There are so many ways of describing the tragedy of the Kashmir valley, but my favourite is the comparison to a very beautiful woman. In her youth, the strongmen of the village fought bitterly over her. Eventually one of them got to take her home and make her his wife. But she made it clear she would never give him her heart. Over the years he tried everything, bought her expensive gifts, took her on lovely holidays, and brought home interesting people to meet her. Nothing worked, and sometimes out of frustration, because he cared so much and was so proud of this beautiful woman being his wife, the husband would yield to a violent streak. He would even lock her up; deny her sunlight and the company of others. It only made her sense of exploitation grow. And despite an illicit liaison with the other strongman who lost her, she never really regarded him either. Eventually, in the story, the husband gives up on winning her love, himself heartbroken, while she gives up on her hopes of leaving this man, reconciling herself to a future with him. Kashmir may never reach that final stage. But the sense of ill-usage the beautiful woman feels is shared by everyone you meet in the valley.
As a tourist, Kashmir's spectacular sights and its glorious weather capture you. But as a journalist, it is its tragedy that haunts you, and keeps taking you back to cover the story, despite the utter sense of hopelessness it engenders.
My very first assignment in Kashmir in the summer of 1995 had all the mix of romance and danger that a young television producer could ask for. Street protests at Lal Chowk everyday inevitably led to firing; or we would go to Maisuma, and spend the day watching as crowds would swell into the narrow lanes: go a few steps back and forward, baiting security forces with slogans of Azaadi, incurring their lathi charges and teargas before going home at sundown.
At the centre of all the intrigue was Hotel Ahdoos, a quiet 4-story hotel that all of out-of-town journalists would stay at. The Broadway Hotel was a CRPF bunker, taken over after it was attacked by militants - who had shot the bar to bits. The Grand Palace- the Oberoi in those days had become a glorified guest house for senior security officials, parts of it rumoured to be interrogation chambers and incarceration cells. So it was to Ahdoos we would flock - those were the days of non-24 hour news channels, and no internet updates, and we had the luxury of sitting down every evening with journalist friends and talking late into the night, under the stars. In any case, the government ensured we had very little electricity, and militants banned all except a few television channels, and we couldn't have done much else. Ahdoos built a legendary reputation, for the best food in town, but also for the people you would meet there - from intelligence officials to local militants. The army tended to steer clear of the place - and we used to go very quietly for briefings in the media liaison cell of the 15 Corp Command every few days. Srinagar was a small place, and within minutes of heading out for a story, everyone: the hotel receptionist, the police, the army, and the militants knew exactly who you had spoken to and what you had filmed.
Despite that, we were able to take a trek into the mountains that summer to meet with a commander of the newly formed Hizbul Mujahideen. After changing cars twice, dodging army check posts, we finally made it to a village perched high up in the hills where we waited for hours on a machan used for storing fodder until they finally arrived - a bunch of kids with scraggly beards, proudly slinging new AK-47s over their shoulders, trying to look older than their years, but unable to conceal the excitement they felt about being interviewed by this team from an American television channel (I worked with CNN International then).
Their leader Syed Mushtaq was all of 19 years old. Freshly returned from training in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, he was full of plans for freeing Kashmir. When we got down to setting up the camera though, I noticed him fall silent and looking at the ground. Thinking he was just camera-shy, I tried to make small-talk - only to be told by him that the problem was that his 'mazhab' didn't allow him to look directly at a woman. I ended up getting an assistant to sit across from him while I asked the questions from behind the camera. What strikes me now is the complete lack of fear any of us felt, as we listened to this group describe their struggle for independence - from both Pakistan and India, I should add. These were mere boys - fighting what they thought was a justified struggle for their own people, hardly any match for Indian security forces, and certainly no threat to us journalists.
(This is the first post in a four-part series on Kashmir. Tomorrow: The story of Al-Faran and political killings)