India Venture Trip: An account from Danielle Ivie
Traveling to Kashmir with Dr. Munshi and my fellow students was both enlightening and immensely rewarding. We were fortunate enough to speak with all manner of people there, from those who enjoyed the benefits of the system to those who have struggled because of it. The connections that Prof. Munshi has forged and maintained in the country with various people enabled us to interact with teachers, students, journalists, mothers, priests and lawyers to name just a few.
We had been made aware of the social and political atmosphere of Kashmir before the trip but interacting with all of these different people made it real in only the way that travel and local interaction can. Being able to view their region through different lenses, some rose-colored and some quite jaded, gave us a much more complete picture of life in Indian-governed Kashmir.
Some of the first, most obvious differences between here and there were visual. The mountainous region was incredibly beautiful with large natural lakes, lovely weather and tons of wildlife. Mughal gardens dot the region, taking full advantage of the natural splendor of Kashmir. We were lucky to be able to experience most of the Mughal gardens and even see the Dal Lake from a shallow boat called a shikara, sliding through canals filled with greenery, birds, shops and boat-vendors. These parks were beautiful places and filled with visitors. We realized that the temples and holy places were better maintained and more intimate, cleaner than the streets outside. We trekked up to a historical Hindu temple called Shankaracharya, on one of our last days there and were greeted by a huge military bunker at the top. There was a massive military presence, with fully outfitted soldiers at nearly every corner with riot gear and shoddy bunkers in many streets. The area we stayed in was near the State Governor’s residence and so was slightly more policed than the other areas of Srinagar, replete with morning marksman exercises heard echoing through the mountains. It is surprising how quickly you become used to it. After a week, it was no longer as shocking to walk past trucks full of men with large guns while we were out shopping. By the end of our time there, we could sense the undertones of irritation with their overbearing presence and understand a little why that has morphed into a violent anger in some Kashmiris. We can only hope that it doesn’t take another generation to deescalate.
The higher learning school systems were another large difference. Students seem to be tracked into certain fields, aiming for a sure job regardless of interest as opposed to the more American perspective of checking out different subjects to figure out what they want to do. Many of the less orthodox jobs don’t even seem to be considered by either students or teachers, instead focusing on very specific traditional careers such as engineering and science roles. This had the surprising effect of students who were not studying computer sciences being unfamiliar with basic computer skills that could assist them in their other fields. Aside from Facebook and Wikipedia, their ability to search for information such as schooling resources for grants and studying abroad appeared limited. Students also were surprised to learn that we often had to pay for our own schooling, going into debt in order to complete our degrees. This was more a cultural difference, as there is an expectation that parents will assist their children no matter their age. The assistance did, however, seem to hinge on the children completing degrees that their parents approved of. We also experienced a lot of red tape in the form of “The way things are done.” It was difficult to break out of the regimented process of meeting important figureheads of the school, having formal tea-times and listening to long-winded speeches about their history and excellence when our objective was to have informal speech with students and faculty.
One of the more frustrating things that we observed was ancient items in their possession could have been better taken care of. In museums, many of the larger stone carvings from hundreds of years ago were not protected from people touching them, which we observed on multiple occasions. It seemed that they were not cognizant of the fact that, over time, handling of the artifacts will destroy them and any extra information about them that can be gleaned scientifically. We also saw the same thing with private collections of manuscripts. They were prized possessions but still allowed to be eaten up by silverfish, handled without gloves, and were unprotected from damage by floods and such. With a little luck, Dr. Munshi’s grant will be funded and work can be done to conserve the manuscripts and impress upon them their importance as historical documents that ought to be protected and disseminated.
As far as the people, something that we felt over and over again was warmth and curiosity from those that we encountered. Many wonderful individuals invited us into their homes to share their food and customs, showering us with hospitality. It was amusing to some that we would choose to visit places like Budgam, and some expressed a longing to be elsewhere, but we also encountered those who were fiercely proud of being Kashmiri and who loved their home despite its troubles. Some stories of personal troubles were awful to hear, but we were heartened to see those stories being shared in order to help each other. One of the brightest spots in this was the Women’s Collective that gathered intelligent, feisty women to uplift one another and help others in their time of need whenever they can. It makes one hopeful that it could be the beginning of a trend against social injustice against women in Kashmir.
Though some of the things we learned were less than pleasant, the overall trip was wondrous and left me feeling wiser, more understanding of an impossible situation, and wanting to learn more about the region and its past.