By Sohini Ghosh:
“Lao madam, photo khinch ke deta hu”(Give it to me ,madam, I will click you a photo). I tepidly hand over my camera to the boy aware of the fact that perhaps, in all probability, he wouldn’t know many of those dials that adorn its body. I show him the one to be pressed to click photos and he enthusiastically observes, wears the sling, and with the confidence of a pro photographer, starts clicking. Once the horse is satisfied with lapping the cool water from a stream, we get going on the rather tumultuous path as he skips from one rock to another with exuberance, characteristic of those teen years.
Rather amused, I ask, “How old are you?”
“13 year old madam”
“Don’t you go to school?”
“No madam, I have to earn. I left school when I was 10. I have been doing this since. I am the only earning member in my family.”
“What about the rest?”
“My father broke his back while climbing a walnut tree at one of the orchards. He can’t move since then. My mother has been long gone. I have two sisters, one is married”
“Is this what you do throughout the year?”
“No madam, just during the tourist season. This lasts for 4-6 months. Once that is over i go back to my village.”
“How much do you earn doing this, tending to these horses?”
“INR 1000 a month. Rest whatever we earn in tips from the tourist. We are honest people. We don’t cheat. We tend to these horses. We feed them, we care for them. They are one of us. Tarzan (the name of the horse to avoid all doubt and confusion) here loves chickpeas.”
This 13 year old boy was one of the horse-tenders. These are young, able bodied men or boys employed by horse owners in this haven for tourists – Kashmir. Their job profile? To tend to these horses and tourists as they travel for miles through routes where no vehicles can pass, on horse-back, horses being a major and often the sole mode of transportation. The tourists ride on horseback while these horse tenders walk the whole way – a mighty tough job if you must know and you might as well agree with if you have been to Kashmir and further, to Pahalgam. The horse owners can go on to earn up to lakhs of rupees per month when the tourist influx is at its peak. The owners often form a union, with each horse owner having up to 7-10 horses on an average. The mathematics of this disparity is rather easy to calculate.
Is the disparity that blatant and conspicuous? Yes indeed. But as I could observe from the usual demeanor of these boys, it has been taken for granted now, courtesy centuries of feudal practice and the deep roots of conformation that is often part and parcel of such immense disparity. Albeit there are those frequent insurrections that arise as fleeting moments while being synchronous to exercising basic democratic rights, but those moments oft don’t see the light of the day.
However, as strange as it may seem (it did to me for the first time), the general perception of Kashmir being unsafe and hostile is perhaps misplaced if I am to go by the testimony of the locals. Often friendly and with a collective motive of dispelling this myth, most of the locals, especially the drivers, are precociously politically and socially well informed.
“The Abdullah family has taken our Kashmir to dogs. What does he (Omar Abdullah) care, he can always relax on his acres and millions worth of properties. It is us who are being short sold. It is our tax money and yet they loot us every day, everywhere. This has been the worst government in decades. There is no chance the people of Kashmir would re-elect him. There is much dissent. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed should have been in power. He changed the topography of politics. He brought in what is called good governance. He opened our eyes to development. Khair ab ache din aagaye hai modi sahib ki. Lagta hai ab Kashmir ka bhala hi hoga (Well, good days have arrived now with f Modi. I guess Kashmir is looking at better days now). Mehbooba (Mufti-Sayeed) has done her part too. Omar Abdullah being of our own state would dissuade tourists to travel to Pahalgam with false tales of violence just so that he can put the hotels out of business here while his flourishes at Srinagar, but that was not to happen. Once Mehbooba Madam saw a sign warning tourists from visiting Pahalgam. She got down from her car, flung that sign board with her own hands and put up an open challenge to question her actions. No one dared. Because they knew she was right. We are peaceful people. What happens on the borders stay there. But the slandering in the news draw in the whole Kashmir in this dispute.” This passionate discourse by my driver from Pahalgam to Srinagar made me realize how politically opinionated he was. He ranted further with specific statistics with respect to the Elections 2014 – seats won, attendance in polling booths, candidates of different constituencies, their asset declaration, their backgrounds, current trends and parties in favour in Kashmir. For all I know, most of my fellow citizensÂ who had voted couldn’t even name the various party candidates from their constituency or the constituency from where they would be voting. Although I couldn’t agree with his views which often bordered on the edge of biased alliance preferences, from what I could conclude, but what I couldn’t resist was listening in awe to such opinions of a person belonging to a non-communist majority state.
From my own observations, I have never felt people to be as warm, friendly and welcoming minus religious and social prejudices that Kashmir has often been the centre of the storm for. And that can’t be simply accredited to generic tourist hospitality. It goes beyond that. The picture that is often painted with irresponsibility is very different from what one would witness on any normal uneventful day. It may be too early to comment or too rash a conclusion to voice on my part but then we rarely get a glimpse of the other side of the fence unless we cross the fence ourselves. A place where they are dealing with every other issue the rest of the nation is, regardless of it being a war zone. A place trying to exorcise itselfÂ from the demons of the past, present and perhaps future that traps them and would continue to do so. A specific article 370 would perhaps not mean much to these common people but it would to the various lobbies that the parties co-exist with. It is a gamut of vested interests that has brought such infamy to this state.
Lawlessness, terrorism and border disputes have made toÂ become rather synonymous with this place. It obliterates the hard yet simple lives they lead, often letting the world on a rather lopsided picture – a myth that needs to disintegrate sooner than later.