A journey of re-discovery into one's childhood wonderland is supposed to be an extraordinary moment. Such a journey normally evokes a profound but complex feeling of astonishment, nostalgia and even disbelief. The disbelief, thanks to time, comes with the change part – the change which takes a while for the denial to be overcome.
Last week along with my father I happened to visit Shilwath – our childhood wonderland – a sleepy north Kashmir village where our family owned an apple orchard.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a journey to Shilwath was like a journey to another planet. It would take us to a paradise of apples (the Hazratbali type), butterflies, corn bread and the incredible Shaedpur melons. Our apples didn't need any pesticides and fungicides and were still world-class. It was our own world of Malgudi Days.
The Shilwath orchard was surrounded by so many mystical things: acres of hops farms, an amazing water canal full of lotus flowers and other bounties, paddy and corn fields. A swim in the water canal was always our fantasy, but we were never allowed to even venture close to it. The orchard's expanse would offer a lovely turf for some "apple cricket" – making us fledge our little arms for mini sixes which we wouldn't afford in our home's courtyard.
Shilwath was also special for some other reasons too – we would get to meet, and enjoy the hospitality of, our orchard's guardians. We would often spend our weekends there and get to experience the enchanting village life.
The most conspicuous of the things in that area was the hops farms. Throughout our childhood we were forbidden to talk of the crop, not to speak of going close to the farms or touch their plants hung in lines of steel wire. Those plants to us were like the Heaven's forbidden fruit to Adam and Eve. Talking about the use of hops was like a taboo. (I came to learn much later that much of the riches of India's liquor baron Vijay Mallya came from those very farms!)
As guns started roaring in 1989 in Kashmir and the dreaded Ikhwan militia took control of the Sumbal-Sonawari area, Shilwath just disappeared from our lives.
The last week visit to the place had happened after more than two decades. It was like a celebration of a life long lost – a celebration of nothing. Although Shilwath still retains some of its old natural grandeur, the place has changed in unimaginable ways. It is no more a far off place on another planet; it is just another Srinagar suburb today. It doesn't look like a village anymore.
If we take a look at our surroundings – the places we grew up in, the towns, the cities, the countryside – we realise whole of Kashmir has changed in incredible ways in the last two decades. All this change occurred despite the raging conflict and all the misery and the suffering!
While travelling across countries we often hear colleagues talking about the changes that have happened in their countries, their habitats in recent years. Much of India has changed too in the last two decades, thanks to globalisation and the communications revolution. But look closely, Kashmir's change is too broad, rapid and drastic, unlike in other two regions of the state.
The rapid economic and social change in the valley has made most of the villages of yesteryears to disappear. People's lifestyles have undergone a deep change. Although the change in urban areas hasn't kept pace with the change in rural Kashmir, yet the change isn't ordinary. Old communities in old cities and towns have been abandoned, with people moving to more spacious suburbs. Upward social and economic mobility is staggering.
Throughout Kashmir's countryside kacha houses have been replaced with the concrete ones. Palatial houses dot the green landscapes with high density. Straw roofs have almost vanished now. While tin roofing arrived in the villages long back, the same are being replaced by the colour laminated tin roofing now, giving an entirely new colour to the landscape.
Paddy is fast being replaced by cash crops. Most families no longer work on their fields by themselves. From plantation to harvesting it is the outside labourers who do the job. Travels outside the state are more frequent now.
The disgusting open pit-type toilets are a thing of the past. Now almost every rural home has a flush toilet. The traditional straw mats (waguw) which were in common use in homes are almost extinct now. Costly colourful carpets are rapidly making their ways into rural and poor urban homes. LPG-based cooking has to a large measure replaced firewood chulhas.
Not long ago most of the people in Kashmir's countryside would travel in the large traditional buses. Those buses are quite few in number today, with the second and even third-generation of SUVs taking over as the most-preferred public transport today.
One of the most rapid changes that have occurred in the valley is the ownership of cars. While just a decade ago cars in rural areas were rare, these days an increasing number of people are driving second and even third-generation cars, including sedans and SUVs. This is not only happening in villages in the vicinity of urban areas, but in remote villages too.
The introduction of mobile phones has also changed people's lives in incredible ways. Business and horticulture are flourishing because people are able to make wide contacts. Black & White TVs and the old-fashioned roof-top antennas are a thing of the past while dish TVs have seen almost everywhere.
In the late 80s and 90s, some Kashmiris would send their children for education outside the state to places like Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University or South India. These days the trend is to send children abroad. Many villagers sell their land to get their children foreign MBAs and other degrees. People have gone far beyond medical and engineering professions.
Although girl education was not rare to find in Kashmir a few decades back, what is astonishing today is the level of higher educational attainment among girls both in urban and rural Kashmir.
While all these changes are perceptible to everybody, what sounds little surprising is that we haven't been talking this change.
The columnist is a consultant in international development, and a contributing editor with Greater Kashmir