Down below a road that cuts through the steep mountain sides from Pahalgam to Chandanwari, and which becomes a pony route onward to the Amarnath cave, I lay on the verdant carpet of the Betaab Valley, under the shade of willows, watching convoys of pilgrims move toward their destination. My family was strolling about in the beautiful river valley, which is surrounded by pine dotted mountains on all sides.
I waved at the convoy in greeting. The convoy moved on. I forgot about it, as my gaze soon fixed on a kingfisher watching patiently into the depths of fast flowing river below, from its willow perch. The river was full of unwary fish. The kingfisher had a feast waiting for it. A number of times it was about to swoop down into the chilly water, and pick a small silvery fish in his beak. But it waited. It wanted to get the best one, and I wanted to cheer for it when it finally got its lunch.
Sounds from far distracted me. I looked up into the mountains again. The convoy had stopped. Flocks of people, who looked like ants from the distance, were coming out from the vehicles. They opened their flies, and pointed their nozzles in the direction of the valley. A pose of men and women poured their anger out from that great height. It could never reach the river, however hard they might have tried; I was relieved to think. I hoped my family was not witnessing this spectacle. I turned back to see; they were far ahead, entranced by a real waterfall.
I saw some pilgrims point toward me. They called out to me. I responded with a wave. The kingfisher plunged itself into the water, and came out without a catch, and then hurriedly flew back to its perch. Its blue feathers had small droplets of water on them.
I heard sounds of chanting coming from the convoy: “Bam Bam Bole”. I was amused. I realized they were urging me to say the chants with them. I clapped. I had no energy left in me after a sumptuous lunch, to shout back the chants. Then started a flurry of abuses: ‘Maaderchod bol, Bam Bam Bole”. I got up, and turned away from them. I caught up with my family. They were totally unaware of what was going on.
On the drive back home, we passed many more pilgrim convoys. Pious soldiers of the nation. The real soldiers made sure they did not have to stop anywhere, while we were stopped a number of times to let them pass. Young slogan shouters were on top of the buses, while the older pilgrims sported smiles at the discomfort slogan shouters were causing in the villages through which their convoys passed. At every village and town on the way, they raised their voices. I believe they were not paid to do all this. Nationalism comes free, you don’t have to people to buy it; they had true love for India, their motherland, under attack from the ungrateful Kashmiris in this land of Baba Amarnath and Vaishno Devi. Not all showed their middle-fingers to old men carrying sacks of grass on the way; and Kashmiris show the middle-finger in a different way, so they would not have understood Indian nationalists anyway.
My father asked my mother to look the other way every time we passed a pilgrim vehicle. She did it dutifully. After sometime even my dad was forced to look away. I was angry, and wished I had my friends with me instead of my parents: we would at least shout back when soldiers weren’t watching, and show them our fingers.
Pahalgam is no longer the fun it used to be.