The last time I stayed at Hari Singh’s palace in Srinagar, the chinars were blazing red, Abdul Ghani Lone was alive and I was the only occupant of the palace and of its bar. Now, 12 years later, the palace is full and it is called The LaLit. The chinars on its lawn are bare and Lone, whose sacrifice knocked sense into not a few people, is gone. As he was seeing me off, Lone said he wanted to see the army off the streets. “Though even I,” he said, pointing to one of the jawans guarding him, “am protected by these murderers.” The jawan looked away, expressionless.
Today the jawans are fewer, or at least less visible. Their equipment is better, many are holding European bullpup assault rifles. And the magnificent diversity of India is on view. Just exiting the airport, I saw a group of them walking somewhere. Girl jawans, late teens and early 20s, from middle India, tall Jat Sikhs, lean and alert North-Easterners and Gurkhas. I wonder how life must be for the girl soldiers here and their families back home.
At The LaLit’s bar is an interesting drink. Poor Man’s Cognac—Qahwa, whipped cream, flaked almonds and flambéed brandy. Excellent and I have three at lunch before I have to run.
The bartender, a local, says India’s playing Pakistan later that evening in the second Twenty20. The locals in Srinagar would probably support Pakistan against India, I said. “50-50, sir,” he said. Good answer.
I ask the Mumbai Mirror’s correspondent Anil Raina which Urdu newspapers are available. He brings 20. I’m astonished at the number. He says they’re “paid for by the MHA”. The ministry of home affairs in Delhi. That’s good, but they should get someone who reads Urdu to tell them what they’re getting for their money.
All the papers headline the cricket story “Pakistan ko shikast (Pakistan loses)”, rather than India wins. The sports page of the first paper I pick up, Nida-i-Mashriq, has two stories on Shahid Afridi, one on the Pakistan Cricket Board, one on bowler Mohammed Asif’s biography, one on Pakistan’s victorious hockey team. Nothing on India.
The front pages are full of two stories. A couple of “Lashkar commanders” have been killed. The papers, even the Urdu ones, don’t dispute that they were. Uzma Kashmir calls them jangajon (militants), Al Saffa calls them “Lashkar commander”. The bigger story is police firing into a mob after the killing, wounding 15 people.
A photograph shows why. The body of one of the dead militants is held aloft, bound to a bed, like a trophy. A village crowd of thousands is cheering the body or screaming at India or whatever it is that people do in such places. It’s as sure a sign as any that Kashmiris still don’t want India.
Meanwhile Indians want Kashmir. This year saw 1.4 million tourists, more than ever in history. Many, if not most, from my home state. At Dalgate, there are Kashmiris who have learnt how to cook Gujarati food. “All the years that nobody else dared come, Gujaratis came,” our houseboat owner Yaseen Tuman says. “If there was a war between India and Pakistan in March,” he adds, “Gujaratis would be here in April.” What’s holding tourists back is infrastructure. There are no rooms available in the valley, or in Gulmarg, and this is when the temperature is -7 degrees Celsius.
Kashmiris may want independence, but they have an economy totally dependent on India’s. Most Kashmiris want government jobs because there’s no private sector outside tourism.Indians who want to see Kashmir remain in India should come and spend money here.
Dal Lake is clear and still. The weed that covers the lake entirely as a carpet is brilliant green and just a few inches below the surface. We go for an early morning walk and spot a shikarawallah. Would he take us? Yes, he says putting out his cigarette. We set off and he stops at two other shikaras on the way, looking for something. He wants to give us a blanket though we haven’t asked for one. His name is Nazir Ahmed and he looks about 45. How old is he? “28,” he says. We’re carrying no money, but he says that’s fine, he’ll collect it from The LaLit. At the hotel’s reception they say there’s no such arrangement, so we go back and leave the cash with some other shikarawallahs. Hope Nazir Ahmed got it.
I always look to the language papers to know what’s going on. English is not a good medium for Indians to express their culture. To illustrate this, on an opinion page I find this half-page article, “Darwin ka nazariya—ek dhoka, ek faraib (Darwin’s theory of evolution is a fraud)”. It is the fourth instalment in a series by Tariq Iqbal. It is full of pseudoscientific references that reassure its readers that Adam and Eve are real and their prayers meaningful.
Early Mughal translators, like William Erskine and Annette Beveridge, had two favourite writers. One was Babur, a poet accomplished enough to be counted as among the best of his time. The other man, now forgotten, was just as good a writer. He was Mirza Haidar, a cousin of Babur’s and present at his death and at the humiliation of Humayun against Bengal’s Sher Khan Sur. As the Mughals fled back into Afghanistan, Haider chose to go north and in 1543 he conquered Kashmir.
In his book Tarikh-i-Rashidi, he describes the place, praising its climate (unusual for the Mughals, who were miserable in India’s weather). He also praises its fruit except, surprisingly, its apples. He finds its temples elegantly designed and brilliantly constructed. The beauty of Kashmir’s women, he writes, “is proverbial”. Hmmm. Perhaps this is still true, but difficult to say. There’s little sign of women, other than tourists, on the streets of its towns.
While on the subject of Mughals and good writing. We go to Pari Mahal, a terraced garden built by Dara Shikoh in the mid-1600s. “On either side,” the Archaeological Survey of India board announces, “are a series of specious rooms.”
I am no longer troubled when a nation led by its media sets all other business aside and anguishes over an individual.
I’m referring to the girl in Delhi who was raped and killed.
It’s a tabloid story, vulgar in the original Latin origin of the word, which is to say aimed at the mob, the common people. This display of national hate will disturb those of us who know that demanding the death penalty comes from a desire for revenge, not justice. I’m no longer disturbed because I know many others feel the same way.
Kashmir is uninterested in the Delhi rape story save for one facet. It’s about former army chief V.K. Singh’s protests against the rapists of Delhi. Wajahat Habibullah, head of the National Commission on Minorities and former Chief Information Commissioner, asks why Singh has taken no notice of the rape accusations, many verified, against jawans in Kashmir. Srinagar’s papers all run this story and the reactions from the Hurriyat to it.
The idea that Singh, raging at the barricades against the state, would today still be chief of India’s army but for the Supreme Court is a sobering thought.
India’s middle class, pious, angry, and tending towards authoritarianism could have no better leader than this fellow.
Meanwhile, from the Rajya Sabha, Jaya Bachchan says the rapists should be lynched in public, an instance of a lawmaker encouraging lawbreaking.
I’m all in favour of inclusion and diversity among legislators, but I draw the line at Bollywood-wallahs in the Rajya Sabha. Their nautanki has its place, but it is not Parliament.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns