Guests First

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As rising levels in Dal lake made houseboats uncomfortable for the tourists, there was panic. It was felt in the official circles which prioritized visitor rescue and their onward complimentary flight out of Kashmir. But the trade and the society had the same priority. Tasavur Mushtaq accesses first hand narratives of visitors whose ‘escape’ from flooded Kashmir was made memorable by their hosts.

Tourists being taken to Airport by the owner of a hotel (the person who is with is with a wooden rod) near Iqbal park where they were stranded a few days during floods. Kl Image: Masood Hussain

As the floodwaters recede in Kashmir the picture emerging is gruesome – pain, destruction, panic, tension, and helplessness. Simmering anger apart, there is hope, a hope to survive.

In the times when fathers did not know anything about their sons and mothers were clueless about daughters, Kashmir’s age-old hospitability survived with flying colours. The flood washed everything but could neither touch Kashmir’s ‘never-say-die-spirit’ nor its hospitality.

Saturday, September 6, water waves were terrifying and did not spare anything. By September 7, when the mostly inundated city went to live the ‘long, scary and full of horror’ night, communication systems and the mass media had collapsed. As Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was trying to come out of his “36 hours” of the deluge, Delhi media had superimposed itself on Kashmir, this time taking an aerial route.

Helplessly, Kashmir watched what TV broadcast. But the people who had come visiting the Vale had a different take. They had come to see ‘Paradise on earth’, as one of the visitors later wrote, but they left with the belief that ‘Kashmir is Paradise because of people and not places.’

Anil Kapoor,  29 and his wife Ankita, 23 who were honeymooning in the valley told  Kashmir Life that they had lost hope of their survival. Only wish left for the newly wedded couple was to have a glimpse of their family back home in Pune. When ‘state machinery’ and much talked ‘army efforts’ were seen nowhere, locals came to their rescue. Youth first supplied them essentials and finally evacuated them to a dry patch.

Apte and Divekar families from Mahim (Mumbai), who were caught in deadly flood waves, are filled with gratitude for Kashmiris. Memories of flood-ravaged streets in Kashmir, homeless people and destruction everywhere, are likely to haunt the two families for a long time. Though these memories will ebb, the two families will remember the generosity of the locals, who offered them support at every juncture, for the rest of their lives.

Two members of Divekars Neha (39), and her son Om (15) and three members of Mohiri’s, Aptes (39), Shweta (36), and their son Ishan (12) were supposed to stay back in the valley till September 7 and then return to Mumbai. On that very same day, there was knee-deep water in the hotel. On the suggestion of the hotel owner, they decided to go to another hotel at a higher altitude. The moment she left the first hotel, the cell phone connectivity was lost. It took them an hour to reach the next destination, which otherwise was just 10-15 minutes away. At the new hotel, the families realised that Mushtaq, the hotel owner, had lost his home in the floods, but was still offering them food and accommodation.

“Mushtaq told us that his house, where he had kept the jewellery meant for his sister-in-law’s marriage, was washed away. Despite his huge loss, he focused all his energies in planning how to feed all the guests at the hotel. He chalked out a plan wherein he would feed everyone only dal and rice for a week as he had adequate stock,” Mihir told media after reaching home.

After learning that tourists were being rescued from Raj Bawan, they trekked as the roads weren’t visible due to the floods and were unable to carry their luggage. They handed their bags to an old taxi driver and told him to deliver it at the hotel. After reaching Raj Bhawan, they learnt that around 10,000 people were waiting to be rescued for more than two days.

Aptes and Divekars decided to return to the hotel. On their way back, they saw a man, who offered them a ride instantly. “He dropped us to the hotel for free. At the hotel, our luggage was safe. We didn’t expect this generosity,” said Shweta. On September 11, the families decided to leave for Leh, from there they left for Delhi and then flew back to Mumbai.

The horror of the flood will take time to fade, but the impressions of hospitality left by Kashmiris will never vanish. Ask Niveditha and her team of vacationers from Bangalore. Overcome with emotion at the hospitality she received from a Kashmiri family, Niveditha, of Rajarajeshwarinagar said that “undeterred by the devastation that has brought untold misery, the locals offered us food, water and shelter. Towards the end, they also doubled up as porters, shouldering our luggage and wading through water and slush-filled ravines to drop us at the airport.”

“They treated us like their family members…Now we have doubt whether they have anything left in their home to eat themselves. We will never forget the hospitality provided by residents of Brein Nishat. They are angels sent by God or we would have been stuck there to die,” Niveditha said.

“Kashmiris are the most wonderful people on earth. Were it not for the kindness, generosity and humanity they displayed in the worst of times, I would, perhaps, not have survived to tell our tale,” says Vibhor Keny, safely back at his Ravanfond-Margao residence from flood-ravaged Kashmir. “Our hosts were Muslims and they swore by Islam. And through their noble deeds, they taught us the values Islam stands for.”

When Keny was asked, will you ever return to Kashmir? “Just to pay my respects to the locals, anytime,” he quips. “Kashmir is heaven, not because of the place and its environs, but because of the lovely people who live there.”

The backbone of Kashmir’s maternity care, LD hospital also became a casualty of nature’s fury. When local patients and infants inside were crying for help, Neeta Kishore from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Gujarat gave birth to a baby girl in Hyderpora’s Jamia Masjid that was the epicenter of a rescue and relief camp that locals had set up.

The family of five was stranded in a house in Tengpora locality, one of the worst-hit areas in Srinagar’s Batamaloo. “Once her labour pain began, we shifted her to the al-Ameen Hospital in Hyderpora where she gave birth to a girl,” said a volunteer. At the same time, the committee communicated to the hospital authorities that it would bear all charges for the medical treatment of Neeta. Moved by the gesture, the family insisted that their “saviours” should name their baby and the newborn was named as Kiran (ray of hope).

After seeing the kind of treatment they received at the mosque and that too in times of crisis, Neeta’s mother-in-law was all thanks to the organizers.

“She was really humbled and prayed for all of us when we arranged milk feeder for the newborn,” said the chairman of the relief committee, Nazir Ahmad Dar.

After staying at the Hyderpora mosque for two nights, the Gujarat family left for their home-state on September 15. They were dropped at the airport in a vehicle, arranged by the relief committee. Dar said the committee also managed the air tickets for the family.

While recollecting her ordeal, a tourist Mirsad Imdaad wrote on her Facebook: “Kashmiris responded to this by coming out in their private shikaras to try rescue people. But the people were too many and the shikaras were too few. Everyone expected the government, a government that was newly voted in with all the expectations of making a better future for us, to start sending out help soon. But, alas, no such help came from them. Finally, a shikara helped 12 people from our hotel escape.” She had failed to get the attention of the choppers that would hover over them.

Imdad penned her observations: “What amazed me was the attitude of the people – still being positive. Trying to make the most of what they had. Happy, that they were alive. Young men joining forces to rescue as many as they could all day. They were brave, fearless and had a never say die attitude. Some of their own families were still missing and yet they were still there, putting the needs of others before their own. In my opinion, it is these people and not the army who are real heroes. There was a light which shone deep in the hearts of these men which spread to people all around them. A light of hope.”

Sneha,  Jacob and  Penumarthi, wrote in The Hindu that “despite the floods, Kashmir remains a paradise with its kind-hearted people, tall mountains and serene lakes.” They have a reason to say so. When images of rushing floodwaters and floating debris were in front of their eyes, they lost hope. But what followed changed their notion about Kashmir. They, with help of locals, moved to the old city hotel where for next many days they ‘embraced’ them and gave them the feeling of being at home and everyone knew them as they strolled around the city.

“We spent time playing cards and watching old Hindi hits whenever there was power. The locals guided us on where to buy essentials. They even lent us their phones so we could call home and reassure our relatives,” they said while sharing their experience.

The people around who were fighting solo to evacuate their brethren from flood-hit areas gave the trio a hope to survive. “We took heart from the kindness, hospitality and fortitude of the Srinagar people,” they wrote.

On September 10, the trio left via Leh and for them, everyone Kashmiri they met was an ‘angel’.

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