Season of whiteouts and blackouts

Despite the calm in the Valley and spurt of life, hardship continues to colour a Kashmiri’s fate, says Riyaz Wani

Snow has swamped the Valley with fury this winter. It is back to the days of endless white vistas, frozen streets and deep, leaden skies that add to the teeth-chattering chill. However, what made headlines this winter was not the scenic beauty or the harsh weather conditions but the power blackout, which engulfed Jammu and Kashmir and its Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s desperate efforts to restore basic amenities while struggling with the fallout of the killing of a youth during a protest outside the NHPC hydel project in Uri against the lack of electricity.

The snow this year also symbolises the restoration of normality in Valley rather than as an add-on to the sufferings caused by the unremitting cycle of bloodshed. Director General of Police Kuldip Khoda is already on record saying that violence in J&K had declined to an all-time low in 2011.

In the last two decades of relentless turbulence, snow and the consequent dip in temperature piled on the state’s miseries. Snowing pummeled Waltengo in south Kashmir toppling an entire village clinging up the hillside. The woes further compounded after the October 8, 2005 trembler, which shook Kashmir across the Line of Control—the state’s lingering political fault line—killing more then 80,000 people.

But this year, snow, its ferocity notwithstanding, is at the centre of recovery and revival of Kashmir after many a bleeding dry seasons. It has, for once, unfolded as a pure process of healing; a Chronicle of Narnia in inversion presided over by a benign ‘White Witch’ exorcising the demons of the past, but not necessarily. Like previous winters, snow can end up as little more than a physical whitewash again exposing the scars and wounds as it recedes.

At 8,960 feet, Gulmarg, Kashmir’s last frontier of snow, is teeming with tourists. According to the Department of Tourism, hotels in the famous hill resort enjoy high occupancy, a rarity over the last two decades. The place also has the world’s highest golf course making it a premier tourist and sporting destination even during summers. However, Gulmarg has an uneasy political pedigree as well. It was here in the yellowest of autumn on August 9, 1953, when J&K’s legendary leader Sheikh Abdullah was arrested, plunging the state in a lingering political uncertainty since. From here, the state headed straight into the deep chill of winter. The winters that followed were peaceful but edgy.

In the past 20 years, however, winters in the Valley have been the most cruel—grey and faraway landscape lingering in terrifying silence before being overtaken by the sweeping hush of snow. Those were the winters, many of them smotheringly snow-bound and some suffocatingly snowless, when violence was rampant. The siege of Hazratbal, one of Kashmir’s most revered shrines, virtually locked up the freezing Valley for six weeks. When Charar-i-Sharief, the sacred shrine of Kashmir’s patron saint was burnt in the two- month-long stand-off between militants and security forces, it triggered widespread mayhem. And when backwaters of Hajin, the stronghold of the dreaded counter-insurgency outfit Ikhwanul Muslimoon, sizzled with the horror of revenge.

Perhaps, more than any other season winters have a way of imprinting themselves on the mind and on the collective psyche too—in Kashmir’s case. Memories drift along the frosty air, of the hills fraught with trouble, of the roads ruled by dread, and of the earth held fast by the prickly concertina rolls, lest it cut loose.

The memory goes further back, to peaceful times when snow came drifting in discreet masses of dark flakes before filling up the courtyard with a white fluff and changing the topography further afield.

A typical winter tale, told by the elders to a young audience snuggled in the quilt, would be about Heemal and Nagrai, Kashmir’s own mythical star-crossed lovers; Gul Raze, a Kashmiri epic of love, or about the Valley’s own versions of witches and ghosts lurking in the dark, snow-covered streets. Kashmir has a tradition of folktales going back 900 years when Kathasaritsagara (ocean of tales) was composed by Somadev. The stories created a supernatural aura about the environment and turned foggy white expanses into a fairytale world. In fact, Kashmiris of pre-89 stock have their individual recollections of the defining archetypal images of snow that bind Kashmiris.

It is while reminiscing about these days that the Kashmiri poet and Jnanpith Award winner Rehman Rahi writes: “Snows melt, winds blew, orchards blossomed; O, spring do affirm that this land too is witness to better days.” The octogenarian Rahi talks about the tradition of Kitabkhanas (raconteurs) in his youthful days. “People invited Kitabkhanas on snowy nights. He read and sang Kashmiri folktales from the books till dawn. Neighbours and extended family were invited and winter delicacies served,” he says.

In Kashmir, winters start with bonfires made out of flaming Chinar leaves. The smoke that virtually hangs from the twining branches like an endearing spell. The smoke is also the final signal that it is only a few days before the remaining Chinar leaves are shed and soon dark clouds will hover over the now barren lands and impregnate them with snow.

However, all this was before Kashmir’s winters exploded in piercing wails followed sounds of gunfire through the frigid villages and cities, and in bodies floating down the river Jhelum. Living behind slammed doors, Kashmiris forgot to look up the snow falling out the window, appreciate the pointed rows of icicles under the eaves or the glaze of frost on bare branches. That was before snow fell again this year.

This year the Valley seemed redeemed—it’s been the calmest in years, which is reflected in the calm in the air and fresh inflow of the tourists. “This winter there has been a substantive increase in the tourist arrivals to Kashmir. Snow in Kashmir is certainly a story in its own right now,” says Director Tourism Farooq Shah. “We are getting well-paying tourists, both domestic and foreign, who can fly to Kashmir and have the means to brave the Valley’s harsh winter.”

Snow in Kashmir is also important for its novelty for almost 99 per cent of Indians. And with increasing rail and air link to the mainland, the state hopes to become a winter tourism hub. “This winter has been a good beginning. We look forward to the future with hope,” adds Shah.

However, for all its metaphorical dimensions and its conspicuous boost in tourism, snow is a hard fact of life for an average Kashmiri. More so when it falls in the period of Chillai-Kalan, the Valley’s own presiding winter deity—pursuit of the means to keep homes warm takes precedence over everything else. Sale of Kangris—traditional Kashmiri fire-stove—gas and electric heaters shoots up.

Despite the mad rush to seek shelter from the cold, problems persist. For, no matter what one does, the merciless chill finds its way in through the thick curtains on the doors and polythene-sealed windows. The effect is accentuated by the frozen water pipes, unreliable electric supply and, of course, the shortage of essential commodities such as cooking gas and kerosene oil.

“Snow fell in the Valley on 4 January. It is eight days since but our village is still without power,” says Khurshid Ahmad Ganai from North Kashmir village of Dangiwacha. “Our taps don’t run. The women have to go back to the village spring to fetch water. We face severe hardships.”