Traditional Srinagar, isolated by militancy for the past decade, is reinventing itself in the cyber age.
A halfway house between the old city of Srinagar and its plusher areas, Dalgate is a colourful tumult of brick buildings, shops crammed with tourist kitsch, and a road too narrow by far to handle its traffic. Here, poised between two worlds — the 18th century and the new millennium — Bavan Computers, one of the city’s few cyber cafes, could well be a metaphor for Srinagar itself. Inside, Nissar Ahmad sits disconsolately. It’s not easy running a cyber cafe in Srinagar – the power is erratic, and the state’s only access node is located at Jammu. It breaks down with monotonous regularity, is slow, and when Ahmad wants to change his password, he has to wait no fewer than eight weeks.
Close by, in the more congenial climes of Polo View, construction’s on at anoth¬er cyber cafe. This one is owned by four young partners whose parents have made their fortune in the tourist trade. To the tempo of Hindi film music, a handful of young people excitedly chat with other netizens in between sips of salt tea.
“As of now, it’s not possible to make a living solely from earnings from the cyber cafe,” says Irfan Nabi, all of 20 years old. “We started it because we wanted to pioneer the concept in the valley.” Neither has the vast potential of the World Wide Web struck the Valley: most people using the facilities at the two locations want it solely to e-mail their business associates. Popular music sites are the only other attraction. That, however, has not deterred wannabe entrepreneurs from putting up banners advertising prospective cyber cafes, pool parlours and other adjuncts of modern life. Had they come up last decade, they would probably have been tailored to the tourist market. At the fag end of the 1990s, it is the local market they’re tapping: tourists, if and when, are welcome.
At no other period of its eventful history has Srinagar been so resolutely pitch-forked into two conflicting worlds — the new and the old, war and peace. The huge quadrangle around the clock tower at Lal Chowk is surrounded by either Raj-era edifices that have been bombed out over the last 10 years, or spanking new ones with acres of glass. Traditional Kashmiri architecture — and that of the British Raj — had taken due cognizance of the climate. That same cannot be said of modern Kashmiri architecture which seems to have got its inspiration from building design in the plains. It is clear, however, that at last Kashmiri society is in the throes of transition rather abruptly.
Habibullah Khanyari’s may be the one lone voice in the wilderness. A business¬man, Khanyari has acquired a period villa overlooking the Dal Lake and is taking pains to restore it to its original grandeur, intricate woodwork and all. “It’s vital that Kashmiri craftsmanship does not die out,” he believes. For every Khanyari, there are dozens of others feverishly mixing concrete with marble and glass for Srinagar is poised between conflicting worlds for a spate of shopping complexes all over the city.
“If there, one indication that the 10 year-war is finally over, it is this,” claims Ghulam Nabi, a local. “What was destroyed by militant/army fire is being restored, but there’s another reason for the sudden wealth: many militants have grown rich, over the ten years of strife,” he whispers, casting a furtive look around. If it’s a rumour, it’s one that has many takers.
“No, you can’t actually see the militants,” say the partners of Jehlum Cable Network in Nawa Kadal. “They just lie low but everyone knows of their presence.” The partners are a disill- ioned lot today. They used to air, among other channels, Channel V, Star Movies and Star Plus, avail¬able as a set of three. Then one day, an advertisement appeared in a local English paper, “Stop beaming Channel V or else…” All 12 cable operators held a rapid conference. It was unviable for them to stop only one channel, so they hastily discon¬tinued all three. A few days later, all the Urdu papers ran another advertisement. This one was unsigned, unlike the first one which was the handiwork of Harkat-¬ul-Ansar. “All cable channels are anti-thetical to our religion and are banned forthwith.”
“Only those cable operators who enjoy the ‘patronage’ of surrendered militants continue to show all channels,” say the partners of Jehlum, looking nervously over their shoulders. “Whether it’s a good I thing or not, we really couldn’t say.” It is common knowledge in the city that surrendered militants and those who are still operational have a mutually hostile relationship. Playing off the ‘patronage’ of one over the other is known to seriously endanger one’s well-being!
As anyone who has visited the city over the last decade will testify, Srinagar used to give the impression of being trapped in a time warp. Today, the winds of change are blow¬ing through the valley. Cielos, Astras and Fords are a common sight on the roads, unheard of even two years , ago. Shopping plazas selling everything from footballs to deodorants have cropped up everywhere, even in the anachronistic old city. Is the Valley heading away from its strong traditions? Unlikely. On the face of it, the village belle balancing a copper samovar on her head and a leather-jacketed youth at a cyber cafe have little in common. But an unbreakable bond still exists between them of salt tea, the all-time favourite beverage of all Kashmiris.