Last summer's unrest is a distant memory, as tourists flock to the Valley, which now even boasts hospitality of the homestay kind.

As we throw open the windows of our luxurious bedroom and gaze at the shikaras plying serenely on the Dal Lake, it is hard to believe that this used to be a neglected barn in the 1970s.

Or that the Dal was out of bounds just a year ago during Kashmir's summer of unrest.

We are at the Almond Villa, in Srinagar, a rather retro seven-bedroom homestay set on a hilly orchard with a vantage view of the Dal. It's the property of Kashmir's erstwhile Dogra royalty — the family of Dr Karan Singh, former Union minister and the last prince regent of Kashmir. Behind, beyond the beautifully manicured lawn, the villa is backed by mountains uncluttered by human habitation.

The sense of wellbeing heightens when the aroma of plum chutney made in the kitchens downstairs wafts through — the previous evening we had stuffed ourselves silly with peaches, plums and mulberries from the orchards. Gazing at the placid lake, backed by lovely mountains, the lines of Browning flash through: The hillside's dew pearled; the lark's on the wing; the snail's on the thorn; God's in his Heaven — All's right with the world!

The faint sense of nervousness that one arrived in Srinagar with — after all, there is always a frisson of tension visiting the heaviest militarised zone in the world — has completely vanished. In fact, last evening, we had been surprised by the huge crowds of tourists at the lake. Shrugging aside memories of last year's bloody summer marred by deaths, curfews and strife, tourists are clearly now flocking to Srinagar.

Since January, we are told, the Valley has already got over five lakh tourists, including over 10,000 foreigners.

Anywhere else — Mussoorie, Shimla — you would curse seeing such a melee, but here you cannot help but share in the pleasure of Wahid, our boatman, or Ghulam Nabi Dar, our driver, at receiving so many guests to the valley. After years of being idle, and eking an uneasy existence, the boatmen are eager for pickings, and their good cheer is infectious.

They also lay out all the charm in good measure — as we glided close to the water lily farms on the lake, Wahid laid down his oars, deftly plucked out some lilies and strung them into a garland for us.

It's also reassuring to see the houseboats — which sport incongruous names such as Cheerful Charlie, New Lucifer, Helen of Troy and Merry Dawn — full of guests.

Syed Bashir Ahmad, the manager at the Almond Villa, who was earlier a general manager at the Tourism Department, feels that peace is likely to continue as “people are now fed up”. With separatist leaders such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik all giving declarations that tourist earnings would not be marred by shutdowns, everywhere we go — be it the sightseeing spots or the handicraft shops, there is a hope of a revival in the economy.

Anyway, from our vantage perch at the Almond Villa, which despite having its gates open out on Dal, is completely secluded, we can bask in peace and solitude.

An erudite host

Jyoti Singh, the daughter of Karan Singh, is the epitome of the gracious hostess. Warm, friendly, erudite and full of exciting plans, she's without any of the airs one associates with old royalty. “That's thanks to my father,” she says. Also, she says the years at Lawrence School, Sanawar, which was “a boot camp kind of school”, ensured no creeping in of attitude. A PhD in philosophy, she taught for a bit as well, at Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College — before chucking it all to explore the creative arts.

For Jyoti, whose childhood was spent in Srinagar — she did her early schooling from Presentation Convent — it's been quite a comeback to the native precincts. Wasn't there a sense of resentment — after all, every Kashmiri one meets talks of the betrayal by the erstwhile royals? She claims on the contrary she has met with nothing but tremendous goodwill.

It was in 2004, she says, that she started going back to the Valley. At that time Almond Villa, and its orchards, which her father had gifted her, was with the NCC. “It was always a pretty neglected property — I don't remember anyone apart from an estate agent living there, though it was planned originally as a wine cellar,” she says.

“I came back with a view to do something with the local people — to get back some sense of involvement in the society and reconnect,” she says. So, she started off by working with people such as Sushoba Barve and Rajmohan Gandhi and with women's groups.

“People here have to get out of the sense of victimhood and start feeling empowered,” she observes.

Gradually, the homestay idea happened — more to maintain the house than anything else. Along with her surgeon husband, Pradeep Trehan, and son Viv Chauhan, she restored and modernised the old colonial building — putting in modern bathrooms instead of the old thunderboxes; five of the seven bedrooms are let out to guests.

And why the tie-up with Mahindra? Given that her brothers Ajatshatru and Vikramaditya both manage hotels — the former the Hariniwas Palace Hotel in Jammu and the latter, the Taragarh Palace Hotel in Kangra valley, Himachal Pradesh — couldn't she have drawn on their expertise?

“A homestay is so personalised — I like the concept,” she says promptly. “What I like about the Mahindra arrangement is the flexibility — we can get our own guests as well as through them. Also, if you are part of the Mahindra homestay network, you can actually go and stay in any other homestay in the brand. Imagine the number of places one can visit,” says Jyoti, a dreamy expression on her face.

Even as the villa takes in guests, for Jyoti, it's also the base of her cultural involvement in Srinagar — every year she coordinates from here the Dara Shikoh festival, which strives to acquaint young Kashmiris with their roots. “People don't realise the diversity that Kashmir has — be it the Kishtwad traditions of Jammu or the Pahadi or the eight dialects you find in Kargil, there are so many oral and folk traditions here,” she says.

In between, she's also set in motion a jam-making unit at the homestay, which ties in neatly with the women's social welfare group work. The fresh fruit from the orchard are converted into exotic jams and preserves with the help of 20 girls from the local women's polytechnic.

Of course, Jyoti does not spend all her time in Srinagar — in fact, the villa now runs on its own — and she has her own exciting life in Delhi, pottering away on her wheel creating works of art — though, of late, it is enamel that is her muse.

Charms of Chinar town

Although the Almond Villa is the kind of place from where you don't want to budge, and indeed don't need to — being a complete destination in itself, replete with books et al — our hosts tempt us to take a city tour.

Finally, we relent — more out of curiosity. The last time I had toured the gardens of Srinagar was in 1995 during the height of militancy, accompanied by a convoy of armed guards. It was certainly no picnic then visiting the highly neglected and eerily deserted Mughal gardens and Pari Mahal, watched closely by soldiers.

The contrast between then and now cannot be more heartening. The unkempt gardens are now restored and in full bloom. The soldiers are now inconspicuous, and instead it's the civilians' day out in the sun, with teenagers and school kids gambolling away, getting soaked in the fountains.

We could have stayed forever in the shade of the Chinars, enjoying the splendid gardens, but Ghulam Nabi prodded us to visit a few shrines.

The trip to Jama Masjid, driving past elegant latticed houses, mosques and temples on the banks of the Jhelum, across the quaint old wooden bridges, brings home the magical charm of old-world Srinagar.

But what is pleasing to our eyes seems to be hurting our driver. “These 20 years have pushed our State back by 100 years,” he says bitterly.

(This article was published on July 14, 2011)
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