The Richest Poor Man In The Valley Essays

The shell of a Shiva temple sits on a mountain slope in testimony, mute and evocative, of the fragmentation of the village community and of Kashmiri society.Each time I drove past the abandoned temple, and I did this twice a day, I wondered why the pain of the Pandits hasn’t yet brought redemptive actions by, and catharsis for, the majority community.

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My driver and guide, Hashim, is in his early thirties with a gentle and friendly demeanor; like most people I met in my travels.

He was, as I realised over the visit, a Hurriyat supporter with deep-seated prejudices about the Indian nation state.

The once threatened minority became an oppressive majority.

We reached the Chandigam guesthouse by late afternoon, to find that the entire place was teeming with hundreds of men waiting upon their local MLA (a minister in the Kashmir cabinet) who had at short notice commandeered the entire guesthouse.

Was this slogan, I wondered, directed as a reassurance to tourists that they have come to the right place, to the nervous army jawans seeking comfort in a hostile environment, or to the suspicious locals who find neither in their daily lives?

Life looked peaceful enough, though, as we winded our way in between sheep being herded on the tarred road by nomadic Bakarwals.Kashmir, ironically, has (mostly) kept these disruptive cultural forces of commerce and consumerism at bay only due to the extended decades of often-violent political unrest.This volatile political situation goes through phases of ‘normalcy’ and ‘militancy’, and organised tourism continues to mark time due to inadequate infrastructure outside the Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam circuits.It was late May, an idyllic rice planting time in Lolab valley; just a month before the killing of the local militant Burhan Wani – a “freedom fighter” for the Kashmiri, and a “terrorist” for the rest of India - that has sent Kashmir and India into a downward spiral out of which neither have come out of as I write this essay in January 2017.It took some thinking to go where few tourists do, but travelling to where real people live real lives was the only way to experience Kashmir and not be dependent on prejudices transferred to me by others.It came home to me, over the next week plus I spent here, that the name of this village arose from a distant memory when Kashmiri Pandit families thanked their Goddess Chandi for giving them their Gam in these stunningly beautiful, deeply forested meadows at 7,500 feet.Chandigam, now peopled only by Muslims castes (Pir, Ganai, Choupan, Dar, Lone, Mir, Khan and Sheikh) saw its last Pandit family leave at the height of militancy in 1990s.Some places, with languorous beaches and placid weather or scenic mountains and cool valleys, viscerally grab the attention of the tourist class; desultory visitors with little commitment towards the locals; or even an understanding of the light touch, quietude, listening, or observing.Tourists who consider themselves sensitive too are a part of this assault on the local culture.Hashim told me, looking away from me as if not to hurt my Indian sensibilities, how the massive metal gates (which sit on the road) were shut at 8 pm till 6 am - one just couldn't cross Zangli no matter what the cause or emergency.Another army camp ahead is Duniwari where one just had to get off and walk, and those who the army suspected could be taken in for questioning for days, even weeks.


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