Trying to leave Kashmir during curfew, I get more than I bargained for.
I had been fruitlessly trying to flee the crackdown in Jammu & Kashmir for over three days and I now found myself sharing a bunk on the Jaipur "superfast" express with two of the very paramilitary troops I had been wearily avoiding just 48 hours earlier. To be fair, the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troops were more than friendly to me; they had offered me a spot on their bench when they saw that I had been uncomfortably balancing half of my torso on the the luggage rack, trying to lay down for five hours or so. When they found out that I had only been in India for a couple of weeks, they refused to even let me pay for my masala chips. Of course, I didn't once dare bring up the fact that I had been interviewing stone-pelting youth in Kashmir, or even mention that I was staying with a Muslim family that had been personally targeted by their colleagues during the time I was there.
Just two days prior to my 20 hour foray into the great Indian train mob of third class, I was also jammed into a vehicle. This time, however, it was a jeep with nine other grown men (and their luggage) trying to sneak out of Srinagar and into Jammu -- a city that was under "indefinitely imposed curfew." After seven hours of unnerving mountainside roads, we were caught and the Indian military forced us to turn back. We tried two other possible routes, but all were blocked off with barbwire, and uniformed soldiers armed with assault rifles and thick mustaches.
Heading back fast in the direction we came, we were forced to come to an abrupt stop as we veered around a bend and saw dozens of cars pulled over and a massive crowd blocking traffic.
It was a strange sight: hundreds of people all facing the same direction, with curious, excited, and a few frantic looks on their faces. I hate to admit it, but the scene instantly reminded me of that cheesy 90's film, "Independence Day", where the alien mothership blocks out the sun and everyone is gawking up at the sky -- some more enraptured than others.
Kashmiri and Urdu exchanges fired off in the car, as the men seemed to be debating what was going on and how to handle the situation. No one explained anything to me, but I felt no need to intercede. A couple of guys got out and walked into the crowd to explore the commotion. I opened the back door and stood on the bumper, trying to get a bird's eye view. It was hard to make out anything in the crowd. There was yelling, booing, and the cluck of a giddy crowd.
And then the stampede. I heard tires screech and then saw the mob running at full speed towards our jeep. I was still standing on the bumper with the backdoor wide open when we started speeding off in the direction we came and quickly pulled over to park about one hundred meters down the road. Soon after, a distinctly olive colored, clunky, reinforced military vehicle drove past us and disappeared behind the winding road. Our driver started cracking up laughing. I had originally thought it was a charge of bulls -- oxen, goats, and cows were always getting in the middle of the road and often prevented the steady flow of traffic. Just a couple of minutes earlier I had blurted out my uneducated guess: "Bulls?!"
No one in the car answered me, but I figured it had more to do with the language barrier than with a dismissal of the ignorant American. "People!", the driver cackled when he saw the unmistakable Indian military van race past our parked car. "Stone-pelting! Mountain youths!" Everyone in the car found this quite amusing.
"Tourists are a people very much protected here," said one of the Kashmiris in a matter-of-fact way. "They don't care about Kashmiri lives, but they need to protect the tourists."
When we drove back to the crowd, there was cheering, shrieking, and the frantic faces were no more. With an air of relief, we picked up our lost members, and made our way back to Srinagar on the dubious roads. Our party of three jeeps stopped twice to fix the smoky engine of one, and once for the flat-tire of another. At first it was frustrating; packed in the back like sardines, my left leg had been numb half of the day and I was starting to get that tingling feeling in the other. But then I realized this was how they kept each other safe, traveling with three cars at a time so that there was always backup. On the way, we saw two white jeeps -- just like the ones we were in -- turned over with the windows completely shattered out. One of the Kashmiris must have seen my horrified face when he leaned in to reassure me, "Those have been there all summer. They're -- how do you say? -- mementos, so to remind people to drive safe!" Needles to say, there isn't a single person in Kashmir that I saw wearing a seat-belt. Not even "traffic police."
We were only about an hour away from getting back to the summer capital when, once more, another checkpoint forced us to take an almost two hour long detour. A couple of J&K police officers circled the jeep, peered through the windows, looked at me, and then spotted the three Indian tourists sitting on the middle bench. One shook his head, said something in Urdu, and then started arguing with the driver. I later found out that while the soldiers thought I was Kashmiri, they recognized the dark complexion and less Aryan features of the Dravidian tourists, and therefore rerouted us in order to keep them protected. "Tourists are a people very much protected here," said one of the Kashmiris in a matter-of-fact way. "They don't care about Kashmiri lives, but they need to protect the tourists." What he meant was that tourism is the backbone of the Kashmiri economy. When the media reports on a tourist getting hurt in Kashmir, business is immediately anesthetized and everybody suffers as a result.
We rearranged ourselves so as to be less conspicuous, including hiding the Indian tourists in the back of the jeep with the luggage, and moving me and the Kashmiris to the front and window seats. I could finally feel the lower half of my body again.
On this second detour, we passed beautiful open fields of apple, peach, and cherry trees. I had grown accustomed to seeing Costco-sized GMO fruits and I found the crops oddly picturesque, in a dainty and charming way. It all seemed so serene and I felt like I could have been looking at an image from centuries ago. There was no evidence of mechanization anywhere. No tractors or irrigation systems, just ox-drawn plows and baskets of silage. Dead crows on sharp sticks were used as scarecrows and poked up from the tops of the trees.
At one point, it became evident that we were lost, so we pulled over when we saw a group of old farmers sitting down and drinking chai by the side of the road. Our driver got out to ask for directions and chat with the dignified peasants, who I imagined had been subsisting off of that land for at least threefold my lifetime. Soon after, a nearly toothless old man came to my window with a giant hemp bag. "As-salamu alaykum," I said, greeting him with what I'm sure was a terrible accent. "Wa alaykumu s-salam," he replied, his wrinkled smile revealing no more than four whittled down front teeth. He dug deep in his bag and proceeded to drop three handfuls of greenish fruits that I didn't recognize in my lap. "Fresh almonds," the driver said.
I spotted graffiti painted on a brick wall that I hadn't seen earlier that morning: "Stop innocent killings!"
Peeling back the green outer hull, cracking through the inedible middle shell, and biting into the juicy white almond in the middle was one of the most immediately rewarding experiences I've ever had. It was heaven. It tasted nothing like the almonds I knew, dry and almost cardboard in their texture. As if to symbolically encapsulate the hidden blessings of that day's ordeal, the milky drupe suddenly changed my perspective on the day. I was hungry and tired. Now, intoxicated by almonds and generosity, I was inexplicably happy and grateful. Rejuvenated, I pondered why it was that all my life I'd noticed that the less people have, the more generous they tend to be. "This is the real Kashmir," the proud Kashmiri next to me said with a beaming smile.
Thirteen hours later, we were back where we started. I spotted graffiti painted on a brick wall that I hadn't seen earlier that morning: "Stop innocent killings!" A reminder bringing me back from paradise and down to earth. Because of the inescapable curfew, the only way out of the city was by plane. The family I was staying with was gracious enough to take me in until I could get a ticket. They knew I was taking a risk leaving earlier that day and that I payed double the normal cost for the jeep ride (about $17 instead of $8.50 USD) with no guarantees.
Two days later, as I trudged through the morning monsoon rain to a tuk-tuk, then a bus, then a plane, and then a train, I thought a lot about this family. Their story was the typical Kashmiri's: ten people and three generations under one humble tin roof, all with tremendous love for one another. Yet none with any desire for the Indian military or paramilitaries, nor the militant separatists, to occupy their lives anymore.
And then -- for reasons I didn't at first understand -- I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. It started when I was making my way through the tightest security (in the smallest airport I'd ever been to) in all my travels. This is saying a lot, because I've actually had a long and tumultuous history of being troubled at airports. The tiny Srinagar airport security included: 6 security checkpoints, 5 pat-downs, 4 full-body metal detectors, 3 baggage X-ray points, and 2 by-hand complete unpacking and repacking bag checks. It took two and a half hours to get through the whole security process. Of course all three layers of enforcement, that is, local police, paramilitary, and Indian military troops were all present and taking part in the exercise.
As far as this family was concerned, it was the same old story. It wasn't that they didn't mind that for the last five years their SMS had been disabled. [...] It's just that they had grown to anticipate this archaic reversal into Orwellian territory.
I somehow felt complicit in all this. Government imposed curfews, self-imposed civic solidarity shutdowns, and oppressive crackdowns by authorities were nothing more than a nuisance to me. All they did to me was delay my open-ended travel plans. Throughout all of my alleged tribulations, I always had the option to leave -- just not exactly when and how I wanted to. Yet to the family I had grown close to, and to all other Kashmiris, this was a part of their daily life. Sometimes you just can't go out without barbwire blocking the road, and police, military, and paramilitary troops arresting or beating you. Sometimes you just can't go to the bazaar to buy food for several days, even if you're all out. Sometimes the kids just aren't going to go to school that week, even though it's not a holiday. How was this a democracy?
As far as this family was concerned, it was the same old story. It wasn't that they didn't mind that for the last five years their SMS had been disabled. Or even that their mobile phone Internet access, which is the sole web connection for nearly all Kashmiris, was regularly shutdown. It wasn't that they weren't enraged at the fact that local evening news -- in the past, substantive reporting on oppressive government tactics and violent enforcement -- was constantly blacked out and insultingly replaced with superfluous Bollywood movies. It's just that they had grown to anticipate this archaic reversal into Orwellian territory.
And why should I expect them to act any differently? They had given up on the concept of Azadi, or freedom, a long time ago. They were average Kashmiris, not militants or even politically minded, but in the last two decades, they had been shot, beat, and humiliated. They were tired of this game. All they wanted was to go about living their lives in peace. Together, they had hundreds of years of experience in Kashmir. They had seen it all.
For them, this was all just so predictable. No big deal. It was as predictable as the next morning's chai and homemade chapati. As predictable as the smell of cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom in the clean mountain air. It was as predictable as the call to Fajr, the dawn prayer echoing from the top of mosque minarets and peeling back the darkness from the Vale of Kashmir.