Domestic flights are usually boring. The seats have limited leg-space, you can’t really sleep, and the food is always awful. If you have a window-seat you are stuck looking at nothing. Unless you are actually a child (I am not talking about the child that you think you still are) you quickly get bored with clouds. And children get bored even more quickly and they start to fidget and pretty soon everyone goes back to their mobile phones. Then again, you do not want these flights to become interesting in any other way. Too much excitement 30,000 feet above the ground can be somewhat damaging to your health.
But this flight was fascinating as we flew right above Himalayan peaks. Granted, these were lesser Himalayan peaks, probably not even with glamorous names. But peaks they were.
I love the mountains. There is something about the mighty peaks that gives you a sense of serenity, an assurance that there is some stability, some structure to the chaos that we live in. These mountains made this flight the most enjoyable one I have ever had. I do have a variety of enjoyable and not so enjoyable airway experiences, but I’ll keep them for another post. This journey, however, seemed to end a little too soon, but the airport gave us a more than adequate glance into what was to come. There were snow-peaks covering almost the entire horizon. My mother was so impressed she took out her small camera and started shooting. Reality interfered immediately in the guise of a security person with a gun. Apparently only they could shoot in the Airport premises. This was not a place where we were free to do whatever you wanted. This was a place where we were in our country, at the same time we were not in our country. This was a place where our country and its mystifying politics still do everything to keep it in the margins but in the headlines. I am talking about Srinagar, Kashmir. The year was 2014.
This is not going to be a political post. I know there is a mountain of opinions and theories and statistics and data about Kashmir. I am not going to add to it. And I am old enough to know that there is no possibility of a simple right or an uncomplicated wrong; and that at the end politics always wins. But even that knowledge cannot make the heart stop from breaking when you see this truly heavenly place butchered beyond redemption. The common people, as everywhere, keep desperately looking for peace – but unfortunately common people are always common. They are not usually ultra-intelligent, they love to dream and their dreams are always manipulated by the numerically (and morally) inferior uncommon. Kashmir, perhaps, is one of the best examples.
Our first stop was Gulmarg. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of flower on the way. On the way we got acquainted with the classic Kashmiri Kawa. (I could not help but wonder if there was a Japanese collaboration possible: who could resist a drink called Kawa-Saki?)
The stay in a wooden hotel was quite comfortable, even though the temperature was around 5 degrees (Celsius, should be around 41 degrees Fahrenheit). The morning was quite pleasant and we went for the famous ropeway ride.
The sky was not clear. We couldn’t do both levels of the ride as they told us the weather was bad up there. The first car took us to a snow-filled field crowded with people frolicking, drinking all kinds of stuff and riding all kinds of sleds and snow scooters.
We found company the moment we stepped off the cable-car. This shabby emaciated man with a wooden contraption attached himself to us and kept pestering us to take a ride on that suspicious plank-like thing. On that you were meant to sit and he would pull.
And the price wasn’t high. In fact, he even told us in Hindi that we shouldn’t mind that little amount since we are spending a fortune on this trip. I was polite at first. I had to become firm after quarter of an hour. After 30 minutes I had to be rude. This man finally took the “hint” and left. But later I felt seriously guilty. The money that he was asking for was probably all he would earn all day. And I was quick to dismiss him simply because I could. I get fleeced by a number of institutions every day and I suffer in silence. I guess we all bully the people we can.
Sonamarg was different. It was hyper-crowded. There were more stalls selling food and drinks. There were more ‘fun’ to be had.
And there were more Sled-people who were quoting absurd rates like 50 rupees per ride! Of course, the rides ended with spectacular inflation. The smooth operators innocently claimed that they actually meant 50 rupees per point. Apparently they had taken the tourists to 12 different points on a field of snow. A couple of such instances inspired us into a firm faith in inactivity. One person tried to rope us in with the promise of showing us “Old snow”! We had already seen ice fields at Chandanbari. It was dirty old snow, turned black by months of torture by people, just like the locals turned black by decades of turmoil.Chandanbari happens to be one of the starting points for the pilgrimage to Amarnath. Starting points of all pilgrimages are grim places. I guess all the sins about to be expiated collect themselves and start looking for new people to contaminate. (All that dark white convinced me that if I ever decide to go to Amarnath, the helicopter ride is the thing for me.)(The photograph shows the Amarnath peak seen on the way to Sonamarg)
Therefore, I was no longer interested in old snow. Of course, this was the end of the tour and we were prepared and didn’t allow anyone even to begin negotiations. By then Jaya and I had managed to slip on the ice a couple of times. The snow boots that we hired were as ineffective as political debates. Falling flat on the field full of fluffy snow gives you a very unique perspective and a rather no-nonsense outlook.
There is similar commercialization at Betaab Valley (its earlier name was Hangun Valley, something not even remembered by Wikipedia, the new name came into being after Sunny Deol was unleashed here) and Aru Valley – both near the amazing Pahalgam. Nature is at its spectacular best here.
(I used to be older then)
If you can place yourself in firm denial and forget all that misery all around you, you will feel blessed that you have come to this heavenly place. But such denial would be quickly denied by guns, uniforms, checkposts every few metres and a general sense of malaise that will slowly infect you. Life is not good here. Not for the commoners, not for the uniformed. Too much death all around.
Lidder and Jehlam (the locals do not call it Jhelum) are as beautiful as you can imagine. And Dal Lake is fascinating as it is a community by itself, with people spending their whole lives on boats and their boathouses.
The Houseboats are fantastic, they offer comfort equal to any great hotel.
Shikara rides attract a number of salesboats and the ware they offer are expensive, but quite interesting.
You must go to Pari Mahal a little above the lake. It is a simple but beautiful place.
But you cannot go the Akbari Fort as it is an army outpost now. One of the regrets that we have is that we couldn’t visit the main gardens because of rain!
Now that I look back, I consider myself fortunate that I could see this wonderful place. Even though we went during a moment of peace we ended up experiencing a stone throwing episode which ended in a tear gas charge (yet another girl from that village was raped and killed and her body dumped in a field and as usual there was no sign of action from any of the authorities) and a day-long curfew because the authorities were apprehensive of trouble since it was the anniversary of one such day of trouble (and as per report four men were shot that day on a hunch that they were planning to make trouble). Kashmir has become hell for one simple reason – there is no hope. Despite all the rhetoric, there seems to be no real effort. Kashmir is too good a political puzzle to solve. And politics does not care about lives. Our soldiers would continue to lose their lives and so will the common people of the valley. There is no simple solution. There is no solution.
This post would remain incomplete if I do not mention the gentle man who drove us everywhere – Yussuf Bhai. This calm and ever smiling man developed a toothache on the way to Pahalgam and didn’t say anything. We noticed his swollen jaw and gave him some medicine which had zero effect. For two entire days he suffered from acute pain – not much medical help is available outside Srinagar – and he continued to refuse our offer of going back.
To me he will always remain the picture of the incredibly tenacious and tolerant average Indian who keep on accepting all illusions of good days to come.
Our trip ended with another reality check. Flying out of Srinagar will test your patience. You will be made to feel like a terrorist. There were three security checks in place of one. There were extended negotiations over hand luggage (they allow none now) and a final round where you have to positively identify your bags among a line of suspicious looking luggage. A full 90 minutes of frenzied activity will come between you outside the airport and you inside the plane. People actually miss flights.
The flight out made us sad to leave such a beautiful place, but the relief of leaving was quite considerable. The Pir Panjal range lifted our mood to an extent. In Delhi we could feel at home again. Twenty years back, I had a similar experience in Arunachal Pradesh where there was an unease in the air and a palpable feeling of disquiet. I had never thought I would feel that again.