Monday, June 16, 2014

Lull in midst of a Storm, 1947

An extract from 'The leaf and the flame' (1959) by Margaret Parton (1915-1981), staff correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune. Paints a vivid picture of Kashmir just before the invasion in 1947 as the flames of partition finally starting reaching Srinagar.

June 17

The first time I came to the Vale of Kashmir I was disappointed. Perhaps I had subconsciously confused the words "Vale" and "Veil". I had expected a lush ravine with great ferns, towering pines, and soft veils of rainbow-glowing mists from the sprays of waterfalls.
Kashmir is nothing like that, at least in the valley. It is a wide, gently-rolling plateau- five thousand feet high - set about with bare and craggy peaks. Back in the mountains there are indeed the kind of ravines and vegetation I had pictured, but unless one goes trekking one does not see them. One sees instead the bare mountains all about, the great stretches of artificial lakes near Srinagar, and the tumbling wooden town itself.
Gradually, running many visits since then, the quiet beauty became powerful in my eyes; the enchantment of Kashmir penetrated my heart. Now, sitting on the flat roof of our houseboat and staring across Dal Lake at a sunset-reddened range of noble peaks, I wonder how I could ever have thought them ugly that first visit, that time which now became almost legendary in my mind. And now, peacefully, I wish to re-live that fevered time.
It was October, 1947. The brat partition riots, which took perhaps a million lives and made twelve million people into homeless refugees, were barely over. We had seen too much murder and bloodshed in both India and Pakistan to be able to take sides any longer; we were weary of refugee problems and talk of revenge. Perhaps when you have spent many months looking at the mutilated corpses of murdered babies you reach a point beyond an understanding of revenge, when only an emotion of universal grief seems appropriate. We needed a little time for peace and restoration, and so, because we were in Rawalpindi, we went to Kashmir. There had been no riots in Kashmir. Kashmir, everyone said, was quiet and beautiful. the Hindu Maharajah had not yet decided whether to join India or Pakistan, but no one seemed to be hurrying him.
At that time the only road into Kashmir from the Indian sub-continent led from Rawalpindi in Pakistan up past Murree, through the mountains of Western Kashmir up onto the plateau, and past Baramula along the Jhelum River to Srinagar.
Still on the Pakistan side, we drove along beside a river which formed the border of Kashmir and saw hundreds of people crossing the river towards us, riding on logs or crude rafts. One young man lay on an inflated goatskin and paddled across with his hands and feet to the bank where we had stopped the car. Dripping, he climbed up the rocks and spoke to us.
"We have been driven from our homes by the Maharajah's troops," he announced."We have brought our women and our children to safety in Pakistan, but we are going back to fight. I myself have only come over here to get a gun and ammunition."
It seems strange to me now to think that this little rebellion in the western district of Poonch has been so completely forgotten in the surge and confusion of later events. It was certainly a small wave of history swallowed almost immediately by a larger one.
On the Kashmir side of the bridge from Pakistan we had to stop the taxi and go though customs. Although the population of Kashmir was largely Moslem, the Maharajah and the ruling class were Hindus and, therefore, worshippers of the cow. Our baggage was carefully searched for forbidden beef as well as for firearms. The officers finished with us quickly and then turned to two large wooden boxes which an old Moslem in the front seat was taking to a doctor in Srinagar; the young clerk pried open the lids and recoiled when he discovered both boxes contained live leeches.
"Search them. They might be hiding guns," ordered the customs officer. The clerk picked up a stick and began poking unhappily among the leeches. The custom officer, a thin Hindu pundit, leaned against a railing above the river and, in the way of all educated Indians, talked politics.
"We Kashmiri pundits are the third most intelligent people in India." he said. "Only the Bengalis and the Madrasi Brahmins are smarter than we are. That is well known.
"If Kashmir joined India there would be two other peoples ahead of us. But if we joined Pakistan, we would be able to dominate them, because we would be more intelligent than anybody else."
Wondering how democracy is ever to succeed in Asia, we drove on another hundred miles, through the Jehlum gorge and up into the Vale. Once, we stopped beside a field of early winter wheat and spoke to a peasant boy. He was wide-eyed and shy, and he spoke softly.
"No, there is no trouble here, Sahib," he said."All is peaceful. I do hear in our village gossip that the government is fighting itself, but what is that to do with me?"
On the outskirts of Baramulla, a pleasant little town at the edge of the Vale, a crowd was massed near a stone bridge. A haggard young man was auctioning off clothes one by one. While we watched he sold a pair of pink-satin Punjabi trousers for three rupees.
"Those belonged to his wife who was murdered," explained an old man standing nearby."He, like so many others, us a refugee from the West Punjab, without money and forced to sell everything. Hindu refugees have come here to Kashmir because they know it is peaceful and they will not be persecuted, although most of us are Moslems."
Within a week, the custom officer, the peasant boy, and the young refugee were probably all dead.


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