The day was perfect. The morning sun dazzling the earth beneath, creating sharp images of mountains & snowlines. A lens in perfect focus. Getting out of the aircraft, I breathed in the air – cool and crisp. It hurts the lungs! Baggage collection and other trivia completed, I walk out to be greeted by my friend, Ali Mohammed. “Welcome home???, he says and I say a prayer. Yes, home indeed. Welcome to Srinagar.
Eid is round the corner and the streets are spilling over. We drive past the Lal Chowk with its bustling market and overflowing restaurants; down the boulevard to reach Dal Lake.
Happy faces, friendly smiles, hectic selling and buying frantic horns on the street. The water in the Lake ripples as the Shikara glides gently across and I imagine traffic lights popping out of the water, red light flashing! I smile at the image and the shikhara bumps into another one. Nobody shouts and life goes on as usual. “That is a floating garden,??? Ali enlightens me. “Grows tomatoes and onions very well,??? he says.
Red Cherry, Prime Rose, Mumtaz, Anarkali, Mughal-e-Azam; names of house boats float past. A doctor, a tailor, a butcher, vegetable sellers; kiosks squat on the lake; a veritable shopping mall with merchandise on shikaras and houseboats. Indulgent smiles are as frequent as accidents on the streets of Delhi; water as abundant as Delhi’s dust and grime.
My houseboat is called “Mahjong???. I wonder why. The drawing room is as plush as a suite in a Deluxe hotel; the fragrance of wood exhilarating. I am impatient and tear across to the bedroom and stand there still. Soaking in the silence and beauty of the exquisitely carved furniture. I want to take them back with me. But I don’t want to go back either. And I have just arrived.
“Kahwa??? is ready. Sweet and fragrant with cardamom. This is Kashmiri tea; pale brown. For the next seven days, my manna. Ali is prudent. He has left me alone with my thoughts. I pick up my copy of ‘The God of Small Things’ and sit on the cushioned verandah. Surrounded with shikaras and lotus flowers. Up ahead in the misty mountain, I see the temple of Shankaracharya.
Ghulam Mohammed; my personal Man Friday and caretaker of Mahjong. Little did I know that he will ensure I taste all the dishes of “Wazwan??? meal. He hovers around, discreetly out my sight but never too far away. I light a cigarette and an ash tray appears. Ghulam Mohammed again.
The sunrise is brilliant the next day. A splash of gold on the horizon, behind the looming mountains and a lake basking in its reflection. Silhouettes of the houseboats and shikaras gliding, going about their business. “Good morning sir???. I must have been lost. “My name is Wonderful. I shell flowers. You want shum???? How can I refuse this old man with a smile of a two month old. Pansies, cherry blossoms and daisies are spilling from all the vases in the houseboat ten minutes later and “wonderful??? leaves richer by Rs. 150. He promises to come back every day to change the flowers. He knows when he has landed a fish.
An idyllic drive takes me to the places I have been before. Twenty years, to be precise! Spring is around the corner. Apple cheeked children frolic on the wayside, hugging lambs in their arms. They pose for a photograph with a wisp of smile dancing in their eyes.
I always thought “Gul??? means flowers. Noor, Ali’s brother laughs and tell me it is not so. “Gul??? means rose. This, on my way to Gulmarg. The weather has changes & dark clouds perch themselves on Deodar trees and mountain tops. The Shankaracharya temple resembles a mere ghost, drifting in and out of the clouds. Past villages, mustard fields, brooks and check post. The sentry wielding a gun is relaxed, his questions a mere formality.
The snow-line starts after an hour of drive and I regress into childhood. The car stops, I merrily click away, freezing the snow on celluloid. Another 30 minutes and there is snow everywhere but the roads have been cleared. Lunch is a sample of their famous wazwan dishes but I am in a hurry to get out and get into the gondola cable car for the ride up to Apherwat. I thought of Venice on hearing of gondola but there are no canals. There must be some reason for calling them gondola, but who cares!
The climb to Apherwat is fast and steep. I see outlines of cottage roofs; the rest buried under snow. The nomads will come back by May, when the snow melts to fill up the brooks and meadows spring to life. They will stay till September and then move on. Away from the snow and closer to greener pastures! The blizzard catches us unaware as we reach Apherwat. The wind howls and icicles settle everywhere.
On the way down, electricity fails. We hang there for a couple of minutes. The snow settles on the window panes blocking off the view of the pine trees – them trying to hide behind the blizzard. My shoes go slosh-slosh and I know there is snow in them. I need some kahwa badly and Noor takes me to his favourite shop.
The way to Sonamarg is not much different. Only the mountains are more awesome, the wood thicker and the occasional snow avalanche very obvious. The road approaching Sonamarg is full of ponies and hawkers. Only the tourists are missing . They have no business to. Heaven also has its hazards. Here they are less. Eight Kilometers away, we are told, the road is closed. Sonamarg is out of bounds.
Back in Srinagar, I lean back in the shikara gliding into the sunset. Traffic on the lake is slow. From afar, Rafi soulfully sings “Hui shaam, unka khyal aa gayaa??? accompanied by soft splashes of oars. I am dangerously close to my return from the valley. Brightly decorated papier mache shops; windows draped in bright shawls and dresses; wizened faces dredging up weeds from the bottom of the lake (excellent fertilizer, I am told); life as it is; the way it ought to be.
It starts to rain just before sun-down; pattering on the roof, soft plops on the lake; content rumblings in the belly of the sky. Ghulam told me stories of pirs and paigambars, of Sufis and saints, as we sit in the chilly verandah, sipping kahwa. I can smell food being cooked in the kitchen. “Ghushtaba???, Ghulam tells me. Meat balls simmered in thick gravy of curd.
Eid is now only a day away. None of the men will shave till the sacrifice has been made. The road to the airport is jammed with people and vehicles. There are many check points and I have been warned in advance to pack batteries, lighters and cologne in my check-in baggage. They are opened after every 20 minutes. A small irritant. After all, even for heaven, you pay a price!! I look around, soaking in the last few details; breathe deeply, inhaling the last whiff of the heady fresh air and step into the aircraft. Bain Milao. Phir Milenge, I promise myself.
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