If ever there is a heaven on earth. it is here, it is here, it is here..
-Jahangir, the Mughal emperor on Kashmir
Well, in my humble opinion: Yes and no.
Earlier this year, I spent 3 days in Srinagar with my parents. Dad was working. Mom and I spent whole days blissed out on a houseboat, reading books (Finally, books! NO INTERNET!)
Never had escaping the humid heat and breathing in (relatively) dry crisp air felt so good. Even when I arrived in an unnaturally sunny/balmy London spring from 90% humidity/40 degree heat Hanoi last May, the relief did not compare.
Two days ago an article surfaced on a women’s rights site I follow, which went into detail on sexual violence in Kashmir, delving into the analysis of rape being used as a ‘weapon of war’ and the extreme under-reporting and its causes. (http://www.awid.org/News-Analysis/Issues-and-Analysis/Kashmir-Obstacles-continue-for-women-reporting-rape
Obviously, Kashmir has been extolled as a war zone for some time now, but I felt no danger whatsoever. In fact, people were incredibly gracious, friendly and despite the ubiquitous military personnel and police presence, I did not feel unsafe in the slightest.
And no, I wasn’t only confined to the luxury of a houseboat on the beautiful Nigeen Lake. I ventured into the main market of the new part of town; we drove to a couple of people’s houses for dinner on two of our three nights. I spoke to various merchants (that sounds really ole timey, let’s say sales-guys and other dudes) on the state of security and Muslim extremism in Kashmir.
Despite their modern (to a degree) and hospitable attitudes, I have to admit that I did feel slightly uncomfortable when we were invited to the very wealthy and influential cousin of my mother’s Delhi ‘shawlwalla’ . Aside: The shawlwalla is a Cashmere shawl exporter, who sometimes comes over to our place in Delhi with suitcases of beautiful shawls so my mom can buy another few that she can then add to her collection of god-knows-how-many. I swear, if I wouldn’t sometimes stop by to supervise, she would accidently buy one that she already owned. He is a jovial, lovely man from Kashmir, who arranged our trip and houseboat and spent time with us and then insisted to invite us over for dinner at his cousin’s ‘fortress’ on our last night.
The reason I felt uncomfortable (and I feel bad, I really do, talking about a really kind invitation to dinner in this sense- Kashmiris really are the most inviting, generous hosts, no doubt about it) are such:
a) We were led into a room and greeted by the head of household and the eldest (and only, I later gathered) son. No women in sight/sound. We had spotted some girls and women through the windows earlier, but as we entered they had all scuttled off to the kitchen, most of whom not be seen again.
b) When I excused myself to go have a smoke ( of course after having asked whether it would be OK to smoke in their drive-way) I got a look of death- I swear- from the host. I went out to sit and smoke with the security guys, who were very cool by the way. When I returned, he gave a spiel about the ills of smoking, very stern. I did suspect that it had much more to do with the fact that I was a woman smoking, although he did not directly say that so I am still speculating here.
c) When it was time for snacks and drinks, two girls came in to serve us. A little while later I found out one was the domestic help-who was I believe Nepali and didn’t look older than 14, the other, one of the daughters and the only slightly younger sister of the son entertaining us with talks of his successful IT company career and taking out his laptop in between and typing away distractedly.
d) When I asked our friend, the shawlwalla, why the daughter was not coming in to sit with us, he said something in Kashmiri to the guy and soon she joined us, very quietly, sitting next to her brother, occasionally smiling at me, not really saying anything, but generally looking uncomfortable in this setting. Her brother, ever so often, held out his cup and she immediately kept refilling tea. As well as serving all of us.
e) The head of house (father-we still haven’t seen his wife/other female relatives who had been toiling over our dinner), when asking about my ‘career’, didn’t immediately look at me, and was really addressing my father.
f) When leaving, we poked our heads around the corner and asked to thank the women and say goodbye, then only did we discover, there had been 4 women and 2 girls hanging out and cooking and such in another part of the house, whilst we had been having food and drinks over approximately 4 hours. There were the father’s mother, wife, children, aunt. They all looked pretty uncomfortable and shy, but very gracious. The exception was the mother, who had spotted me in the hallway earlier on the way to one of my many bathroom /cigarette breaks (I found this evening mentally quite exhausting-can you tell?). She gave me a little giggle and winked at me. Very cool.
These are very tame and limited observations compared to what real journos can report from so-called ‘war zones’. Despite the fortress-like security surrounding these posh buildings, it all did seem relatively calm.
Being able to have an insight into a comparatively and relatively liberal Muslim/Kashmiri household nevertheless did prove an eye-opener. For me, anyway. What irked me was that despite the daughter’s studying engineering at university and her modern dress-sense, it seemed a given that she too was there only to serve her male relatives and guests.
These experiences are not comparable in any sense to the discussion of sexual violence and the shame associated with it. The overall sense I got from my -albeit very short – time in Kashmir: a far cry from a ‘war-zone’. What might still be and will remain an unspoken battle is perhaps waged inside the privacy of people’s homes. Or, perhaps more tragically, a conflict – like that of the history of Kashmir itself, which has never and won’t in the near future, be resolved.
All I know is that the ‘heaven on earth’ I experienced those days in June, did leave me with a bitter aftertaste.