‘Difficult can be done now, impossible may take some time!’
New technology has helped me to re-establish contact with a friend after 36 long years.
Mohammad Ashraf was a dashing young officer in the Mountaineering Tourism division of the Tourism Department of Jammu and Kashmir when I made his acquaintance.
Established in late 19thcentury, J & K Tourism is the oldest Tourism department in India. British officers used to visit Kashmir to escape the summer heat, and following their example Bengali babus started visiting the valley during the Puja holidays. (Kolkata was the seat of the British Indian government at the time.) The Maharaja’s government, recognizing the importance of tourism, set up the department to cater to the needs of visitors.
Ashraf who had to leave engineering studies in unforeseen circumstances had joined the Tourism department after undergoing training at the Himalayan Mountaineerng Institute, Darjeeling, in adventure sports like mountaineering and skiing. In 1973, the government admitted his proposal to set up a division to promote adventure tourism, and put him in charge of it. That was when I landed in Srinagar.
Then, as now, Kashmir was loaded with political stuff, and journalists in the state were too engrossed in political reporting to devote attention to other subjects. I kept in touch with Ashraf as part of my quest for non-political stories. He proved to be a very valuable news source. He appreciated my interest in his division’s activities as it helped it get some publicity.
The most memorable of the stories I got from him was about the rescue of a young woman who went on a trek through the Zanskar valley not knowing that the pet dog which bit her had rabies.
She was the daughter of an IPS officer posted in Mumbai. She met Ashraf at his office and sought help to plan a trek through the remote Valley. He helped her. The next day he received a frantic call from Mumbai saying her father wanted to contact her urgently. The pet dog that bit her before she left Mumbai had died, and she needed to take anti-rabies injections immediately.
There was no way Ashraf could contact her. He told me about this. There was a human interest story in it. But my mind was working on how we could save her. I suggested to him to contact the Air Force authorities and seek help. He did, and they agreed to make an aerial search. As dusk fell, the search had to be suspended due to poor visibility.
I filed a report that night saying Air Force planes were searching for a young woman from Mumbai who was on trekking through the remote Zanskar Valley not knowing that the pet dog that bit her had died of rabies.
The next morning the Air Force resumed the search, and struck pay dirt, as the Americans will put it. The search party located the woman, a helicopter picked her up and flew her to Srinagar where she was given the first anti-rabies shot before being put on a plane to Delhi on way to Mumbai.
When I was leaving Srinagar after more than five years covering Kashmir developments – it was during this period that Indira Gandhi signed an accord with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, paving the way for his return as head of the state government after 22 years -- Ashraf told me flatteringly that my departure was a loss to J and K tourism!
Ashraf later became Director of Mountain Tourism and then Director-General of Tourism.
Recently I chanced upon a link to an article by Ashraf. That took me to his website Kashmir First (http://www.kashmirfirst.com/), packed with his writings on politics, history, tourism, adventure etc. When attempts to reach him through the site failed, I sought the help of a mutual friend, Mohammad Sayeed Malik, Resident Editor of the Kashmir Times, Srinagar, who kindly provided his telephone number and e-mail address.
Ashraf, who writes regularly for Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, the Kashmir Times, the Citizen, Countercurrents, the Caravan and the Khaleej Times of Dubai, says, “My motto is to speak the truth, regardless of consequences and I am always reminded of the Border Roads sign on the Leh Road, ‘Difficult can be done now, impossible may take some time!’”
All strength to MohammadAshraf's elbow.