May 2007 News

Kashmir's Years Of Turmoil In A Guest Book

31 May 2007

Srinagar: Sitting in a hotel houseboat on Dal Lake one evening and staring blankly at a laptop while failing to make sense of Kashmir, I dipped into a leather-bound volume that lay enticingly on a table. Mundanely labeled the 'Guest Book', it contained the scribbled musings of previous visitors. One of the first entries I read, from 2003, seemed uncannily accurate as a tentative peace process took hold in Jammu and Kashmir, India's northernmost state and the source of three conflicts between India and Pakistan.'Kashmiris seem bone- weary of war, cautiously hopeful,' it read. I was on a reporting assignment to find out how Kashmir was faring after 18 years of a separatist war that had killed tens of thousands of people and reduced 'Paradise on Earth' to one of the world's most militarized regions. An hour later, I saw how visitors' comments charted a history of Muslim-majority Kashmir, naively at times perhaps, but a history nonetheless. 'You want more Sahib?,' said Gulam Butt, the elderly, immaculately dressed owner of Clermont Houseboats. Over the years, he has played host to the likes of Beatle George Harrison, the politician and businessman Nelson Rockefeller and the actress Joan Fontaine when they came to Kashmir to marvel at Dal Lake and the snowcapped Himalayas. His houseboats are one of those journalistic institutions that crop up in conflict zones, like the old Commodore Hotel in Beirut or the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo. Despite the lack of phones or a bar and only intermittent power, the beauty of the setting and loyal service have enticed many a scribe. 'I have 14 volumes, which one you want?' asked Mr. Butt, whose family has owned the houseboats since the 1940s. Soon more books appeared. The only sound was the Muslim prayers echoing over the water. I started taking notes with the most famous entry of all, in 1966.'With thanks to a very peaceful stay in Clermont,' was George Harrison's entry. Next was Ravi Shankar's. The late Beatle and the Indian musician played sitar in Clermont's garden under a tree. CHILDREN'S DRAWINGS The 1960s and 1970s were packed with comments like 'Paradise on Earth'. Those were innocent days when visiting U.S. diplomats signed off with real addresses. Some complained of the weather. A British couple joked about the lack of gin and tonic. 1989 arrived. The insurgency started. Most visitors failed to recognize the troubles; Kashmir's beauty hid darker secrets. By 1990, violence had set in. 'I am saddened by the hard times that everybody is obviously experiencing,' wrote a New Zealander. Then visits dried up. A year would pass in a few pages. An entire decade almost fit in one volume. Most of the comments came from journalists. Tourists seemed to return in 1998, but the visits ended when India battled Pakistan-backed militants in the 1999 'Kargil' war and hundreds died.By 2003 there were signs of improvement. A few European visitors. By 2004 and 2005, there were children's drawings. Some months were curiously empty. 'That's when there were incidents,' said Mr. Butt, who found it hard to talk about violence. In October, 2005 the book went blank. 'While we had an eye out for the militancy, we did not expect the boat to shudder so violently and the garden to feel like the deck of a swaying ship this morning,' a visitor wrote. He was referring to an earthquake which killed 73,000 people. The few guest comments were from relief teams. Then sparse pages began to fill. There were childrens' drawings again. 'The prospect of lasting peace tangible at last,' a visitor wrote in 2007. I wondered how many more sparse pages the guest books would see. I hoped for peace, and tourists, as I said goodbye..'Inshallah,' said the ever smiling Mr. Butt. 'God Willing'.


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