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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 14, March 27, 2010

Kashmir: Retrieve the Magic

Saturday 27 March 2010, by Karuna Thakur

The mood in Kashmir, after the Indira-Sheikh Accord of 1975, was upbeat. A surge of emotions over the leader’s homecoming had apparently overshadowed the bitterness of the fifties. The Valley had turned into a nerve-centre of activity and played host to an influx of visitors including leaders, writers, journalists and film-makers. Globetrotting yogis too descended on the scene to unwind, while some like the Mahesh Yogi group held training sessions on transcendental meditation for the overworked government functionaries.

To meet the ever growing pressure, numerous mini-valleys were earmarked for development as tourist destinations. The Western tourists flocked to houseboats, the locals to the Mughal Gardens on holidays, whereas the rest dispersed along the boulevard at Dal Gate where the shikarawalas made brisk business in peak season. Earthy Sadhus and pilgrims enroute to Amarnath camped along the Lidder as did the quacks selling shilajit and herbs, the nomads and the highlanders tucked deep into forests and the ponywallas remained ever busy wooing the tourists with viewpoints like Bobby hut. Sprawling meadows of Gulmarg were frequented by golfers but were idyllic for the reclusive to reflect in quiet solititude

For the honeymooners, time and space were shrunk to cement bonds and reaffirm vows of eternal love and togetherness. The trekkers trudged along endless miles exploring forests and mountains through valleys like Daksum, Yusmarg and Khilanmarg; for many, the waterfall at Aharbal was every bit reminiscent of the Niagra falls. A perfect mood for divine transition was set by a visit to Chandanwari and Sonamarg, the base camps for the holy cave of Amarnath. Amidst fun and gaiety, the curious could also reconnect with history through carefully programmed light-and-sound shows at sundown in the Mughal Gardens.

The houses which overlooked the Jhelum gave a peep into the Doonga life at night, when after a hard day’s work, men relaxed by smoking hukka and the women got together to sing in chorus. The silence of the river was broken at different hours in the course of the day when sounds of the azaan, gurbaani and the bells from the temples and churches filled the air.

Marriages were festive with elaborate wazwan, a food ritual, deeply embedded in the Kashmiri lifestyle and a symbol of its core value of shared, community eating. The multicourse foodstyle was not just a lavish display of food items but also signified a deeprooted tradition of warm hospitality. Frugality, as a trait in entertaining guests, was unmistakably absent in Kashmiri households.

Life vibrated in parks, boulevards, hotels and other public places. Cinema halls remained packed to capacity, particularly on days when old movies like Mugle Azam and Shree Farhaad were screened. Kashmir Ki Kali, any day, filled the audience with pride over how their exotic locales could enamour outsiders, who trooped in huge numbers to experience the reel magic translate into real life. Kashmir’s magic in its full form was captured at night in the backdrop of the Zabarwan hills from Pari Mahal or Shankracharya when the poetic version of a paradise on earth literally came alive.

With memories skilfully captured in frame by the Mahattas and Darly photographers, tourists were thus lured to return the visit, which was never the last. They were brought back many times over to experience varied shades of the Valley where autumn could script an account as fascinating as the spring; a single trip was never really sufficient.

Politics was not invasive, it interspersed with life smoothly. People pursued their normal lives and engaged in politics by choice. Hope defined the mood of the period.

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A trip to the Valley two decades later was marked by night-long encounters and gunfire in different parts. Long stretches of roads lined up with stately poplars, once a pleasure to drive through, were now a tiring affair with endless barricades and frisking exercises. Forests and mountains looked formidable having turned into hideouts for the gun-trotting mujahideen. Cinema halls were shut and hotels virtually non-functional. Life moved on but with an underlying fatigue. Lhasa, the Chinese restaurant, once a favourite haunt for its warm, crowded ambience, now resembled a downtown cellar. Lakes like the Dal and Nageen looked equally desolate. All of the Valley’s beauty seemed insequential as appreciative revellers had vanished, and so had the magic

The growth of a sociey is a complex interplay of forces spanning over centuries. Like an arterial network, its constituent parts—land, soil, climate,communities, languages and customs—interconnect to infuse life and vigour to it and make up for its ethos. The rupture of Kashmir’s centuries old, intricately woven society, once pulsating with life, is a painful experience for all its inhabitants. The modern state structure apparently has no available tools to measure the levels of psycho-social trauma and hence not well equipped to heal the same. Though sad, this outcome is also in some measure a failure of its inhabitants to put up appropriate assertions to resist disruptions in their life spaces. They have to strive and reclaim the sphere which allows them their right to life and the freedoms that flow from it. A significant difference can be made by setting the boundaries where politics of any kind does not violate the sanctity of their lived spaces. They can do it in a way nobody else really can.

Societies must grow out of celebration of life and everything connected with it, not its demise, Nations cannot thrive over the stillness of graveyards. Kashmir will revive no doubt, but a philosophical question which everyone connected with the good old times continues to ask is: “Can the magic ever be retrieved?” Perhaps, the people of Kashmir know best and they alone can make their choices in this regard.

Dr Karuna Thakur is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Jammu.

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