Srinagar is dusty, the dust choking the busy streets and clinging to the dark wooden houses covered with corrugated iron. At every few feet stands a soldier with a rifle, his head under a helmet and a bulletproof vest on his chest.
Outside an army bunker is a painted sign: "Please Prove Your Identity". The eye takes in the image of the dust, the rust and the soldier on the street. Beyond is the river, also khaki, and visible above, the sky, which is clean and bright.
The partially burnt-down structure of the Government Hospital for Psychiatric Diseases is set away from the street. The Mughal fort that Akbar built can be seen atop the hill nearby, the military bunker there sharply outlined against the blue. Inside the hospital, in front of the wards for the male patients, there are trees and a garden with flowers in bloom. The garden fence is made up of the hospital's discarded metal cots, set on their side.
In the corridor, men in grimy white-and-blue uniforms squat on the floor, rocking their bodies against the wall. Dr Sadaqat Rahman, who is the only clinical psychologist in Srinagar, is making her rounds. She has an easy, affectionate manner toward her patients, many of whom are gathered at the windows of the wards in which they are locked. They shout out appeals to the doctor in Kashmiri. They all want to go back home.
Until only a few years ago, there were between eight and ten patients visiting the hospital each day. These days, the hospital treats anywhere from 100 to 150 patients daily.
Dr Rahman is reluctant to relate the increased problems to the violence of the valley. According to her, the malady is worldwide. Wearing a long gown and a headscarf, and speaking good English, the doctor says that by the year 2008, there will be only psychiatry, no medicine.
An ambulance, with armed men in it, is parked outside the doctor's wards. They are soldiers from the Border Security Force. When they go in to see the doctor, the soldiers carry their rifles with them. The doctor explains that the soldiers do not trust even the doctors.
Four soldiers wait in the truck. Other patients, Kashmiri men and women, move around them in the hospital yard. The soldiers sit in the ambulance, talking only among themselves. They have come to the hospital because they suffer from the effects of trauma. Many Kashmiris complain of the aggression of the armed forces; in the hospital, it is clear that violence does not spare the perpetrator either.
In a few minutes, Dr Rahman is going to attend a board meeting to deal with the soldiers' cases. She has to decide when to advise their military superiors that the soldiers be denied access to arms and ammunition. In the security force truck, a soldier who is from a village near Allahabad - one of the first things he tells me is that he is a Brahmin, and his name is Pandey - asks if I had seen the graffiti on a wall outside saying "Indian Forces Go Back". It is only when I say yes that he begins to talk about deep-seated suspicion and stress and depression. He feels OK when he is in his village, the man tells me, but feels disorientated outside.
The local papers that day carried reports of a security force commander being shot dead by an Indian army soldier in Kupwara. The men in the ambulance know about this piece of news, but none of them wants to comment on it. Pandey, the soldier from Allahabad, tells me that it is his first visit to the hospital but it is true that soldiers are brought here every day.
It strikes me that, for people like Pandey, the move out from the village represented an introduction to the ideology of nationalism. Without the idea of the nation, a person like Pandey is lost. The militant from across the border, who carries the idea of the Islamic nation like a gun, is a figure that the soldier recognises. Oddly enough, it is the armed militant who confirms for the soldier everything he believes in. But what the soldier finds more disturbing, and even incomprehensible, is the ordinary Kashmiri who, unarmed, vulnerable, and in no way committed to Pakistan, still will not grant him the gift of inviolable nationhood.
In Srinagar, a housewife, a driver, a tailor and an old poet, sitting in front of his lovely pomegranate trees, all talk of their desire for an independent Kashmir. In Delhi, in Nagpur or in Patna, such talk is met with rage. We repeat what we have learnt at school: Kashmir is a part of our identity as a nation.
The soldier in Srinagar, however, has a more immediate relation to that reality. The anonymous, painted roadside graffito asking the Indian forces to go back signifies, for the soldier, a loss of self. In the resulting incomprehension, nationalism survives only as a neurosis. The only way out of this neurosis is for the soldier to identify each Kashmiri as a potential Pakistani. This act, full of the violence of negation, fills him with despair.
And the Kashmiri? How does he or she suffer? In a bare room, bare except for a carpet and plain green sofas arranged against the wall, the chairman of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Abdul Ghani Bhat, tells me that he is stopped by a soldier on the street and asked to show his card. "A man from Kerala has to verify," Bhat says, "that I am a Kashmiri on the soil of Kashmir. This is humiliation. At its worst."
The sun slants into the room, lighting Bhat's head from behind. He has a thin, lined face. Before becoming a leader of the Hurriyat movement, he was a professor of Persian. His language is vivid and metaphorical. Gesturing dramatically with his hands, he proclaims: "A soldier sits on each Kashmiri's head, minus children, and occasionally women and the old. The LOC [line of control, the disputed border between India and Pakistan] exists in every room, in every office, in every street, at all levels."
A cup of Kashmiri tea is brought for me. Bhat warms to his theme. He says that government in Kashmir exists only in bunkers. There is a pause. The Hurriyat chairman spreads his hands and then brings them together in a tight clasp. He says: "Soldiers rule. Elections are irrelevant. Development is a mirage. We are fighting a war of survival."
This could be dismissed as political rhetoric. In Delhi, L K Advani, the deputy prime minister, will once again say that the Hurriyat has a "soft corner" for Pakistan. But what Bhat says is echoed by common Kashmiris who do not want to be cheated of real progress by politicians exchanging election slogans. The ballot box will be a place where Kashmiris will once again be asked to stuff their dreams. There will be another occasion lost for genuine dialogue.
Parveena Ahangar is the mother of five children: one of them, Javed, has been missing since the night of 18 August 1990, when soldiers picked him up. They were probably looking for his neighbour, also called Javed, who was said to be a militant. Parveena's son Javed had a bad stammer, and when he was disturbed and could not speak he would strike his foot against the ground. Sitting on the floor in her simple room, Javed's mother says that she dreams of him each day.
Parveena wants her son back, and she does not see the point in the elections. She says, "Mera dil jalaa hua hai. Kahan jayega hum vote daalne?"(My heart is burnt. Why would I go to vote?)
On my last morning in Srinagar, I undertake a literary pilgrimage. I look for Hotel Leeward, where V S Naipaul lived for four months when he first came to India in 1962. Writing three decades later about Kashmir and the hotel, Naipaul noted that "it remained a glow, a memory of a season when everything had gone well". As I catch sight of the hotel, I experience it as a discovery, the white building with blue trimmings. The shikara I am sailing in passes a few shops and a public call-booth on the lake, and then draws close to the hotel's concrete steps. A dragonfly whirrs above the lowest step, the sun lighting its wings. But I am not allowed to step off the boat. A soldier with a Sten gun waves me away. He tells me that the hotel is not open to outsiders. The Border Security Force uses it now as a bunker.
Amitava Kumar is the author of Bombay-London-New York, to be published by Routledge next month