This alphabet book makes for an educational toy, or a pretty showpiece
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“Ab toh ho gaya season khatam,” a ski instructor shook his head ruefully. The season is finished, he said, and I doubt if the skiers will return anytime soon. He had good reason to be upset. I was standing in the middle of Gulmarg in a winter wonderland of deep snow and tall pines and white mountains, and the J&K government had just imposed a curfew on the entire Valley. Internet services were down, TV channels blacked out, newspaper offices raided. Livelihoods had come to a shuddering stop, in the middle of the lucrative winter tourist season.
In one fell swoop, two years of peace and calm in the Valley was brought to an end in front of my eyes, and it wasn’t pretty. Downcast eyes everywhere, edgy ski tour leaders muttering in their walkie talkies, half-hearted snowballs thrown by tourists at each other. The thrill had gone. All that remained was dread, and the fear of what would happen next. The ski gondola wasn’t working, as staff couldn’t get to Gulmarg due to the curfew.
And yet, Gulmarg was a world apart from the rest of the Valley. I realised that when the hotel I was staying in insisted on transporting us to Srinagar airport at the crack of dawn — nine hours before my flight — because they understandably didn’t want to take any chances. Bouncing along the bumpy main road to Srinagar, the streets looked eerily deserted.
In Srinagar, there were pickets and heavily armed men patrolling the streets, turning back people who’d come out for a morning walk. Finally, we got to the airport, after the ridiculous charade of security checks, only to be stranded in the cold along with a host of other travellers — we were all too early.
For six hours we waited, occasionally going into the airport to use the toilets. Of course, we were frisked each time, and regarded with deep suspicion. Finally we were allowed into the airport, frisked again and again and, as a parting shot, I had my bag opened and everything checked, including the photographs I had taken. Tourism, Kashmir style.
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