After 20 Days, Valley Opens For Business

17 August 2008
The Times of India

Srinagar: Under the unusually harsh Sunday sun, Srinagar chose to give a break to 20 days of closure to wear a different look. The shops lifted shutters, if only by half. The cars came out in droves. The shoppers went for a quick buy. A few foreign tourists also walked by. Even Omar Abdullah showed up. Fayaz, idling outside his cloth shop, said he was just bored sitting at home. It was on August 1 that he last opened the doors to what is a collection of bridal wear and a literal riot of colours. On the edge of Lal Chowk and a police station, he could not have. It is wedding time. And the tension has forced many cancellations. The separatists' decision to give a Sunday-break to residents before resuming 'normal' service on Monday with a march to the UN office was good enough for many to step out. Girls accompanied by mothers and women with husbands showed a sense of purpose. 'It's a relief,' laughed one. A turbaned Sikh sat waiting on his scooter at Regal Chowk while his wife crossed the pavement, ducked under the half-open shutter of a shop making a face and placed her specifications to the salesman. The relieved man said, 'This work had to be done.' At a plush showroom behind Residency Hotel, a few young men came out with packets. 'Wedding clothes ordered earlier,' guessed a guard outside. It was explained, 'The wedding dates are on for 15 more days and then the prospective brides and grooms have to wait till Eid.' Even Qasi pan shop was up for some business. Out went cigarette packets. As did shampoo sachets. One realized they eat 'pan masala' in Srinagar - both 'zarda' and 'sada'. Few steps ahead came the revelation that 'chhola kulcha' sells here, though Kashmiri-style. And it's cheaper than in its home, Delhi. 'Only Rs 5,' came the soliciting voice. On Sunday, Srinagar was relaxed and edgy. If it bared the anger, it also brought out the mundane worries of ration supplies and work - in short, normalcy. And everyone had one question on their lips - what after Monday? Eyes were set on Hyderpura where hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani sat brainstorming with Hurriyat leaders on the future course of action. The bazaar was abuzz that the city could open from Tuesday. There was speculation that Mirwaiz-led softliners felt daily life had to go on, but the hardliners were against puncturing the momentum by again making people used to workplaces, schools, restaurants, wazwans. Like in all troubled zones, journalists are an ubiquitous lot. And they were flooded with queries. One sign of impending normalcy was resurfacing of Omar Abdullah. He, incommunicado during the sound and fury of street protests, called a press conference, to smiles all around. The young leader tried to match the separatists with 'those who claimed Kashmir was the crown of India have revealed they treat us like slaves' but showed the 'autonomy' to proffer the sober dialogue route at the risk of popular opprobrium. If the easy-yet-edgy Srinagar grappled with problems, there were few solutions, the simplest being 'azadi', and many arguments. At Residency Road, a small trigger drew out myriad feelings. Shabbir, who confessed being an Indian while saying the claim could be confirmed from friends sitting around, felt the communal charge in Jammu risked pushing him away. 'I am an Indian but when RSS-BJP raised the religious tone, I got angry. Only the other day, the whole city had protested when a lunatic spoke against Hindus,' he said. His friends are not really fire-spitting azadiwallahs but cursed political leaders 'for splitting India with Jammu blockade'. Delhi seemed barking up the wrong tree in its daily claims that there was no choking of highway. It is a myth well sold, if untrue. But drive 40-km to Patan, and there is helplessness in the blooming apple orchards. Mushtaq Ahmed has blood-red 'Bulgaria' and the 'Babgosha' ripe for plucking but he is holding on. The drivers are scared because of Jammu situation and the trucks are not moving owing to Srinagar tension. With every dropping apple - and there's a heap - he sees lakhs going down the drain. If Mushtaq's insecure, so was Basheer Ahmed. He is not dealing in lakhs but his excellently maintained three-wheeler bought three years ago fetches him enough to run his household. 'The auto has come out after 10 days and tomorrow is closed again,' he said, short of cursing his anonymous enemies. He tried his luck on Saturday but 'do teen haath pad gaye'. At downtown Hebbakadal, a band of youth did not like his violation. After days, Basheer drove and Fayaz vented his feelings freely as Sunday brought a break from the frozen battle of Srinagar streets, hanging out a bit of life and hope. But Monday is another day.