Two days before our scheduled departure to Kashmir, there was news about stone-pelting & open firing in the valley. They were showing live footage on the news channels. It would scare the hell out of people like us who began watching TV in the 90s & have heard only one kind of news when they talked about Kashmir. For once in my life, I was not scared though; I was worried because I had already spent a lot of money in booking tickets and hotels. And it was quite expensive. More than that, I had really chased my boss to approve my leave (with great difficulty). It was the first week of April, and somewhere in Srinagar, Tulips were in full bloom. They were going to last only for a week or 10 days more, only to re-bloom next year, around the same time.
I thought about it and then decided to fly to Kashmir, no matter what. To prepare myself, I donned my ‘Zilla Ghaziabad’ hat & wore a cape of ‘Dekh lenge’ attitude & two days later, I landed in Kashmir with a really heavy bag around 11 in the morning.
There are many reasons for losing a part of your heart in the valley, and I got my share too. I don’t know what made me fall in love. Was it the cabbie who showed us around for four days with a smile that won’t leave his face or was it the hotelier in Pahalgam who fed us seventeen dishes at lunch even when we were the only two people who wanted to eat. Wherever I went, I felt welcomed like I do when I visit my favourite mama. My already heavy bag became even heavier with kilos of cashews & walnuts, boxes of saffron strands, and gifts for everyone in the family. They all loved it when I gave them suits of Kashmiri embroidery, Pashmina shawls and Ponchos. My sister had requested for a piece each of the many breads that they bake early mornings for breakfast. I ran out of space and money, and yet there were so much more that I hadn’t explored in Kashmir.
Five minutes on the road, and I asked my cabbie about the stone-pelting that happened two days back. He smiled and told me that I would see it for myself. In another 10 mins., we were going to cross the spot that they showed on NEWS. Not a great thing to say to a person whose heartbeat jumps like a ping-pong ball at every piece of information that’s even remotely worrisome. But I got my cape, and my hat. Ten mins. later, we reached the spot. It was neat. Everyone was doing their own thing. Nobody was hurting anyone. In fact, I was surprised to see the taxis waiting at the Red Light. There was no traffic police. We were lucky to have that guy as our cabbie. He was a well-read, well-behaved and a well-meaning person. Later, I realised that most Kashmiris are well-behaved, keeping the incidents aside.
That evening, we went to the ever so famous, Dal Lake & for the very first time, I realised what Amir Khusro meant when he said,
Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.
There were hundreds of Shikaras and you could see houseboats neatly queued in one far corner. Dal lake was vast. So many newly weds, couples and families were holidaying there, and yet Dal Lake didn’t remind you of any tourist attraction. Localites were doing their own thing, busy with their lives, minding their own business. In fact, there’s this whole sense of ease and peace that you notice in people over there. They row their shikaras with a purpose like they are trying to reach somewhere. You can tell. Little girls with their heads covered, smiles on their faces and twinkle in their eyes, went about rowing shikaras with their little arms. During Sunset, it looks like a piece of heaven right there & you feel like you want something more.
We had rowed only for five minutes when I asked him, “Can I get Chai here, Bhaiya?”
“Are aapko Chai se bhi achi cheez pilate hain (Let me offer you something better than tea)”, he replied
We took a break and parked ourselves near another Shikara. The owner served us hot pakoras and Kehwa. He asked where we were from. I didn’t realise how but we began discussing what we saw on News a couple days ago. He didn’t respond, but smiled.
I guess that’s normal there. Kashmiris have learnt to smile their way through all the troubles & misunderstandings. We got to talking and he showed me the famous spots. He pointed at the houseboats where famous movies were shot. He talked about the times from his childhood when Kashmir was at its peak of tourism. Probably, Tulips lasted longer then. In his childhood, they roamed around freely, jumping trees, playing with marbles and shiny stones. Days were longer then, and nights used to be shorter. Years would go by in celebrations and sometimes they would know that seasons have changed when winters would arrive. And then one time, the season didn’t change; it had stayed on since then.
I didn’t realise that I had finished my Kehwa, and before I could, he served me another one. It filled me up like never before, and even today, two years later, I remember the love with which he served us golden kehwa in paper cups with crispy pakoras falling out of the paper plates.