Saturday, August 18, 2012

Epilogue: Reflections on Kashmir

[Part 7 of 7 writings on Kashmir]

It was the day of jumme-ki-namaaz yesterday – a big day, considering it was the last jumma in the holy maah-e-ramzaan of this year. Evening traffic from Ganderbal to Srinagar, and everywhere else in the city, was filled with large and small buses and Sumos (they call it "Somu" here) shouting Dargaah-Dargaah to attract the attention of devotees who would want to offer this namaaz at Hazratbal. I was in the shikara of Ghulam Mohammad, an 85 year old man who got me back on the shore when it was time to open his Roza – I paid him more than he had asked for, and got a heartfelt "dua karoonga khuda aapko salaamat rakhe." Walking by the lake at this hour, you could witness numerous people drinking glasses of milk offered free outside various shops across the entire stretch – the first drop of liquid after a day-long fast.

Abdul, the guy at my hotel, left for his home this morning – a place near Pahalgam, with a beautiful name called Aish-muqaam – where he intends to spend Eid with his family. If the moon is sighted this evening, Eid will be celebrated tomorrow itself, else he'll have to wait one more day, fasting. I gave him a tip when he was leaving, and got a sincere "shukriya janaab, meherbaani."

I have an afternoon flight, and I spend the next few hours by the lake. I recall my dad's words, when I had told him I'm going to Kashmir alone. He had said – "Oh go ahead! Paryatan apne aap mein ek adhyayan hai (travel is a study in itself)." He has this knack of saying important things, diluting their intensity with a background smile – when I was a kid, he used to tell me the most simple of things, and add up their priority by a passing remark "Dhyaan rakhna, chhoti kintu mahatwapoorna baatein! (remember, small but important things in life)."

I reflect back on the things I learnt over the last week.

About the forbearing of Kashmir's suffering masses under the dual bane of poverty and militarization. About the utter simplicity of soul and the collective spirit of faith which unites them into a people who live seemingly unimportant lives in silence. About Islam, a religion so powerful that it has survived through centuries without adulterations even when the world kept altering, unites populations across the entire globe, and can still be condensed in just one holy book.

About the beauty of nature. About the 'stationary' valleys and mountains and rivers and trees which are more 'living' than the moving human creatures deluding themselves as the creators of a 'free world'. About the purity and power of rains, skies and earth in making you feel the insignificance of rushing through a few decades of existence, with a worthless purpose largely composed of outrunning each other.

About my own self. About being called a tourist, a journalist, an adventurer, or an idiot at various points of time during my travel. About thinking a little bit more, a little bit beyond. About ilm, amal and akhlaq (theory, practice, and virtues). About writing. About missing people. About meeting people and trying cuisines. About getting tips on riding a horse, which never worked. About feeling an adrenaline. About dropping my guard and doing different things in life. About being inspired.

I boarded my flight at Srinagar around 2:30 PM after going through at least 4 layers of security screening – the Srinagar airport is a fortress, and getting past it includes rules such as no handbags on-board, and identifying your check-in luggage by actually going inside the luggage loading area: your luggage isn't loaded into the place until you have physically identified it as yours. I had asked for a window seat today. As the plane takes off, the valley below me starts receding into a beautiful panorama once again. A smile crosses my lips – a stray thought says "I was there." Parting from Kashmir is tough, and I promise myself to come back again, within this lifetime.

They say that a picture speaks a thousand words. Sitting at the Delhi airport, I am looking at the numerous pictures I clicked during my trip. Visiting Kashmir on a 14.1" LCD screen seems to be a gross injustice – after all, a thousand words for Kashmir are like a drop in the ocean.

Kashmir is like love. It doesn't have a 'summary' or a 'conclusion'.

Friday, August 17, 2012


[Part 6 of 7 writings on Kashmir]

An old adage says that the journey is often more important than the destination. In Kashmir, a lot of times, it's hard to distinguish between the two.

Visiting Sonamarg is a journey to the Himalayas, through the Himalayas themselves; and after a little while of embarking on this journey, you wouldn't really care what the destination was. Traveling to Sonamarg is like floating into the most simplest forms of human dream – brightened, spaced out and easy, non-engaging, non-involving, but silently rustling through the heart – one that leaves a pleasant, prolonged aftertaste even when you've woken up.

It is said that the snow-capped Himalayan peaks reflect a golden sparkle in the sun, earning this place its name which translates to "Meadow of Gold". I didn't have the good fortune of witnessing this, but well, the destination simply didn't matter. The first 25 Kms from Srinagar to Ganderbal is a traffic heavy, dry sort-of route. Beyond Ganderbal, there are 60 more Kms of narrow roads through the mountains all the way to Sonamarg. It is this particular distance on which you play hide and seek at every turn, that makes actually reaching Sonamarg a non-event.

Ganderbal to Kangan is around 20 Kms of journey through thick vegetation – the Himalayan foothills with their rich flora lay down a canopy of trees covering the road in a dreamy shade for almost the entire stretch. Beyond Kangan, you start climbing up towards Sonamarg, which lies at about 8,900 ft. above MSL – the climb isn't like a standard circular road going up towards a mountain peak; here, the Himalayas have spread themselves lazily, but authoritatively, across a span as wide as eyes can see, and numerous mountain peaks stand side-by-side, in their own introverted pride. You drive through multiple mountains, and it seems like you do this without reaching anywhere in particular – this world consisting of mountains as high as 5000 meters doesn't seem to know words like competition, stature, winning, and outlasting. The only fitting words here would probably be discovery, seeking, sharing, and happiness.

The river Sindh, which later becomes a tributary of the Jhelum, originates at one of the glaciers in these mountains, and accompanies you with its sweet chirpy music of water sliding and crashing on rocks all through the 60 Kms stretch between Ganderbal and Sonamarg. Numerous streams from different mountains come and join Sindh, and you can trace the path of these thin streams all the way from the glacier at the top, down to the river flowing besides you. Surprisingly, none of these things surprise you – after spending only a little time in this world, such incredible ensemble of beauty just seems natural. Nature here is almost generously infectious; it takes no time in making you an extension of itself.

My stay at Sonamarg was very brief – the onwards journey was a little too tardy, given the local buses I had to take and vehicles I had to change at a couple of places after J&KSRTC had disappointed me once again in the morning. At Sonamarg, there are ponies which can take you to the top and show you glaciers up close – I didn't have enough time to do that, but it didn't matter at all; this place is like an abundance all around, and the concepts of 'more' or 'less' of something had already ceased.

After a return journey equally affluent, the mind was still lingering on with the valley's aftertaste, and I let myself float once again in one of the shikaras at Dal. 

Tomorrow, I am leaving Kashmir, and this aftertaste is strong enough to last for a lifetime.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


[Part 5 of 7 writings on Kashmir]

There goes a saying: when Salim Nuruddin Jahangir, the famous Mughal emperor, was asked about his greatest desire on his deathbed, he said – "Kashmir, the rest is worthless."

Gulmarg might just be Kashmir at its best. 

Perched at a height of 8,700 ft. above MSL, this small town of spectacular beauty is an experience so pure, that it has the power to cleanse the mind and soul. Spending time at Gulmarg could be a freedom from the earthly vicissitudes for few, a spiritual awakening for some, and probably the best physical and mental liberation for many. Writing about Gulmarg is as much an exercise in vain, as trying to describe 'love' in writing. Maybe that explains why Kashmir inspires poetry – a higher form of writing, and when written in Persian / Urdu, probably the highest.

Situated at around 50 Kms west of Srinagar right in the lap of Pir Panjal Range, this "Meadow of Flowers" literally touches the clouds. Getting to Gulmarg from Srinagar needs going a bit north via National Highway 1-A, and then taking a left turn to Gulmarg road. Government buses have a service directly from Srinagar to Gulmarg, though I had to take a different 'local route' – the J&K State Road Transport office told me that the buses don't ply unless there are at least 10-12 passengers; today morning, I seemed to be the only one trying to get to Gulmarg. My journey included finding a city bus to the extreme west corner of Srinagar called Batmaloo, then getting on one of the local Sumo vehicles to Tangmarg (a place which also serves as the 'base' for Gulmarg's skiers during winter months), and then riding another small local bus uphill to Gulmarg. The free travel tips were from a chai-wallah a little away from the TRC, after I was told with a straight face that the only other way to get to Gulmarg is by hiring a taxi (and spending a bomb).

The road to Gulmarg has nothing of note as long as you are on NH 1-A. Once you head west, there are chunks of paddy plantations on both sides upto Magam, followed by some apple, cherry, almond and walnut orchards upto Tangmarg. From here to Gulmarg is about a 14 Kms ride uphill through numerous hairpin bends, blind curves and narrow, valley roads. The drive is lined by fur, pine, chinar and papyrus trees, and there is a wonderful view of the valley down below as you climb up the mountains. The temperature starts to drop as you go up, and once I got out of the bus, I was somewhere in the range of 15 degrees C. Spotting my t-shirt while serving tea in the morning, Abdul had asked me to keep something warm in addition to the umbrella I was carrying, and I had decided to trust him more than the weather forecasts which always hovered around 25 degrees C – a simple sweatshirt I had did turn out to be much useful.

The setting at Gulmarg looks exactly like a hilly landscape painting (or let's say, it's the other way round) – mountains all around, clouds floating at low levels, carpet of green as far as the eyes can see, interspersed with small wooden cottages with slanting, tin roofs, horses grazing in the field, and everything coated with a varnish of fresh mountain air and shining wet by the wandering clouds. The name "Gulmarg" gets justified when you look around a bit carefully at this picturesque setting – there are small white flowers all over just like in paintings (or the other way round), and a local horseman tells me that this place has natural blooms, with different colours of flowers naturally growing during different times of the year; during these months it's white.

The Gulmarg experience has only begun.

From Gulmarg, there runs the highest cable car in the world called the "Gulmarg Gondola", which takes you first to Kongdori (10,000 ft. above MSL), a small bowl-shaped valley amidst the hills, and then to Affarwat (13,000 ft. above MSL), one of the mountain peaks in the Pir Panjal Range. 

The Gondola ride in itself is a journey which does not seem to be of this world. The cable cars operate on towers around 25 ft. high, which implies that the rider floats over the hills through the clouds and rains, in between the trees. As one moves up, the valley continuously seems to recede below, gets hazy, and finally disappears into the clouds – if someone ever built a staircase to heaven in those Hindu mythological literature, it might feel like this. There are points in the ride when the car might stop for a few seconds to about a minute: that usually happens when the cable motors are temporarily stopped for loading construction materials on one of the cars in the boarding area. At one point, I found myself hanging in the sky for a minute, with no visibility around except pure white clouds, and with a gentle swaying of the car in the slight wind – words fail me here.

The first stop, Kongdori, feels like a liberation. It's a small, almost flat terrain in the mountain inhabited by some nomadic tribes during summers – these are the people who can be found grazing numerous sheep in this area, and living in thatched huts covered with yellow plastics. There are a few eateries around a region called 'the seven springs' here, and I decide to munch on a plate of Kashmiri Pulav, washing it off with a Kahwa. The silence here is pure, the calm is more than blissful, and the beauty doesn't have even an iota of artificiality built into it – sitting here, I wasn't thinking ahead, or into the past; the liberation did have its full sanctity and purpose established without authority.

The second stop, Affarwat, is where you feel an adrenaline, a sudden purpose, almost an ambition. Stepping out of the cable car shelter, you are greeted by rocks, boulders, some ice on one side of the hill, heavy clouds, all mixed with intermittent rains and a gentle wind. The ice portion is encroached and almost labelled as the tourist area with sledges going up and down, and the rest of this place is like a crossover between the earth and the sky. Down below, there are clouds, and it feels like you are standing on an edge of the planet, while above, the peak which is still quite far up, is only slightly visible within this uniform blanket of white. Something inside me wants to climb up, higher, into the clouds. It isn't very cold here, and my sweatshirt is enough to keep me suitably warm. I start negotiating my way on the rocks and boulders; the air is thin and tires you easily, and running shoes aren't the best bet even for a mild hike – I slip at places and that does make it scary here. I get to the top and I am panting profusely by now. And suddenly, everything so far in life seems worth it, just because it could cause this tiniest sense of purpose here which was for, and by, me – and all of it was achieved through pure adrenaline.

A signboard here says "Restricted area, trespassers will be prosecuted". This, as I get to know later, is the Indo-Pak LOC, and the no-man's land begins at that signboard.

I walk down a little more carefully, have a cup of tea near the cable car shelter, and get on the ride back to Gulmarg. I feel slightly dizzy, probably with heavier than normal exertions on self in that thin air and just one meal during this long day which is already clocking evening hours. But it all seems to go away with a single view of the valley again.

Kashmir can heal you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Independence Day?

[Part 4 of 7 writings on Kashmir]

The beauty of the Jhelum is enhanced today – it has been raining incessantly since last night, and the river looks swelled up a bit, with a renewed energy in its generally tardy flow. The mountains in the backdrop are barely visible – greyish white fluffy clouds, which almost seem to be touching the brownish green earth far ahead, allow only a silhouette of the peaks of those Himalayan Ranges to pass through them, more prominent visibility being granted only to the foothills. There is no rainbow, but the freshly washed houseboats and shikaras dotting the banks seem to radiate enough colours to the sky compensating for any apparent lack of them. The rains have been reduced to moderate showers, and the tiny droplets fall softly and clumsily, narrating the fact that the sky is tired by now, and this downpour isn't going to last much longer. There is no wind, but the smell of green, wet trees and chinars soaked overnight and standing lazily fills the air – it's everywhere, and a breeze isn't really needed to carry that smell around. The surroundings are characteristically quiet, and peace seems to be more than normal. Mentally, I classify this as a beautiful day.

I am taking a longer route to the Lal Chowk today. It's past 11 in the morning, and after watching Delhi's flag hoisting on Doordarshan and listening to the compressed versions of fake promises and thoroughly useless speeches from the two highest offices in India (one guy who is generally mute, reads out neat Hindi passages with no touch of inspiration from this important podium, the other guy who used to be the 'troubleshooter' in North Block until few days ago, reads out boring English passages in his own accent apparently from an electronic display besides the TV camera), I decide to rather get on with my more-or-less indifferent life. I walk by the river, through the Jhelum View Park, soaking in the beauty around on a lethargic day in my Kashmir trip, hoping to buy a cup of Kahwa in this weather as I reach the marketplace. With an open umbrella above my head, khaki coloured shorts, a plain t-shirt, hawai chappals, and a characteristically "North Indian" face (after all, Kashmir isn't North India), I probably look like a walking confusion between a localite and a tourist.

As I reach the Zero Bridge of Rajbagh, I observe the surroundings more carefully. There are no private vehicles crossing the bridge, but after every few minutes, a cavalcade of Flying Squads, Vajra Vaahans, J&K Police buses, Ambassador cars with red beacons and Jeeps with square openings on top and armed men looking out, crosses by. On both sides of the bridge, and onwards, there are numerous men in uniform toting guns – apparently automatics, which look like capable of firing multiple rounds on the slightest touch to their triggers. As I reach the marketplace around noon, I am greeted by deserted roads, closed shutters, and of course, no tricolors anywhere – what I was classifying as peace on a beautiful day, now seems like a mourning, and the whole valley in the rains seems to be crying at its fate in silence. This is the stark reality of Kashmir.

What went wrong with the land which inspired countless poets, writers, painters and artists for centuries? As I walk back to the hotel, and ask Abdul to cook paranthas and some curry, I wonder at the people who thought about firing a bullet in this paradise on earth. The very idea of driving tankers and carrying firearms amidst this beauty is violent, actually using them is probably as criminal as throwing acid on the pretty face of a 12 year old girl. It all might have started with the selective greed of certain men, transpiring into a collective suffering for the masses. To this day, the whole of Kashmir region is devoid of basic progress compared to the rest of the country. You wouldn't find modern cars, branded clothing, retail chains, extended electronics, comprehensive bookstores – people everywhere have aspirations and Kashmiris have them too, and they are denied. There are very few banks or ATMs outside of Srinagar, prepaid cellphones aren't allowed by law, and I'm surprised at the number of people who ask me what time it is when I walk on the roads – the people are basically poor, largely due to stymied trade which could develop markets and an economy.

The "Kashmir problem" is purely political, of course. And probably the solution is simple – let Kashmir be. I wonder if a referendum means anything either. People like Abdul, the guy who struggles with less than 20% occupancy of his hotel even in summer months, or the shikara owner, who hardly gets his ends to meet by manually navigating boats (it's real hardwork, I can tell you by experience) with dwindling traffic, or Irshad, the guy who climbs up and down the hills and doesn't understand education beyond "graduation" which he hopes to do someday, or Amarjeet, the 55 year old man who runs a 1-room shabby dhaba slightly away from the touristy area in Pahalgam and manages two meals a day with difficulty – I wonder if any of those people would care about their nationality, identity, faith, or anything beyond letting them be at peace.

Kashmir is an "issue" which select people wouldn't want to kill. And collectively, what we are doing to the mother nature in its most beautiful form can be described by the filthiest of words - gangrape.

Abdul tells me that the markets will open up in the evening by 4:30 - 5:00, and I decide to go back again, shop a bit, and spend a lazy evening by the lake. Buses will be operational again tomorrow, and people here will move on with their lives, thanking that the "Independence Day" is over.


The markets didn't open up in the evening either, but the medical shops, sweet shops and restaurants opened – the latter, probably to cater to the Roza keepers. I ended up at Aadoo's, another restaurant in the recommendation list, and tried the Mirchi Qurma (I had Gushtaba on my mind, but the waiter suggested against it.)  Goes without saying, I ended up stuffing myself yet again, and couldn't resist the temptation to eat another phirni either. It's just so damn delicious!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


[Part 3 of 7 writings on Kashmir]

It's a cloudy day in Srinagar, literally, the 'venerable city'. I have woken up quite late, and am ready to get out only by 10:30 AM. Weather forecasts tell me a 50% chance of rains until 2 PM, and I interpret it as one of the best days to walk around the city. Arming myself with the college day attire of a pair of jeans, bright coloured kurta, and a pair of hawai chappals, I set off on foot following the detailed map which I'd got from the TRC.

My first stop is for food. A concoction of hunger pangs, detailed descriptions of Kashmiri cuisine which I've been reading up on, and an unmistakable smell of spices I've been subjecting myself to over last two days, deserve an immediate consumption of a delectable brunch. I walk to the Mughal Darbar, a heavily recommended restaurant on the Residency Road in old city, and ask for a Rogan Josh with rice (being in Kashmir and not eating meat is like going for a movie without popcorn – don't ask any further disturbing questions.) The food is so much, and tastes so good, that I stuff myself up to the brim, with no space for dessert, and promise myself a serving of phirni for dinner.

Resisting the temptation of going back to the hotel and sleeping off for a while after eating that much, I prod along towards Lal Chowk. Apart from being a central marketplace, this city square has been the hallmark of political activities for a long time. One of the key events in the history of this place dates back to 1948, when an open referendum on the political fate of Kashmir was promised to the Kashmiri populace by Jawaharlal Nehru in an inspiring speech standing beside Sheikh Abdullah, a prominent leader in Kashmir who was a proponent of the region's self-rule, and who had led the agitation against Maharaja Hari Singh, the reigning monarch of Kashmir from 1925 till India's independence. The promised referendum never happened, and the valley forever remained a disputed land. Two years ago, the security forces banned hoisting of the tricolour at Lal Chowk to prevent needless provocation of the separatist and extremist elements in the area.

Political history kept aside, Lal Chowk and the nearby areas, including Maharaja Bajar, is a teeming marketplace. The labyrinthine alleys and even the wider roads are almost completely claimed by roadside vendors, and walking in this mass of humanity in itself is an experience. The streets are filled with sellers of small artefacts, toys, spices, clothes, jewellery etc. and the place has a typical Central Asian air to it.

I walk further along the river Vitasta, present day Jhelum, which flows through the city. A number of Hindu temples and Muslim shrines and mosques dot the banks of the river. Traditional Kashmiri mosques are known for their characteristic architecture – they do not have a dome made of stones, but are rather wooden, and have a pagoda-like shape with a steeple. This is particularly noticeable when I get to the Shah Hamdan Mosque, a little north of Lal Chowk.

From here, I take an auto-rickshaw to Hazratbal, around 15 Kms up north from Lal Chowk. Riding auto-rickshaws in Srinagar is no fun, as I discover. All rickshaws comply with a law which mandates 'doors' on both sides of the rear seat meant for passengers. The right door fully covers the entire open area, while the left one has around half of a feet opening at the top. Sitting in this space reminds me of those cyber-cafes popular 10 years ago with private computer cabins like this. Disappointed at the limited view of the old city roads and the Nagin Lake on our way, we reach the Dargah in another 30-40 minutes.

The Hazratbal shrine – also known as Madina-i-sani, or the second Madina, and dargah-i-sharif – is a tall white marble complex on the West of the Dal lake. It's one of the most sacred Muslim shrines of Kashmir, and is believed to contain a sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammad's beard. Hazratbal shrine originally had the traditional pagoda-shaped structure similar to other mosques, but the structure was dismantled in 1968 to build a marble mosque with a dome and a minaret similar to Madina's holy mosque. The shrine is flanked by the Kashmir University campus on the north and the NIT Srinagar campus on its south, providing a serene calm to the whole region – quieter than what is normally observed in Islamic mosques. I get inside the mosque with a handkerchief on the head (instructions on the gate ask you to cover your head), and after someone prompts me, carry my chappals in hand. It's probably the time for namaaz, and I'm asked to wait for 15 minutes by a security guard before I can get in (I am using the entrance made for men – women aren't allowed in this central part of the shrine, and have a separate entrance to a portion of the mosque on the other end). There is a small instruction pasted inside, asking non-Muslim visitors to walk around only in the galleries encircling the shrine, rather than cutting through the main shrine – quite a helpful tip for naive camera-toting tourists to prevent them from disturbing people praying in the center. The whole place has a divine serenity, and sitting inside the shrine is probably the spiritual equivalent of watching the Kashmir Valley itself.

After a few minutes of sitting inside and soaking-in the calmness, I walk out to the backside of the complex which opens up to the Dal lake. It is here that one realizes the enormity of this lake. The tourist-heavy portion of Dal's south tip near the Boulevard probably covers only a tiny fraction of the whole lake. The north and center portions of the lake are enormous in size, and from Hazratbal's Wuzu area in the back, one can see a beautiful view of the city and the mountains around the lake. A complete round of the lake is around 35 Kms in length, with some of the best views located in the northern portions.

From Hazratbal, I use another auto to go around Dal's northern ring, and witness those numerous waterways around the lake which earn the occasionally used name "Venice of the East" for Srinagar as well. One can see the locals carrying lotus plantations on small boats along these waterways, which are still safe from tourist encroachments.

My next stop is the Shalimar Bagh – a Mughal garden built in the early 17th century by Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan. The garden stretches to more than half a kilometer in length and around 250 meters in breadth, and has an elaborate architecture split in four terraces. A central canal lined with polished stones runs through the middle of the garden, feeding water to each of the terraces in succession, finally going into the Dal. The black pavilion in the top terrace of the garden has the famous inscription by the Persian poet Jami –
"Gar Firdaus rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast."
(If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.)

There are two more Mughal gardens in the city which I decide to give a pass – the Nishat Bagh designed by Noor Jahan's brother, and the Chashma Shahi built by Shah Jahan. All these gardens provide picturesque views of the Zabarwan Range or the Himalayan Range.

I decide to call off a day, and visit the TRC once again in the evening, trying to figure out a to-do for tomorrow. The lady disappoints me - "Tomorrow is 15th August, and the TRC, as well as all government buses will be non-operational. You can hire private vehicles to get out of the city, but I'll advise you to rather stay back in your hotel, and just visit the Dal lake on foot, if you want to get out." I immediately ask her about Gulmarg the following day, and she happily gets me advance tickets for a Gondola ride in Gulmarg for Thursday.

I have a free day tomorrow, and hence I decide to stuff myself with a second and last meal for the day. I walk to another recommended restaurant called De Linz on Residency Road, and try the Rista – another Kashmiri delicacy. The waiter asks me if I'm keeping the Roza – the restaurant is serving complimentary phirni to people who are fasting. Looking at my puppy-dog eyes buried in a disappointed face, he decides to offer me a free serving anyway, and another day in Kashmir ends on a sweet note.

Monday, August 13, 2012


[Part 2 of 7 writings on Kashmir]

"Buses to anywhere at this time?" is the question I ask at the TRC at about 8:30 in the morning. "Gulmarg and Pahalgam, the one to Pahalgam about to leave" is the reply I get. The decision for the day is made.

Pahalgam is a small village in the Lidder Valley at the foothills of the Greater Himalayan Range. The 98 Km journey to Pahalgam from Srinagar looks rather interesting on a map. The bus takes you south on National Highway 1-A via Pampore and Awantipora, to Anantnag – which is almost the mid-point of the journey – and then up north again through a mountaineous terrain to Pahalgam. Further north into the Himalayas are the Amarnath Caves, for which Pahalgam also serves as the base camp. The road is heavy on traffic till you are on the National Highway upto Anantnag ("Nag", by the way, is the local name for various springs found in Kashmir. Vasaknag, located in the Kund Valley near the northern foothills of the Pir Panjal Range in Anantnag district itself is one of the most beautiful springs on my 'hopefully-to-be-covered' list).

As the bus turns left at Anantnag into the Himalayan terrain, there is a sudden change in the scenary around. The road becomes narrower and curvy with sharp bends, truck-heavy traffic gives way to small local buses and SUVs, the Himalayan Range comes into view, and the beautiful white stream of river Lidder flowing noisily on a rocky bed accompanies the road throughout the journey uphill. The air has a pleasant smell largely due to saffron plantations on a large chunk of land along the way, in addition to many other spices which are grown in the valley. The region is known for the production of world's best saffron, walnut, varieties of dry fruits, and apples.

After almost three and a half hours of journey, the bus reaches Pahalgam. The stream of Lidder has broadened into a small river with clear waters, and as I disembark the bus, the sheer might of the Himalayan panorama strikes me with awe. There is a breathtaking view of Kashmir Valley on the west side of the road, while the Himalayan Range lies on the east. Here, one can hire one of the numerous horses which take you further up the hills to Dabian and Baisaran. Lake Tulian – with its famous yellow coloured waters – lies almost at the top of the mountain, and can be explored by trekkers. These summer green, cloud capped Himalayan peaks are hammered with as much as 10 feet of snow during winter months, and Pahalgam then converts into a skiing destination with sledge-carts going up and down the hills.

I rent a horse named Veeru by its owners, and my guide is Irshad, a small and thin, but apparently strong young man living in a nearby village. The horse takes me up the hill, while Irshad walks by, navigating the animal. It takes a little while to adjust to a horse-ride – the tracks ahead made up of large boulders, swamps, water streams, trees, and inclines of as much as 75 degrees look non-negotiable even on foot, and the horse trodding on such narrow paths and steep inclines almost scares me. I wonder at the built of people like Irshad, who climb up and down these hills multiple times during the day. When we get to Dabian, Irshad shows me a better view of the Kashmir Valley and tells me about the local plantation consisting of walnuts, apples, and on further prodding, of cannabis – a plant whose resin is used to make charas. The production of charas flourishes secretively in the valley with the greasing of all relevant hands, and is an important cash crop.

Further up the hill, we reach Baisaran, a flat portion of the mountain which the locals affectionately call "mini-Switzerland". There's hardly anything Swiss about the alpine trees and the carpet of grass around, but the place is pristine in its calm beauty. Small shops sell some eatables in this area developed as a park, and I spend some time lazing around and munching a plate of maggi served hot. On our journey downhill, I chat with Irshad further about the local occupation. I learn about certain nomadic tribes living on these hills, the locals with small businesses in various nearby markets, and the plantation owners. Irshad himself is the youngest of three sons of a tailor ("darzi master", as he calls him) who owns this horse. The locals use horses for their day-to-day chores as well as for hunting ("Rooz" is a cat-like animal with highly energetic meat, hunted on these hills), and during summers, they also serve as rides for tourists. Riding down the hills is scarier than the uphill ride – the almost vertical inclines give you a feeling that the horse is going to skid at any time. Irshad gives me a helpful tip – look at the mountains around, rather than looking down at the horse, and you won't be scared.

The sun is slowly coming down as we reach the base, and I note the letters "Welcome to the Heavenly Lidder Valley" on a signboard for tourists. The noise of the Lidder is more prominent now, and I take a power nap on the grass in a small park by the river, before getting on the bus back to Srinagar. The bus once again drives along the river, the white waters now show a reflection of the mountains in the orange light of the sun, and I again think of just how much beauty this place has, free to be absorbed.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Knockin' on Heaven's Door

[Part 1 of 7 writings on Kashmir]

"Is this Kashmir?", the 4-year old girl animatedly exclaims to her mother in a heavy American accent, looking out of the window. The pilot had just announced a descent to Srinagar, and the plane is turning sharply through the clouds towards Sheikh ul Alam Airport. I smile at her from my aisle seat, craning my neck, and secretly hoping she would reduce her coverage of the window surface area so that I can also have an eyeful view of the magnificence I've only read about in poetry and essays. My mute wishes go unheard, as she follows up with "Are you serious?" even when her mom said "Yes sweetheart, it is!". The smile on the lips of her mother blatantly gives away the fact of the lady's local upbringing in the valley, even with her Michael Kors handbag and Tag Heur watch of her apparently foreign living. She looks amused, struck by a heavy nostalgia so much so that she must've stopped breathing for those few seconds. This is the point when I get a look outside, and in an instant second, thank myself for this solo-journey almost everyone had discouraged me about.

The town of Srinagar is at a relatively lower elevation, and is almost in the center of the Kashmir Valley lying between the Greater Himalayan Range on the East and the Pir Panjal Range on the West. This keeps the town fairly warm (at almost 25-30 degrees C) during these summer months. The summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir, at first encounter, appears to be a small, almost a typical touristy place, but doesn't really seem to be teeming with as many visitors as I was expecting. "The month of Ramzan isn't really a peak season here", a local explained to me, trying to hide the prevalent disappointment of the once-booming tourism industry which progressively declined with Kashmir's increased militarisation over the past several decades.

The driver of the taxi (taxis here are mostly SUVs – a car like Toyota Innova carries you around, unless you find cheaper modes of travel) I hired from the airport took me straight to the Boulevard – the prominent stretch around Dal Lake which is the center of all tourism activities in the region. The stretch is lined by numerous hotels, houseboat directions, souvenir shops, and restaurants with kitsch signboards, and I realize that this is not the kind of location I can afford when I don't know how long I have to stay. The taxi driver senses my expression, and offers me an advice without asking – "Ye tourist-area hai sir, mehenga milega sab kuchh" (this is a tourist-area, and everything will be expensive). He then takes me to the Rajbagh area, around 3 Kms. from the Boulevard, where I manage to find a cheap hotel which rents me a fairly clean room with a small table fan, a bathroom with hot water, and a TV which doesn't seem to have a working cable connection. With a bargained deal of INR 400/- a night, I am satisfied with this dwelling for next several days I might spend here.

Abdul Rahman, the caretaker of the property is a nice little fellow with that Pashtun kind of accent, just like most Kashmiris I have talked to so far. The local dialect is Kashmiri, which is a sweet, soft-spoken tongue and makes me wonder about the kind of music which might exist in these areas. Abdul shows me the slightly shorter way to get to the lake on foot, and after a few hours of afternoon nap, I set off for the Boulevard again. The government has setup a Tourist Reception Center, which is one of the best ways to get local information and buy tickets on government buses plying to various destinations. I wait at the Center for officials – they're out for the evening namaaz – and after a while, get hold of a man who seems well rehearsed in guiding tourists on everything touristy in and around Srinagar. He asks me "How many days you've got?" as the first question, based on which he could've decided my itinerary on my behalf. Seemingly disappointed at my non-definite answer, he tells me about all places I can visit, and advices me to use the buses, as I am traveling alone, and taxis will be simply exorbitant. I buy a local map from him, and get a sense of places within Srinagar, and destinations outside.

The sun is almost at level with the horizon, and casts a beautiful reflection of the orange sky into the lake below. I hire a shikara, at this golden hour between the day that was, and the night which shall slowly envelope the valley in silence. My boatman takes me on a ride through a series of houseboats decorated with bright lamps, the breathtakingly beautiful golden lake, the lotus plantations, and the lakeside markets. As the boat floats on the few inches of water visible above the strikingly viridian plantation throughout the lake below, the mind takes a break from soaking the beauty around and battles with contradictory emotions – freedom and loneliness, love and despair, excitement and fear, liberation and belonging-ness – the feeble happiness triumphs, and I start walking back towards my hotel.

It's past 8 PM, the town seems to have closed down all at once, and the only people visible are a few streetside vendors grilling sheekh-kababs. I spot a still open restaurant, and calm down my hunger with a delicious dhimpauk style nawabi biryani on the waiter's recommendation. Abdul spots me at the gate of the hotel, looks honestly relieved at once, and says "Where were you? I was worried if you lost your way or something. It isn't really dangerous out there, but I was feeling sorry I forgot to give you the address of this place when you were walking out." I ask him for a cup of tea, spend sometime chatting and sipping on the tea, get back to my room and decide to sleep after a bit of writing. I am glad I have to wake up with no timetable for tomorrow.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

On "mind, body, and soul" and related flimsiness

I feel pain. Of the kind which doesn't tell which part of the body it's coming from - but it hurts; cruelly, tediously, steadily marauding your brain to your heart to your soul. It's invisible, like a disease, or like nostalgia; it creeps into every iota of your existence, rendering you worthless, devoid of rationality, reasons, wisdom; occasionally showing its physical presence through moist eyes or choked throat which only the finest of people around can detect. It wriggles you inside out, exposing your self to yourself shamelessly when you are the most vulnerable, and you can witness your own spirit writhing around, tormented, wasted.

I feel agony. I try to shake myself out of this irrational slumber of the ego. I jerk every body part, in an attempt to wake them up, to let them feel some blood flow, to free each of these tangibles from the lost struggle against intangible, but more powerful randomness of brainwaves. I decide to stand up, and physical laws of nature almost slap me, reminding the absence of food / energy / sleep somewhere over last several hours. The pain still does not show up anywhere physically, it has managed to remain invisible somewhere, basking in the shiny embers of a burnt soul.

I start to walk. The sun hasn't set yet, and the air has a slight bit of warmth which could have been described as a gentle breeze with healing properties on mundane days. I walk straight on a road which initially didn't seem to go anywhere, the kind of road which gets half built for some anticipated future usage, but then gets abandoned and left clamoring for resurrection amidst the tramples of occasional passers-by; dejected, like people in a plague stricken town left to die with mute wishes and stoned hopes. I walk, and the pain becomes more prominent, probably getting fueled by the meanderings of a now hyperactive brain, and circulated with renewed ferocity alongside blood, pumped and thrusted involuntarily into every corner of the body by a battered heart.

Judging by the twilight, I think I've walked for an hour. The half-built road had ended into a mud track a while ago, and the chappals stained in dirt tell the story of the graveled track they've recently braved. The pain has started getting substituted with consciousness now - of this strange surrounding composed of shrubs, rocks and absence of humanity. I walk further, in an attempt to complete this quest over pain, to win my own consciousness back. I walk till I get to a railway track, and I feel fully aware of myself. It is getting dark now, and the air has developed a strange, unpleasant, almost repugnant chill. The heart is pumping faster, and after a long time I feel physical realities rather than the metaphysical randomness of past several hours.

I feel fear. Turning around, I start walking again - this time the gravels and the dirt are more prominent, the air isn't completely indifferent, and the reducing brightness outside is complementing the hightened sense of consciousness. As it grows darker, I get more scared. Each sound of a slithering reptile or screeching insect, each rustle of a dried leaf, each sight of flying bats, even the view of the stars in the open sky which could have been described with romantic adjectives on mundane days, instills and emboldens more fear. I start walking faster.

I feel ache. The feet, the back, the shoulders and the head are now suddenly real, and the pain so much visible in all of them. Things are seemingly rational again - I am 'comfortably' back to the physical world which had unceremoniously kicked me out to the realms of soul, the world described largely only on paper, the world which showed me all the agonies of existence and set me 'free'. I am walking faster, amidst fear, angst, ache and those returning torments of the soul.

The old pain is back with a vengeance as I step into my place again. Old thoughts are all back to once again claim my existence, walk all over rationality, and invade my conscience.

But in the last few hours, how successfully I manipulated my emotions through varying intensities of experience. How surreptitiously I do this everyday, at home or work, through experiences of much less intensity. How beautifully the whole of humanity exists amidst this paradox of manipulative reality and incessant pain.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Jack & Jill went up the hill

Memoirs of skiing on the Ragged Mountains in the pristine town of Camden, Maine.

I had mugged up the term 'self-motivated', amongst others, during the CV making and interview days in college. Not that I ever was. I always believed that just like most of the things in life, with almost anything to do, there are people behind who push you into it. And once you are done, they morph into the "I-told-you-so" mode, the tone of the phrase adjusted based on the outcome of what you did.

The drive up to the hills in Camden was smooth; it had snowed less than an inch last night and the plowers had done a good job on US-1 to ensure I didn't have to bother much about not having an AWD car in this part of the country. Amidst some bollywood music in the background, during the entire drive, my thoughts candidly imagined myself - wearing my duck-feather jacket on a t-shirt on a thermal inner on a vest, and a jeans on a track-pant on a thermal inner on a Jockey brief - swooshing in a perfect wave on those white mountains and fields on both sides of the road, occasionally giving a slight push on this side with the two poles in my hand, turning on that side with a slight pressure on the left toe, wavering on the hills for miles at a stretch. I didn't think about any cheerleaders waiting for me with red and yellow flags at the bottom of the hill, god promise; after all, I thought, this was a private moment, when I wasn't going to do something like those city half-marathons where your entire purpose is to get your photograph clicked and published in the weekly office newsletter - this was where I was going to do something to 'unwind' myself, for the sole purpose of enjoying it - I was kind of self-motivated, yes.

This was the only part where I actually skied.

I pulled over in the parking lot of Camden Snow Bowl. Looking at the number of cars, I congratulated myself - today must be a really good-weather day to ski; and the flashy imaginations from the drive quickly replayed in my mind.

In this country, I have learnt to be comfortable with all sorts of people unloading all sorts of sophisticated-looking equipment at all possible places. Earlier I used to get nervous at the sight of guys unloading huge kite-board sails from those giant SUVs at a lake, or surf boarders near the beaches, or mountain bikers at various trails - I've now come to terms with myself on this part - don't think too much, they are 'professionals' - helps. People around here looked the same - the elegance with which the snow-boards and skis and boots and poles were being unloaded from 'trucks', I had to pass them off as 'professionals' - helped.

The white mountain in front of me was dotted with all colours - multitude of people in red and blue and green jackets could be seen swooshing down the hill just the way I had skied in my mind during the drive. Ah, the moment of glory, I am minutes away from that!

The cold wind slapped me on the face as soon as I stepped out of the car - it was still snowing mildly, and the head-band wasn't much help in braving the cold. I walked up closer to the hills and could see the human forms more clearly. Tiny kids, of size exactly equal to the length of my right leg, were gliding happily round and round on the snow in their duck-toe looking skis. I particularly noticed the kid in a pink jacket, she was cute, and she immediately reminded me of my first few days at swimming back in Bangalore. A kid her size had dived just before me in the 15-feet-depth side of the pool, smiled gay-ly at me, swam to the other side; and a few minutes later, I was throwing my arms and legs splashing the water and desperately gasping for breath at the same spot, till I was thrown a car tube by the instructor. Well, nevermind.

I signed up for the $50 'Beginners Special' - something which included lessons in the morning, after which you could ski on your own the whole day. I was handed over all the equipment, and excited enough, I started with putting on the boots. The ski boot is quite a remarkable invention - once you wear them, you can't bend your ankles anymore, it's like a plaster cast below your knees - probably made to ensure that in accidents, your toes, heels and everything down there don't move at all to get broken or cramped. It also means that you almost can't walk wearing them, you can't sit on the ground without your legs stretched (no squatting), and you can't stand up from the ground. Try the last part, stand up from the ground without bending your ankles. If you think it's easy, go take a walk. Literally, in those boots.

The first fall was uneventful. I came out wearing those boots and carrying my skis and poles, went slowly down the three steps that opened up at the base of the hill where snow had hardened to make a layer of ice, stepped on that ice, and slipped. It was tough to stand back up in those boots, and I managed by holding the railing and struggling my way up. I consoled myself, its fine, I just need to get a little further, cross the ice part, and then walk my way on the snow to the assembly point for group lessons. It wasn't as easy as I imagined, every time I tried to walk on the ice, it was like a Michael Jackson moon walk step, I was walking at the same spot, much slowly. The guy in the renting area looked at me, and said - don't worry, you'll make it. Duck-walk, crawl, sit and walk, do anything - people have done it!

With an air of confidence, I managed, crossed the ice, and then walked up slowly to the assembly area. The second fall came unexpectedly. This was the smallest of the hills with the minimum slope, and you could go up the hill holding a conveyor rope, and then ski down. Looking at everyone going up, and thinking that the lessons might be going on up there, I clicked my boots in the skis, followed someone to see how to catch the conveyor rope, went up the hill on my skis, and just when I released the rope at the top, fell sideways. The fall wasn't that bad, the getting up part was. The two skis were stuck to the my feet like cockroach antennae, and anything I did resembled those cockroaches hunting for food - the skis criss crossed, kept slipping, but there was no way to get up. I had to remove the skis from the boots, and then someone offered me help so that I could get back on my feet.

The next fall was sensational. I clicked my boots back in the skis, and they started gliding slowly down the hill. It seemed fun for a few seconds, but before I could fully comprehend it as a moment of glory, the daunting realization came looming on me that I'm sliding down, and there is no way I can stop. I sat, tried to dig my fingers into the snow like the final scene of Matrix, the speed reduced slightly, and I ended up at the base of the hill with a full-body-roll in the final seconds. A girl in her teens asked me - "Are you ok? You need help?" Wish she was hot. I told her that I can't stand back up with those boots, she offered her hand, I tried to get up, couldn't, and finally managed to get up only by supporting myself using a wooden bench nearby.

The next few falls were under the able guidance of my instructor, Barb, a middle aged plump woman, who somehow knew from the very beginning that I am going to be her career-worst student. The first time I fell in her presence was when she taught me how to stop myself while gliding down by making an inverted V by moving my toes inwards and stretching the legs. While attempting that bravely, my legs were stretched almost to the extent of those stretching exercises in your kiddish martial-art classes, and I could feel that my body was about to be torn apart into two halves like Mahabharata's Jarasandh vadh. Before that could happen, destiny decided to have mercy on me, and I just toppled over in the snow, on my face. The cute kid in the pink swooshed around me on her skis, in a perfect round.

Next one was slightly dramatic. I didn't actually fall, but was gliding down the hill with the same speed as my very first attempt, fully out of control, and Barb shouted 'stop, stop' at the top of her voice. Another instructor who was taking lessons for another group down the hill grabbed my hand, and this time, I didn't fall! "Nice grab!" he said, and I smiled at my few seconds of skiing success.

She actually had to shout 'stop, stop' two more times, to the conveyor operator. The first time was when I was gliding up the hill clutching the rope, my skis decided not to be friends anymore and part ways. They switched from being parallel to each other to a 20 degree angle, and before I had a chance to set them straight, I found myself thrown to one side, and the cockroach antennae saying hello to Barb. The second time was when Barb was skiing exactly a feet away from me, just so that I am prevented from further misfortunes, and leading me to a purple post slightly down the hill. I was thinking on my feet, but somehow my feet decided to do more thinking than me, and as Barb explained later, my right foot had more pressure than the left even when I was going to the right side down the hill. This led to an almost 180 degree of turn towards the left, away from Barb, and I started gliding straight towards the conveyor rope, hit it on my face, tripped over, rolled on the grass on the other side of the rope, and landed up on my ass. The feeling wasn't as great as Tom Hanks getting shot in his buttocks in Forrest Gump - he at least had loads of ice-creams offered later.

After multiple such adventurous ups and downs on the hill they used to call 'Mitey Might', I was sweating and panting with every muscle of my body demanding justice. Barb realised, and exuded a sympathetic sigh, just like different people had exuded the words 'awww', 'are you ok', 'need help', 'oh crap' etc every time I met them down the hill, not on my feet. The pink kid was still swooshing up and down, the smile broadened a bit. I told Barb that I'm tired, and I'll rather return in the afternoon after lunch. She said I just needed some practice, till my feet 'get a feel of it and start thinking on their own', and I will definitely get better - and she sooo did not sound like office HRs. I packed up, managed to limp back to the rental shop, returned the rental equipment, and drove straight up to the harbour for a well-deserved lobster.

The snow-capped mountains on either side looked just as beautiful without any images of me swooshing up and down. This time I thought of taking pictures, rather than skiing on them.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

काश ये खिड़की बस थोड़ी और खुल पाती

वो रौशनदान जिससे बाहरी बरसात से छनकर
आता उजाला छुपकर झाँक रहा है
वो शीशा जिसे भिगोकर अलसाया
भूरा बादल बस ऐसे ही ताक रहा है
काश बस थोड़ा और बड़ा होता

वो ड्योढ़ी जिसमें पहाड़ों से आई
गीली हवा घूमकर शोर कर रही है
वो दरवाज़े की दरार जिससे आती बूँदें
जमी धूल को एक ओर कर रही हैं
काश बस थोड़ी और बड़ी होती

वो खिड़की जो अपनी चौखट बार बार
चूमकर बयार का होना जता रही है
वो अटारी जिसपर बने घोसले के तिनकों को
पानी की फ़ुहार बस छू कर बढ़ी जा रही है
काश बस थोड़ी और बड़ी होती

आत्मविश्वास की वो पूँजी जो मशीनों के
कलपुर्ज़ों के बीच से कभी कभी आवाज़ लगाती है
वो इच्छाशक्ति जो अब भी दरवाज़े के उस पार
और खिड़कियों के पीछे से अचानक सर उठाती है
काश बस थोड़ी और बड़ी होती