Travels April 2008

Paradise Regained?

Kashmir tries to reclaim its once-celebrated tranquility.
SUNSET over Dal Lake, Srinagar

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The sky over the Himalayan foothills was just beginning to brighten, and the chants of worshippers wafted across the water from a white-domed mosque on the shore. Jeelani skimmed our wooden boat across the lake’s glassy surface, through dense clumps of marsh marigolds and water chestnuts, toward an underpass beneath the lakeside boulevard. “I’m going to take you to a place where very few people go,” he said.

Jeelani is a “shikara wallah,” as these boatmen are called, and on this spring morning he was taking me on a sunrise cruise on Dal Lake, an obligatory ritual for visitors to the Vale of Kashmir, in northern India. You recline on pillows beneath a wooden canopy, perhaps sipping a cup of sweet Kashmiri tea, while your boatman strokes from the stern of his gondola-like craft—and, if you’re lucky, takes you to hidden reaches of the lake. Shortly after gliding through the underpass, we entered a labyrinth of reed-filled channels, willow groves, and small islands covered with rice paddies and tidy vegetable gardens. We drifted for an hour as the sunlight filtered through the trees, casting a silver sheen on the water. A huge kite perched on a dead tree trunk turned its head toward us, flapped its wings, and lifted itself ponderously aloft. Black mynahs, egrets, long-tailed shrikes, reed warblers, and Indian pond herons flitted through the dense foliage, and Himalayan kingfishers dropped like turquoise missiles into the water. “This,” Jeelani told me, his paddle dipping rhythmically into the canal, “is the Kashmir that has never changed.”

The Kashmir he was referring to was the place I had encountered on my first visit, in 1985: a peaceful Himalayan enclave where backpackers and well-heeled tourists alike could retreat from the concerns of the larger world. “Kashmir, only Kashmir,” the 17th-century Mogul emperor Jehangir is said to have muttered on his deathbed when asked if he had a final wish. But the tranquility I found there in 1985 was ephemeral. Pakistan and India have been feuding over possession of the valley ever since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent, and in 1989, Muslim separatists launched a rebellion against the Indian government. Pakistani agents began arming and training Islamist militants and looking the other way as they crossed the border. Over the next decade, tens of thousands of people—most of them civilians—were killed, the minority Hindu population fled the valley, and the tourists vanished.

I returned to Kashmir as a Newsweek correspondent on October 8, 2001—the day after the United States began bombing Afghanistan. In Srinagar, the main city, the violence had reached a peak. Islamist fanatics had just attacked the state assembly, killing some 40 people, and had started throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women on the streets. A pro-Taliban mob swarmed my car and tried to pull me out, screaming “American! American!” On my third evening, colleagues told me that an extremist group was planning to kidnap me, and five policemen evacuated me from the houseboat where I was staying to a hotel in the center of town.

The atmosphere began to change about two years ago, local officials say, in part because Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf started cutting off the militants’ funding and reportedly shut down many of their training camps. The violence dropped dramatically, and the tourists started to come back. Several daily flights now shuttle between New Delhi and Srinagar.

This past May I decided to go back myself, to see how much of the old Kashmir remained. The mood in Srinagar was upbeat, though tentatively so. “Mu‑ sharraf might be dictator in Pakistan, but for us he is a messiah,” Muzamil Jaleel, a longtime reporter for The Indian Express, told me when I met with him at Coffea Arabica, a new Starbucks knockoff downtown. But later that afternoon, Jaleel took me to meet Usmaan Raheem Ahmad, a Kashmiri American aid worker and the coach of a local soccer team consisting mostly of teenage war orphans. The team was eager to play but couldn’t find a practice field. All of the city’s open spaces had been turned into military training grounds or cemeteries. “The prime minister says that the peace process is irreversible, but moving forward is hard to do when you’re still stuck in a psychological gray zone,” Ahmad said.

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Joshua Hammer is a writer based in Berlin. He is at work on a book about a colonial-era rebellion and reprisal in southwest Africa.

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