I didn’t google much about the Kashmir unrest before deciding to visit the valley. I think, had I given a second thought, I would have stepped back. But somehow that fear wasn’t there, and now I feel blessed that this trip happened to me. I travelled there with my mom, even after consistent advice against the idea from friends and relatives. “It is quite unsafe to travel in the valley. The situation is getting worse day by day,” most would say. Amidst all the chaos, suggestions, requests and of course the news headlines flashing on the TV, we left for the valley.
I travel to and explore different places, and I accept with open arms what these places have to offer. In this case, I never imagined that the land which is known for its cosmic beauty, would offer something else which would captivate me forever.
I am an avid reader in general, and I have read a lot about Kashmir in particular. And all that I read, made me have my own perception of Kashmir – artificial, emotion driven, and media-fed. Perhaps this is why the moment we landed, I had a feeling as if I am breathing a strange air. As if it was not mine entirely. All those images, stories fed to my mind for all these years were playing their part – distorting the reality.
As per the itinerary, it was planned that we would stay with a local family, very well known to one of our travel partners (my mom’s student). It was his idea to stay with a local family, so as to explore Kashmir and understand the Kashmiris better. He had kept saying throughout the journey that we would never understand them until we live among them and see their lives. Honestly, I never paid much attention to this idea, but now I am amazed by the unique experience that it gave me.
We reached the village of our host family, close to Pahalgam. Dragging our luggage, we were crossing the lanes of the village, and I was getting apprehensive about our decision to stay. A fear hidden somewhere beneath the layers of confidence was uncovering slowly in me. With my face lowered, I entered through the gate with my family. And the sudden warm reception we received – people assembled there greeting us with utmost genuineness and delight – is unforgettable. These days even our relatives and friends aren’t that pleased to find us unexpectedly at their door, and here, the welcome was overwhelming. They escorted us to the guest hall, which was certainly not like the regular modern guest rooms. And I liked every bit of it because it was showcasing the land’s own tradition and culture in its peculiar style. As soon as we received the welcome feast, more and more people came in to greet us. Their profound smiles were a testimony to the excitement and happiness they felt after finding us in their state.
I never imagined that they would find pride in hosting us. A few girls gathered around me, and they were exceptionally beautiful. They kept asking me about my city and myself. It is a different feeling when people feel inquisitive about you. I told them about me, my family, my education, and my job. I could feel their urge to do better with their lives. After a few conversations, I felt that the younger generation is interested in studying – that they are studying – but the lack of employment and proper wages in the region is frustrating and demotivating them.
Whatever had happened in the past and whatever is going on now, who is right and who is wrong, is a never-ending discussion. But the saddest part is that the lives of the people in the valley have come to a standstill. And people are struggling hard to get out of this vortex. I was amazed to find the hard work done by women over there. Studying and doing chores, simultaneously, is the routine. To add to that, they also take responsibility of their apple orchards. Educated or uneducated, everyone takes part in the farming. Their strength and commitment to hard work are simply amazing. I didn’t get the opportunity to talk to everyone in the village, but from whatever interactions I had, I could see that the young generation wanted to be a part of the employed Indian society, by being doctors, teachers, professors, engineers, etc. Parents are also pushing themselves to make the lives of their children better. I also felt the excitement among them to explain to us about their lives, their lifestyles, and their culture.
There is suffering in the valley irrespective of the religion. This war over geography is taking a toll on the lives of ordinary people. They want to live as normally as any other human being, enjoy the same rights and live as independently as others. They don’t want the bloodshed and the killings. In spite of being educated, the youth is unemployed due to lack of opportunities. This frustration makes their mind curb under other thoughts.
I spent very few days in the valley, but they were spent among the people of Kashmir, while being a part of them. And I do not recollect having seen that hostility in the eyes of the ordinary citizens, the hostility that is so often discussed on our breakfast and lunch tables. All I can recollect is the extreme love and care shown by the people around me.
The land is blessed with exceptional and endless natural beauty. Natural beauty is always a treasure for the eyes, but the warm welcome and hospitality I received are lifelong treasures for my heart.