Inner cities across the world are plagued by ills like crime, insecurity, drugs and high murder or homicide rates. But, nay, our very own downtown, or Shehr e Khas, might be the safest inner city dwelling in the world. I can vouch for it given that I have visited various downtowns in the West, especially the United States. The assertion might sound counterintuitive to many given that Downtown Srinagar usually is the first to erupt when Kashmir flares up. While I will not offer profound sociological or psychoanalytic explanations for the nature of our downtown, I will put our great inner city into perspective by delineating anecdotal contrasts. One pertains to my few weeks’ long stay in a Pennsylvanian inner city and the experience(s) thereof. The other to my quotidian observations about life in our inner city, either walking, driving or bicycling through it.
In 2008, when I was younger, idealistic (perhaps even foolish), and wanted to gain a holistic, integrated and varied perspective(s) on the United States, I chose to live in an inner city for a few weeks. This urban concatenation was dominated by blacks but there were implied lines of demarcation between the Latino portions of the inner city and the black ones. (Hardly any white face, or an “outsider”, except for the odd drug peddler or what have you could be seen in this inner city. Most or all Middle Class Whites would not stick out their neck here and walk, either traversing the inner city or just out of curiosity).
The first few days were fine. My black landlord was pleasant (which later turned to be a farce and a pretence). At the end of the first week, at around midnight, I woke up to the desperate pleas of someone begging his tormentor to spare his life; the pleas went on for a few minutes till there was a loud bang. Every tenant in the apartment block that I was living awoke but no one intervened. The next morning, there were some flowers at the spot where some anonymous man had been killed, probably over a few dollars, a drug deal gone bad or whatever (I can only speculate). Life moved on in the inner city. However, the ambiance was fraught with violent tension in this particular part of PA, even during day time. I was aware of this but the inner city had something in store for me too.
A few days later, just after midnight, there was a light knock on my door. I naively opened the door and here was my black landlord, with his wife and some other people, if memory saves me right. Unusually, they demanded rent at this hour. As I unsuspectingly went to get the monies, the black man and his wife yelled at me and pulled out a weapon; all of them ganged up against me. I ran and ran. A black sedan, parked outside the apartment, with its door open, and two black girls inside, shouted at me and said: “Wanna Ride?” I was tempted(for my safety) till I immediately realized that it was a set up and a trap. I ran with blacks chasing me. Seeking a police station which I could not find, I continued running till a cop car drove past. I yelled, hailed it and narrated the saga to the cops who quizzically asked why I was in this part of the city. I responded by stating the truth; that I wanted to gain multiple perspectives on the United States.
When we arrived at the house where I was staying, the black man was spewing incoherent expletives. I went into the apartment, rummaged through my belongings only to discover that the man and his wife had stolen my laptop. I managed to get back my lap top. But, regarding the assault, the white police did nothing!
It might also be added that, Washington DC, which is held by some as the world’s capital, is a different city after dark: unsafe, dangerous and fraught with danger. The inner city that I described and my experience(s) thereof could serve as a metaphor for perhaps all such urban concatenations in the United States.
Now, consider our very own downtown. I would go to the extent of saying that a woman can walk alone on the streets of our Shehr e Khas after midnight, even under the current politically volatile conditions. I will, to make the point clear, again take recourse to an experience I have had there. A couple of years ago, as I was driving with my mum, a Bihari girl child (like any child who runs for no reason), ran and hit the bonnet of my car. She collapsed even though I was driving rather slowly. I stopped and clambered out from my car only to notice a crowd of people had gathered around my vehicle and the little Bihari girl. The crowd neither harangued me nor harassed me but asked me to wait till the girl regained consciousness (lest she might have to be driven to the hospital). The people around the girl gave her water and consoled her mother. The girl, who had suffered a minor concussion regained consciousness. Soon after, the people around said that I could go now.
Innumerable incidents and examples can be cited to assess the veracity of the claim that our downtown is the safest. There is an aura of security and safety around it; this can be verified by an outsider who, if she or wants to take a stroll around our inner city and will feel not only safe but also relish what the city has to offer.
There’s more to our inner city besides its safe and secure nature. Our Shehr e Khas has character; it might not be aesthetically very pleasing to the eye but its character lies in its people, who are defined by a certain joi de vivre, large heartedness, a ruthless sense of humor and an attitude that can only be called downtownian. I, to conclude, love my(our downtown) and hope that it retains its nature and character for all times to come!
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org