KABOOM! A low, authoritative shot — from a rocket launcher? — reverberated through the darkness in the distance. A single roar. KABOOM. Another one. A bomb? About five blasts of rapid fire followed.
“What was that?” I asked my then-boyfriend Michael (not his real name).
“Oh, shit,” is all he said.
The salvo sounded close, yet far enough away that we didn’t need to run for safety. With incongruous beauty, an ocean of shimmering stars splashed above us. Water lapped quietly against the sides of our rented deluxe wooden houseboat, the S. Shabash. Besides the short, bass burst of weaponry and quick gunfire response, only crickets disturbed the stillness.
We were supposed to be relaxing on the outer bow deck while floating on stunning Dal Lake in Srinagar, capital of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s contentious northwest state that borders Pakistan. After a week of trekking through downpours in remote northern mountains, fording swift, glacier-fed rivers, trudging through mud, and trying to find footholds on perilously steep slopes, this was meant to be our carefree reprieve in near-noiseless peace.
Michael and I had arrived in the area on India’s Independence Day, Aug. 15, 1990 — not an auspicious time, even in this pre-ISIS world, to be in a divided area that viewed foreigners as possibly hateful enemies. Populated by a Muslim majority and Hindu minority, this region was home then to two main rival guerrilla factions that fought over India’s occupation of Kashmir: the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. Each group wanted to define its own political space as homeland. Despite potential danger and Michael’s concerns, I had been curious to experience this former summer retreat for India’s Moghul rulers, now full of houseboats. (I found the origin of the houseboats ingenious: under the previous Raj period of British rule, Kashmir’s leader had not allowed the Brits to own land in his region. To circumvent that, they had built floating homes.)
As far as we knew, Michael and I were among only a handful of tourists in the immediate region. Unknowingly, we had arrived past evening curfew, imposed from six p.m. to six a.m. Although we were told later that rebels had recently killed four German tourists, my months in India had taught me not to believe all such stories. One tale, that the tourist centre in Leh, Ladakh had burned to the ground, had already proven untrue.
The next day, Michael and I found out that we had, indeed, heard rocket launchers. This marked their first-ever use in this area in the ongoing conflict, according to our Kashmiri houseboat owner and host, a friend of Michael’s. The Islamist militant group Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which wanted Kashmir to merge with Pakistan and separate from India, had targeted the nearby Broadway Hotel in Srinagar, where the Indian military stayed. Frightened local soldiers were vowing they wouldn’t fight the militants and were retreating onto houseboats, he said. Morale in the Indian army was low. The army’s Sikhs said they wouldn’t fight against the militants, he told us, and local police were expressing anti-government sentiment.
We learned that no international journalists or the Red Cross were allowed into the region. All mail was opened and censored. A full-page appeal in the local press called for international attention to the alleged rapes, looting, torturing, and indiscriminate killing committed by the Indian army. How much was truth and how much propaganda? I felt torn. I was not there as a journalist, yet found myself thinking like one since my training had never left. I did not know which sources to believe. We were there only for several days, not enough time to apprise myself of all of the facts. Besides, I wasn’t die hard enough to risk my life for a story and sorely needed to rest.
The local police were retreating into a hotel, fearful of the rockets. The Liberation Front was refusing aid from Pakistan, choosing to run its own separate operation. There were verbal reports that more than a hundred militant groups were operating in the area. Between 1989 and 1999, more than 35,000 people, about nine a day, died in this Muslim-dominated region. Al Jazeera has reported that an estimated 200,000 Hindus fled the Kashmiri region after an anti-India rebellion blew up in 1989.
Michael thought that the militants should call in the international press as witnesses, then declare Kashmir a peace zone. He and I spent hours talking politics, life choices, and social structures. He believed in the need for laws and external control rather than relying on individual conscience. Philosophically, I felt more attuned to the latter. India had gained independence from Britain in August 1947. Back then, India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had wanted the United Nations to monitor Kashmir, which lay partitioned between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. Kashmir’s Hindu Maharajah decided to side with India, Pakistan invaded, and the border between the two countries has been in dispute ever since. Following the partition, Mahatma Gandhi had wanted to release the region’s future to fate, a perspective Michael considered naïve.
It felt odd to luxuriate in a place where my privilege stood so removed from the locals’ dangers and daily lives. The Kashmiris were desperate for tourist income. I rationalized that at least we were financially helping one family. The houseboat owner told us that Mick Jagger and then-wife Jerry Hall had allegedly stayed and argued on this same houseboat years before. He said that Hall got in a huff because she thought that Jagger was wasting too much time getting stoned.
Our vessel had a carved walnut ceiling and walls, embroidered crewel curtains, and teak furniture. What a contrast to the wind-whipped, draft-riddled tent fly we had huddled under to attempt sleep during our trek. Now I wallowed gleefully in the hot shower, a rarity in my backpacker travels. We indulged in hot food — saffron rice, curried vegetables, and saffron tea — served at a table with plates and cups refilled. Oh, the joys of clean hair and skin after enduring days of mud and armpits that smelled like cat pee.
My body still ached from our week’s hike on precipitous, unmarked shepherds’ paths in the mountains of Kashmir Valley to the east. We had planned to venture from the village of Panikar to Gulol Gali pass at about 4,450 metres but several washouts had forced us to change our route. Monsoon-like rains had left our clothes and socks drenched, our hands raw and numb. Sheep. Clouds. Mud. More mud. In the remote village shops we had initially entered for provisions, it had unnerved me to see framed photos of the repressive Ayatollah Khomeini. I could only imagine what the shopkeepers must have thought of finding a western woman like me, sinful and corrupting in Khomeini’s eyes, in their store.
At one river crossing, Michael had tried to convince me to jump from a wet rock over rapids to the other side. Some Indian soldiers, the Assam Rifles, who were then sharing a trail with us, leaped over and extended a hand to help guide me over. Thinking of my injured knee and right ankle, weakened from a sprain during a trek years earlier, I balked. A vision of myself slipping off a rock and falling backwards into the rapids, carried downriver like a flipped turtle with my heavy backpack, overruled any desire to jump. I had already slid and tumbled more than twelve metres on a slippery patch of snow on this trek, left with shaky legs and scrapes after smashing into a large cluster of rocks.
Undeterred, Michael had kept leaping back and forth over the river, as if doing beginner warm-up exercises.
“Are you going to stand there all day?” he called across to me. My refusal to leap without hesitation had seemed to feed his contempt. To Michael, a professional climber and guide who worked summers in the area and had climbed numerous 8,000-metre-plus peaks, including Everest, this challenging trek was like an easy amble through an urban park. However, when a few of the military men chose to wade across the river in their black army boots, I figured that what was good enough for them would work for me. As Michael looked on, I forded across, boots and all, and got to the other side just fine.
Our final day of the trek had been August 14, Pakistan Independence Day, which, ironically, precedes India’s Independence Day by twenty-four hours. After that, Michael and I had ended up in a fixed-fare cab on the Beacon Highway headed for Srinagar, passing green valleys and swathes of barley fields, tall corn, and simple square houses of stone and brick. We had discussed the merits and drawbacks of going to Srinagar; my eagerness to stay on a houseboat and Michael’s desire to see his friends there won out.
An Indian army truck convoy had lumbered along the road ahead and behind us. Several times, soldiers waved us down to search our vehicle, which I recall vaguely as a battered sedan. Once, they used a metal detector while looking in the trunk and under the hood, but never asked Michael or me for identification. As we drove along, Michael told me about winter survival courses he had given in the Canadian Rockies to members of Britain’s Special Air Service. He mocked their lack of outdoor prowess and their inability to fend for themselves against the elements.
As we had continued past farms and sprawling fields, some Indian army soldiers stood at bridges with rifles slung over their shoulders while others loitered with what looked like submachine guns next to a small wall of shoulder-height sandbags. (No gun freak, I paid little attention to their weapons. Michael said that the militants liked Kalashnikovs, Russian-made submachine guns like the AK-47 assault rifle.) None of the armed young men grimaced, looked threatening or overly military, unlike the many uniformed and heavily armed soldiers I had seen in Burma and Latin America. These guys seemed more like bored boys at recess. As Michael and I rode along in the back seat of the cab, we saw a few gutted buildings and villages full of boarded-up shops but otherwise, the scene felt more like a high-school play about war, limited to scanty props. When we first arrived in Nehru Park in Srinagar, we chatted in English with friendly soldiers standing guard in the twilight. We saw no traffic. A few boys fished, using thin sticks as rods, while kingfishers, with brilliant green and blue feathers gleaming in strips of sun, darted over calm water.
Once aboard the S. Shabash, I soon learned that the owner’s tall, twenty-three-year-old son lusted after western women and wanted to get married. He seemed like a teen trapped in a man’s body. Previous female middle-aged guests had supposedly seduced him in early-morning hours or after a late-night massage. Following me around like a forlorn puppy, he tried to corner me several times by the bedroom with a peck on the lips and a smothering embrace, repeatedly offering me a massage. I refused. Although an adult, he couldn’t read, which alarmed me. Despite his sexual harassment, the writing instructor in me wished that I could somehow give him the power of literacy. Later, I found out that his father had asked Michael to bring him “a dirty book” next time he visited.
Outside, the dry ridge of mountains left striking reflections on the lake’s soft blue surface. Kingfishers landed in the water with a loud plop, only to flutter off and perch nearby, bobbing and twitching their feathers and ruffling orange chests. Ragged-looking eagles flew low overhead, coming to rest on rooftops, seemingly as common as sparrows. We learned that some of the lake’s houseboats had been moved to keep them away from the militants’ crossfire.
The next night, Michael and I could hear a loud solo male voice filling the air: the call of the mosque. When I went for tea in the house behind the houseboat, I was the only woman of eight people in the room. Most of the females I had seen that day wore black, in purdah, and looked somber and dour. The men stayed indoors, smoking hookahs, talking politics, and drinking tea while the women remained separate, outside. Some of the women smiled graciously at me, as if in silent collusion. I wished that I could have conversed with them but they seemed cloistered and distant. Unlike the men, few of them spoke English.
* * *
Today, more than three decades later, the two parallel realities of tourism and apparent terrorism continue in Kashmir. At a surface level, a Trip Advisor web page beckons “Explore Kashmir” with scenic mountain shots. A September 2021 headline in The Hindu asks: “What better than Kashmir if you can’t go to Europe?” The accompanying article reports that during the pandemic, Kashmir has become India’s most sought-after 2021 destination, resulting in “a major bump in business for luxury hotels and golf courses.”
Yet, only two months later, a local Muslim grocery shop worker and police officer were shot dead in Kashmir by suspected rebels in early November 2021, according to Al Jazeera. The previous month, the same news outlet reported five dead in targeted attacks: a prominent Hindu chemist, a Hindu street vendor, Muslim taxi driver, a Hindu teacher, a Sikh teacher.
Conflict has intensified in the region since August 2019, when the Indian government ended the limited autonomy of the area and split it into two federally run union territories. Following this, a security lockdown was imposed for months, which resulted in the arrest and jailing of hundreds of Kashmiri activists, leaders, lawyers, and youths, says Al Jazeera.
It saddens me that religious rivalry and political violence continue in Kashmir, locals are still suffering, and some media outlets choose to downplay the risks for the sake of profit. Nowadays, even without the pandemic, I would never consider traveling there. A current Government of Canada web page offers this warning, accented with a large exclamation mark encircled in red: “Avoid all travel to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir due to the unpredictable security situation. There is a threat of terrorism, militancy, civil unrest and kidnapping.” That’s one caution my sixty-something self will believe and respect.