Monday, October 20, 2008

The hills are singing

[Text and images by Sameer]

Kingfisher is India’s most flamboyant airlines. Vijay Maliya, the Kingfisher boss is somewhat like the Virgin boss Richard Branson. Both are colorful, extravagant and have a huge sense of splash. Oflate I’ve started traveling business class in Kingfisher. Not because I feel like to splurge but owing to some random-lucky-selection. Three times -- out of the three times -- that I flew by Maliya’s red bird in recent months, my economy class ticket has been upgraded to business. Frankly I am liking all the pampering but I still fail to understand the largess.

Relaxing on a business class king-size seat in the kingfisher’s belly, reading Aravind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ [The Booker boy’s book] and taking on small sips of Diet Coke, I looked out on the majestic Hindukush mountain chain, blanketing Kashmir from rest of the world. Insulating and isolating it. Every time I fly to Kashmir the sight of these lofty peaks makes something shift in me. I feel my nostalgia lifting slowly. The feeling is gemütlich. That is German for describing a blend of homeliness, coziness and comfort.

[ Upgrading the sole airport at Srinagar]

Construction is going on full throttle at the Srinagar airport, much like the Delhi airport. America may be facing financial meltdown, which the pundits say, may now well limp into the next year, but India has no dearth of development funds. Work -- to make India look like a step-brother of China, by 2010 -- is continuing like crazy. A cold but gentle breeze was blowing in Srinagar. The runway was, like always mobbed by security chaps -- Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri [easily identified by the color of their cheeks]. Everyone wore woolens. An hour before -- at New Delhi, it was humid as hell’s fifth level. No wonder, I doodled in my head, they so love the valley.

But the valley is not about fabulous climate and hissing hills. A few kilometers in Suhail’s zippy i-10, I experienced Kashmir’s naked as a jaybird hostility. Boys, as young as 16 were playing ding dong battles with the police, who chased them with bamboo sticks. Occasionally the cops fired tear gas canisters at the protestors. I later realized it was a Friday afternoon and such stone-pelting is part of an organized protest nowadays. A few kilometers ahead, in Lal Chowk [Red square -- Srinagar’s CP], a few hundred lawyers marched, raising slogans. ‘What’s this for?’ I asked Suhail. ‘Keeps happening all the time,’ came a prompt reply. Whatever it is -- frenzy, Azadi, nuttiness -- is not over yet.

[Lawyers protest in Lal Chowk]

There are a myriad vested interests operating in this small dell at any given point in time. Some trade in gold, others in land and yet others in Azadi. Two types of people exist. One, who are ever-willing to be exploited and consequently the first ones to fall to a stray bullet -- in a procession -- by a trigger-happy cop. The second types lead. They plan and organize the chaos and become richer by the day. They drink coffee in plush café’s and hold press conferences by pool-side in upscale hotels. Pity, they are ever willing to exploit and consequently fear no cop. Infact the cops protect them.

Talking of coffee, Suhail and me managed to drive past the hollering advocates, stone pelting teens [most of whom, I am told belong to the exploited class] into the confines of the Broadway café’ -- nonchalantly -- called Coffea Arabica [Coffee of Ethiopia and Yemen, less on caffeine]. NDTV’s local bearded correspondent was readying himself by the hotel porch for his two bytes in his punch-drunk accent. The coffee was well-blended but they give no spoons to stir the sugar [sugar-free in my case]. Instead you blend it with ice-cream sticks. The ambience is intimate and frequented by the well to do kinds. On my way out, I was struck by the instruction card on the pool. No lifeguards. Who needs a lifeguard, I worked a silly smile, when life’s so darn cheap, in Kashmir.

[Coffea Arabica -- like any 'cool' cafe in Delhi]

[They use a lot of wood in Kashmir, Coffea Arabica]

[Instruction board -- No life Guards. Thanks]

[Pool side: Fav venue for press conferences]

[Coming up: On screwing all spellings, corrupt old men and the oddity - that is Kashmir]