Your World, My World.

In the August of 2014, I visited Pahalgam with my family. It is a small hill station a few hours away from Srinagar, my hometown in India, and one of the most popular tourist destinations of Kashmir.

I love, and will always love Pahalgam. A summer in Srinagar is incomplete without the bumpy road trip to this hill station, complete with my extended family, loud cousins and overexcited toddlers. It is a three hour long drive through little villages, bright green rice fields that stretch for miles, like an endless blanket, and up the sloping roads that wind around the mountains.

Right beyond the sheer precipice of the road flow the rivers of Pahalgam. White with froth and foam, they descend from the mountains, relentlessly pounding against the colossal boulders with a beautiful ferocity. To me, Pahalgam is horse rides, treks, rolling hills, and fresh air. It is coloured stones, and wet shoes, and photographs that will last forever.

It is home.

Betaab Valley, a popular tourist destination in Pahalgam.

On our last morning there, I arose early, threw on a hoodie, and quietly slipped out of the cottage my family and I were staying in. I walked down the lane, past the soldiers patrolling every few metres, past a bakery, through a marsh, and crossed a bridge to find myself in a very different world. It’s only obvious to someone who’s visited Pahalgam pretty much every year, but every bit of spare land is slowly being snatched up to set up a hotel or guesthouse. Of course, the mud houses of the villagers still remain, but I wondered for long.

It was one of these few dwellings that I then ventured into.

Almost immediately, the cloying smell of cow and horse dung hit me, filling my nostrils. Every house, I saw, had a dingy stable attached to it, and a few cows or horses or cocks milling about outside. There was rarely any glass in the window panes — they were either hastily boarded up with a few planks of wood or covered with tarpaulin. The houses that I peered into were unlit and bare with a few steel bins of flour and rice in one corner. One house had five shoes — cracked, plastic flip flops, a pair of muddy schoolgirls’ shoes, and a solitary red shoe — neatly lined up.

Villagers were already up and about. I saw women washing clothes, sweeping in front of their houses, calling to one another from the windows. I saw little boys prancing around naked around in the trickling streams that wound through the houses. I saw a little girl in a headscarf dash out of her house to wave at me. I saw an old man in a [1]pheran bundled up on his porch, sipping his hookah. He cheerily asked me where I was going.

“Just looking around,” I mumbled quickly in Kashmiri, turning back.

“Come look at the horses,” he called to me.

But I was already walking away as fast as I could.

I saw a boy, maybe six years old, dressed in a spotless white [2]kurta herding a horse out of its stable and leading it towards a pile of grass in a corner. A few seconds later, as if on cue, a rooster, and five speckled hens ran out of their coop clucking around frantically until he scattered grain in a corner for them.

“Do they lay any eggs for you?” I asked the boy curiously, first in Urdu, then in Kashmiri.

“No,” he replied simply.

I wanted to ask why he kept them, then, but I had other questions.

“Do you earn?” I persisted.

He smiles, patted the horse’s back. “He takes children around town when they want a ride,” he said in rough Urdu.

For a few minutes, I watched him wipe the horse the clean with a damp rag, soothing it as it whinnied in discomfort. “Do you want a ride?” he asked me suddenly. I smiled, and shook my head, turning to leave. “Ten rupees, [3]baji” he shouted after me, but I continued walking. I wondered how dirty his kurta would get by the end of the day.

I retraced my way home, wanting to get away from this reality I’d been forced to confront.

I felt uncomfortable and ashamed to be strolling around these houses. As though I was an inspector, appraising their neighbourhood. As though I was a fussy tourist, ogling at their battered houses. As though their lives existed just for the rich, for the people in Gap hoodies to recount to others what an experience they’d had, looking at the way poor people live.

The stares of the little children felt accusing to me. Go back to your life, they seemed to say.

I couldn’t walk fast enough.

~

I sat on a boulder on the banks of the stream, my arms wrapped around my knees. The clear, gushing water was tinged yellow by the sunlight. Even that early in the morning, I could feel the heat of the sun, on the water, on my hair, on the leaves. A soldier patrolled nearby, but I ignored him.

Just then, I noticed another presence. A little girl, no older than six years had scuttled up next to me. Her brown face was filthy, her hair tangled and unkempt in its scruffy braids. Her clothes were dirty. Ill fitting. I looked at her, drinking in her vigour, her mischievousness, her carefreeness. She returned the favour, staring at me with an almost paralleled curiosity. I lowered my gaze and turned away, suddenly aware of how she was keenly peering at my clothes.

In another universe, I thought, you’d be the girl with her own room. You’d be the girl who never has to worry about who would feed and clothe her. You’d be the girl that had much, much more than she could ever want or need.

“What’s your name?” she suddenly asked me.

“Arshia,” I answered uncertainly. “And what’s yours?”

I have already forgotten it.

She pestered me with more questions. Do you have a father? A mother? What’s your fathers name? Your mother’s? Have you ever been to a school? Oh, you have?

I answered each question hesitantly. Slowly, I started to ask her questions too.

She had a little sister. She lived in the house down by the hill. She did go to school, but not everyday. She was in the second grade.

“Have you taken a bath today?” I suddenly blurted out.

She smiled, and then looked at her feet. I felt embarrassed, but not enough to back down from the question. She toyed around with the edge of her kameez, and finally answered, meeting my stare.

“The water of the river is cold at this time of the day.”

I suddenly felt angry. I wished I could give her something. Anything. I wanted to give her the soap we bought for the guesthouse. The hundred rupee note I’d carelessly shoved in my drawer last night. I wanted to give her books and a hot shower and take her up in a plane. I wanted her to have a chance at the world. I wanted to give her what I had, just to see if she’d find her place. Maybe she could even teach me what I couldn’t seem to learn.

But my pockets were empty. I stared at her mutinously, wordlessly, petulantly, with a hate and pain I couldn’t explain, until she grinned at me, waved, and scampered off.

I slowly got up. And walked on.

My heart felt heavy.

~

You see, this is the other side of Pahalgam, a side that has been all too easy to ignore these years. After all, I would come for the blue skies, the green mountains, the white water. I would come for the colour of Pahalgam — I could afford to ignore a few stains.

It has been easy, too easy for me to avert my eyes at the beggars huddled on the sidewalks begging for alms, very easy for me to quicken my pace when I approach a motherless child selling painted balloons, so easy for me to turn a deaf ear to the murmured prayers of the homeless for my health.

These are the people of Pahalgam, the keepers of Pahalgam.

For all its serenity and bloom, this is what my home has amounted to. Little boys who bathe horses, and little girls who don’t bathe at all.

I suppose every place has its share of homelessness and poverty, injustice and depravity. But Pahalgam is too beautiful, too tranquil and sacred to deserve this.

This is the sorrow of Pahalgam, and I can ignore it no longer.

Author’s Note

Kashmir, my home state in India has one of the lowest economies of the country, due to political issues and military action that begun in the eighties and exists to this day. Tourism is a major source of revenue for Kashmir. Thousands of tourists, both Indian and foreign, travel to Kashmir each year to visit the lesser Himalayas and the valley and see why Kashmir was proclaimed “Paradise on Earth” by the emperors of India. This narrative focuses on the people of Pahalgam, the people who’ve spent all their days there. I wonder if they’d call it a paradise too.

Author’s Second Note

I wrote this for a writing course that I took at my university. It’s one my favourite pieces of my writing, because it chronicles the first time that I began to think of, and long for the home I left behind when I moved to Saudi Arabia, and left behind again when I moved farther away to Canada, and how I became aware of my privilege. My friend thinks it could’ve been titled better, but for someone who can churn out a thousand words in a few hours, I am astonishingly uncreative.

[1] traditional long cloak or gown worn by both women and men during winters in Kashmir

[2] upper garment, traditionally worn in South Asia

[3] elder sister