A lot has happened in the past 30 years ever since my brother and I first visited Srinagar as tourists with our parents. Education, work and marriage took us to different corners of the globe. We now have two children each – mine have grown up in India, while his were born and raised in the US.
Kashmir itself has changed. The insurgency broke out, thousands died, many thousands more disappeared, an elected government was dismissed, an underground militant struggle became a mass movement, the Indian Army took over, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act was clamped on the Valley, a war was fought with Pakistan, and border skirmishes became everyday news.
Travelling to Kashmir for a holiday seemed out of the question.
But the tourists are gradually coming back again, lured by the breathtaking sights and the crisp Himalayan mountain air, drawn to the history and culture of India’s northernmost state. For me, it was a teachable moment. I could never forget a question my younger daughter had asked when she was 11 and had first learnt the concept of democracy in school: “So, is all of India a democracy?” she’d asked, innocently.
My husband and I had looked at one another, unable to reply with a truthful “yes”. A visit to Kashmir was an opportunity to show these kids how all of India is not equally free, and how privileged we are in metro cities compared with our countrymen in other parts of India.
The flight from Delhi to Srinagar was short and pleasant. On the drive from the airport to our hotel, our mini-bus driver Javed cheerfully updated us about the weather (mostly cold and cloudy, with sub-zero temperatures) and pointed out the various landmarks on the way.
Entering the temperature-controlled confines of the Vivanta by Taj was a relief of huge proportions, as the chill outside had started to sink into the bones. The welcome kehwa was truly welcome.
Over the next three days, our adjacent rooms were our haven of warmth and comfort, though the fog obliterated our view of Dal Lake despite our strategic position atop a hillside. The kids piled into one another’s beds, took selfies and Snapchatted away, while the adults bonded after years in person instead of Skype.
Missing my husband who was away researching a book, I did yoga with my 10-year-old niece instead – which she said she’d been taught at her gymnastics class in California – while my brother ran around ensuring his five-year-old wore socks at all times, my dad watched Bigg Boss, my mother forwarded WhatsApp messages, and my grown daughters huddled together staring into their phones, bursting into spontaneous giggles from time to time.
But we didn’t just stay in the hotel, though the food was great, the views fantastic and the central heating tempted us to do so. We also took a shikara ride, shivering in the cold, sharing a cup of hot tea and smiling for a photographer who had no other customers but us. We had a fab meal at the famous Ahdoos after visiting all the key gardens of Srinagar – there were no flowers, not even the famous Kashmir roses, but the trees preened in shades of yellow, green and auburn.
We drove up to Gulmarg, where most of us saw fresh snow for the first time in our lives, and where we took the cable car – called the gondola – up to a viewing point to make snowballs and snow angels. We had more kehwa, bought pashminas and walnuts, and posed in Kashmiri clothes. In short, we did everything we had done 30 years ago.
But the difference was painfully palpable: soldiers at every few feet in Srinagar, convoys of dozens of army trucks blocking traffic in the outskirts of the city as they moved from one sensitive location to another. “All the stone-pelting happens in south Kashmir,” Javed told us regretfully, “but we here in Srinagar are labelled the bad guys.” There were only a handful of tourists.
At the top of the mountain in Gulmarg, the wrinkly old gondola operator asked my daughter, “So what do you think of Kashmir?” “It’s beautiful,” she replied, dazed by the views and the pristine snow. “When you go back to your hometown, please tell your friends we are normal people,” he said with a sad smile. She gave me a forlorn look.
There are some things you wish you didn’t have to teach your children.