Paradise in a fist

Updated: Aug 17, 2019, 20:34 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

Of course, I met only a limited number of people in a few days, and sure, there are terrorists I did not meet in Kashmir, but I haven't met terrorists in the rest of India either

Paradise in a fist
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Guide

I was returning to Kashmir after more than 30 years. I'd been invited to lecture at IIT Jammu on 'How to Turn Your Love for Cinema Into a Career'. IIT Jammu is just a few years old, and still a work in progress. My lecture, coordinated by Quleen Kaur Bijral, was part of the Foundation Programme, a brilliant welcome-cum-anti-ragging programme for freshers from all over India, and got an enthusiastic response. After a few wonderful days in Jammu, I travelled north to the Valley.

Srinagar is extraordinary. I stayed at a lovely Airbnb off the beaten track, called Naivasha, owned by Fozia and Siddiq, set amid fruit orchards. They are both academics and intellectuals: she is a mathematician and artist, and he is a historian. My window overlooked an orchard heaving with apples, pears, mulberries and almonds, with a view of blue, mist-shrouded mountains.

Very unusually, I was ready at 4 am at the gate, waiting for the taxi that would take me to Dal Lake, to see the floating flower and vegetable market that does business only from 5am – 6am. As I stood alone on a dark side street, a man passed by, and said in perfect English, "What are you waiting for so early, Madam? Oh don't worry, your taxi will come soon," and walked on. He returned to say, "You will see a few people walking about at this hour, don't worry, they are just going for namaz." Then he returned a third time to say, "I'm so sorry, I'm late for namaz, otherwise I would have dropped you to Dal Lake myself." I was overwhelmed by the generosity and tameez of a total stranger.

On Dal Lake, I was welcomed by Rafiq, a charming, gentle, expansive shikarawalla. He kept a respectful but easy distance that would put a single woman tourist at ease. I was staggered by this serial entrepreneur. He told me he owned seven shikaras in Dal Lake and two houses in Srinagar. He spent six months in Kashmir and six months in Goa, where he had a shop selling Kashmiri goods. Now he is planning to move to Kerala. Next stop? "Bali. For its fantastic beaches, culture, hotels," he said matter-of-factly, as if it were simply aloo-tamatar, in the atmospheric floating vegetable market, into which he glided our boat. He can speak a smattering of Russian, Hebrew, French and Italian, apart from Kashmiri and Hindi.

Like Rafiq, others in the Valley tend to think of a Plan B, but don't lack ambition. Fine young actor Shahnawaz Bhat is also making a film. Actor-filmmaker Mushtaaque Ali Ahmad Khan also runs the Kashmir World Film Festival, not once, but twice a year.

Despite all the devastation, violence, army and militant oppression, corruption, lack of opportunities and despair, if someone like Rafiq could still be a smiling, serial entrepreneur, gentle, generous, ambitious in the nicest way, it is an extraordinary testament to the people of Kashmir, their ambitions and hopes. Of course, I met only a limited number of people in a few days, and sure, there are terrorists I did not meet in Kashmir—but I haven't met terrorists in the rest of India either. Yes, I am safe and returned last week, just days before the clampdown, I text many friends who ask. But what about the most wonderful, intelligent, civilised and generous people I've left behind, who, even in dire straits themselves, were concerned about my safety and well-being?

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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