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By Chintan Girish Modi

People ask me what Kashmir was like in the five days that I spent there. They look relieved that I have returned alive, limbs intact, spectacles unbroken. But their thirst for a good story is difficult to quell.

I am glad they are interested in more than my Facebook photographs but pat answers are not my thing. I prefer bonfire to text message, homemade butter to instant spreads. I sniff to sense a readiness for the full-blown account.

The funny part is that most people come to a story, not to listen but to test their predictions. They expect a masala Bollywood film with snow-stung trees, people with cheeks like soft, fresh apples, and a dramatic crossfire between armed men of varying loyalties and persuasions.

The ordariness of roadside tea spiced with ginger is too mundane for those who see a conflict zone where others see dregs of dreams, and laughter on mute. And the omnipresence of barbed wire, too menacing for seekers of picture postcards.

I too went looking for the Kashmir of my imagination. Of Lal Ded and Agha Shahid Ali. Of Dara Shukoh and Kheer Bhavani. Of Isa and Habba Khatoon. There is history beyond the blood-soaked present, which only the chinars can tell, for the chroniclers of today are too short-sighted to see beyond their ideological caves.

Kashmir took me right into the heart of suffering, that deep inescapable kind the Buddha learnt about. It was like smelling fear for the first time, and knowing what wounds taste like when you have them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Without fail. Every single day.

I will never forget what the bearded young cartoonist told me. “I am afraid of the water,” he said. “I never go into the Dal Lake. I think I might see skulls of dead Kashmiris.” An infinite number have died, and will continue to, till each one buys their own freedom. Peace comes at a cost.

Note: This piece recounting my experiences in Kashmir in the November of 2016 was commissioned by Bina Sarkar Ellias, and was first published in the ‘Peace’ issue of International Gallerie, Vol. 20. №1., 2017. To lay your hands on the print version of this magazine, please get in touch with galleriemag@gmail.com

Writer, educator and researcher

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