Last week I called Mushtaq, the driver of our van in Kashmir, to check if he had received the photograph I had sent him. In the two weeks before I called him the media, especially the electronic one, had been overflowing like a burst sewer about the riots in Kashmir after two young women were found dead near the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) HQ in a town called Shopian. The women had been raped before they were killed and dumped in a shallow stream.
Worried by the media reports about the continuing violence in Shopian that had lasted for more than a week 'paralaysing normal life' (a favourite media phrase) and by friends who kept telling us, "You are lucky you returned before this happened", I made some inane comment to Mushtaq that went something like, "There has been some disturbance in Kashmir recently, no?" Mushtaq laughed and said that everything was normal (outside Shopian) and he was with a group of pilgrims in Sonmarg because the Amarnath pilgrimage had begun. "Today there was an avalanche and three pilgrims were killed and the route has been shut."
But then, why was I surprised? Only a few days before I called him, 'Mid-day', a popular afternoon newspaper in Mumbai had spent all but four pages on two stories: 1. The defeat of the Indian cricket team in the 20-20 world cup including scoops like what individual players' coaches had to say about their wards being made scapegoats etc. 2. The cover story was about Shiney Ahuja, an upcoming Bollywood actor who had been arrested for raping his maid servant. The last article by a 'film critic' was incredible: It analysed the reason why unlike Salman Khan (booked for driving over four people while he was drunk and for shooting a deer from an endangered species) or Sanjay Dutt (booked for possessing an AK-47 assault rifle before the '93 Mumbai bomb blasts), Shiney's career would be over because of this criminal case. The reason? Because, Shiney Ahuja is a minor star and doesn't have the fan following of a Salman or Sanjay?!
But then, why was I surprised? Even before we left for Kashmir, at least one friend and his family dropped out because Kashmir wasn't 'safe'. This, despite, a close friend having vacationed in Kashmir with his family the year before. Other comments from various acquaintances are equally telling: "Oh, bring me an AK-47 as a memento," On the fruit vendor's picture on this blog, "Looks like he will pull out an AK-47 from behind the fruits, doesn't he?" On the shepherd's picture on this blog, "Shit! Can't but think of the taliban when you look at people like these."
But then, why was I surprised? On our first afternoon in Kashmir we had gone along the boulevard adjoining Dal Lake, stopping the van at every shikara boarding point, trying to find out the shikara that would take us to our houseboat. We stopped at one point for a slightly longer time as Mushtaq made enquiries about our houseboat. Suddenly, an angry CRPF soldier, he must have been barely twenty years old, came up and started abusing Mushtaq for stopping for too long on a VIP road...
And, on the outskirts of Srinagar in the middle of a moss-filled pond, there is a board:
Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons.