Kashmir From Afar

I haven’t been able to keep my eyes from checking the Kashmir headlines the past three weeks after the Indian government ordered all tourists to leave Kashmir, then removed Article 370 from the Constitution and instituted a communications blackout that is still going on.

Watching this happen from afar has been an unusual experience. Previously it was our families and friends seeing Kashmir in the headlines and wondering how we’re doing whenever our internet was disabled. Now that my family and I are living back in the US we are the ones being concerned and attempting to contact friends in Kashmir.

I learned over the years in Kashmir that outside news was not usually accurate in painting a picture of what was going in Kashmir. The situation is always more complex and diverse than what can be conveyed in a brief news story. Large parts of Srinagar can be mostly peaceful and calm while specific neighborhoods in the old city might be filled with rocks and tear gas flying through the air. The opinions and ideas of Kashmiris toward the issues of freedom and independence, pro India or pro Pakistan, separatists, mainstream politicians, and militants can be diverse and not always hold to expectations or the main storylines presented by the news media.

Accurately portraying what is happening in Kashmir to people outside of Kashmir is tough. It’s hard enough inside Kashmir as the local news media also presents differing stories and viewpoints. The J&K police and government share their side of the story too and no one seems to believe them. In a place like Kashmir it is hard to know what is really true versus what is rumors and lies, what is a planned conspiracy versus an unfortunate series of unforeseen events. People will believe their relative’s message on WhatsApp about a news event more easily than what they see in the news. Skepticism and mistrust run rampant.

Taking all that into context it has been tough to be outside of Kashmir without a way to know what really is happening. A few days before all phones and internet were disconnected I exchanged some messages with friends on WhatsApp. They were okay but highly worried and unsure about what was going to happen. Kashmir is always an unpredictable place but this seemed to be at a new level. Kashmiri friends who normally don’t over-exaggerate or appear worried by previous instability seemed concerned by this.

After the communications blackout took effect I was able to get in touch with some Kashmiri friends who live in other cities in India. They were as clueless as me about what might be happening inside Kashmir and had no way to reach their families. Eventually I heard that some members of their families had managed to call from a government office or police station landline and briefly tell them they were okay but not much other news. Then there were conflicting accounts between India news media and international media about whether violent protests were happening or not. I lived too long in Kashmir to completely believe the Indian media’s side of the story, but I know international media can over sensationalize things too.

Something else I haven’t seen written about is that not only are communications being blocked in Kashmir, but local Kashmiri news media somehow isn’t allowed or able to share their news stories. While international and national media on the ground in Srinagar find ways to share updates despite the internet not working, local Kashmiri news sites aren’t updating at all. The popular Greater Kashmir website still looks like a time capsule from three weeks ago on the eve of the blackout and Article 370 announcement.

Greater Kashmir home page with their last updates from 3 weeks ago

This is strange to me because Kashmir often has had internet blackouts and phone communications temporarily disabled for security reasons during protests. In those times the local media almost always updated their sites and kept sharing news about whatever was happening. While local media has their own biases toward the Kashmir story, I usually found them the closest to being accurate in sharing what really was going on in Kashmir during times of unrest. Not being able to check their sites makes me feel even more in the dark.

This week will start the fourth week of the communications blackout. I hope phones and internet are able to be restored soon and local news media can again post their stories. I want to see blue checkmarks on my WhatsApp messages to Kashmiri friends or be able to call their mobile as most don’t have landlines which have partially been restored. I want to know they are okay.

As for Kashmir I don’t know what will happen there in this new uncertain future. I have my own opinions and thoughts, but what I really want to hear are the diverse opinions and thoughts from the people in Kashmir. What do they think about this change? What is their response? I want to listen and hear from them. I know the odds are slim, but I hope others in India and the world will also want to listen, and somehow a wise way forward can be found for the common good of all.

Reflections From The First Month

We arrived in Kashmir on 1 April 2005, also known as April Fool’s Day. Somehow that felt appropriate as we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into and in the coming weeks, months, and years ahead we would find ourselves often feeling quite foolish as outsiders trying to understand the new world around us.

A funny thing about this first month in Kashmir is that I have hardly any photos of it. I searched through my files and found 3 from a birthday party, 2 from riding a shikara on Dal Lake, and a handful more from a large religious festival that I went to with my business colleague. Nothing from the plane ride, the first scenes of our new city, where we were staying, the views of the mountains, the fascinating city streets and alleys, the nearby market, etc. At first I thought there must be more photos, but then I realized that back in 2005 people didn’t carry their cameras/phones everywhere with them like they do today. I also wasn’t a tourist so I didn’t want to look like one by bringing my camera along when I went around town. The more I thought about this the more I found it hard to imagine doing something like this today and not having hundreds of images to document the whole experience. And 2005 wasn’t that long ago, or at least to me it doesn’t seem like that.

Hazratbal mosque during Eid Milad festival on Dal Lake in April 2005, Srinagar, Kashmir
Hazratbal mosque during Eid Milad – one of my few photos from the first month

Not only did I not have countless photos from my phone of this first month but I couldn’t remember how we communicated back to our family in America that we had arrived. I don’t remember calling or trying to email from the hotel in Delhi when we first arrived into India. We didn’t have internet access initially in the house where we first stayed in Kashmir. Back then you had to walk into the local market and go to one of the shops that had the letters STD and ISD. That meant it had pay phones for calling and ISD meant you could call internationally. I don’t think I called my parents soon after arriving. There wasn’t the expectation that they would hear from us immediately like it later turned into when we would just message them on WhatsApp or iMessage that we had arrived after traveling back from a visit to the US. I probably went to my colleague’s house that first week and connected to his dial-up connection to send a brief email that I had written offline and had queued up to send as soon it connected. My colleague had lived in India when there wasn’t internet access so at the time what we had seemed pretty good to him.

The rest of the month was filled with figuring out how to buy food and cook, starting language classes, searching for a house or flat to rent, learning the local public transport system and discovering where things were in town, beginning research on cultural heritage for a tourism business, and learning about the political instability and militancy affecting life in Kashmir.

Three of my main memories from this first month are:

  • My wife being sick for about a week and barely able to get out of bed so I ate a lot of local bread from the bakery with jam and butter as I struggled figuring out how to cook from scratch.
  • Seeing smoke rising from the city while we were looking at a possible rent house on the edge of the city and then learning later that militants had attacked and set fire to the TRC (Tourist Reception Center) where the bus was parked that would soon start the first cross LOC bus service to the Pakistan side of Kashmir.
  • There was a 2-3 week strike by most shops due to a protest over the VAT tax being introduced. This meant my wife couldn’t go shopping for fabric to get new clothes made at the tailor. It was hard back then to find ready-made clothes for women and most ladies would buy material to get stitched by a tailor. She wore the same two outfits for a few weeks as she had planned on getting most of her clothes made in the local style after we arrived and didn’t pack much else!

Starting Over

A few months ago I had what felt like sudden inspiration to start this blog and make it about technology. I enjoy tech blogs, I enjoy using tech in various ways in my life, and I enjoy writing so I thought why not try a tech blog.

Well, that didn’t really work out. Apparently I’d rather read about and use tech than write about it, so nothing much happened after a few initial posts which I’ve since decided to un-publish.

But I still had this lingering idea and desire to write about something and couldn’t really figure out what that might be or whether I should just give it up and move on. Today I may have struck upon another bit of inspiration for the topic and content that I would enjoy writing continuously about. It all goes back to the name I originally picked for the site, noonchai.com, and how the place where I first tasted noon chai – Kashmir – has shaped and influenced my life in ways I’m still unpacking after moving back to the USA late last year.

I spent almost 14 years of my life in Kashmir helping to develop two small businesses and briefly experimented with a third one. I moved around a lot growing up so the next longest amount of time I’ve lived in one place is only six years. Kashmir is a place that always will be close to my heart and one of the places I consider “home.”

After being back in the USA for six months I’m continually processing and realizing how much those 14 years impacted me. They mark me and are an important part of who I am. This is not just true for me, but my family also. While I moved to Kashmir and had previous places I called home, for my kids Kashmir was their first home. The USA was a place they visited and enjoyed, but Kashmir was home. My wife and I are still understanding how that experience shaped our kids and affects their new life in this once foreign place called America.

So my idea for this blog is to write about my life in Kashmir. Not the business stuff so much, but the personal. What it was like to move and live there as an outsider. How much things changed in those 14 years. I’m thinking to start back in 2005 and go from there, highlighting moments as they happened. It will be a way for me to remember and process, as well as document for the sake of my kids this life changing period of time in my life and my family’s life. I wish I could write something weekly, but I don’t know what’s going to be realistic. I’m just going to start writing and see where it goes.