Oh, Lal Chowk!

As Jhelum retreated to its banks after creating a reign of terror in the valley, the city centre Lal Chowk looks faded and filthy. With the stinky ambience, piled up debris and remorseful faces, the heart of the city appears sliced open. Bilal Handoo walks around to narrate the plight of post-flood hit the commercial hub  

A view of Lal chowk from Press Enclave. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.
A view of Lal chowk from Press Enclave. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

Nine days after Jhelum deluged the city centre Lal Chowk, Manzoor Ahmad of Apollo Stores walks on littered roads to unlock his shop. He had never witnessed flood akin to one that struck Srinagar on September 7. The moment he uplifts shutter of his shop, a gush of muddy water runs out. As he steps inside, his heart sinks. In less than ten days, his couple of crores (rupees) worth electronic gadgets have turned into a stinky slush.

“To be brief,” says Manzoor, emptying his shop of wasted gadgets, “everything is lost.” Avoiding eye contact, he continues in a grave voice: “It will take me at least six months to restart my shop.”

Welcome to the post-flood hit Lal Chowk, where stench and slush are beefing rage and remorse. There are broken sidewalks, distressing shopkeepers, upsetting scenes and regretting passers-by. Within days, the heart of the city is heart-broken. It looks more of a war-ravaged town filled with wreckage than a commercial hub.

The flood which made its way into Lal Chowk by breaching Bund during the wee hours of September 7 has wiped out the aura of the place.

Like hundreds of shops, a prominent bookshop Password at Regal Chowk has been completely ruined. Three men with mud smeared clothes are busy cleaning the shelves where once a row of Classics would rest. The trio, looking sombre, have already piled up a huge mound of wasted paperback outside their shop. “Loss is unimaginable,” says Imtiyaz Ahmad, manager Password. “Apart from rare collections, our best sellers have turned into debris.”

On the fateful day (September 7) at around 4 pm, the upsurging Jhelum reached the bookshop and within a half an hour, it was deluged.

Besides ravaging the shop, Ahmad says, the wrath of Jhelum fell on their godown at Barbarshah. Huge stock is now a mound of muck. “For the next two months,” he says, “we are out of business now. And it will require us about Rs 50 lakh to restart the shop.”

A view of a shop in Lal Chowk after Jhelum receded. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.
A view of a shop in Lal Chowk after Jhelum receded. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

After 14 ft high water stayed in the city centre for close to a week, the major stores on the street stuffed with merchandise worth crores are now being dumped.

At a stone’s throw from Password, Gulshan bookshop also figures in the flood-ravaged list. The flood has left no book untouched inside the shop. But the owner seems slightly grateful than regretful. “At least, I am alive along with my family,” he says, “and I think that is the big thing.”

A view of Srinagar's Lambert lane. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.
A view of Srinagar’s Lambert lane. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

But not everyone in face of the flood has put up a brave face. Remorse is seemingly making a palpable presence over the place. Inside the Lambert and Regal lanes, shopkeepers are clearing slush slowly from their shops. The scenes of devastation shudder passers-by. Most of the shopkeepers are silent; while a few are giving vent to their tragedies by engaging themselves in what looks like a grave but an introspective conversation.

Behind these lanes, Bund is in shambles. The trail of destruction is glaring. One houseboat lay wrecked in the yard of a local temple. The ravaging Jhelum has completely washed off a part of Bund near Abi Guzar. A nearby road has been completely torn apart. Some locals are cleaning their slush-ridden houses. A few men sitting on shop fronts have placed hands on their heads, apparently, in distress.

Nearby, JKLF chairman Yasin Malik has turned with his party men and volunteers. He is cross-checking the rate of certain food items from a local grocery shop. He is surrounded by scores of flood-affected people. One of them, suddenly, cries out: “During these days, none approached us with help, except Yasin Sahab.” JKLF chairman is unmoved by the remark. He keeps his eyes glued at a nearby shop. Meanwhile, the man resumes: “He [Malik] has been there for us ever since flood rendered us homeless.”

Another man chips in: “He is akin to angel for us! His own home at Maisuma is inundated, but he is still on the road for our sake.” As praises pile up, Malik walks away with relief material for flood-ravaged people.

As rush departs, signs of devastation seemingly resurface. Houses in the inner parts at Abi Guzar are on the verge of collapse. Some of them have developed huge cracks.

A wreaked houseboat in the yard of local temple at Abi Guzar on Bund. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.
A wrecked houseboat in the yard of a local temple at Abi Guzar on Bund. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

A short distance ahead, many of the flood-displaced families are still putting up in a private complex owned by Altaf Bukhari, a businessman-turned-politician. The complex provided refuge to hundreds of flood-ravaged people and patients from Lal Ded hospital when Jhelum started inundating Lal Chowk and adjacent areas.

Bukhari calls it “community service” to shelter and manage thousands of flood-affected people. But the PDP candidate from Amira Kadal seat for an upcoming Assembly election says, evacuating more than 50 caesarean cases from the Lal Ded hospital was a big challenge which he took head-on. “Look, these women were bleeding very profusely,” he says, “rescuing them was very difficult.” So what he did was: he converted one of his halls into an emergency hospital and arranged doctors for these women. “I tried to serve my people in whatever little capacity Allah has blessed me with,” he says.

A few steps ahead lays Christian cemetery. Jhelum flowing innocently at the moment has completely decimated its fence. The backside of Srinagar’s Lower Court nearby has met the same fate. Other than the eroded road, bases of some households have been rendered hollow. Matting, readymade garments, dry fruits…almost every item on shops in Lal Chowk have been reduced to muck.

The scenes inside Srinagar’s Press Enclave are no different. The receded Jhelum has left behind fragmented fences, stinky lanes and mounting debris. Documents, machines and set up inside the offices have faced the damage beyond repairs.

Just opposite is the Pratap park which is still inundated. The park lost one of its mighty Chinar on September 7 when it was deluged. The thud created by the falling Chinar sent tremors around akin to the earthquake and shook many. The Chinar now lies chopped outside the park nearby Exchange Road.

At a small distance, a front fence of Biscoe School opposite Taxi Stand has been completely washed off. Before the flood-hit Lal Chowk, a gallery of makeshift stalls selling a range of items would add variety to the place. But now, a desolated lane covered by tin-fence apparently stares vacantly at passers-by.

Handicrafts shop keeper taking our other hand made shawls and other item caught in shops after devastating flood hit Lal Chowk. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.
Handicrafts shop keeper taking our other hand made shawls and other item caught in shops after a devastating flood hit Lal Chowk. Photo: Bilal Bahadur.

Near the clock tower, scores are mopping muck from their shops. Inside the Koker Bazaar, people are driving away from the garbage. At Regal Chowk, some shopkeepers are getting the losses assessed by the insurance surveyors. This is Lal Chowk, which was booming with trade activities three weeks ago. But after floods turned the tables around, traders are now salvaging whatever is possible.


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