Darkness breaks off soon when the winter is coming, they say. So accurately, it did. I was told by many to stay back in Srinagar that night and to leave early morning the next day, concerned of the situation at that time and of my safety, as I was a foreigner, and for some reason, a girl all by herself in Kashmir traveling the night. With very many visits to Kashmir and independent traveling experiences, I refused. And who can tell there will be no Hartal the next day? I gathered all my confidence and said I must reach Sopore today at any cost, even though there was no emergency whatsoever. Anyway, I couldn’t turn back then, can I? The Sumo consisted of two middle aged men, who seemed to know each other, a young man in his 24’s with earphones plugged to his ears. I didn’t see clearly who was seated at the back. More men, I assumed. Long noses, big sparkling eyes, and glowing skin at any age, and sharp looks, that’s how I identify Kashmiris and my guess has never been wrong. It’s like a natural connection, that I pick them out among millions of people.
So, technically I was the only lady in the car. I was at the window seat, and next to me sat an old man, probably in his 50’s. He was talking to someone over the phone in English, which was really good I must say. Once he was done with the call, I gave him a smile, which he gladly returned back. The Sumo was now passing HMT. He looked at me with a deep look and asked me in Urdu, “Where are you from, you must be from the South?” It wasn’t his fault. For most Kashmiris, everyone except a Kashmiri himself, is from South. “I am from Sri Lanka” I replied back in Urdu. The chatting and laughing stopped, and generated heavy silence all of a sudden. I could hear the men in the back seat leaning forward asking the young man whether I really said Sri Lanka and to catch a glimpse of my face. “Sri Lanka!!! Oh Ravan’s Lanka!?” the man exclaimed. I smiled as it was not the first time I heard that, and said “Yes you can say that”.
The time was 7.15 PM, and suddenly I was the center of attraction. The driver kept turning back to look at me sending shivers over me as I expected him to look forward, since it was so dark and I could hardly make out the sight of the road. The only light that soaked us in was the light of a lamp post every 10 minutes, sometimes which too disappeared. There must be a power cut, I assumed. The young man had removed his earphones, and bent towards me, “We love your Sangakkara, and he is simply amazing. We love all in Sri Lankan cricket team. Are you really from Sri Lanka? But how come, it is so so far away, and Indians themselves do not visit Kashmir. What brought you here? That too all by yourself, at this time of the hour? Do you know where you need to get off at? And by the way your Urdu is perfect, how did you learn it?”
Just before I could answer him, someone from the back seat reached out to me, and said “Is it true that Ravan took Sita away? And kept her in a cave? We had always been curious, do you worship Ravan?” I was only able to tell them that we too had known it merely as a story and Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, like Ladakh. I had to explain to them that I was living in Delhi, and that I was in Kashmir on a holiday, and also I was traveling around the state to collect information on community development in J&K, as I am myself a community worker back in Sri Lanka. The conversation was so human and warm, I almost felt I was home, and I had known these people from centuries back. We cracked jokes about the politics in India, and I also learnt that the young man’s name was Izaat and his sister is living in the US and he had planned to go there. But since his father went missing, he had to stay back to support his mother ever since. He cannot remember his father. He was only 2 years old when his father was taken away, and they found his body later on the side of a lake, tortured to death.
I said it was not my first time in Kashmir, and they were all pleased of my multiple visits, and kept asking me how I felt to be there. “It’s like home to me” I replied. “What the media has to pour out every day is not my concern. I am too from a country that faced peace threats for 30 years. I know what it is like to be called a citizen of such a place. I know how they cast the looks upon you. Even after 4 years in Bangalore and 1 year in Delhi which are metro cities, full of all development, I haven’t still found a place where I feel safer and protected than in Kashmir. Because I have realized the goodness in their hearts and they would not harm any innocent. They are not fighting people. They are fighting the wrong do. That’s why I am here for, basically. To write to the world about you. To cease the wrong perception most people hold about you”
They beamed with broad smiles from left to right. Even with the pitch blackness taking over us, I could see it came from within their hearts. “You are such a smart, brave, young girl. Not because you wander in the dark with 6 men in a car, but because you have taken up this cause that many do not wish to accept even when they know it.” The old man held my hand in a fatherly manner and continued “I am Amanullah. I wish my wife was here. You would have loved her. She is beautiful and so talented in knitting and singing. She is at home; I went to Srinagar to buy goods. She must be waiting, with mutton prepared for dinner. Please do come to our small house for dinner today, it will be an honor. I have a daughter just like you, come meet her. Take her with you around the world. I want her to be independent and educated.”
I could only be apologetic, having to turn him down, as my friend’s family waited for me too. And I had to be there. The young man leaned forward properly, and I could see his face much clearly then. He was handsome. I knew for a fact that any girl would give in her heart to him if he had come to Sri Lanka. But he was so humble and enthusiastic over the conversation, that I couldn’t keep track of my mobile. Due to the immense coldness spreading out, the battery was on the verge of dying. I had to force the old man to save my friend’s dad; Mr. Hamdani’s number on his, before my phone died and I lost the contacts. What more, he called Mr. Hamdani and informed him that Sakie is safe with them and they will drop me off exactly where he waited for me.