Some minutes before our aeroplane landed in Srinagar – Kashmir’s summer capital – disembodied voices floated to my ears from the seats behind me.
A woman was addressing a girl of six or seven, perhaps her daughter, urging her to look out the window.
“Welcome to my home, Ayesha,” she said. “This is my Kashmir, this is where we belong.”
I looked out, hurriedly taking in vistas of verdant hillsides on a sunlit day in August as our flight from New Delhi touched down. I felt like I belonged too.
The afternoon drive from the airport to our hotel in Dal Gate was uneventful. Srinagar could be any other small city in India, except for the watchful CRPFsoldiers stationed behind concertina wire at intervals along the route.
People walked, travelled in rickety city buses from a bygone era, or drove cars or motorbikes. Women gazed out of the windows in pretty villas with sloping roofs. Children laughed and waved. Vendors greeted customers with cups of kahwa tea. A band of bearded old men smoked a hookah in front of a closed shop with its facade painted red and white in the colours of Airtel, a telecom company. Labourers toiled at an under-construction flyover. Decrepit houseboats rotted in the placid waters of the Jhelum river. Chinar trees loomed in the distance, obscuring the mountains beyond.
My colleague Sankalp and I stopped for a quick lunch at Krishna Vaishno Dhaba, a popular Srinagar self-service eatery with vegetarian fare. Popular is an understatement. There was only standing room at lunch hour, and I tucked into a delicious meal of greasy flatbread stuffed with cottage cheese, oblivious to the innumerable diners who brushed past me to get to the washbasin. We were unfazed as hungry new arrivals tried to hijack our table, edging us out like an invading army. We did eventually cede our territory, but only after the last crumb had soaked up the residual gravy and had satiated my taste buds.
Outside, a cluster of beggars stared at a woman who had fainted and was being revived by anxious relatives. She had been among the unlucky ones without a restaurant seat, and either hunger or the sun had proved too much for her.
When we arrived at the Royal Inn, we were surprised to find a billboard in Bengali advertising cuisine from the eastern Indian state. Turned out our hotel was run by Bengalis and the reception area stocked magazines in the language. And they never shut their TV off — the hotel employees were couch potatoes and spent hours in front of the idiot box, snared by melodramatic soap operas in Bengali. We were in the room above, which meant that at night, we were lulled to sleep by angry women berating each other in high-pitched voices.
I love Bengal and Bengalis, as several of my friends and colleagues would testify, and this is not a cultural stereotype. But I have to say the staff at the Royal Inn was rude and unhelpful. We switched hotels as soon as we could.
Later that evening, as we enjoyed a sunset shikararide on the Dal lake, our boatman Bashir steered us to a floating store. A teenage boy was holding fort – selling aerated drinks, tea, coffee and biscuits to passing tourists. I noticed his Bengali accent and also the fact that he was overcharging us. Our boatman scolded him in Kashmiri before the boy smiled and returned the change.
When I asked, Bashir said several migrants from Bengal had settled in the area over the years and picked up the Kashmiri language to ply the tourist trade.
And that wasn’t the last Bengal connection on our Kashmir trip. On our travels, I kept spotting posters pasted or painted on walls advertising the services of a Dr. Bengali who offered guaranteed seven-day cures for sexual dysfunction and haemorrhoids. He seemed quite popular in these parts.