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.

10 comments:

  1. hey... glad to see you back in the world of the harried city dwellers.. hehe.. i'm jealous man... sounds like you had one hell of a trip.. oh sorry..wrong choice of words since u were in kashmir...how about putting up some photos with these posts of yours?

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  2. Niv: Good to hear from you!!! Yeah the net speed was a bugger so didn't upload any photographs. The next post will be pictographic : )

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  3. the Leh Srinagar highway is awesome isnt it :) and the leh manali highway is differently awesome !

    it was stunning to see how close tiger hills and so on is to the highway. we had parathas at the village nearest to tiger hill, and the tea stalls etc were riddled with bullet holes.

    and srinagar....kalam was visiting when I was there, and the separatists had called a bandh....you could have cut the tension in the city with a knife. the houseboats were deserted, the groups of soldiers standing nervously around seemed to have their fingers on their triggers.

    the taxiwalla who took me to the airport said that all the militancy in srinagar and the tourist destinations was financed by tour operators from kullu-manali since they were the people who gained the most from the tourist traffic from kashmir looked for other himalaysn destinations after the onset of violence.

    strange place, beautiful. Lucky you :)

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  4. there's an uncanny similarity in the way you describe places (people and places actually). but then, we must run out of adjectives and adverbs (those faithful tools) sometime. is that what's called style?


    so what is it indeed? are the places so similar (familiar?) that when you sit down to write about them, you end up telling the same stories all over again? or is it the incompetency on our part and we tend to repeat things?


    i am no judge. but maybe we can reach a democratic decision here. let everyone be the judge eh?

    ps - sometime soon, you should (no, must) get tired of all the jealous comments on your blog. it will do you a world of good.

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  5. get tired of all the jealous comments you say marvin? trust me, she is doing so much damage with each post that i might end up cursing her a lot :P (in a good way, n.o.m)

    good to realize you're bank. thankfully more so because otherwise, you would have written many more posts from the place and made us all a little more green. did you say next post will be pictographic? Grrrr!

    You say all places have some similarity. I don't quite agree as Bombay would be very different than what Delhi is and so is the case with this effed up Dallas. One is filled with crowd, the other with life(presumably?) and the third one is filled with nothingness. These cities do different things to me - I love it in Bombay and I hate it say in Ahmedabad. So you see...

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  6. Psmith: Our Srinagar experiences are markedly different.

    Prasoon:

    Marvin: I think its incompetency. Really. When one begins to sound monotonous, things are obviously not looking up. And why would getting tired do me a "world of good"? Inspiring jealousy* rolls eyes* Its such a despicable emotion (how I hate it) that I rarely give it much thought. You, of all people, would have figured that out by now.

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  7. Was that a common reply to me and Marvin or you just forgot replying to me?

    ps: *sobs* - mujhe bhi Srinagar aur leh jaana hai :(

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  8. Prasoon: Ha ha ha I forgot to reply. Just saw that. And now I can't remember what I wanted to say. So. I would've thought Dallas would be interesting with its corn fields and cows. But you must be in the city I presume.

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  9. Dallas and corn fields and cows you say?

    picture this - am staying just next to an airport. So close that when an airplane goes over the building here, we have some milliseconds of darkness. Happens twice or thrice per day when some flight travels some particular travle path to land on some runway i guess.. Thanks to airport, I have acres of nothingness around me :|

    This picture ain't rosy but yes, I am moving to Mexico soon. yay for that and hopefully I will see crowds - what I wish for is that those should be civilized crowds and shouldn't loot me at gunpoint !!

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