So Long Kashmir – Part 1
Kashmir has a mythical place in every Indian’s heart; no one has ever been there, but everyone has a passionate opinion about it. I always dreamt of visiting the valley, but the melancholic beauty of Europe always dominated my travel choices. Some times, when I thought of visiting Kashmir, my plans would invariably change to a European city considering the fact that I would be spending the same or even less to Europe. On other occasions, someone in the family would be apprehensive due to recent terror incidents. I came very close to visiting Kashmir after my MBA when I strongly pitched for Kashmir as a graduation trip which was savagely turned down by friends. So Kashmir stayed only in imaginations.
Fate finally presented an opportunity in the winters of 2018. I was alone in Singapore in the month of December which removed any chances of others influencing my travel opinion and no one to stop me from the safety point of view. So I quickly made up my mind and booked tickets to Srinagar. It still cost me a bomb to fly in the holiday season from Singapore to Delhi and Delhi to Srinagar and again, Scotland would have been cheaper but this time I was too determined to let anything change my plans. I boarded the Jet Airways flight from Singapore on 28th December midnight and slept throughout the flight which was a good start as I almost never get any sleep in the plane. I woke up fresh when we landed in Delhi around 5 am in the morning. There was not much time between the connecting flight to Srinagar so I made it to the gate straight away without any detour to cafe or bookstores.
When my Indigo flight 6E-554 took off from Delhi in the early morning of 29th December, I had a tinge of sensation as dreadful stories of plane hijacks by Kashmiri separatists rushed to my mind. There have been many hijacks in the 90s when the separatist’s demands for a free nation took a bloody turn in Kashmir after 1989 and Valley erupted in violence supported by cross-border tacit and explicit support. Though there has been no plane hijacking since 1999 in my memory, my fertile imagination kept me on guard. The timing of my trip did not help either as this last hijacking happened during Christmas time
I looked around in nervous anticipation but my eyes met with familiar dull visuals of typical Indian fliers; some dozing off with heavy snoring, others ravenously digging into their homemade ‘parathas’ and ‘Idlis’ and rest chatting with decibel levels as if they are in a rock concert. There was nothing that could catch my attention so I slipped into my usual comfort of the paperback.
Only when we landed in Jammu, I realized that my flight had a stopover in Jammu. This is when the demographics within the plane had a dramatic and thrilling change. Most people deplaned at Jammu and the plane was filled with new co-travelers. When I looked around, Salman Rushdie’s line which I could not recall in entirety, forced its way into my mind – “Kashmiris don’t even look like Indians”. Nothing had prepared me for the experience when I saw Kashmiris on the plane. We all had heard how rosy Kashmiri’s cheeks were, but this skin fairness had an exotic and ripe quality to it.
A hush descended in the cabin as if anticipating a morbid event. I sensed the tension hung in the air which will be the defining feature throughout my Kashmir trip. A few army men in the plane coupled with silent and brooding presence of Kashmiris in their phirans fed into my imagination and my mind raced to find background music to record this eerie atmosphere. “Jhelum” song from Vishal Bhardwaj’s movie ‘Haidar’ rang in my mind. The mallets kissing the strings of the Santoor producing ominous music as my heart sunk with every beat.
"Jhelum Jhelum Dhoonde Kinara Dooba Suraj In Aankho Mein Jhelum Hua Khara"
My excitement reached its peak when the plane tilted to show majestic ‘Pir Panjal’ mountain ranges of the great Himalaya. Snow-capped mountain peaks always had a calming effect on my ever-noisy brain but on this occasion, my mind became agitated as my heart throbbed hard in nervous excitement. Soon the gruff and crackling voice of the pilot broke my trance as it announced landing preparations. We landed on Sheikh Ul Alam International airport at around 10 am.
The Airport had nothing international about it as it was a typical old domestic airport structure with an opening which leads into a hallway with baggage collection belts. There were small cabins of Kashmir Tourism board and Taxi rentals and nothing else. It seemed Government did not see any point in spending any money on the modernization as rest of Indian airports went into a frenzied makeover in the last decade. This perfectly represented the situation of Kashmir vis-à-vis the rest of India. When I came out of the airport, I felt disoriented despite having travelled around the world. I had no internet connection as you cannot buy a prepaid sim in Kashmir if you are not a local. I felt a stranger and bit scared in my own country as I did not know if I should hire a taxi without the assurances of Ola and Uber which do not operate in Kashmir. I cursed myself for not renting exorbitantly expensive taxi from inside the airport. After a lot of cautious and validated dialogues with locals & police, I came to know of a government bus that would take me to the famous boulevard road on Dal lake where I had booked a houseboat for my stay.
As the dilapidated government bus lumbered along the dusty roads and narrow by lanes of Srinagar, I realized what 70 years of unrest and terrorism can do to a city. Filthy streets, rotting canals, broken roads & haphazard urban construction filled me with doubts if the famed ethereal beauty of Kashmir was a romantic’s fantasy. However, all my misgivings came to a pleasant halt when I reached the boulevard road with ‘Dal’ stretching along the road like the lazy shy winter sunshine sneaking into the courtyard. No painting could capture the universe of beauty lay ahead of me with centuries-old Shikaras and houseboats dotting the horizon, chinars standing guard to their beloved daughter Dal & Pir Panjal blessing it like a benevolent God. The furious revolutions of the earth come to a standstill when one first sees the splendor of this visual. My eyes widened to soak this universe inside me, and I wished the time which already had seemed to slow down, to stop completely so that I could name this heavenly scene. “Dawn of Dal”- my embarrassing & inept imagination could only recoil shyly.
It was a bitterly cold morning in Srinagar as the temperature hovered around -3 degrees centigrade with winds piercing my North Face jacket. ‘Dal’ was partially frozen, and I stood there without knowing how to reach my houseboat when one of the Shikara asked me to board. While I stared indecisively, he informed me that Shikara service is free of charge and run by the houseboat operators for the commute between houseboats and the city. A smile broke out on my face.
I put my left foot on the creaking board of the bow when the earth shook behind my feet as my weight pushed the water against the hull. I pulled my foot back in fear. Mujeeb whose Shikara I was supposed to board, came to my rescue and he steadied it with his firm feet spread across the middle beam and oar pulled against the shallow draft. I boarded this time with confidence and threw myself on the carpeted hull under the canopy. It was drizzling a little and Mujeeb bhai broke the thin upper layer of ice and the oar made a pleasant-sounding splash. Shikara started moving slowly towards the houseboat with a speed that personified the charm of a sleepy town’s life. Everything goes into slow motion when you hear the rhythm of the oar slapping against the cold water of ‘Dal. Maybe its just my shallow touristy heart that only sees the serene beauty of the houseboats, shikaras, Chinars, and the Pir Panjals. I cant imagine periodic bloodshed and violence that shatters the illusion of divinity in this place.
When my Shikara rocked against the platform of the houseboat, I woke up from my dreamy thoughts. I looked up and confirmed the name of the houseboat “Badyari Palace” which I had booked. Wasim, who was the owner of the houseboat had no record of my bookings made online as I came to realize was quite a normal problem with frequent load shedding and 90’s era internet which could be shut down for days without much warning. Luckily, I, against my habit, brought the printed confirmation of booking. Wasim had no way to verify this and his eyes betrayed the uncertainty, he still took me in and lit large central coal heater over for me. I was freezing by then, and despite my satanic love for extreme cold and grey, the blinding bright orange hues of burning coals soothed me. The eager warmth leaped and embraced my soul, nourishing its roots. When my breath returned to a lively pace, I looked around and saw the beautiful mosaic of oriental carpet which had turned black with age but still comforted my feet with warmth. A large woolen cloth painting hung on the wall facing the entrance in which weary nomads rested in the open starry night. Vermilion red wooden sofa added erotic appeal of the room with yellow light accentuating the seduction. Only the large rectangular dining table ungainly intruded in this medieval oasis.
I had to wait quite a lot before my room was ready and a bit more for the electricity to come. When the electricity came, it did not help much the geyser breathed heavily in my bathroom in the task of heating up a bucket load of water. I took a shower with lukewarm water and came to the boulevard road again after having another soulful ride in Shikara.
The moment I got off the Shikara to the Boulevard road, the crisp, sugar-laden smell of tea filled my nostrils. There is nothing more satisfying than the gingery sugary vapors of Indian milk tea warming your nose in cold North Indian winters, and here, it was freezing. I rushed to the first tea stall that my eyes fell on and ordered a tea with ‘double roti’ (Indian bun). Once I bit into the ‘double roti’, a flash of philosophical wisdom forced its way in my thoughts. Our seemingly irrational and fickle desires keep the world in chaotic balance and harmony. One could dine on the finest of the culinary art has to offer in the grandest of settings and still crave for the earthen delights of simple tea and ‘double roti’ next morning in a dingy tea stall. Human happiness is a function of time and this time is a random variable.
I strolled along the boulevard road in the direction where my heart desired aimlessly and came across a beautiful garden which I later found to be the famous Mughal Gardens built by Jehangir’s brother-in-law -Asif Khan.
Nishat Bagh as it is known in Srinagar sits atop an elevated platform in a terraced structure elevating the height gradually as you go along the breadth of the gardens. The benefit of this terraced structure is that you might be anywhere in the garden and yet, see the vast unobstructed expanse of Dal Lake on the west and ‘Zabarwan Mountain’ range of Pir Panjal on the east. There is a narrow canal that cuts the breadth of the garden and supplies water. Rectangular blocks of grass which are walled by flower plants, sit on both sides of the canal. The Mughals who ruled India from the 16th century to the middle of the 19th century were fond of building Persian style gardens. Nishat Gardens is one of the most beautiful gardens built in the Mughal Era. It is said that Shah Jehan was so jealous of the beauty of these gardens that he ordered to stop the water supply of the gardens as Asif Khan, his father-in-law showed no interest in his implicit desires of owning the gardens. When Asif Khan saw the dying trees in absence of water, he sat dejected in the shade of a still-green tree when one of his servants opened the water supply despite royal orders. Asif Khan, while ecstatic as he heard the fountain roaring with water and water streaming down the garden, asked to stop the supply in fear of the king’s wrath. Later, unexpectedly, Shah Jehan not only ignored the servant’s daring act of disobedience but also revoked his previous order. Thus, the purity of Nishat Garden’s beauty prevailed over a king’s eccentric and unbridled power.