Sarita Sarvate

Kashmir On My Mind

Apr 28, 2005

Pacific News Service

BY SARITA SARVATE

Editor's Note: An Indian American remembers how the mystical mountain valleys of Kashmir were, through Bollywood films, forever embedded in her imagination. Recent moves toward peace in the disputed region give the writer hope that Hindus and Muslims can embrace a mutual history there.

The news that India and Pakistan have decided to rebuild a bridge across the border in Kashmir elated me.

I have always known that armed conflicts, Al Qaeda terrorists, not even the nuclear threat will ever persuade any Indian citizen to give up Kashmir.

Why?

The answer lies in one word: Bollywood.

Kashmir first dawned on my consciousness with the advent of color in Hindi films.

As a child growing up in the plains of India, I hadn't seen an ocean or a mountain. The Bollywood classic "Junglee" opened up for me a vista, in which Saira Banu skied down snow covered slopes, her silk scarf blowing in the wind; where shikaras floated on Dal Lake holding couples embracing in love.

Soon, my adolescent fantasies all had Kashmir as a backdrop.

I couldn't believe my luck therefore when, a few years later, I was able to go there with a student group. We traveled on winding switchbacks in a rickety bus that seemed to plunge down cliffs at every turn, singing "Suhana Safar" -- Beautiful Journey -- that eternal travel song of Hindi cinema.

We climbed glaciers on horseback, frolicked in the snow like film stars and picked saffron fresh off the plants. So inspired was I by this heaven on earth that I wrote long letters to my father along the way; my first forays into literary writing.

For me, the magical moment came while meditating in the stone pavilions of the Shalimar Gardens, listening to water cascading down its terraces.

At night, we attended a sound and light show recreating the life of Queen Nur Jahan, for whom Emperor Jehangir had created the Gardens.

It was then I learned the checkered history of the valley.

Kashmir has been a gateway to the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial. Alexander the Great and Chinese traveler Hien-Tsang visited there.

It is even alleged that Jesus came there after the Resurrection.

In the 1300s, when Muslim invaders conquered India, Kashmir became a de facto summer capital, developing a large Islamic population.

Later, during British colonial rule, many principalities were allowed control of their territories; Kashmir was one such kingdom.

At the time of independence in 1947, the British gave the kingdoms a choice to join either India or Pakistan.

Alas, an Islamic uprising resulted in Kashmir, suppressed with India's military assistance, in return for which the king acceded to that country.

In 1948, India took the issue to the United Nations and a Line of Control was established, which remains today the effective border between India and Pakistan.

Since then, the neighbors have fought a 1965 war over the valley.

Still, during most of my formative years, political strife over the valley's rule had not manifested in the daily lives of its residents. There were no bombings, no religious riots, no killings, no rapes. Terrorism was something we associated only with the Middle East then.

So, in the mid-70s, I visited Kashmir again, with an American pen pal, this time staying on a houseboat, where my friend took an award-winning photo of me swimming in Dal Lake.

Compelled by an inexplicable bravado, I decided to water-ski.

It was my moment of sublimation; I was Saira Banu, splashing in the water, as the mountains whirled around me.

Since then, I have seen the Half Dome in Yosemite, walked the sand dunes of Death Valley, sailed the Milford Sound of New Zealand, frolicked in the black sands of Tahiti; but for me, Kashmir will always be the only heaven on earth.

Alas, a whole generation of Indians have missed out on the valley, torn by ethnic violence.

Ironically, thanks to Bollywood, Kashmir has remained embedded in the Indian psyche as the last paradise on earth. It is the one place all Indians wish to see before passing from this life.

This is perhaps why no Indian will ever give up Kashmir.

The only solution to the conflict therefore is for Hindus and Muslim to cohabit the valley, as they did before, for hundreds of years.

Now, with the news of peace between India and Pakistan, I myself am looking forward to a day, not in the too distant future, when I will be able to take my children to Kashmir. And I am hoping that no Hindu or Muslim will try to deconstruct history, but embrace it instead as our glorious past.

PNS contributor Sarita Sarvate (naladamayanti@yahoo.com) is a physicist and a writer for India Currents and other publications.