01 January 1970

Art, Culture, Bunkers And Driving One Mad On The Roads Of Srinagar – A Rant

During the day it is not easy to walk on the roads in Srinagar. Anyone can crush you and abuse you after crushing you. Only daredevils choose cycling on Srinagar road. There is no space for cycles.

On the roads of Srinagar.
On the roads of Srinagar. Getty Images

A tense-looking man, a bundle of nerves, at times found in shabby police uniform, tries to streamline traffic streaming down the Srinagar roads. Some laugh at him. Some obey his orders. Some startle and speed away from him. Many say these mad men are schizophrenics, and that only some of the times they attempt to smooth the traffic.
It is understandable. The disorder of the Srinagar roads can frustrate anyone. Everyone seems angry and in a hurry. They wear their sad faces for the road. And in this blues honking drives everyone to honk some more. There is so much sadness around that a few years ago a Japanese journalist, who intended to stay in Srinagar for 15 days, left the city only after two days. “No one smiles in Srinagar,” he told his fixer who was shocked to hear his reason to leave the city. Before him, an Indonesian journalist, who came to Srinagar after his reporting tour of Afghanistan, also told his fixers that in spite of the raging war in Afghanistan, Afghans are more cheerful than Kashmiris. He too cut his reporting trip short.

The disorder of the Srinagar roads can frustrate anyone.
The disorder of the Srinagar roads can frustrate anyone. Getty Images

The sadness and the madness seem synonymous. So, the madness on the roads forces some schizophrenics to halt their long walks. You might have seen these so-called schizophrenics in Srinagar, taking on traffic beats, shouting at careless drivers, asking them to move and give space to others. They walk from vehicle to vehicle, cry out, making strange sounds while asking drivers to move. At times they succeed in bringing some order on the road. But most of the time, they give up and continue their solitary walks.

During the day it is not easy to walk on the roads in Srinagar. Anyone can crush you and abuse you after crushing you. Only daredevils choose cycling on Srinagar road. There is no space for cycles.

Not a single road is without a security bunker. No single road is without some kind of painting. The bunker and the road art go together in Srinagar. If you see a bunker on a road crossing, you must also see road artwork there. Maybe that was the government’s motive.

No single road is without some kind of painting.
No single road is without some kind of painting. Getty Images

Road length of city roads doesn’t increase with the passage of years. The road width decreases after every year. But bunker size increases. First, a bunker comes up on a vacant space. One fine morning you walk on the road and you see a bunker. This is how bunkers come up. Then the bunker grows like a bottle gourd plant. Its growth surprises you. The first thing that emerges around a bunker is the concertina wire followed by concertina coils. It slowly eats up one side of road space. Then another bunker surfaces at some distance from the first bunker. Then a small bunker pops up between the two bunkers. And then coils of concertina wires are laid around the two big and one small bunker. And then concertina wire moves further as if on its own towards the road. This bunker then accommodates one or two vehicles of security forces.
However, road art has a different growth trajectory. Let’s talk about the murals; some of those display rural Kashmiri households, and some depict rural Kashmiris, while others highlight Kashmiri cultures like a female with a samovar and a male outside his mud house in a village. This is what comes up on city walls. Then these murals appear on the roads meant for traffic. In one such attempt early this year artists used all their skills to paint Dal Lake on Srinagar roads. At one place they even kept shikhara. That side of the road was closed for traffic. On one side there was a traffic jam. On the other hand, the government was showing people stuck in traffic jams a view of the art on the roadside. Soon people got bored with the art on the road meant for traffic. They started walking on the road. The traffic police didn’t object to anything as there was no space to walk. Then people started driving their vehicles on the road and the art altogether disappeared. No one knows what happened to Shikara.
While walking in Srinagar you also see coils of concertina wire. It is everywhere. It is over the walls of government buildings. The coils are at road interjections. The road intersections are closed by laying the coils. The road opening parties of security forces carry some coils along. There are concertina wires. They have different sizes. There are concertina coils. There are barbed wires. Razor blade gilded wires. There are so many concertina wires all around that it has acquired a place of permanency in our hearts and minds. If concertina wire is not around, you will feel you have missed something in Srinagar. If it is not laid on the road, placed over the walls, or at intersections, you will see it discarded on one corner of the road.  Initially, concertina wires over the walls surrounding government buildings or security installations are tightly fitted. Soon it loses its sheen. Then after some time, it loses tight fitting as well. It is then discarded and kept on one side of the road or the building and there it remains for months together. No one touches discarded concertina wires. People just avoid it and move on as if it is not there. It is there but most people pretend it is not there. Sometimes pretence helps. It gives a sense of happiness that something is there but you can imagine that it is not there and live on.
Like every other city, Srinagar city has footpaths. They are there but they are not there. They are occupied by shopkeepers, who keep their goods on footpaths. If they are not occupied by shopkeepers, they are laid with concertina wire. The shopkeepers in Srinagar presume that they own these footpaths. They will give you a fiery look if they found you one among those who prefer to walk on the footpath. Even the road in front of their shops, they presume it is theirs. You have to walk on the road. If the footpaths are not occupied by shopkeepers, then you see repair work going on there. The repair work is perpetual. It is a continuous exercise and it doesn’t end. Nothing stops repair work on footpaths. If the footpath is good, it has to be repaired or reconstructed. This repair work satisfies the collective conscience of the government. The government ensures that footpaths should be reconstructed and reconstruction work should continue till eternity so that people shouldn’t use footpaths.
And after a slight rainfall, Srinagar roads look like an extension of the river Jhelum. The waterlogging choke roads and it becomes difficult to walk on the road. The biggest victim of waterlogging is the artwork of those artists who painted roads with the Kashmir landscape. The waterlogging throw all the dirt in the underground drains out to show people where they live but it also washes away the works of art. It doesn’t affect concertina wires, however.

The waterlogging choke roads and it becomes difficult to walk on the road.
The waterlogging choke roads and it becomes difficult to walk on the road. Getty Images

Srinagar like any other city has intersections. At the intersections, there are traffic signals but intersections are closed. At the intersections, two or more roads converge, diverge, meet or cross at the same height but you cannot cross the intersection. You have to take km left or right to cross the road to reach the other side of the intersection. This is how the system works here. Most of the intersections are closed and traffic is diverted to one km away from the intersection to make traffic flow easy. This unique experiment is working in Srinagar. An intersection is opened for judicial officers or VIPs. The concertina wire is lifted and the VIPs are allowed to use the intersection. This system too works here.
Whether there is flow in the traffic or not, Srinagar is a city, which is overflowing with vehicles. Everyone is driving his own car and every driver curses the other driver, accusing him of not knowing the art of driving. You don’t know when a vehicle can appear from the wrong side and surprise you and even bump into your car. Some drivers are on WhatsApp chat while driving. And most of the people driving their cars are on their phones while driving. But it is only in case a woman is driving such things alarms others. If she is parking her vehicle, men drivers who don’t know how to park their vehicles comment on her parking skills and give smiles to each other. It is the only time I have seen men smiling here. Otherwise, they only want people to see angry grim faces.
It looks like every third person has got a vehicle in Srinagar and those who have not got a vehicle are seeking a lift from those having a vehicle. Public transport is nowhere in sight. There is no public transport in the city. The work hours are limited. Everyone prefers home before 6 p.m. Some rush back home even early. So everyone is in a rush. Everyone is honking. The VIP vehicles have special sirens atop their vehicles. The sirens continue as their vehicles move. During the evening everyone prefers high beam light. By 8 p.m. most of the roads are almost deserted. The security forces come out of the bunkers and start stopping vehicles they wish to stop for checking.

At night in Srinagar.
At night in Srinagar. Getty Images

As the night falls, you see dogs chasing random vehicles and after chasing them for some time they give up. Perhaps stray dogs chase these vehicles to see “who are these people out during the night.”  There are also some lone wanderers walking on the road. They are those very schizophrenics who during the day try to streamline traffic in some junctions but fail. The night is all theirs. They keep walking. They walk very fast. Sometimes during the night, you see them walking in the middle of the road, and at times running from one end of the road to another. They seem to be in a great hurry perhaps fearing how dreadful Srinagar roads could be the next day and want to run away from it.