As the sound from a machine gun rattled in the distance, I was sitting under a tin roof with an afghani. There was hot 'Chai' brewing from a vessel that looked like it had seen and been in the midst of a few dirty wars. "This happens all the time", he quipped between his breath while focussing on the boiling liquid. All the time? I thought to myself before lighting a cigarette. How do they manage? How do they lead a normal life with so much terror around them? I am from the south. A region that had always been a safe zone in the history of India. The region that had not seen any major war, communal riots, terror attacks, nothing. Maybe the region was not worth it, maybe the people were far too evolved right from the beginning, maybe they just couldn't care less, or maybe they cared a lot.
"Your chai", the afghani man offered me a cup with a lot of stains. Was it blood? I just felt I was overreacting and let it be. I smiled and took the cup from the man and took a sip. The tea was sweet. Like how a tea is supposed to taste. Like how all teas taste.
Walking along the lake, I couldn't but stop and think about all the smiling faces that I had been seeing from the time I stepped foot in this land. For a place that has seen so much terror, so much violence and lots of blood and gore, it was the most beautiful place I had ever been to. The sun was shining bright above my head. It was 7 in the evening and it was still very bright. The lake was filled with colorful 'Shikaras' - these boats where tourists and locals alike take time to just sit back, relax and enjoy the beautiful landscape and rejoice. 'Indian Palace. Dekho magar piyar say. with music', read a sign. It caught my eye. I moved with my backpack in tow and the camera hanging from my neck. That's where I met Sajid Hussain. Old man, wise man, man who knew 8 languages. There was more chai, more stories and more smiles.
Gulam hassan was a man who always had a lot to say. Always. He was a cabbie. Two daughters and three sons. He would proudly say about his family. He was a real man according to him. A real man is one who doesn't shy away from bullets, from fights, from problems and has a lot of kids. As he starts to talk, he can't stop from showing off his bullet wounds on his legs. Militant attack, he said lighting a cigarette that he borrowed from me. With his cell phone constantly ringing and him constantly smoking, it was a little crazy to see the car just move. There is no concept of road sense in that land. I don't think they even think such a concept exists or is needed. People honk all the time, two wheelers always had three or more people on them. No helmets, no seatbelts, no signals, no accidents. I was certain I would have been killed. But am alive to narrate my tale.
Ak Daleel Loolekh. A story of love. That was the name of the kashmiri movie directed by this person whom I met next. Aarshad was a very interesting person. Calm, composed and measured in his conversation, but gets very emotional when he gets talking about his land, about India and Pakistan. In his words, "I was 14 when on one day after a militant attack, I attended 20 funerals in one day. Friends who played football with me, neighbors, schoolmates, family. I woke up the next day feeling like a 44 yr old and not a 14 yr old. My life has changed since".
In addition to the smiles, the madness on the roads, the breathtaking landscapes and the unbelievable hospitality there was also another thing that was there in abundance. Army - RAF personnels with machine guns and their bullet proof vests. They were all over the place. Tankers, bunkers, wired fences crop out of nowhere in the city. Apparently there is one guard for every 11 people in that land. That is some serious security. People are not bothered by their presence. They are not bothered by the movement of the locals, there is so much harmony in the chaos that I witnessed there.
Smiles, warmth, splendid scenery, chaos, gorgeous women, cold security guards, talkative cab drivers, friendly boatmen, great room service, a house boat called Pink Floyd, mouth watering kashmiri food, friendly soccer matches, interesting conversations, wild imaginations, lots of local talent, annoying clients, solitude, harmony, loneliness, crowds,fantastic poetry, crazy journalists, long walks, late nights, lovely lakes, green trees, love and more love.
Every single person who I met in the one week that I was there, all had a story behind their life, behind who they are now, who they were then and who they want to be from now on.
That was Srinagar for me.