In August 1996, after a gap of 15 years, I created an opportunity to visit the Kashmir valley for 24 hours. Outwardly, it was a business visit as I was then banking with J&K Bank. There were really no pressing matters that required a personal visit; but somehow, on an impulse, I decided to go to Srinagar. I spoke to the CMD of the bank expressing my desire to see him in his office. He wanted to know what was so urgent that it warranted a personal visit from me all the way from the south Indian city of Chennai. I really did not have any great purpose for the visit except, perhaps, nostalgia. I made some story about a new project that I would like to discuss with him. He agreed and asked me to inform him once I had made my travel arrangements. I asked him for information on hotel accommodation, but he was generous to say that I would be his personal guest and was welcome to stay with him in his house on Gupkar Road. He asked me to call him after checking-in at Delhi Airport to enable him to send a car to pick me up from Srinagar Airport. Before embarking on this journey I spoke to the manager of the Branch in Chennai, who hailed from the valley. I asked him if it would be possible for me to visit Sumbal and Vaskur during my short stay. He said that I should not even entertain any such idea as that part of the valley was totally under the control of the militants and that I should not venture outside the secured parts of the city.
Anyway, on 6th August, on a gloriously sunny day, I landed at Srinagar Airport at about 11:30 in the morning. The Public Relations Officer of JK Bank was waiting for me with the Chairman’s personal car. We drove to the office only to find that he had been called to the Secretariat for some urgent consultations. I was received by the then Dy. General Manager, one of the brightest officers in the Bank. Hailing from the Uri District of Kashmir, an area almost on the Line of Control, he had risen through sheer hard work and merit to such an important position in the Bank. A Punjabi speaking Kashmiri Muslim, he was learning to read Hindi and was studying the Hindu scriptures to better understand the unique heritage of his land.
Since the CMD was not in office, the DGM offered to take me out for lunch to a typical Kashmiri restaurant situated close to the Secretariat. I expressed my desire to pass by my old haunts. Primary on the list was our home in Wazir Bagh, which my father had bought in 1952 from a departing Punjabi (and which he had sold in 1974). Then I wanted to see my old educational establishments, The CMS Tyndale Biscoe Memorial High School, near Rana Pratap Bagh, the D.A.V. High School in Magharmal Bagh, and Amar Singh College in Hazuri Bagh. I still wistfully recall the majestic avenue of poplar trees at the entrance to this magnificent institution. My hosts duly took me on a round of these monuments to my past. We stopped on Zero Bridge and I suddenly realized how narrow it actually was. As a boy, I had thought it to be very wide. Even the street leading into Wazir Bagh seemed to have shrunk and looked more like a lane. As you grow old your perspective changes and things that looked big when you were small suddenly appear little. The flood channel at the back of Amar Singh College also looked like a narrow drain. I remember the nervous soldiers behind their sandbagged posts, dark muzzles menacingly protruding from the fortified pill boxes. Most of the residential streets were deserted and life seemed to be moving only in the shopping areas. Pandit houses, burnt to the ground, were stark memorials to the madness that had struck the valley. The bright sunshine and the clear blue sky somehow could not lift the gloom. There was a general absence of cheer and it looked like the smile had been wiped from the face of Kashmir.
We returned to the Bank and found the Chairman back in his office. He received me very warmly, enquiring about my new project that had brought me to the valley in such haste. I gave him some details and said that I would send the complete report to him if he tentatively felt that it was financially viable. Soon it was time to leave. We got into his car, and with one armed CRPF jawan in the front, made our way to his residence on Gupkar Road, just below the hill of Shankaracharya, reputed to have been named after the great Saivite saint, who in his short life, had visited Kashmir and had been bested in a religious debate by a local lady of great learning. I was not surprised to see the sandbagged entrance to the house with CRPF jawans guarding it from all sides, protected like a small fortress. As it was still early in the evening – summer days in Srinagar are long – and suspecting that my visit had more to do with a nostalgia trip than with a business proposal, my host offered to send me with his car and security guard to visit the nearby Pari Mahal (the palace of fairies), and the great Mughal garden on the Dal, built around that perennial spring, the Cheshma Shahi. The DGM and the PRO were to accompany me. There was hardly any traffic on the road along the Dal Lake, known as the Boulevard, and we passed the familiar landmarks of Gagribal, Nehru Park, the Palace Hotel, all full of memories for me, until we reached the turning that drives up to Cheshma Shahi, and further to Pari Mahal. The Cheshma Shahi with its beautifully laid out Mughal garden, is one of the most graceful gardens of Srinagar. One has to climb up a flight of steps to reach the main entrance to the garden, and once inside, one’s senses are assailed by beauty all around. The manicured lawns, the beautiful flower beds, and the gently gurgling and flowing stream from the Imperial Spring, the waters of which have really no compare on this earth, all cast their magic spell on you. You can stuff yourself with the richest meal possible, but one drink from this spring and it would all be gone; fully digested! In a trice you would be ready for another meal.
With no tourists in the valley, the gardens were totally deserted, but for a few security men. The lawns were looking immaculate and pristine, the flower beds in full bloom. There was no one to walk on the green grass, or to wonder at the beauty of the magnificent blooms gently tossing their heads in the summer breeze. The Dal Lake, in the distance, was looking like a placid sheet of glass, though one could see the overgrown weeds under the clear waters. The island of Char Chinar, the hump-backed bridge, locally known as Oont (Camel) Kadal, and the Srinagar Fort in the distance, could all be clearly seen against the blue skies. Kashmir looked bedecked like a bride waiting for the groom. Only she didn’t know that the wedding had been called off!
Suddenly my companions asked me if I would like to pay a visit to a temple that was located on the side of the hill on which the garden was situated. It was on the road that leads up to Pari Mahal. Naturally, I said I would be very pleased to see it. We descended the stairs and there in front of me was an arched gate leading into the temple. There was a sign by the gate which declared that this particular temple was dedicated – of all the crores of deities in the Hindu pantheon – to Alakheshwari Devi (also known as Roop Bhawani). I could not have been more surprised. I had never known about this shrine, although I must have come to Cheshma Shahi hundreds of times before. Here I was, deprived by militancy to visit the Devi’s shrine in Vaskur, and resigned to leaving the valley on the next day without fulfilling this wish. But miraculously she had drawn me to another shrine of which I was not even aware! I went into the premises accompanied by my two escorts. The shrine itself was a small, modest structure, hardly 6 ft x 6 ft, located in the middle of a walled garden. There was a picture of Roop Bhawani, surrounded by prints of popular deities like Rama, Krishna, Siva, Hanuman, and a few others. These, apparently, had been placed there by the jawans of the defense forces, who were probably the only ones coming there for finding some peace and solace. There was a shloka from the Bhagvad Gita written on the entrance to the small shrine, which the DGM read out for me. I already knew that he was studying the Hindi script and the Hindu scriptures for personal edification. I am not very adept at praying, and hardly know any prayers from the Vedas and the Upanishads. I stood before the shrine for a couple of minutes, thanking Bhawani for bringing me to her and thereby fulfilling my desire to visit her in Vaskur.
There was a gentle stream flowing though the garden. I am not sure if the waters are from the same source as the Cheshma Shahi. A small cottage rested in one corner, probably the abode of the priest assigned to this place. However, on this day, there was another surprise for me. The cottage was occupied by a young white man, in his forties, who came out to greet us. He was wearing a white kurta and pyjamas, and looked very much at home in the surroundings. He invited us into the cottage. On enquiry I found that his name was Michael, and that he was from England. He had come to India as a young hippy, in search of enlightenment and nirvana. Traveling through the length and breadth of India and Nepal in search of truth, he had finally come upon this deserted place. Finding that there was no one to take care of this little shrine, he decided to settle down, and had been living there for a few years. Apparently, he was not disturbed by the security and administrative authorities, and was allowed to live in the little cottage and take care of the shrine. He asked me my name and immediately said that I had come to my family deity’s temple. He was fully conversant with the legend of Roop Bhawani and had been to ManiGam (one of the villages where she had resided for some years). Michael offered to make some Kahwa (green tea) for us, and promptly proceeded to boil some water over a stove. We sat there, listening to his fascinating tale of self-discovery, wondering at the mysteries of existence. While we were sipping the tea, there were two more visitors. One was a Pandit school master who came with his young son on a scooter. He was a teacher at the Biscoe School, which was the first school I had attended as a five year old. He had not migrated from the valley during the exodus, and had decided to stay back. He was a regular visitor to the shrine and enjoyed the company of the young Englishman. I am sure he must have contributed a great deal to Michael’s knowledge of local lore and legend. The second gentleman was a sitting judge of the state High Court, who liked to take an evening walk up to Pari Mahal, and on the way back would stop at the shrine to meet Michael and exchange views with him. He was very disappointed to learn that I would be staying in the valley for that night only. He would have been pleased to invite me to his home for a meal.
It was time to leave. After another obeisance at the shrine I went to say good bye to Michael. He had one more surprise for me. From a trunk he pulled out a packet containing some dry green leaves. He told me it was Woppal Haak, a green leaf grown in the valley, and usually cooked after being dried in the sun, with moong dal. The leaf is a little bitter to taste and not commonly prepared in Kashmiri kitchens. The vegetable, apparently, was a favorite of Roop Bhawani, and Michael obviously knew about it. He even knew how it was traditionally cooked and made me write the recipe. I took the packet, convinced that Bhawani had arranged, in her own way, to bring me to her, and to send me back with what I can only refer to as “holy prashad”. The visit was over. The magic spell had ended. The sun was dipping into the lake and it was time to return to the reality of the fortress on Gupkar Road.
After bidding good night to my companions of the evening, I joined the CMD at his house. He was living alone as his wife chose to stay in safer environments in Jammu. He had a manservant who cooked his meals and generally looked after the upkeep of the house. We were later joined by the Chief Secretary of the state, who had come for a chat with the Chairman of the Bank, and stayed to join us for dinner. I was comfortably lodged in an upstairs guest room, and soon fell into a satisfied, dreamless sleep.
Morning brought another promise of a gloriously sunny day. Looking from my window I saw my host playing badminton with a few members of his security detail, inside the fortified garden of his house. There was no question of him going out for a morning walk, and this was his way of keeping himself fit. We had breakfast, and he surprised me by making parathas himself. There were some calls from politically connected people demanding favors for their relatives, but I found him quite firm in dealing with these demands. At nine we left for his office, bid a hasty good bye to my friends who had spent the whole afternoon and evening with me. The Chairman’s car dropped me at the Srinagar Airport, where the security drill began from almost a kilometer before the entrance to the building. I was personally frisked. My bags were opened and checked; the car was inspected inside and outside; travel document examined closely, and only then was the car allowed to proceed. There was another security drill after checking in.
Twenty-four hours after I had touched down on the land of my ancestors, I was airborne, this time not sure when I would have that privilege again. Much had been lost since my last visit, for two days, in August 1985, when I had gone to the valley with a German business client. We had then stayed at the Centaur Lakeview Hotel, which, I thought, was one of the finest hotels in the world. We traveled to Gulmarg and visited the Mughal gardens around the Dal Lake. The weather was the same as now; blue skies with stray white clouds, and the sun at its brightest. The gardens were in full bloom, honey bees busily collecting nectar and spreading the pollen around. Agha Shahid Ali had not yet written the words: “In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflections”, but that was the general feeling. How everything had changed in the intervening years! Perhaps there is no better way to describe the anguish of the times than in the words of the late poet:
“…..From Zero Bridge
A shadow chased by searchlights is running
Away to find its body. On the edge
Of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,
It shrinks almost into nothing, ….”
“……Kashmir is burning:
By that dazzling light
We see men removing statues from temples.
We beg them, “Who will protect us if you leave?”
“…They make a desolation and call it peace.
Who is the guardian tonight of the Gates of Paradise?”
And, in his finest and most heartfelt cry, called “The Country without a Post Office” he laments:
“His fingerprints cancel blank stamps
In that archive for letters with doomed
Addresses, each house buried or empty.
Empty? Because so many fled, ran away,
And became refugees there, in the plains,
Where they must now will a final dewfall
To turn the mountains to glass.”….
“Everything is finished, nothing remains.”….
Clutching my little parcel of woppal haak, I left the valley. I asked the senior members of my family if they had known of the existence of the shrine near Cheshma Shahi. No one had heard of it. My older sister went to Kashmir the following year. She made it a point to visit the shrine and, to her surprise, she found Michael in the little cottage. Alakheshwari, however, has not contrived to recall me to her abode. Perhaps her fondness for the bitter leaf is a reminder that under the pristine and unparalleled beauty of Kashmir there is much that is unpleasant. Kashmir continues to burn, and the petty politicians are too busy in their little games of intrigue to either feel the heat or see the rising hatred for them. I do not know if Michael continues to live in the little cottage and if the Pandit school master and his son have outlived their belief in their safety. The only consolation is in the experience of Swami Vivekananda who, distressed at the sight of destroyed temples and images of Hindu deities, asked the Goddess in Khir Bhawani how she had permitted the invader to wreak such havoc. The Goddess appeared to him in a dream and asked: “What does it matter if the invader destroys my temples and images? Tell me, do you protect me, or do I protect you?” The great apostle of non-dualistic Advaita was instantly cheered by this admonition, and happily went his way. I try to find solace in his words, but I am not as detached as the great saint, and cannot help but ask, “if there is a Paradise on Earth, where is it, where is it, where is it?”