Kashmir-Escape From House Arrest!
Jun 23, 2007
|I started writing this and the power went out! It does that a lot here, sometimes up to six times a day. Other times it only goes out the once but that can be for 24 hours. I don't know whether to laugh or cry since it's taken me three weeks to muster the energy to put pen to paper in between bone jarring bus rides. In Mumbai I read that the reason for so many power failures was that the bulk of it (62%) was stolen from poles and wires.
I digress. Remember that train that left before I got here? I caught the first local bus and train and waited for the railway office at Churchgate, Mumbai's main station to open at 8am. I booked my ticket with a lovely lady at the "Tourist Quota" window. Two seats each day on my desired route are reserved for foreigners. They're rarely booked, as apparently there's little demand for Kashmir despite it being booked out with Indians for months. She even threw in a cup of tea and free tourist advice before setting me on my way to wander jetlagged, aimless and lost in Bombay for the day. The back support I wore causing such bad prickly heat that I forgot about the back pain itself.
Next morning, in a second class (non-air con) sleeper, my usual choice, began just fine but things hotted up over the vast plains between Mumbai, Dehli and beyond. You may have read that many have died recently in a heat wave in Pakistan and India. Never mind, I was headed for the mountains.
The trip itself was long and uneventful, except for a local who put the wind up me just before we arrived.
"You're not going to Kashmir?"
"That's where the train's going, isn't it?" I stammered.
"We shoot white people, you know?"
"Or blow them up."
"You're not American, are you?"
At last, something I could answer.
He stalked off down the carriage.
Another local I talked to afterwards laughed
"He's just having fun." He reassured me.
"Don't worry, he's going there himself for his honeymoon on a houseboat."
I ceased hyperventilating.
After the train I had about seven hours in a jeep to reach Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir.
"What's your plan?" Gul enquired. He owned a craft shop in Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama. For the record, Gul means "flower" in Kashmiri.
"I thought I'd just turn up and see what transpired." I told him.
"Then come and stay at my place." Just like that.
I stayed for a week and whilst things didn't go exactly according to plan as his mother was very sick, I got to see the workings of an Indian hospital and it didn't stop them waiting on me hand and foot. When I say them, of course I mean his wife and three daughters. Men do nothing here. Including me. I wasn't allowed to, you understand! Much like at home!
Apart from it really being too much, literally. I couldn't eat everything they put in front of me. I had to force it down to be polite. Once, I thought I'd managed to avoid lunch. I was in a relative's place about a kilometre away but they tracked me down and it was duly delivered to the lounge. I was then supervised to ensure nothing was left on my plate.
I even had difficulty escaping the house. They wanted to know where I was going, how and why. Eventually one morning I left without saying where I was going while they were at morning prayer. Freedom at last! I went to an Indian tourist spot, managed to avoid the crowd, made new friends and generally had a grand old time. It felt so good I shouted myself a shave-whole of head, of course-on the way home.
I must admit to being apprehensive about what they might say about my unheralded escape from their custody. I had no illusions. When I finally returned it was after 9pm and therefore dark.
Along the way I was stopped by each of Gul's relatives. Everyone had been concerned about me. No less than seven uncles, sisters, cousins and brothers wanted to know my story.
They made me even later than I was.
They had even called the police.
They told me Kashmir was dangerous.
Perhaps that's why everyone's so cautious?