It was like Rip Van Winklesque waking up after a long slumber. Srinagar city, his hometown, to which he had returned after twenty years, had a changed face. Horse-driven tongas had given way to hordes of mini buses and matadors and trusted Ambassadors and Fiat cars to speeding Marutis, Zens and Gypsies, Sumos and Safaris. The curious soul wanted to know how the green Boulevard Road along the picturesque Dal Lake had been lined with a concrete stretch of hotels and restaurants; he was told the multi-storeyed structures were the gift of tourism boom in the eighties.
He also sought to inquire what were these countless white, tin-boxes of Gypsies zooming in all directions and feared their rifle nozzles jetting out of two small window apertures; he was told they were carrying cops on patrol duty after almost a decade of militancy.
Helmeted, AK-47-wielding para-military jawans after every 20 metres confirmed that the once-quiet, incident-free Srinagar city had been subjected to the worst kind of gunfire between the troops and armed insurgents. Other signs of battle fought or perhaps still raging: Army bunkers with netting, public transport also with netting, frisking of the people, burnt houses and gutted shopping arcades and `Martyrs' Graveyards' at Eidgah (2000 graves), Khanyar, Abi Guzar, Soura, Nishat and many downtown areas.
Tension In Air
Gone, he thought, was the refreshing smile on every youthful face of the happy-go-lucky Kashmiris. Instead, he saw tension writ large on their faces; trauma of the bloody turmoil years, loss of kith and kin in crossfire, bomb blasts and grenade throws. While the unemployed roam the streets aimlessly, those having job have no salary to take home. All this when a popularly elected government is in the saddle. A measure of the `so-called' normalcy is that Srinagar streets, where evening hussle and bussle would stretch well into the night, now present a deserted look after 8 pm and anybody trotting the roads is either a helmeted jawan, a tin Gypsy or a member of the canine family. People became socially withdrawn and self-centred.
The sparsely populated Srinagar city added numbers as a direct consequence of internal migrations from downtown areas to the uptown, triggered by the onslaught of militants and troops alike. The city also opened its arms to largescale migrations from far-flung villages, with both the troops and insurgents finding the rural areas favourite hunting grounds. And when relatives' houses displayed signboards of ``No Vacancy'', the gutted empty Kashmiri Pandit houses after every two to three Muslim houses were the obvious choice. The cityscape presented the look of a garden in bloom with intermittent patches of withered flowers.
Abandoned for long, some Kashmiri Pandit houses served as garbage dumping points, with even trees growing out of the roofless tops.
The sudden vacuum created by the mass exodus of the entire Kashmiri Pandit community left the education system orphaned. Parents paid hefty donations for medical or engineering seats for their wards outside the state. Mass copying and use of help books ensured almost cent per cent results in Board and University exams. "Literacy rate doubled and efficiency halved" in a city of mushrooming private schools and technical institutions. Anti-copying crackdown by the government, however, set the disparity right: 10 to 15 per cent pass results.
Disfiguring the face of the city during the turmoil years were land-grabbers, shopkeepers and numerous security force bunkers.
Boatmen living on the Dal and Jhelum tributaries Tsoont Kol and Kuti Kol gobbled up the river banks in the downtown. Encroachers had a field day as the Municipality and the Srinagar Development Authority (SDA) watched mutely. `Save Dal' campaign had to be launched when the famous lake has shrunk drastically. Congestion in the three-km radius around Lal Chowk, Hari Singh High Street, Jehangir Chowk and Exhibition Crossing, housing most of the government offices and commercial establishments, continued.
Multi-storeyed Plaza, upmarket restaurants and fast food joints, beauty parlours and communication revolution may just be Srinagar's facial make-up
Published in KashmirLive of Indian Express