26 May, 2009

Guess who's back?

Travel, as usual, never fails to amuse, entertain, educate and fascinate. And when you have four whole days of unplanned rides from Leh to Delhi, things can become awfully exciting. And so we set off on the first leg of our adventure, R and I, two very tired souls, on the long and awe-inspiring journey from Leh to Srinagar. We were greeted by the imposing and sufficiently famous Lamayuru Monastery (have you noticed how people love flaunting how they have visited places of "high tourist value"? "I have been to the highest motorable road in the world." So what if the ice there it’s just dirty slush and you can catch more dainty ladies crying woefully to their gallant beaus there than in the whole of wherever). We passed Fotu la and Zoji La, the fascinating passes en route. We drove through walls of ice, skidding frequently, wide-eyed and held-breath. Ice looks eerie at night - solid blocks of cold, reflecting the dark of a moonless sky. Imaginations are not extremely pleasant things to have at such times and especially if it’s like mine - wild and out of control.

After a tumultuous night of bumpity-bump, we woke to the coniferous greenery of the Kashmir Valley. Remember how they told of paradise on earth and how you snorted (well I did)? They were true (the they I tell you, often get it quite right). The stone and wood houses with their sloping roofs and walnut groves. White waters gushing past blades of grass and sheeps' noses. The smooth rain-soaked roads and perfumed winds. Wild flowers nodding amicably at the groggy sun. And amidst that, me, squashed in a Tata Sumo, trying to guard my packet of chocolate cookies from crumbling into anonymity and rearranging my legs into another insane pose.

And then before we could breathe in the beauty of Sonamarg and feast on the pastoral landscapes that identify the valley, we rudely charged into the bustle of Srinagar. Indian cities, on a whole, are uncannily similar. They may have their own "look" and character but deep down, they thrive on the same values. Jugaad. Bullock carts jostled with taxis, a fruit seller washed his shop and threw the water on the road, unsettling some lethargic dust, garbage was placed at prime in-your-face locations, people walked around with familiar nonchalance, a dog lifted a leg and urinated on the tyre of a parked car, trees made themselves heard by whistling in the wind (yeah yeah they were the famed excessively beautiful and grand chinars, but they were trees)... so you know, the regular. A market in the morning is a fascinating place. A man was wiping his Quran, another was dusting a picture of Ganesha. The air was heavy with the aroma of spices. Cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, cloves. Walnuts poured out of gunny bags. Shopkeepers pushed vegetables onto wooden planks and washed them more vigourously than thoroughly. Watermelons were sliced and put on display at positions reserved for the enviable. Cows jostled with other road riff raff for morsels of yesterday's mangoes and discarded vegetables. The intense activity, all carried out in languid precision was a sight to watch. I could've been in Agra or Cochin and the essence of the scene would have been identical.

The Dal Lake, on first glance, disappointed. The houseboats were infinite in number, the shikaras too eager to help, the waters looked murky, the air smelt dank. And then we actually descended into a boat. It was like entering another world. The heart shaped paddle gently cutting into the water. It almost caressed the waters, willing them to part and give way. The waters lapped around the boat in fond familiarity. We steered through the first row of "important" houseboats. They were large and almost had a pompous air about them. Like people who know they are powerful and like to flaunt it. Then we reached the "backwaters". Here an amazing world, a planet in itself unfolded. I saw white-capped men pray. Women, blue eyed and fair skinned waved to us. A boat passed by, urging us to dress up in "true kashmiri outfit mam" and get a "Kodak" clicked. The houseboats here were smaller and humble here. Singhara and lotus leaves fought for air space. A boat full of flowers passed us by. And then we reached our houseboat. Ameen guided us through its beautiful interiors. He spoke at length (with inspiring passion) about his people, how it gladdened his heart to see Indian tourists come and bust their notions about an “unsafe” Kashmir, how Srinagar was indeed jannat. He spoke of his religion and how some fanatics had maligned it irreparably, “Islam talks of peace and humility. It tells me to look after my guests and place them before my family. It tells me to be humble and kind, certainly not kill and spread fear.”

R and I discovered the city like children in a candy shop. We ran around the expanses of Srinagar’s famous (and after a point monotonous) gardens. Shalimar Bagh and its colours. Nishat Bagh and its fountains. Pari Mahal built by the unfortunate Dara Shikoh. Chasmashaaheen named so because of the spring in the garden, the waters of which are considered to have medicinal properties. An impromptu thunderstorm moistened the hues of the setting sun. We indulged in a shikara ride lasting hours and which cannot be described by any other word but the rather ambiguous adjective – “romantic”. We slept that night in tune to the rhythm of the waters lapping at our boat and the gentle swaying of a dreamless sleep.

The rest of the journey back to Delhi was a muddle of assorted modes of transportation, erratic meals, a curfew in Punjab (because of goings on in Vienna if you please), smelling pee-perfumed air at the Jammu bus stand, delays and fatigue, pacifying a harried family, awe at activities inside and outside the sleeper bus and of course major sessions of slumber. The journey came to an abrupt end, earlier than expected and rather comfortable in its final leg. I am back in the heat of Delhi (I had forgotten how it makes your skin melt) and the madness of office. I am back with a new face (it's the unflattering and woe-of-my-life tan), a new mood (which I am unable to describe) and a new peace (no I am not splattering every sordid detail of every single thing in my life people). So yes, cutting the loooooooooooooong story short, I'm back. Yet again.

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