A Concerned Visitor

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A British diplomat’s wife, Brigid Keenan, visited Kashmir first in the 1980s and was offered a century-old guidebook. Later she wrote one herself. On her third visit this week, Haroon Mirani meets the author known in the West more for her bestselling Diplomatic Baggage.

Brigid Keenan, the British author of Kashmir Travels in Srinagar in 2010. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

After a gap of 20 years when Brigid Keenan was about to land in Srinagar, she expected a city in shambles. Back in the eighties, she had enjoyed her Kashmir trip and was taken in awe by its beauty, but as the plane approached Srinagar airport this time, she prayed that something – at least something is spared. Her prayers didn’t go in vain.

She was happy that Kashmir was not like war-torn Afghanistan. Feeling the fresh air on her face, she said to herself, “Thank God the beauty of Kashmir is still intact,” even as she felt irked by the presence of gun-toting trooper after every ten yards.

Keenan has a long association with Kashmir. Her father was a British Brigadier General in the Indian army. She was born in India and has been listening about Kashmir right from her childhood. She first came to Kashmir in 1979 for a six weeks visit.

A journalist and writer Keenan has to her credit one of the most interesting guide books on Kashmir. “When I came to Kashmir I was appalled to see that there was no guide book on Kashmir worth reading. The latest guidebook on Kashmir which our houseboat owner showed was from 1890.”

“Later my husband asked me to fulfil this vacuum and write a book on Kashmir,” she recalls.

Thus came into being the Travels in Kashmir: A Popular History of Its People, Places and Crafts. The book was first published in 1989 and its second edition came out in 2006. Keenan relates to the book’s interesting history. “After completing the manuscript, it was hard to find a publisher,” said Keenan. “I tried everywhere but was not successful. I also sent the draft to Oxford University Press London but they too declined and I put the draft in the cupboard.”

In the meantime, her husband Alan Waddams, a diplomat, was posted to India. Without telling her, Waddams took the manuscript to Oxford University Press New Delhi, who readily agreed to publish it. After some time Oxford University Press London also contacted New Delhi office and published the book. “They didn’t know it was the same book which they had earlier rejected. It was a sort of sweet revenge for me,” said Keenan.

Keenan is awed over Kashmir’s rich heritage and feels there is an urgent need to protect it. “It needs to be preserved at any cost,” said Keenan. “When I visited here in 1979 there were many wooden bridges and magnificent old buildings, but now only one such bridge has remained.”

Keenan says that the city should be preserved for its unique architecture and it should be “preserved from high rise buildings and excess cement”.

Alan Waddams (R) and author Brigid Keenan talking to Kashmir Life in Srinagar on January 27, 2010. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Citing the example of Azerbaijan, Keenan says, “The city of Baku was also of the low-level building type. But their government allowed construction of tall buildings, which destroyed its very uniqueness. Now some quarters are repenting there.”

“If you need high rise buildings, let them be made somewhere else in a new city,” said Alan. “Thus it will save the old heritage and mitigate the new problems in a planned manner.”

Keenan, however, says the situation in Kashmir is not as bad as in other cities like Jaipur, which according to her is too much dirty and filthy.

She is also impressed with the level of awareness among Kashmiri youth about heritage. “In Jaipur most of the people are unconcerned, but in Kashmir people particularly youth are generally aware of the importance of the heritage,” said Keenan.

She wanted to help in the restoration work of MullaAkhund Shah Mosque and Pather Masjid, but was glad to find that INTACH has taken up the project.

The Waddams couple is also pained at the sorry state of Kashmir politics. In 1988, Keenan says, there were some disturbances and people were alienated, “But we never picked up the signals that a full-blown armed insurgency is going to engulf Kashmir soon.”

Alan says that the Kashmir situation has messed up in the overall picture of Islamic fundamentalism. “Actually the west is more concerned about the Islamic extremism and Kashmir is also bracketed in the same category, so not much of concern,” said Alan. “Even if I have been seeing Free Kashmir posters in Britain for long, but beyond that, there is no interest in solving this problem.”

He says that Kashmir and Palestine are the most pressing issues, which need to be solved. “Politically Kashmir and Palestine are similarly placed and ironically both are the British Raj creations,” he said. Keenan is a founding board member of the Palestine Festival of Literature and hopes to take some Kashmiri writers in the next Palestine literature festival.

“Britishers would have done what was best suited to them at that times but it has gone awfully wrong,” said Keenan.

But Keenan says the best resistance of Kashmiri people would be to fight to protect the glorious cultural heritage. “People should fight for saving their history, culture and heritage that makes them so unique in the world,” said Keenan. “Being on the silk route Kashmir has similarity in various ways with China-Tibet on one side and central Asian countries on other side. It can become a bridge.”

Keenan has worked as an editor on Nova Magazine, The Observer and The Sunday Times. She has also written many books whilst travelling the world with her husband. She has two fashion histories to her credit as well as Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City (2001) and the best selling Diplomatic Baggage (2005) besides Travels in Kashmir (1989). Keenan has lived and travelled in many countries in the Arab world and in Asia.

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