It isn’t scenic beauty or the looming threat of violence, but the warmth of the locals that stands out when you visit Srinagar, writes Urvashi Sarkar.

“Lunchtime,” announces Adil Ami, bringing the packed Tata Sumo to an abrupt halt in front of one of the innumerable Vaishno dhabas on the road from Srinagar to Jammu.

We were two women travelling with six men we had never met before. Adil, our 25-year-old Kashmiri driver, advises us: “You won’t get better rajma chawal anywhere else in the world. Don’t miss it.” We take up Adil on his suggestion and did not regret it. The rajma chawal, served piping hot with a liberal topping of desi ghee, turns out to be delicious comfort food on a rainy morning, but the real delight is Adil, our Kashmiri driver.

Adil is already seated and flashes a friendly grin, gestures us to join him. My friend and I hesitate, but only momentarily. We were returning from a holiday in Srinagar and its adjoining areas. The fact that we were two women travelling by ourselves had generated scepticism and surprise. However most people either promptly got over their scepticism or did not let it show and seemed eager to converse and interact with us. Our self-introduction as writers and journalists, proved to be a further ice-breaker.

We settle down at Adil’s table. Hearing that we were from Delhi, Adil said: “I used to study at Jamia Millia Islamia and even worked as a Domino’s pizza delivery boy. I am now pursuing a BCA from Delhi through correspondence. But I want to change my subject to BBA and will enrol in Lovely Professional University.” Does he want to do an MBA? “Inshallah,” he nods.

Adil’s father met with a mining accident, which forced him to return to Kashmir. With two younger siblings to look after, Adil had to be the bread-winner. Driving a tourist car proved to be lucrative. “It is even more rewarding during curfews when transport is at a premium,” he grins. Does he not feel scared? The grin widens. “What is to fear? I have experienced everything from stones being pelted to be being beaten up.”

A native of Sopore district, Adil says, “I was unemployed for a long time. Some people offered me Rs.500 to pelt five stones. I refused. Unemployment is the biggest issue in Kashmir. The youth are now mostly educated, but idle. They become prey to trouble-mongering politicians.”

The reason Adil opened up to us was because we had shown trust in him. Trust implies traversing frequently unfamiliar territory and placing one’s safety in the hands of random strangers. An auto driver, Rashid, offered to take us to Jamia Masjid in downtown Srinagar and Badamwari Garden free of extra charge. A steamboat ride to old Srinagar on the River Jhelum also turned out to be a real delight, far from the chattering tourist families.

We were admittedly suspicious of being all alone on the boat, and it showed. I wondered, would our degree of suspicion have been the same elsewhere? Had we internalised the multiple warnings by family and the common discourse on Kashmir as a troubled region?

Our boatman Ghulam Mohammed hastened to reassure us. Our decision to trust opened to us the charms of old Srinagar — with its wooden houses, towering mosques and temples — all on the river bank. But as we went further down the river, we were struck by the acute poverty. Many houses lay broken and abandoned. Even those that were inhabited looked decrepit and people seemed to be living in utter squalor. “It’s a sad state. The river water reaches the people’s houses during the rains, and they have to go elsewhere,” said Ghulam.

What does he think of Nawaz Sharif’s win in Pakistan? “That’s another country and their election does not concern us.” He is worried that business is suffering because Afzal Guru’s hanging has scared away tourists.

But Gulmarg, a couple of hours drive from Srinagar, is overflowing with tourists. During a gondola ride, we meet Shahnawaz, a tourist agent. “We want more tourists to come to Kashmir, but not too many,” says Shahnawaz.

This is how most of our interactions shaped up — spontaneously — in autos and cars and on shikaras and steamboats. While it was a bit like exploring any other new city, there were clear differences. In Srinagar, there was no night life. May be because we stayed at the heavily secured Badami Bagh cantonment area, which required us to be in by 7:30 p.m. The presence of soldiers at frequent intervals in Srinagar cannot be missed, indicating the high level of militarisation. Army officers pointed to cooperative measures like free schooling, which is part of the Indian Army’s larger Sadhbhavana initiative. We also did not get an opportunity to interact with local women, perhaps because of their absence in public spaces. Shops, eateries, and places of worship seemed to be entirely staffed by men.

Though our trip was uneventful, we faced constant warnings: “Trouble can break out at a minute’s notice. And when it does break out; movement becomes restricted and the atmosphere remains tense.”

However, we missed seeing the Srinagar of lore: the Srinagar of stunning and unparalleled beauty. We saw glimpses of beauty in the old city, but not on the scale we had imagined. The legendary Dal Lake was a sore disappointment. Locals attribute the changed appearance to overcrowding and land grab. “Whole orchards have been cut down to clear the land for houses and commercial enterprises. Land for two houses now accommodates four or five houses. The nouveau rich have ruined the traditional and elegant Kashmiri architecture and all you can see is houses with hideous purple and pink roofs,” laments a Kashmiri based in Delhi.

So was Srinagar ‘heaven on earth’?

Not quite; when I remember the city, I think not of snow-clad mountains or ethereal beauty. I remember the bronze-gold domes of the mosques in the old city and the warmth of the locals.