Thursday, December 25, 2008

Kashmir winter: Of shikharas, Uncle Tom's shayaris and Orkut

10 years back, if you told someone you're traveling to Kashmir, they would have told you that it's a bad idea. But after the drama that unfolded on 26/11 in Mumbai, my plans for a Kashmir trip elicited this response:

"Well, Mumbai isn’t safe anyway. Have a good time."

And so I pack my bags, hop aboard a flight with a 6-day itinerary in the snow-capped tip of northern India - the sights of which first fascinated me in films such as Roja and Mission Kashmir. I watched the latter several times, to learn the steps of Rind posh maal, a song which I eventually choreographed in my school’s annual day function. (Psst..all this, just to woo my first crush. It was Class nine!)

When I reach Srinagar, it's the same song that Ishfaq, the 23-year old boatsman of my shikhara hums (and follows it up with Bhumbro) as he takes me across Dal lake to the houseboat in which I’d be staying.

Sitting in the shikhara – similar to the one which made Shammi Kapoor go bonkers once, I’m told - I soak in cool weather. The mercury hovers around 2 degrees, and as we bob across the maze of houseboats camped like exhibits, Ishfaq and me get talking.

I ask him whether it’s a safe time to be visiting Kashmir. He nods. When I tell him I’m from Mumbai, he asks me, "Have you heard of Qazi Tauqeer? Humaara Kashmir ka singer hai! He is in Bombay now. Bahut artist log Kashmir chhodke Mumbai gaya. But Inshallah, Kashmir is much safer now. Terrorists are everywhere. Mumbai ko bhi nahin chhoda.”

Some artists come back though. Like Tom Alter, who drops by a couple of days later to meet a friend. He’s originally a Mussoorie man, and the last time he came to Kashmir was 24 years ago.

I meet him at a common friend's residence, where we’ve been invited for Eid and our host treats us to an elaborate feast of kebaabs, biryani, mutton rishta, chicken curry, paneer. Uncle Tom’s impressed.

Before he can burp, a shayari flows from his lips: "Do cheezon ke liye main banoo musalmaan. Ek seekh kabab aur doosra Waheeda Rahman."

More shayaris follow, as we travel 40 kms from Srinagar to the Rashtriya Rifles base in Beeru, on invitation from a friend in the army. When we reach there, our hosts are pleasantly surprised to Uncle Tom in tow.

We chat – about life in the army, how unfortunate the terror attacks in Mumbai were, how things are changing in Kashmir. At the end of it, comes one defining moment of Alter’s visit.

"Sir", a major says addressing Alter, the same man who for years remained a symbol of British imperialism in several Hindi movies, "Your role in Kranti curdled my blood. The way you said 'Bloody Indians!'…As a young boy, I felt like strangling you then. And today, you've walked into our karmabhoomi. It’s a great honour for us, Sir."

As drinks, music, and a game of basketball follow, the army men convince us that things have changed for better in Kashmir.

Maybe they're right. The next day, after Alter departs for Delhi, I set out for Gulmarg and Sonmarg to experience torrential snowfall. On the way, I notice kids, women – they appear to be straight out of a Majid Majidi film - walking about in gay abandon. Our vehicle attracts their curious glances. The women, sometimes slowly bite their protective scarf and smile, waving cheerfully as an afterthought. I feel welcome in their territory.

Still, Kashmir’s image as a hotbed of militancy now overshadows its past crown of 'paradise on earth'. Indian film-makers who once would spend months shooting there, now shoot in the Swiss Alps.

Things take a pleasant turn though, on my last day. As Ishfaq rows me across Dal lake, one last time, I click his picture and he asks me if I can send the photo to him. I assure him, I will if he gives me his postal address.

"Take down my e-mail ID," he says, taking me completely by surprise. "Which one do you want? Yahoo, Rediff, Hotmail..? I can put it on my Orkut profile later."

Maybe it’s true. Things are changing in Kashmir. And Orkut Buyyukokten has something to do with it.

(The above write-up appeared in DNA in the weekly column Open City.)