For you were out of bounds, for these rules I was born to break.
An old photo album popped out from the trunk, it had pictures of when my mother was stunning but younger, of when she met my father, of when my father served as a young blooded soldier in volatile places, of when they met, perhaps were falling in love.
Set in the Srinagar Valley, lush green at times, a sheath of white in others, this place looked like it was created to cater to love, no one would ever guess the volatility and aggression, the bullets streaking through the snowflakes, camouflaged as one. No one could ever know that it would soon be imperative that they flee, for their safety was being watched through the eye of a rifle. With pictures serene, the photo album saw me taking an oath on it once, and again and a few times after. I will revisit this beautiful place where I was born, aware of the bloodshed and bombings that had tainted the beauty of this place, blissful in my own sweet joy.
My argument with my practical half who shows up once in a while? Hell if I have to be shot dead, it might as well be in a beautiful place. I sought solace in the fact that I was born here and it’s got to be quite a sure shit irony if I conk off here too. What are the chances right? Of course the folks back home flipped off my logic and pointed towards Sikkim on the map instead. “You want to see snow, go to Sikkim instead” said my dad while I clicked book ticket. “You want to chill on the backwaters, go to Kerela instead” said my mum while I clicked print ticket. Flashing the tickets and my signature upto-no-good grin, this they knew was a lost cause. Their daughter was going to be a rebel and either turn into food for the fishes in Dal lake or become a local terrorist. The chances of the latter now, hmmmm.
Like a boss, we got out of the aircraft, covered in what we in Bangalore call a sweater while Kashmir looks at it and sends the extra chill down your spine, lest you forget who the real Don of the cold is. Having never experienced temperatures below 12 degrees, I had already said my goodbyes to my toes and fingers. Having never seen snow before, I ran outside like a wild child wanting to dive in face first. Maybe I should’ve said goodbye to my nose too.
We travelled across the capital city, Srinagar and then headed to Sonamarg, Gulmarg and Pahalgam, each of which was a whole different experience.
Srinagar as a city looks like almost any other, except for the tone of lighting you see. Everything is eerily blue and white, as if ready for a photoshoot. The people (in this freezing weather) walk around covered in pherans (over over-sized cloaks with woven patterns, checks or stripes) with the sleeves dangling off while their hands tightly clasp a kaangdi (a wicker basket with coal to keep you warm, it’s held inside the pheran) to keep the chills at bay. Intense, sometimes blue eyes peer out at you while they walk briskly past in rather large strides, their cheeks red with dry winds and the hair tousled, a light brown. We stayed at the dal lake which has a life of it’s own. It’s a mini city within a city, where shikaras (small boats) replace scooters and each household has a cottage industry running and selling on a houseboat. The only livelihood of these people are the beautiful shawls, clothes, jewellery they make and all the homegrown produce they sell. With just that to live off, they are quite the sellers, ensuring you buy atleast two things you will never need at triple the cost.
Gulmarg is a tourist destination that can quite easily turn into a nightmare. Highly aggressive, the people will almost attack you, trying to make you take a sledge ride, act as guides or even drive you around a space that can be easily walked twice over. It is, however, a stunning visual. Our first day there saw us gaping out of our windows at 2 in the afternoon and being struck by blinding white. Fog and snow, a heady mix fit in perfectly with the reflective snow. The ski area will have you wonder why none of these local instructors don’t compete internationally, “humko yahaan pe aake, dekhke kaun chance dega, yahaan toh sab ek se badhkar ek hain, sabko skiing aati hai aur kuch logon ko chance milta hai completion ke liye” (who’s gong to come all the way here, see our talent, everyone here is a better skier than the other, some people get the chance to compete nationally)
It’s not a surprise then that a huge number of professional skiiers from all over the world head to the heliski course and get dropped off from helicopters onto the snow slopes. If you get too cold wwhile skiing which you will, there’s always masala chai or Kashmiri kahwa with maggi to rely upon. Piping hot, it feels like the best meal you’ve ever had.
To the amazement of all the locals, we trekked 10 kms up and down a steep mountain to get to the babareshi dargah. Brimming on the Pakistan border, it looks and feels like a different time and land. Like we don’t belong here, like we can’t feel safe. With undertones of quizzical expressions and a sombre way of talking, we spent as little time there as possible before turning on our way back through the narrow pathway where no tourist walks, everyone prefers to take a sledge ride, it’s easier to then get away from the bears which, to my dismay, we never spotted.
Sonamarg and Pahalgam are the valleys occupied by a simpler people, again on the borders of Pakistan. “who pahaad dekh rahein hain, hum uske peeche nahi jaate, wahaan pakistan hai. Pehle toh jaate the, tab koi aisi problem thi nahi na, ab kya pata kuch ho gaya toh” (Do you see that mountain, we don’t cross over it, Pakistan is behind it. Earlier we would go, there was no problem but now, what if something happens)
We could only make it to the outskirts of Sonamarg because the roads were blocked and we preferred to walk instead of inconveniencing the horses with our weight and we realised, Kashmir as a whole is a cricket crazy state. Kids playing with make-do wooden stumps in the freezing cold on streets and even our highway on the way back made me realise they love the same things that we do except that they have to deal with circumstances. They do not leave their homes for a better life or for education, for with a surrounding so hauntingly beautiful as theirs, they’re already richer than the rest of us.
On the eve of our departure, we set out to explore the old Srinagar city, My mum had so much about it to share, she had lived here with her family before all of them had to leave amidst deaths and terrorism. The old city looks like it has been through hell of a lot, run-down but artsy, devoid of too many people but full of character, narrow by lanes stretching into an ocean of stories. While we were blissful in our experience, my cab guy suddenly asked me if I knew the address of my house (ancestoral) here. He said he could try to find it and take me there. Of course I didn’t I thought, but hell, seeing it would end my trip really well. So I called all my aunts till one of them picked up and got the address. I couldn’t ask my mother because she might’ve fainted at the lunch table with anxiety.
We drove through all the lanes till we found the area and asked a few people around if they knew my grandmother. None of them had a clue and then we spotted a tailor shop who asked us who we were looking for. On explaining, he pointed to a house that had been taken over by the CRPF since no one claimed it and acted as a security post come barrack, complete with barbed wire and 3 gunmen. The process of trying to convince them to allow me to see my house was broken by the limp walk of a man dressed in a beige checked pheran, big boots and an English beret. He came upto me and said this is not your grandmother’s house, let these CRPF guys be, come with me I’ll take you to your house. He walked with me to the next lane and upto a huge black gate with a lady standing outside on a phone call. He explained who we were and she jumped up with surprise, took us insdie, showed me the house and served up some delicious kahwa and cookies. Multiple rounds of them. Cosying up into a warm blanket on the carpet, we talked about life in Kashmir, about my parents and family while my grandmother’s old neighbours heard of the news and came in to see their old friend’s granddaughter. Ladled with kisses and love, I spent a good amount of time there before leaving. All the while in the car I felt all those things my mother had told me about, transported to an old time, transfixed in my thoughts.
I thoroughly explored what I call my birthplace, it’s romanticism I needed to see, it had been kept away for too many years. On coming back home, I almost expected to push aside my curtains and see snowfall, to find kahwa and roti at the breakfast table. But when I didn’t I almost felt relieved and secure, for no matter where I go, the only home I really know is Bangalore. Where we have ugly buildings and neighbours peeping in to our houses, where we aren’t as rich but are as free as the Kashmiri sky.
Video by Sindhur Reddy, Editing by Devavratha and Sindhur Reddy
Music By Rohini Maiti
Take A Bow