A Trip to Leh and Some (Bad) Memories!

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Leh is the northernmost part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. It was my first trip to this part of our state and I was excited. I started off at around 1:30 from Kargil. The beginning stretch of road about 3 or 4 km of was bumpy but I didn’t feel those bumps much because something was pounding against the wall of my chest stronger than the bumps of the road. Along the way, looking at the things around, tall, naked mountains, monstrous in extent, at times threatening and at times inviting, I was like, oh! It is a real ‘freak out’ destination.

The road to Leh is marvellous, serpentine but mostly even and smooth, hats off to BRO people. From the top it looks like a snake foraging among the sleeping monsters. Its curves have to be negotiated with patience and care. Surmounting mountains, crossing many “Las” we moved on, happily. Leh is not like Kashmir, it is not like Jammu either. It is different in every sense. Its climate, its culture and its inhabitants all looked entirely different to me. Faces there are pretty but bear more resemblance with those of china than with us.

Someone who has seen Kargil, at least a bit of it, and is going to Leh couldn’t help noticing stark difference in the level of development between the twin districts of Ladakh. There is a sharp, steep, very obvious contrast between the two districts. Leh is much ahead of Kargil as far the index of development is concerned. Its hospitals, shopping malls, roads, infrastructure in general have nothing to compare with in Kargil. Kargil has no functional airport; its main hospital is very small and is located in a noisy congested alley. The way to the hospital is not only narrow but steep as well. Schools especially for small children have barren lands for lawns. Dust storms rise high from the barren grounds of these schools when children play. Such scenes are horrific one is chilled to think the effect the dust will have on the health of these small children. Reasons whatever, it seems that in the march towards development Kargil has been chained to stay at the same place for years together where as Leh has moved much forward. Local politicians would know the whys and hows of this better. Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) is working in Leh and it is working in Kargil as well. Why is this huge disparity in the level of development between the two districts, only God knows! I wonder how LADHC people from Kargil feel when they visit their sister district. Does it force them to introspect?? Or, are they too busy to notice the “less important” things related to development? May be! People grappling with mundane needs of bread and butter are too much occupied to ask for answers from their elected representatives and the story goes on like that. The stark disparity between the two regions which are similar in so many respects is incomprehensible. Leh has cashed much on tourism; what prevents Kargil from doing so and become a tourist hotspot? The road to Zanskar goes through the heart of Kargil yet not much attention has been paid towards bringing these two regions on the tourist map. Vast extents of land at prime locations where hospitals, airport, universities, public utility offices, community parks, educational centres etc. could be constructed are under the occupation of Indian Army. Something sort of an airport is “under construction” near the main town, when it would be ready for public use none knows. Politicians long back should have relocated Indian Army to some other areas and cleared way for use of this land for development of infrastructure. Political activism required for development seem to be lacking in the local politicians.

Well, let us get back to my journey. I travelled to Leh in the month of October, probably, one of the ‘not so good’ times of the year to travel to this place. But for me, winter or summer, good time or bad time of the year, travel is travel and I love it.

It was a long journey by road. My excitement was slowly giving way to weariness and golden dusk was slowly replacing hot, harsh sun. We must have been somewhere very near to my dream ‘freak out’ destination when we saw a bar across the road for collection of toll tax. Someone stopped my vehicle and asked the driver for a sum of Rupees 100. My driver pointed towards the vehicle and told him something I couldn’t understand. My driver came to me and said “Medame” this guy is asking for toll tax I told him it was a govt. vehicle but he is not letting me pass. Meanwhile the tax collecting fellow also came towards the vehicle and started scanning it. It was a bit hazy, he looked a threatening creature to me, and he was drenched in dust from top to toe. Even the sunglasses he was wearing (at that time of the day) had an inch measure of dust on them. Only he knew how and what he could see through his sunglasses!! You obviously wouldn’t want to argue with such a strangely personality at such point of time and at such a place where your eyes could discern nothing but nude mountains and a long lonely road. I paid him the money and prodded my driver to move on, fast. I was indignant. Before having been to Leh ever people had told me “fairy-tales” about this place and its people, therefore, on my first visit to this place my expectations were high. The place didn’t disappoint me but the people did.

I reached my place of lodging at about 8:00 pm. I couldn’t see any staff anywhere. My driver searched here and there and ultimately got hold of chowkidaar. I and my driver were dead tired. He was struggling with whatever “little” baggage we had. Meanwhile some people appeared on the scene they watched my driver struggle with the luggage but none came forward to help. They were, as if, waiting for his collapse. We in Kashmir do not mind helping anyone in need, friend or foe, officer or clerk, and mind Non-Kashmiri readers, not every one of us is a coolie!! We have proved our hospitality in most adverse of the conditions. I was puzzled at their behaviour. I couldn’t do much other than feeling sorry for my driver. After finishing the official work, I went to see the market place. Roaming in local markets and interacting with people, street vendors etc. gives you the first hand information and feel of the local culture. It is the best way of knowing people more closely. Believe me, I am not on a smear campaign, but with whatever little number of people I chanced to interact, I was, should I say it point-blank, disgusted. I didn’t expect any special treatment from anyone but some sort of decency and politeness is a must element in any human being, it unfortunately was profoundly lacking. I found hatred and arrogance in them. My “fairy tale” images were falling down and crumbling with a loud thud. It was totally contrary to what I had heard about this place and its people. I would have taken it, just that, but surprisingly, they treated foreigners and tourist from different Indian states, next to me, very well. With them they were very decent and polite. Then, why this rude and rough behaviour with me? I was like ah! The trend of treating us (Kashmiris) as “the other” has permeated even in the minds of the people belonging to our own state! I don’t know what over the period of years has shaped their mindset and behaviour towards the people of Kashmir and why do they behave the way they do towards us? They have a, kind of, step-brotherly attitude towards us. I was cross but I wanted answers. They are not dependent on us; they have a road link to Manali!! Is dependence the measure that should make people love or hate each other?  The answer was not satisfactory. “We have been ill-treated, suppressed and subjugated by Kashmiri Muslims in the past, (to my humble knowledge of history, it must have been remote past, or at least, not a story of yesterday as they treat it), is the most favourite tune everyone loves to sing. If someone has wronged you in the past (remote or recent) how do you justify settling scores with the present breed and hating it enmass? It defies logic. The mindset is digging into the past and keeping it alive for wrong reasons. My driver is from Kargil. Kargil people are treated in the same way in Leh as we Kashmiris are. Regionalism and religious bigotry is the most evident thing that you feel where anywhere you go in Leh. There are many Muslims living there, I wondered if the relations between local Muslims and Buddhists were alright. To satisfy my curiosity, I interacted with a local Muslim and she told me that Muslims and Buddhists were living together peacefully. Since region binds them together, religion becomes less important. But in case of Kashmiri Muslims region is different therefore religion becomes another reason for hatred and the two together have synergistic effect. My face is enough an indication of the region and religion I belong to that probably is the reason why I was treated uniformly everywhere I happened to go and given the treatment meted out to me I could guess it must have been very difficult for Kashmiri Muslims to run and establish their businesses there. By the way, does God like us any better when we harm or hate people who, according to our very own version of religion, do not follow His commandments, or not follow them the way we would want them to? Let us pause and think. We are a single state, more like different parts of body. When each one of us ascends we all ascend. We ascend together. By nurturing hatred we pull each other down and in doing so we may all see a downfall. If hating is so easy, is loving so difficult? Is it impossible for us to come out of our self created shells of wrong notions and prejudice against each other. We take pride in taking each other down it gives us a sadistic pleasure. Is that normal? Is it what is expected of us? I don’t think so. Whatever has happened in the past has happened. Is making a new beginning impossible?  No, change is not impossible, let us start it with our own selves. Let us recreate and retell the fairy tales about ‘magical lands’ and ‘godly people’.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining, when I was travelling back of course in bad taste I saw an aggregation of beautiful ladies, young and old, clad in the traditional attire, exuberating fragrance and freshness, on the road. They were out for some religious ceremony. Thinking it was a marriage solemnizing; I stopped by and interacted with them. We talked for a while. As a mark of love, one of them put her long hat on my head, we laughed, captured our beautiful moments for all times to come and went our ways, they theirs and I mine. They were not known to me neither was I to them but we will remember each other pleasantly, with warm heart. Can we expand this small circle of love and warmth to the whole of our state and include people of all castes and religions into it so we look like a single unit, a common whole that we actually are? 

 

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