When I stepped off the plane in Srinagar two years ago, I was eager to celebrate Kashmir’s attempts to revive itself after more than 20 years of brutal civil war. The Japanese, German and British governments had all recently lifted their travel advisories against visiting the area, and although more than half a million Indian soldiers remained – and more than 70,000 people had lost their lives in Indo-Pakistani violence there since 1989 – all official talk was of the future. That summer, 36 flights were touching down in Srinagar each day, bringing 1.3 million Indians, often on pilgrimage, to a jewelled valley that has long enchanted Mughals, British officers and backpackers.
Everywhere I turned, there were stories of rebirth. My British tour guide on the trip, Jonny Bealby, had come to Srinagar 25 years before and gone through the traveller’s ultimate nightmare: he awoke one morning in a houseboat named for dreams to find that his 25-year-old girlfriend of five years was dead by his side, reportedly the victim of an overnight asthma attack. Yet instead of avoiding the place that had cut his life in two, Bealby became the first foreigner to lead a tour group back to Kashmir, 16 years or so later, and now returns again and again.
The proprietor of the houseboat to which Bealby took me, Sukoon – the first luxury establishment ever to rock on top of Srinagar’s Dal Lake – had had to flee the region overnight when fighting broke out, leaving his studies unfinished and arriving in New Delhi with his brother and only a few wrinkled rupees in his pocket. Yet after going on to open two highly successful boutique hotels in Kerala, Altaf Chapri had returned to Kashmir to try to bring all he had mastered – gourmet food and rainforest showers, wi-fi connections and sundeck concerts – to the area in which he’d grown up. Almost everyone I met spoke of flight from the region – followed by a hopeful return.
Yet no good trip plays out in only one key. The moment that upended me came one sunny morning, near the centre of Srinagar, when Bealby led me around the colourful and aromatic shops along The Bund. We stopped to take a look at Suffering Moses, a store that had been dazzling visitors with its papier-mâché boxes since a century before my mother first visited, in 1941. We stepped into Asia Crafts next door, where silver-tongued Kashmiris unrolled carpets that seemed to change colour every time they were turned upside-down. Then we climbed an unlit set of stairs in the same block, and found ourselves in a dusty room full of sepia-tinted photos of Kashmir, from the days of the 1930s novel Lost Horizon, and decades-old Brownie cameras from the Raj.
“I’m so happy someone is interested in these things,” said the elegant proprietor, Jagdish Mehta, his spotless white tunic matching his thatch of white hair, and his language as formally beautiful as a Tennyson poem. He whipped a black hood off a stand-up wooden camera, its 1938 receipt from Glasgow neatly tucked into its sides. He pointed out ancient photos of Kashmiris in formal dress and showed us black-and-white images printed on silver gelatine paper. “We have a picture here of a queue of 40 or 50 Englishmen waiting to come in to have their photographs developed,” he went on. Mahatta Photo Studio had been in the family since his grandfather founded it in 1915.
Caught up in the magic of the scene – in the air of revival I was hoping to take home with me, the quiet magnetism of the man – I asked him what he thought of the prospects of Kashmir. He looked at me and looked at me, then walked to a far off corner of the near-empty space, standing for many long moments with his back to us, completely silent.
When he came back, I could see his eyes were red.
“I’m sorry,” he said, wiping his face with the heel of his palm. “It’s very sad.”
He recalled the days when he and his friends used to dive into Dal Lake and collect the pieces of bread their parents threw into it. Now, he said, the water was so polluted, you could not even dip your hand in it.
“Will your son take over this shop one day?” I asked.
He looked at me and said nothing, as if unable to say, “No. This is all finished now.”
I encountered many beautiful things in Kashmir: the wooden mosques at the centre of Srinagar, pointed out by a South Indian who had lost her heart to them; the call to prayer interlace from a thousand mosques every evening at dusk; the celebrated Mughal gardens. Most of all, I found myself lulled into the gentle, seductive rhythm of life on the lake, paddling past kingfishers when I wanted to buy snacks from a grocery store on stilts amid the lotus ponds.
But when I returned home it was Jagdish Mehta that I remembered, if only because he spoke for so many other souls I’d met in places like Lhasa and Havana and Pyongyang. I travel in part to see what can never be caught on YouTube or in headlines, and the proprietor’s silence, his turning away, reminded of why it’s so urgent to meet cultures in the flesh.
The tourist tends to drop down from the heavens, bringing his hopes and the freshness of his eyes. Yet what he meets, very often, are locals caught inside a day-to-day predicament that seems difficult to see past. I’ll never forget the sadness in Jagdish Mehta’s eyes. But I’ll also never forget the fact that our very visit to his shop – and the thousands who were flying in every day – seemed to speak for better prospects. And even, perhaps, a return at some point to the queues that Mehta had spoken of so movingly.
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