The Native Tourist : Driving into Srinagar
The airport lies about 15 miles south of Srinagar in Budgaam district. Budgaam used to be part of Srinagar district before being carved out as a separate district in 1979. I am a bit familiar with Budgaam. Not in the physical sense but from stories of my childhood, narrated by my grandmother during my yearly summer visits. Budgaam in those stories was one big farm – lush green and a purveyor of blessings that manifested year round in our Thaal (dinner plate).
As a young man my grandfather would often make trips to Budgaam on his bicycle to visit the family farms. He was spared these arduous trips soon after his father’s death, which coincided with land reforms ushered in by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah at the dawn of independent India. I digress.
We stepped out and into a waiting Scorpio and started towards Srinagar. The initial miles along the Old Airport Road are enveloped by plain and simple bucolic beauty that is typical of any countryside. Kashmir’s version presents few men walking languidly along the road, small groups of schoolchildren – always in uniform – and few general merchandize shops. Also dotting the landscape are characteristic Kashmiri dwellings, two levels most of them with the top level often just a shell with holes that will someday get a window. All houses have slanted metal-corrugated roofs, few brightly colored but most left unpainted.
And then the pattern emerged. Like recurring milestones, soldiers, mostly in ones and twos, started appearing along the road. The heavy security presence around the airport itself had acclimatized the eye but only now did their pervasiveness started to register. Like milestones they kept flashing by, seemingly rooted but with a listless oscillating gaze that betrayed their transplant relationship with the landscape. The tourist felt reassured, the native wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
Soon I was distracted by flush of memories as we entered the outskirts of the city. I knew this place but it looked a bit different now. The area along the airport road was less developed in my recollection. I started to look for the small lane that connected airport road to Sanat Nagar, a neighborhood located roughly parallel to this road where our family had built a new house in early eighties. I spotted one that looked similar but I’m not sure if it was the same one.
The small connector roads of the past probably still exist but are very hard to find now.
Moving on we crossed Ram Bagh bridge and the landscape was more recognizable now. Sports stadium, then Jehangir chowk (square), hopping over Amira Kadal (bridge) onto Residency Road and cutting over to Maulana Azad road along the famous Pratap park or ‘Polo ground’ as it used to be commonly known. I wondered if it had a new name now. I looked out for SP College road that would take you to Barbarshah, our ancestral neighborhood in the old town. Golf Course, then the ever crowded Dal gate area and finally we reached our hotel on the boulevard – a peripheral leafy road that hugs the lake.
As I alluded to earlier this was going to be my first time ever staying in a hotel in Srinagar. Lounging comfortably in our room overlooking the Dal lake, my wife offered to order in some hot refreshing tea from room service. Qasim bhai’s welcoming charm had already made the native tourists comfortable.