The journey to Kashmir was not without its surprises. Just two days before travel, my friend Bhima opted out last minute because of a death in his extended family. Though I wanted to tell him he still had 3 days before the trip and he could finish the rituals and be in Srinagar the day we were leaving to base camp. I decided to let it be. But boy was I pissed off at him! And his message of happy journey, happy trekking to Kashmir was getting me more angry! And I gave it back to him when he called a day before my sojourn. Well, what is true friendship if you don’t vent out what you feel?? 😁
I had deliberately booked a houseboat away from the touristy noisy Dal lake. This was in Nigeen lake and a good reference was given about this particular houseboat by one of my closest friends, Pankaj. Well, it was for two and now I was alone without my buddy and seething in anger! We had planned and booked Kashmir Great Lakes way back in March this year before the second wave of COVID had started. And it certainly was not my intention to do back to back treks! But hey it’s fate!
As I got down at Srinagar airport with lots of excitement, hesitation and a slight bit of trepidation more so because all we hear is violence, bombing and terrorists I couldn’t help but wonder how it would be. And I would be there on our Independence Day, it was a conscious choice to be there for me and my friend to be in Kashmir on 15th August.
And let me spill it straight out. Kashmir is a part of India and it will be. The Nehruvian policy of screwing up that happened post partition still rings today and the whole state of Jammu & Kashmir is paying for it. And therein lies the confusion and chaos.
The person greeting me was a pleasant gentleman Mushtaqji. In impeccable English he greeted me surprised that I was refusing to let him carry my backpack to the car. He was initially reserved but I was so excited I was in Kashmir! I was here!! REALLY HERE!! For years I have been dreaming of once visiting this Jannat! Was I dreaming?
I kept asking so many questions to Mushtaqji that he couldn’t help but get his guard down. Listening to old Hindi songs of the 60s in his car, we set out towards Nigeen lake. I was transfixed. Normal people doing normal stuff. Opening shops, baking bread, girls and boys going to school and college, what did I expect? A bomb blast??! And then I realised this is what years of pop culture and most importantly the ‘devil of all’ nowadays media had shown us. Gone were the days of reporting and only the worst is what we heard when it came to Kashmir.
And the people? Friendly, right from the airport authorities when I had to hand in my COVID negative report. I remember the response I got when I said yes I travel alone and am here for a trek in Kashmir valley with a group. The man smiled and said in English, ‘ You are perfectly safe and free to travel anywhere in Kashmir’ 😊
The people were stunning to look at is an understatement. Sharp features, very Aryan and a complexion that was translucent. Yup I gawked at the men in uniform 😁 Devastatingly heart breaking Handsome!! It had been ages, even years since I saw a good looking man in all my travels! It was a treat!
As I sat in the shikhara that would lead to the houseboat, I was suddenly surrounded by utter silence, a stillness that was beautiful. I looked around and gave a deep sigh. So I was here. I was really here. I can’t explain nor write properly as to what I was feeling. Tears were filling me up. My mum was a huge romantic and it was thanks to her I was a fan of so many poets of the 60s.. The Kashmir I saw in those old movies.. they were not exaggerating at all.
Everything else paled in comparison to me, all my travels,, even the ones out of India.. Nothing came close when it came to being here.. nothing.. And I mean it. I have travelled the world in the last two decades and for me Kashmir is everything now. If there is a word higher than Jannat, it applies to this beautiful blessed land ♥️
As I came towards the houseboat I was greeted by a nice elderly gentleman Lateefji. He was the caretaker and in his mild voice he welcomed me, made me comfortable and told me that Shafiji who was the owner would greet me in the evening.
And what can I say about the houseboat?? Luxurious? Super yes!! The wood carvings, the opulence but most importantly it felt like home without making you feel like an outsider. And let me tell you something very personal. Most of you know I am from Hyderabad. And in old families of Hyderabad, we have what we call as Tehzeeb’, It simply translates to etiquette which to me doesn’t justify the beautiful Urdu word. It also means a kind of etiquette that comes from generations, a hospitality, a big heart that welcomes people in. And I can proudly say as a Hyderabadi we truly believe in it. And needless to say I experienced that Tehzeeb in Kashmiris. I really don’t know how to tell it better.
If one had an upbringing surrounded by a mix of culture and religion that permeates our food, our way of addressing someone, it is Hyderabad. And I felt so much at home being in the houseboat. I was the only one in the houseboat with no other guests and all I did was sit in the portico and watch the lake for hours. I got in a couple of hours of sleep, I would take my kindle book, sit and gaze ahead with some chai.
That day I didn’t do anything but that. I didn’t want to move, except sit there in silence. Solitude is beautiful, more and more I know this defines me. To sit on my own and be with it. And during this trek I truly understood what a gift it is to be in solitude. To enjoy every bit of it.
Shafiji walked in to greet me. Am assuming gentleman to the core, he checked if everything was ok. Over the next couple of days I would spend time having long conversations with Shafiji in the evenings and in that process, make a friend. Isn’t it beautiful how connections happen? We spoke about everything, under the sun. From families to love, from Kashmir to local stories, from food to people. Ditto with Lateefji the caretaker, who would regale me with traditions and Kashmiri weddings, and the process. How lucky and blessed I feel when I think about it now.
Honestly I felt déjà vu, very much so as if from another life. Some places do that to you… ♥️
To be continued..