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Tales of the World

Images of Kashmir
Paul Otteson
Stories Home

As the Indian Air jet approached Srinagar's airport, the German couple made up their minds. They would stay at the airport to await the next available flight on to Ladakh. They would not explore the margins of Dal Lake or enjoy the comforts of houseboat lodging. They would skip the Moghul gardens and ancient mosques. Trouble was flaring in paradise yet again; they chose the safer path. There were enough adventures to be had elsewhere.

'How bad could it be?' I wondered. Bad enough -- wondrously bad. Only two of Srinagar's many hotels and guest houses were open to tourists when I arrived. A few were closed due to lack of business. Most were occupied by the Indian troops who struggled to maintain dominance and control. Lodging was available in many of Dal Lake's famous houseboats.

Books and travelers will tell you that the Kashmiris are liars, that they will say anything to get your business -- your money. The owner of the houseboat I stayed on for three nights lied to me about the source of water for the shower -- it came straight from Dal Lake. He lied. Should I feed the stereotype? How dare they lie to me about something so important as the condition of the water! ...A beautiful, victorian houseboat all to myself, two servants at my beck and call, free shikara rides from boat to shore and two meals a day -- all for about $10 a night. How dare they indeed. They looked unhappy when I left to stay somewhere else for the rest of my time in Srinagar.

The long causeway that cuts across Dal Lake seemed at first to offer a marvelous vantage of the Kashmiris who farm the floating gardens -- great mats of vegetation and organic matter that rest in ordered acreage upon the water. The causeway, raised several feet above the lake surface, arrows from west shore to east, dividing the shallow lake and its cultivated portions in two. As I walked its length, I felt at first as though I strode through a living history museum, scenes displayed to either side.

But who was really on display? The smiling women who washed clothing? The man in the tree who gazed with confidence? The hookah smokers who looked up and waved? They all watched me pass; I was performing for them -- a strange westerner walking in a troubled land , gawking and pointing his camera, fumbling greetings and moving on. Or maybe there was no performing at all, just an odd juxtaposition of separate lives, amusing to all concerned.

People died that night, shot by the army. The next day, the authorities had cracked down, closing off an area of the city surrounding a mosque. I circled the zone on back streets, asking questions, trying to get closer. People were being interrogated, tensions were high. What the hell was I doing? I wanted to get close to... what? Danger? Pain? Trouble? What was I going to do if I managed to find an unguarded alley or a group of rebels hiding from the police? Sometimes personal retrospection reveals a damn fool.

The city was blacked out. The curfew was in effect. From my room on the second floor of the Grand Hotel, I watched the bullets fly. The tracers cut low through the sky about two hundred yards away, across the river. I watched from my window like the idiot I can be. For five minutes, the guns popped and spat. Who was firing? Were members of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front battling the Indian army? Were drunken soldiers shooting at squirrels? Were more people dying? I never found out. I was never in danger. I was never afraid. I didn't belong. I had nothing to offer. I left the next day.