Neither was Shikara there, nor Bhaijaan!

   By Vijay Darda | 21-02-2022

The message of trust and love will have to be spread in the Valley, only then will Kashmir become heaven again

Vijay Darda

Last week, as I reached the enchantingly beautiful Kashmir Valley, I was filled with a whiff of nostalgia! I had come to witness the new era, but the old era started to haunt me. Let me first tell you the things of the past… and then the new story of the new era! That was February of 2016. I had landed at Srinagar airport. I had to go to Gulmarg. The sight I saw on the way was very frightening. Stones were being thrown at police forces and government vehicles. Near Sopore and Baramulla, I saw huge billboards featuring the face of the US President superimposed on the picture of a donkey and people were beating it. The journey was very scary.

We stayed at the luxurious Khyber Hotel in Gulmarg. It was snowing outside and we were enjoying the Indo-Pak cricket match on TV inside. As soon as India won, I asked the general manager to give everyone sweets. He gently advised me not to celebrate too much. People are feeling sad about the defeat of Pakistan. They haven’t even had their meals, he said. I was extremely surprised! Most cricket bats are made on this soil of Kashmir since they are made from walnut and pine trees which grow in abundance here. With these bats, the players of our country score piles of runs. Gavaskar has played with these Kashmiri bats and so do Sachin; I also saw the youths sticking photos of Pakistani players on their bats.

My fascination with Kashmir is very old. It dates back to my school days. I went to Kashmir for the first time when I was in Standard X. I fell in love with Kashmir at such a young age. When we got married, Jyotsna and I went to the same Kashmir Valley for honeymoon. A few years back, we had sent our colleagues to tour ‘Highway-7’ for the special issue of Diwali to take stock of the situation. At that time, stones were thrown at our team too but we did not mind because the 24-year intervening period of turmoil was very bad. The children who were born during that period did not go to school, did not see playground, did not play football or hold the cricket bat, and did not see the phone either. All they saw was curfew and heard the screams and cries, other than gunshots. I will not repeat the horrendous events of those times. What a turbulent era that was! And what a huge price we had paid to save Rubaiya Sayeed and what is her sister Mehbooba Mufti doing over there today!

Therefore, I thought that since the government in India has changed and Article 370 is a thing of the past too, why not visit Kashmir once again! Last week, my longing for Kashmir pulled me to the Valley. There are three layers of security at Srinagar airport. It was just impossible for anything to escape the eagle eyes of CISF and CRPF jawans.

This time I wanted to go to all the places where I had spent the happiest moments of my life. I was looking for the Shikara in Dal Lake in which I sat with Jyotsna 50 years ago. I was looking for the Shikara wale Bhaijaan whose words I still could not forget: “Sir, why didn’t you tell us earlier? We would have decorated the Shikara like a bride for you.” There was a broken Shikara lying on the shore… I was trying to recollect… is that the same Shikara..! There was nobody to tell me.

In fact, Dal Lake then was synonymous with romantic outings. The newly-married couples would frolic on the Shikaras singing the songs: Kashmir ki kali hoon main… Mujhse na rutho babuji… / Ek tha gul aur ek thi bulbul… Dono chaman me rehte the… The life then was full of happiness… the sky was clear… the stars were twinkling… the air was rich with the aroma of saffron. Jhelum used to sway with the currents of wind. I used to enjoy food at Lal Chowk eateries. I still haven’t forgotten the taste and aroma of Rajma rice at Krishna’s dhaba. But the fire which was ignited by the neighbouring country engulfed the Valley, destroying the blissful life there.

This time when I was walking around the Dal Lake area, the feeling was that of despair. Spread over 22 square kilometres, the lake appeared to have shrunk. Dal means depth and Dal Lake with a depth of about 6 meters looked sad. The police personnel were deployed every hundred yards on the shore. Armed CRPF personnel were seen everywhere. Armoured vehicles.. and vehicles equipped with jammers escorting the leaders… The Centaur Hotel next to the lake looked as if gasping for breath. Char Chinar has been my favourite place but my heart was crying. Three Chinar trees have dried up. Just one is left… how can I say Char Chinar…? Shikara was desolate. It seemed like Shikara was broken like the heart of Kashmir.

In the course of my travel whoever I was talking to… taxi drivers, Shikara operators, shopkeepers or hotel staff, in Srinagar or Pahalgam… all of them said in one voice that we are the people of India. The more the tourism increases, the more our livelihood will increase. I was explaining to them that there was a need for one country, one flag and one law. Now, this will curb infiltration and your life will change too. Kashmir will become heaven again. But they would question with pain and anguish the necessity of scrapping Article 370! I am writing about the sentiments of the people there because public sentiment plays an extremely important role.

During this visit, I also spoke to my friend and very friendly Governor of Kashmir Manoj Sinha and popular leader Farooq Abdullah Sahab. The month of my visit was such that flowers were not in bloom in the tulip garden. Apple orchards were without fruits and leaves. There was no beauty in the saffron orchard. But there were saffron shops nearby and the fragrance of saffron filled my mind. I also enjoyed Kahwa. I remembered the words of Jahangir:

Gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,

Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

(If there is heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.)

But this is not the reality of today. If Kashmir is to be transformed into heaven again, it will have to be groomed like Switzerland, youth will have to be provided work, Chinar trees will have to be revived, the Shikaras will have to be restored, an atmosphere with no fear will have to be created so that anyone could go and salute the tricolour at Lal Chowk! The most important thing is that we have to spread the message of trust and love in the beautiful Kashmir Valley, only then will Kashmir become heaven again! Only then we will be able to say, “If there is heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here!”

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Neither was Shikara there, nor Bhaijaan!

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