When cars opened gates, shoes stepped out and television sets followed..
Trepidation gripped me this time as I hurriedly packed for Kashmir. Every time I had carried a little bit of Amritsar to Kashmir. It would be ‘anardana wali mathhi, dry golgappas, aam-paapar, even wadiis that Kashmir had no taste for. Friends accepted them with love and even asked for recipes. I know hospitality is drubbed in the genes of both Punjabis and Kashmiris and thus the inevitable closeness.
My daughter pointed to a clear cellophane bag in my suitcase. “What is this?” she asked. “These are flower seeds”, I replied. “Why”? “I want to spread some cheer in Kashmir after the floods!” She hugged me and I hugged the thought of these pink and yellow crocus-lilies that would emerge without much care and multiply like rabbits, throwing off their seeds and spreading joy. In the past I had carried so many Chinar, fruiting and flowering saplings every time I came back from Kashmir, shared the saplings with some ardent gardeners, resolved to make a Char-Chinari, the namesake of an island in Dal Lake that once boasted of four massive Chinar trees, in the part of my garden christened as ‘Kashmir’.
My pen feels shaky to write the firsthand account of mass devastation of Kashmir, when all I had written were paeans about its glory, the serene loving waters bobbing with shikaras, saluted by intricately carved houseboats in the backdrop of Pir Panjal range of Himalayas and emerging tall firs, pines, willows, their paths sprinkled with exotic multi-hued, multi-shaped flowers and umpteen fragrances lazing in its winds.
The floods of the intervening night of 6-7 September in Jammu & Kashmir had virtually given me hydrophobia, even as I remained safe hundreds of miles away, in Amritsar. I looked askance at the running tap-water – ‘Oh my cool, mild, serene mannered elixir of life, could you have been in such a rage so as to wreak havoc in your own paradise?’
Creepy creatures, spider-webbed foliage, creaky doors and windows and strange happenings, horror movies often use these symbolisms. Imagine something emerging from reel to real. In the early days of October, nearly a month after the catastrophe, motor pumps were still draining out water from heavily flooded localities of Raj Bagh, Jawahar Nagar, Indira Nagar and Shivpora in Srinagar. As water receded, muddied monstrous bungalows emerged out and the once manicured blooming gardens, now laden with mud hung menacingly.
The typical arch gateways festooned with flowering climbers in gardens, tall pines, rose bushes, all looked lopsided, disfigured and drooping, displaying burnt decay lines to show water levels that rose to nearly 20 feet and more in some of these areas.
If I had ever compared Kashmir to world’s other touristy places and pointed out that boundary walls were jarring and obstructing its scenic beauty, please forgive me. I had meant no harm; least of all wished the terrible vanishing of these walls, which became the first casualty of the ferocious waters. Cars were seen crashed on second floors, television sets hung on walls and tree guards, windows and doors splashed out on overhanging wires.
Abdul Rashid (45) shudders and recalls “We helplessly watched on the morning of September 7, as our car bobbed outside the first floor, boxed open the main gate and our shoe-rack with all slippers and shoes kept in the front veranda tip-toed behind it. Slowly we saw these touching power wires and horror gripped us. In just an hour we hurriedly threw blankets on the upper floors as waters rose speedily with nearly one meter inundated every hour.
Rashid’s wife in tears, talked about the three dark days before their rescue, “We scrimped and scrapped to feed our two young children, as we had very limited stocks and could not retrieve much from the ground floor”. Another couple in Lasjan, who slept on their second storey, found creeping water dodging their beds as if gnarled hands were about to choke their throats, got up in terror and waded through the water to window sills and then to the upper storey.
A senior bank officer dragged himself and his wife to the third floor of their house in Indira Nagar only to notice a huge beehive below the slanting roof. Recalling the terrifying moment, he said -“I thought if somehow we escape drowning, the bees would surely make us their meal.” Both climbed to safety from second floor windows into boats with just the clothes and shoes they were wearing. Sumit Talwar a trader from Amritsar was air lifted by helicopter and then left to fend for himself near the airport. “After three days, aboard the free flight from Srinagar, I ate like I had never seen food before”.
Bharat Bhushan Bhat, president of Zeashta Devi Prabandhak Committee held his head in his hands and told us about 7000 people including 23 newborns and their mothers who took refuge in the ancient Zeashta Devi temple premises on September 7-8 and some on the third day too. “People came from all sections and communities as the temple is high up on the hill on the site of a pure water spring. The new mothers were all Kashmiris from Lal Ded Hospital and some had had caesarean sections. We covered their enclosure with soft thermo-sheets that are laid underneath carpets for insulation in Kashmiri homes. People slept on stairs and begged for a cardboard to keep below their bodies, young children slept on the bellies of their fathers or mothers and we fed them the entire ration that we had stocked.”
Even as loud wailings were heard throughout the Kashmir valley and people gripped and grasped to safety with the civil administration remaining completely paralyzed, partly due to fury touching them too and partly by choice, neighbours helped neighbours and the thieves had a field day, as humanity simultaneously put its best and worst foot forward in face of the colossal calamity.
My so loved, Maharaja Partap Singh Museum, Tourist Reception Center, Government Arts Emporium, housed in a heritage building, lay critically injured and nearly dead. Plastered with sticky silt, most of the city houses, shops, business establishments were awash with mud, algae, fungus and water that hardly discriminated between a tap and a sewer. Toothbrush too needed to be washed with mineral water as also the last rinse after the muddy water bath.
Rafiq snatched two thermo-sheets from floating waters rolled them up, balanced a wooden ladder and used a wooden plank to row it. He took whatever anybody could pay and also took many to safety for free. More innovative ideas with plastic drums helped to rescue several lives. People were pained and aggrieved about rescuer’s selectively choosing tourists over them until it was explained that non-local population is the first to be rescued in such calamities to arrest the number of casualties. “Locals know the topography of the area, have food stocks and a support circle. They can sustain for a few hours more but tourists are vulnerable and completely rudderless.”
Sajid Farooq, MD of Comrade Inn, a luxury hotel in Rajbagh, whose hotel roof top was used to save hundreds by chopper-rescue operations, was probably the lone buoyant soul around the depression debris and deluge. “Two storeys of my hotel were completely submerged in water and are destroyed. But I will remake them better than I made them back then.” I was dumbfounded by this optimism and silently prayed for this spirit to scatter its blooms in the mud, for Kashmiri lotuses to emerge once again.
A young Kashmir University student Hafiz who gave me a ride from Srinagar airport as taxis were not available, sounded me to be careful during distribution of relief material. “In our locality not a drop of flood water entered, yet many neighbours left their houses in the morning and returned in the evening with blankets and dry rations”. Mohammed Amin, the truck driver who carried our relief material for flood victims from the air cargo in Srinagar, not only charged us nominally, refused any tips and refused to accept even a single blanket or a kilo of rice that we offered him –“Please give it to someone needy. By the Grace of Allah, my family is safe.”
Habibullah, a shikarawala, looked up at sunny skies, days after the disaster in thanksgiving, with his hands raised in prayer and mercy. Suddenly he turned vitriolic — “This is just a ‘missed call’ given by Allah!” he boomed, “If Kashmiris do not set right their paths, Allah will give the ‘Assal call’ for the ultimate disaster and teach a bigger lesson”. I was shocked. I have listened when Kashmiris revealed their inner feelings in hush hush tones and hardly took it seriously because inevitably they sang a different tune in company of their own, out of fear or conviction. But little could I imagine a Kashmiri introspecting or even castigating and rapping his own people, that too openly, fearlessly. It was jaw-dropping and hard to digest.
Satisfied over the relief distribution, I saw how locals helped outsiders, neighbours helped neighbours and everyone pooled in resources, yet the terror was such that those who returned to relief camps after visiting their destroyed homes turned nearly dumbstruck with shock. The catastrophe was raw, rough and rotting. I went about like a zombie, looking at half drowned houses, wading through contaminated water, inspecting trees and plants, walking on muck roads till the time came for me to return.
During my departure this time, I smoothly passed through the baggage check, there were no Chinar or flower or fruit saplings accompanying me this time, to invite ire and objections of airport security , only plastic tulips bought at a store outside the airport that came under no objection and I wondered when the cheer will return to Kashmir again.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN RISING KASHMIR ON SEP 28, 2014