So Long Kashmir – Part 2

So Long Kashmir – Part 2

(This is the 2nd part of the multipart travelogue series on Kashmir. In the first part, the author described his experience of flying to Kashmir and his experiences from Airpot to his first impression of houseboats. He took his readers on a pleasant trip to the famous Nishat gardens of Srinagar and provided a sneak peek into history by taking them to the Mughal era by narrating Mughal era folklore. The author continues his journey across the “Heaven on earth”..)

When I returned from Nishat garden to the Boulevard Road, the sun was wrapping up its day and heading home, taking a leisurely walk across the horizon. It was not the frenetic closure and hurried sunset that one is used to in more business-oriented cities of the world but reminded more of a sleepy Indian government office where clerks, after day-long labors of tea breaks and gossips, get weary and head back to their home in a small town.

The sun dyed the fabric of water into crimson and birds gossiped loud in their boomerang-shaped groups returning to their nests. The sound of seagulls, faint undercurrents & the rhythmic silent winds provided the background music to the visual splendor that lay along the embankment.

Is there any wonder, if Sufism flourished, Hindus & Muslims held sacred same saints, sounds of Santoor was born and Kashmiri Pandits learned to cook lamb ‘Wajwaan’, abandoning their morally superior vegetarianism in such a pleasure house of the God- I thought.

The ‘fiza’ of Kashmir (loosely translated as the atmosphere of Kashmir) has a therapeutic calming effect on one’s senses. As soon as my mental faculty lulled into a nicer place of calm and serenity, my tongue started reminding me that it too needed nourishment. All kinds of juices started swirling in my mouth thinking about the rich cuisine of Kashmiri Wajwan. It was time to look for the famous Kashmiri Mughal kitchens in the cold wintry evening of Srinagar.

Now I am not sure if this is my own wild imagination but I have found cold winds to be great carriers and preserver of fragrance. Why did Europeans smell so good in those endless subway rides and road walks during my Eurotrips which I never experienced even in the poshest of subcontinental localities? What is this to do with food and Kashmir? Well, Where would rich aroma of green chilies, ginger, and onions frying in the fat of ‘Desi Ghee’ would tantalize your nostrils if not in the foggy winters of Kashmir! Imagine a scene! wisps of fog rising at the lake on your right while vapors of spicy lamb curry simmering in the kitchen of a roadside Dhaba on your left. I don’t know about you but this is enough to send my mind into hallucinations. I had not done any prior homework on where to go for my dinner for Kashmiri Wajwan food so I asked the locals on the road against my normal instincts. The name that was promptly offered was “Mughal Darbar” on the Residency Road. There was no internet luxury in Srinagar and I had no other option but to try Mughar Darbar without verifying the look and feel of it through browsing.

The first impression when I looked at the restaurant, disappointed me. Call me elitist but I need my food joint to have a pull factor at first glance. It can be anything from the color of chairs to the shape of the dining table or the kitchenware on it; even the table runner has been a pull factor for me if it signals an idea in the owner’s mind which I can peep into. Food is the ultimate service as intimate as the one offered by the Mughal era courtesan to its loyal clientele. If there is no soul invested in the service, this intimacy can degenerate into a tasteless mechanical chore. A dull, dingy, and colorless block of canteen looking space welcomed me when I entered. I have always been appalled by those restaurants which forget to separate the sacrosanct boundary of the kitchen from the dining area; where it looks as if the dining is simply an extension of the work that goes on in the kitchen. I looked around to find a suitable place to sit. The middle-aged man on the counter with sand pepper beard pointed his finger to the mezzanine deck for me for the seating. I climbed dark and narrow stairs to come to the mezzanine deck which was a bit less dreadful but only just. A large Mughal art painting decorated the tacky gray tiled wall. Large chandeliers hung from the low greenish marble-tiled ceiling felt intrusive and out of place. Tables were made of splotchy beach stone terrazzo type granite chips. The entire interior looked like a hotchpotch of conflicting ideas and tastes. I picked up the stained menu and it offered a motley mix of typical Delhi Mughal dishes along with Kashmiri specialties like Rista, Goshtba, aab Gosht, nadroo Yakhni along with Wajwan plate. I went for a plate of Kashmiri Wajwan which cost 700 rupees. I sat in hungry excitement expecting a huge thali like system with multiple bowls of different Wajwan elements. What came after an excruciating wait, dampened my spirits and hunger pangs receded a bit. The server brought a plate of rice with multiple meat elements like kebabs and lamb ribs on the heap of rice. It looked nothing like my fantasy conjured all day long while roaming around Nishat Garden. I looked at the presentation and texture of different meat elements and I knew immediately, my opinion of Wajwan was about to take a low hit.

I finished my meal which as I feared was an average fare of a low-end joint. I called the server for a bill. A late-middle-aged man brought the bill and when I gave him my card, I heard his voice for the first time. “20% Tip kara dein sir?” (Should I do 20% as the tip). His voice had this mannered and measured coldness with ever so slight hint of contempt as if to accuse me of forgery to be served by him. I felt dumbstruck by the silence and precision of his voice and the authority it laid on me. I nodded, still reeling in the overpowering game his voice played on me. Sometimes I wonder how our long and dull lives become short flashy reels of these little moments. These moments are like little shells that you find on a beach, where large glorious ships sink and the infinity of ocean swallows entire civilization sometimes but the waves keep throwing these little shells as if unable to digest in its vast belly, revolted by the lightness of insignificance but overpowered by their shine.

I came back to the houseboat after roaming around the boulevard and deep breathing heavy snow-laden air of boulevard road. There was another power cut and Usman Bhai (Shikara attendant for guests) had lit up the central coal-powered heater. I sat in the soothing warmth of the heater for some time before I headed to my room. I had plans to open my GlennFiddich 18 to enjoy in the solitude of my cozy room white I thought about the life in Kashmir. I had already taken Usman Bhai in confidence that I won’t be transgressing by drinking in his houseboat to respect their feeling. I had bought glass in the market and a bottle of Soda already so I made myself a drink and toasted to the beauty and well being of Kashmir. Every sip I took, it started as the shaved ice in my mouth but morphed into a fiery dragon by the time it touched my throat. I am a very occasional tippler but when cold winds are piercing my heart, a glass of whiskey is every bit musical and eventful journey in itself. I slipped into a cozy dreamless sleep immediately after my drink.

(In 3rd installment of this series, read about Writer’s trip to Shankaracharya Temple, lunch at government hotel “Himal” and experience famous Kashmiri bakery)

Gaurav Mehra

The writer is alumni of IIT Madras and IIM Bangalore. Apart from earning his bread in Technology where he works as Product Manager, the writer aspires to write fiction & travelogue when he has made his fortune to call it quits and hit the road in search of the meaning of existence. Write him directly at [email protected]