As symbols of normalcy go, the all-glass front of Pick n Choose on Residency Road, Srinagar, is as telling as any. Five years ago, you couldn’t find glass doors in Srinagar – they’d be a sitting duck for a terrorist’s bullet. Five years ago, you wouldn’t even have wanted the transparency of glass. Thick wooden doors were much more appropriate. You couldn’t be seen inside, and they could be shut firmly against the outside world.
Five years ago, nobody in their right minds would have started as high-profile a venture as Pick n Choose, a supermarket. Blending in with the surroundings was the name of the game; standing out from the crowd was something only fools did. Or those with a death wish. All that’s in the past, however. Srinagar today is a city that’s not merely limping back to normal – it’s galloping on the road to progress, determinedly blocking out the memory of the years from 1989 to 1996.
Says a retired teacher from the minority community who was visiting friends in Srinagar recently, “The city of my youth has changed irrevocably, and not all for the better. The paddy fields that used to extend from the airport right into the city are all gone. In their place are miles of bungalows, one flashier than the other.” In the city in which she now lives, she drives an ageing Fiat, and was amazed to see the cars in the driveways of her old colleagues. “Not only fancy cars, but appliances like microwave ovens and refrigerators. I mean, who needs a fridge in Kashmir? And where’s all the money coming from?”
The apparently high standard of living and the rash of new constructions that is sweeping over the city amazes the first time visitor. Srinagar looks like a boom town, not like a city that has lived in the shadow of fear for over a decade. Traditional Kashmiri architecture that makes extensive use of limestone and wood appears to have fallen out of favour, as have the intricate wooden lattice work on windows of private houses. Reflector glass, Udaipur marble and concrete are the latest buzzwords. And all over the city are stores selling ritzy bathroom fittings, testimony of the building boom that has been going on for three years now. Important public buildings, most of them in the Lal Chowk area, have been bombed during the years of militancy. Already in their place, multi-storeyed concrete monstrosities have come up. The most high profile of these is the Pestonjee Building on Residency Road whose life-size model of a white horse was a city landmark for decades. The shopping complex that has risen from its ashes has reportedly been built with gun money.
Terrorism, says an old-timer sadly – let’s call him Ali – was the next new employer after tourism. He’s not too widely off the mark either. His shop on the Bund was once visited by the elite. He still has the luxury of the shade of a fine old chinar tree, unlike many of his neighbours who have cut down ancient trees to make way for car parks and drive-ways. Most of his erstwhile neighbours who catered to the highest echelon of discerning buyers, have withered into oblivion or sold out hastily and departed out of the state, and new ones, flush with funds have moved in. “Every day, my new neighbours come over and ask me when I’m going to sell out to builders. It’s worth crores, they urge me, obviously feeling sorry for me. Well, my garden and the flowers and birds in it are worth just that to me, but they wouldn’t understand such sentiments.”
According to Ali, the whole insurgence movement was not about politics or independence, it was about a class – and money – war. “Overnight, the riff-raff of the city acquired guns and their target was the old moneyed families of the Valley.” Ali and his extended family moved to Delhi, and have only just begun to trickle back.
With the exodus of the wealthy out of Kashmir, the stage was set for those with newly acquired wealth to take over as leaders of society. “I’m afraid it doesn’t portend well for our society, when the upper echelons are a bunch of illiterates without class or culture,” is the comment from another old-timer who only stayed on because he had a business to run. “The picture’s not so grim,” reassures Dr. Khurshid ul Islam, eminent socioligist, and the only person who was willing to be quoted by name for this story! According to ul Islam, although money has been made in the shadowy world of terrorism, there have been other sources of revenue for people with resourcefulness. And although most of the old aristocracy had left Kashmir, it was a temporary measure.
What is much more worrying, insists ul Islam, is the rise of tension and depression related disorders that sprang up from the years of endless curfews, shootouts and crackdowns. “It isn’t even taboo to say that your daughter is visiting a psychiatrist.” To be sure, the medical profession in the Valley has profited from militancy: uptil the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of doctors were from the minority community, and when they left, junior doctors took their place. Many locals sneer that the newfound wealth of certain sections of the society have led to their obtaining doctors’ degrees over the counter. The rash of ‘donation doctors’ who fill the state’s hospitals today have started to leave their mark on what passes for health care: almost every family has a horror story to tell about ruptured appendix cases that are mistaken for ulcers and intravenous drips that are long past the expiry date.
In this grim scenario, there’s one glimmer of hope: now that the situation has substantially improved, perhaps professionals who have sought work out of their native Kashmir will return, bringing with them skills that the Valley so desperately needs.