Few places on earth can rival the exquisite beauty of Kashmir’s Dal Lake, mirror to the Himalayas of central Asia. Along its shores in morning mist, you might hear the sound of a single, unhurried oar. A shikara (watercraft) slips into view passing wordlessly on its way and then vanishes leaving only a rippling trace. Somewhere across the lake a flower wallah takes up a signature cry while setting out on appointed rounds. In time the sun answers with its brilliance. It’s a meditation in magnificence.
But there is a price to pay for such beauty lying at the hinge of great empires. To the north and east lie China and Tibet. To the south and west, Afghanistan and Persia. To the southeast lies India. All jealous masters, and all casting envious eyes on this valley, sometimes possessing it, but never very securely.
If you alight from your shikara and venture into the city of Srinagar, you will find the streets uneasy now, even deserted. Every few paces there stands an edgy soldier, while shopkeepers do furtive business at the back door for the brave and the desperate. Phone service is curtailed, households whisper hearsay to one another. Journalists and news services are on lockdown. Uncertainty and dread have taken up residence in this paradise – again.
Not so long ago, at an easier time, our family had the good fortune of visiting this pearl of Central Asia. While the bazaars and shopping districts of Srinagar were open then, we were among only a handful of foreigners in the city. Our houseboat on Dal lake was luxury lodging, the staff intent on pleasing every whim. Cardamom tea at dawn. Meals fit for a Mogul empress. Shikara excursions to the Shalimar (‘abode of love’) Gardens. Directions for finding the traces of Muslim saints and the Ahmadiyya ‘Tomb of Jesus’. Shops to find saffron and the finest pashmina shawls. No effort spared. Then we happened upon the guest book. And the back story came into painful focus. The last entries dated from a decade earlier. The manager winced to tell us that our floating palace had lain empty for ten years. The fabled romance of this valley had not been strong enough to overcome its reputation for a fitful peace.
Sometime later, I was passing through Old Delhi in search of a friend. I stepped into a shop specializing in Kashmiri handicraft. The owner ordered tea, and we sat down to talk. He told me wistfully about family back in Srinagar. How his dream was to return to that lovely place of childhood memory. But, said he, ‘I am now trapped by the need to make a living for my family. What else would cause me to live here in the heat and grime of this metropolis? Especially, since my religion (Islam) makes me suspect in the eyes of neighbors. Indeed, though I am Indian by birth, grew up in the shadow of the ‘Tomb of Jesus’ and have lived a pious life my government considers me a terrorist.’
The bitterness in this testimony was inescapable. But he consoles himself in the heat and dust with the memory of mountain air, of a serene lake ringed by majestic ridges.