts with the tourism department. At that point I was planning to go to Ladakh to do some work. He asked me to come to Kashmir instead and the department would send me to Ladakh, on its own expense. Needless, to say, none of what he claimed was going to happen in Kashmir happened. I was hit on by every sleazy official and the entire deal turned sour. They never sent me to Ladakh, I never gave them any pics and it was a horror through and through.
Now, let me make this clear, from my end I made too many mistakes to blame them, entirely. One I should have never gone on this man’s words but on official documentation. Two going by myself without notifying people my family knew in Kashmir, was pure stupidity. But up until then I was a person driven by impulses. Thirdly, personal and business should never be mixed, is a painful lesson I have had to learn repeatedly. But everything happens for a reason.
And so the story goes, in 2007, when I left Kashmir, I had met all the sleaziest characters in Srinagar. A particular official came knocking on my door at half eight asking my views on inter religious relationships, the driver insisted on sleeping in the same hut but after the ordeal with the official, I just threw a fit. There were comments on my religion. After a decade of being in Kashmir, I can safely say, I have heard only two comments on my being ‘kafir’. 2007, was the first time. For some even once is enough, since I don’t believe in anything, I don’t get hassled, anymore.
Now, you may wonder after all this why did I return and what kind of a hypocrite am I that I claim Kashmiri men are well behaved? Let me answer the second question, first. Kashmiri men who come from the lower classes upto the upper middle classes are the safest men you will ever be around. They are the ones who live in small localities, they are ones who help their neighbours, are protective of women, they are generous to a fault, never miss their Jumma Namaz and are most affected by the conflict that surrounds them. Now, other than this there is a minuscule minority of men who are either from affluent families or are related to tourism department. They are bad news.
In 2006, there was a huge sex scandal which involved many influential people of the Valley and till 2007, I think the department was under the impression that any woman who is there on an official visit, is there to service somebody. Even now, I hardly ever step into the TRC and never ever, alone. As for the affluent in Kashmir, in my initial years I met a few. You know how it is, you just got to be seen at the right places, since there are such few, word spreads quickly.
The women are fascinating, strong and oh so bright. The men on the other hand, for this Sardarni’s taste a bit spineless, their political views varying like pendulums, swinging from one party to other, based on who will butter their bread, best. Evenings are spent hanging around the clubs drinking and gossiping worrying oh so very much about who thinks what. That’s a lot you stray clear off. Your auto driver is safer than them. Trust me.
Barring this minuscule minority, you will probably not even run into, you will never get into any trouble in Kashmir and if you do just run into anyone’s house, they will provide you shelter and a warm cup of tea.
As for why Kashmir? When I left in 2007, I fell in love with the place and my ego was bruised, so I promised myself ‘when I am done with this place, half of Kashmir will know me’. I haven’t achieved that, yet, so like Mina I go there to collect diamonds.