Visiting Kashmir was like slipping down the rabbit hole. Like Alice, who was surprised by talking birds and beasts in Wonderland, I discovered a floating vegetable garden, a palace named after fairies called Pari Mahal, houseboats gliding along Dal Lake, and royal gardens.
Kashmir’s untouched beauty captured Western imagination. Known as “the vale of Kashmir,” articles that were published in American newspapers traced back to the early 1990s illustrated the tourists’ first impressions. Under the heading “Beautiful Kashmir,” one visitor wrote, “Here, we have the most splendid amphitheater in the world.” In late 1914, The Wide World Magazine described Kashmir as a “veritable dreamland…of snow-covered mountains, pine-clad hills, rushing torrents, [and] clear streams.”
The valley’s fairy-tale-like beauty and the forest-rich region is unscathed by cyclical periods of conflict. In India, the summer capital of Srinagar has become increasingly oppressive. For decades, the city has been in a perpetual state of paranoia, its people paralyzed by the psychosis of fear and flashpoints of war. Anyone who has visited the disputed territory of Kashmir has witnessed despair and desperation imprinted on the faces of its people. It is heartbreakingly human.
“This is the most beautiful prison in the world,” a senior militant told me, as we drove past an ancient fort on the high hills. I spent years traveling back and forth to the valley. I watched Indian Army’s armored personnel search bystanders and bushy-eyed journalists. People flowed in and out of airports. Families walked past carrying suitcases tied with string. On a non-curfew day, children flooded the streets. Boys played cricket. Mothers stared at a cloudless sky from a kitchen window.
On a bad day, protests erupted. Suraiya, a mother of two, expressed to me, “They are the only way for people to let the world know about their problems. The tears of so many mothers will not go to waste in this conflict. And the amazing thing is that these women are the first to join the movement.” In 1989, she was imprisoned for marching in Sopore, her hometown. Thousands marched that day. Hundreds lost their lives. “I was a young mother of two children when I became a member of the Jammu Kashmir Students Union (JKSU) at the university. My daughter was two years old, but having children never stopped me. I was a leader in spirit,” she said, proudly.
During the uprising, hundreds of men were detained or declared dead. Countless men and women were tortured, tormented and treated as savages. Endless reports of bloodcurdling adventures created a climate of fear, contributed by Pakistan-trained militants and India’s mad military. The compass of violence widened. Some men banished, like Suraiya’s husband. Others witnessed a private hell. Srinagar was on fire.
American-Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali described in a heart-felt verse: Troops will burn down the garden and let the haven remain. / This is home—the haven a cage surrounded by ash—the fate of Paradise.
Decades later, a repressive, Orwellian conflict rages on. Welcome to Wonderland.