A reporter’s worst nightmare is not being able to tell the story; this week, the powers enacted it coldly, and with singular completeness. But it’s poor form to complain of being pinched when everything around you is being hammered. The reporter in Kashmir this week was a niggling collateral to seismic enactments whose impulsive after-tremors have been stilled by jackboots and commanded at gunpoint to behave.
These are fragments from a diary that lay proscribed for days:
Saturday, August 3, 2019
Shortly after I arrive in Srinagar mid-afternoon, a friend of several decades comes around and insists on ferrying me home. “No point getting locked up in a room with nowhere to go. It isn’t safe, a big lockdown is coming.”
“How do you know a lockdown is coming?” I ask him, a little irritably.
“If a lockdown isn’t coming, why are you even here?” he retorts.
The city Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to put poultice on was a thing of magic taken by a shock of water and flung into the past. The greater part of Srinagar is now but a memory no amount of money or masonry will retrieve. Cuckoo Wazir took me up a ramshackle stairway to the third floor of his Rajbagh mansion to show me what the September flood had taken and what it had left behind.
In the dank hallway he picked on a wall stripped to bare brick and it gave like crumble cake. “A month and a half after, it’s all still soggy,” Wazir said, “It is probably unsafe being up here, all of this looks ready to fall.” Much of the mansion’s interior — partly rented out by the Wazirs as a boutique guest home — was heritage construction: old cedar beams and gables, and traditional Kashmiri mortar of husk and clay and pounded wood; the amalgam kept homes warm. “They don’t do homes like this any more,” Wazir, wizened, stubble-faced and weary, said stoically, “We have lost what we can never recover. And most of what is left of our home we must bring down, this won’t survive.”
Hired hands lumbered all over the compound and the peeling interiors, salvaging torn furniture and bloated volumes, hammering mosaic floors, sawing off rotten woodwork. Wazir’s wife and son sat on a heap of soggy carpets, surveying the the unstrung glass beads of what might have been a magnificent chandelier.
A deathly stench floats about where autumn only ever brought redolent flower-scented drifts, one sweeter than the other. It is a cloying flood-pollen conjured by untended rot — drowned garbage and medicines, clogged drains, putrefying pools of water, plentiful human waste, decaying animal flesh. It is an invisible violence that has caused an eruption of masked faces on the streets.
What used to be until this summer Srinagar’s prided and envied upscale neighbourhoods — Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar, Gogji Bagh, Wazir Bagh — are now rubble, the scattered leftovers of a shark’s wanton meal. The deluge had scythed right through the midriffs of handsome homes, ripping timber and glass, ransacking interiors, churning dainty lawns and flower beds to pasty mud. Most homes lie abandoned, their molested effects tossed asunder like entrails left behind after a fitful postmortem. An elderly man in Wazirbagh thought he was done with clearing up the insides of his devastated home, but now he stood confounded by a monumental pile at his gate. “This has no end,” he sighed, “You clean up one place and another place is screaming to be cleaned up, there is just no end to it. And winter is nearly upon us.” Mounds of refuse on every street corner are ready evidence the municipal works are paralysed.
Srinagar’s central hub — Lal Chowk and Residency Road, tailing off it — has become demolition row. Flattened shop fronts getting the first doses of recovery at the hands of cleaners and carpenters and painters and masons. It will be some time before the buzz and bustle can be restored. The Telegraph’s midtown offices barely escaped the waters by dint of being on a high floor, but access to it wasn’t to be had for weeks. And now that my colleague Muzaffar Raina has doughtily resumed operations, his remains a largely solitary enterprise amid doomed establishments. There isn’t a place to go for a quick cup of coffee. The old world garden cafés nestled among leaping chinars and avant garde delicatessens have alike suffered the flood, drowned to their gills, unable to make a quick turnaround. “How on earth?” cried out one restaurateur, “The furniture, the furnaces, the foodstocks, the cooks and waiters, all gone, I can barely serve myself a meal.”
In Qamarwari, a conservative Srinagar neighbourhood the flood knifed through, we saw this afternoon a magnificent old home being hammered down and carted away to grave in wheelbarrows. It was a mud and timber three-storey, classic of the way pre mortar homes were constructed. It had a wooden stairwell, a fire flue, ornate windows and two lookout gables at the top. But all of that was too gone in years to withstand the knocking; it had to be brought down. All that remained of how grand the home may have been was an outline etched on the walls of the neighbouring house. Like Wazir’s mansion, this Qamarwari residence is forever gone, and will unlikely be replaced in the way it used to be.
A new Srinagar will surely erect itself on its ruins, but it will never quite be the old one, the magical one the shock of water came and took away.