I had heard of the fabled beauty of Kashmir as early as my childhood days. The words, Kashmir is a heaven on the earth and all beautiful people live there, reverberate in my ears to this day. So when I got the chance to come here, I did not miss it. But every coin has its opposite side.
The media always broadcasts political disputes about Kashmir, which gives a fearful impression to the people. So when I got the chance to come here, everyone was so surprised and asked, “Why are you going there? You could have waited for some more days for another good opportunity to go to a safe and secure place! By the way, which Kashmir are you going: Indian Kashmir or Pakistani Kashmir?”
Even the visa officer at the embassy also looked at me in a manner as if I was going to a forbidden place. Officials at the Indian embassy ask many questions if a Bangladeshi is visiting Kashmir.
I was happy he did not waste my time. My solo journey to an unknown land had started then. Chittagong, my hometown is a little bit similar to Kashmir. Chittagong is surrounded by hills, so is Kashmir. But the new thing was I had never seen mountains wrapped in snow. I had my first bird’s eye view of the snow clad hills from the plane as it hovered over Kashmir skies.
The mountains looked like a squat white bear to me.
Earlier in the day, I had met a Kashmiri family at the Delhi airport who had a very cute kid. She surprised me with her abrupt questions. “Are you a Muslim? If so, then why do you put bindi on your forehead?” And then came the final indictment, “You are not a good Muslim!”
I was surprised that her mind should be harbouring such divisive talk at such a tender age! Her mother, however, was all apologies for her kid’s behaviour. She apologized so many times saying, “I’m so sorry! Please don’t mind, she is just a kid!”
The flight was delayed by two hours. So the kid started playing with me, the game was teacher-student. She was my teacher in the game. Whenever I failed to give a satisfactory answer, she widened her brow and said, “Oh! Aap ye bhi nehi janti ho! Kya karun main apko leyker! (Oh, you don’t even know this! What should I do with you?)”
For three hours we were together, the family was so nice to me. My first and the best experience of Kashmir started with this family.
TS Eliot writes that April is the cruellest month of the year. I arrived in Srinagar at the end of this ‘cruellest’ month. Lok Sabha election was going on at that time, so every five minutes military vehicles and troops passed by. The car sped past the impassive faces of the troopers who stood erect like pine needles with their cold weapons.
My first impression about Srinagar was “Oh! There is more army than human beings!” The driver said, “This is very normal in Kashmir, it’ll be also normal to you within some days!”
I am the kind who cannot mingle with others so easily. So it took me seven months to make some very good Kashmiri friends. After coming to Kashmir, I noticed that Kashmiris respect foreigners. No one will feel insecure or cheated here.
Once we went to the Dargah (Hazratbal) to buy apples. As we picked apples from a lot with one vendor, he told us not to take those apples because those were too sour to be eaten. He could have made profit at our expense, but he did not.
Kashmiris are always very curious to know about Bangladesh, what compelled them to break away from Pakistan to become an independent country. One obvious question occurs after that, is there any difference between Indian Bengali or Bangladeshi Bengali, or everything is same.
Kashmiris are very warm and kind hearted. Although they live in a conflict zone, but their psyche is not complicated, but simpler than that of people of India. Which I like about Kashmiri people, they are very active to keep their traditions and culture alive. Another good thing about Kashmir is that the women are independent. They don’t get married before completing their education and the women are politically and socially well aware (which is usually not seen in other South Asian areas).
During winter vacation I was totally alone for one month, as fellow Bangladeshis left for home. That time I was ill. I went to Soura Hospital. The doctor was so curious to know about how I was finding Kashmir, more or less my experience etc. We talked a lot. I told him very frankly, “I don’t understand one thing why you people are so angry with India! India supports Kashmir a lot. Think of the flood time, if they had not been so prompt to send rescue teams, Kashmir could not have come out of that danger!” The doctor took a second to reply, “India first takes away all the oxygen. Then according to their will they give us some oxygen back. We can’t take breath with this little oxygen. What do you think should we be happy with this suffocative oxygen?”
That was the first time I began to look at Kashmiri people from a different angle. I started to think of a cage, howsoever beautiful it may be, that does not matter; a cage is always a cage.
I have so many experiences with people. My journey has not finished yet, so perhaps I will tell all the stories some other day.