Driving to Srinagar is an exhilarating experience. Provided you are ready to face the minor hardships Indian road-trips impose upon you. To enter the valley of Kashmir one has to scale the rugged mountains which encircle the valley from all sides. The Banihal pass is an engineering marvel built by the British. It is a long tunnel and unlike the modern day tunnels on Mumbai-Pune expressway which are spacious and well lit, this one makes you feel claustrophobic. As you reach the end of the tunnel, the eyes which have quickly accustomed to the long drive through the darkness suddenly find the light at the end of the tunnel bright and dazzling. In a metaphorical way I can say the light is divine as it ushers you in the valley – the paradise on earth.
Within minutes we scale down the mountains are speeding along the plains of Kashmir. Vast rice fields lie on either side of the highway 1A. Their expanse is checked by the mountains on the horizon. Crowned with snow caps, they stand as nature’s sentinels guarding the valley.
As evening approached, I saw the most wonderful twilight of my life. We stopped the vehicle near a roadside village to have tea and take few pictures. Vast stretches of fields checkered with interesting patterns of greens and browns caught my eye. The village folks were sowing the fields. As twilight approached the scene became more intense – a dull bluish grey light engulfed the surrounding and there were small fires in many fields. Their smoke hung low in the air like a parasol. I took a seat on a milestone and watched for few minutes. There was something strange about this twilight – it just refused to go away and hung with me like a companion.
We entered Sringar in the night and drove through heavily barricaded streets to our hotel. At eight in the night most of the pedestrian traffic had moved to the safe confines of their homes. Sumo taxis and mini buses zipped past to their final destination before night became any darker than this twilight. Armoured carriers parked at important junctions and road arteries. Bunkers and sand bags marked the beginning and end of the lanes and streets. Soldiers peeped through tiny openings keeping a strong vigil. They looked cheerful which was a subtle hint of tranquility reigning in the valley. The amber light of the sodium street lamps fell on dusty asphalt roads occasionally lighting a taxi speeding by.
Sunrise is early and it ushers in a feeling of safety in the hearts of people of Sringar. When I came out of the hotel I was surprised to see the flurry – cars, taxis, I mean more taxis carrying tourists; bikes and minibuses filled the streets. The dust that had settled down on the roads the night previous now rose and hung imperviously as if forcing to be counted among what comprised the elements of daily life. It was a visual contrast.
The Director, producer, and self were scouting for an bungalow or a villa which would suit the character of the script. Well, there was no dearth of it. The heavily guarded city has many self contained old bungalows with kashmiri architecture and English styled villas meant as summer homes for the local elites. They are in shambles today.
Most of the houses we saw were locked and brooded in darkness. Creepers, unchecked, made their way up the walls. Broken window panes provided access to pigeons as they flitted in and out with ease. The garden unkempt as tall grass concealed the pretty roses.
Over a period of week we saw many such houses in Srinagar. Each house that we saw was as once majestic as the other. Their owners had either moved to Delhi and waited for the militancy to die down before returning to valley, or completely lost hope – migrated lock, stock and barrel to US or Canada.
In most cases the caretakers assured us that they foresee no problem in a film crew coming for a shoot and put the director and producer through to their owner by phone. Initially, it would look very hunky dory but within a few days the stance would change and our request would not be entertained any further. Reasons cited for refusal were many. What I perceived was their fear of attracting militancy on their doorstep.
To be continued -