It looked like any other north Indian city when I arrived that summer morning in 2010. Except that Srinagar airport looked thin of people and structure and devoid of welcoming presences altogether. I found out later that this was because of the curfew that the city was thrown under. I wondered how the airport looked on non curfew days. Was there more sunshine? Were there more women? More vendors? My parents looked worried so I didn’t bother them with questions.
Ashfaq, our taxi driver greeted us with a sombre yet an earnest face. And as is customary on all our family travel lore, I bargained with dad for a full 5 minutes for the seat next to the driver’s but he wouldn’t budge. He was adamant about the damn seat. He had eternal dibs on that seat. Mother later told me that he was worried that someone would throw a stone on my face, destroying forever therefore my chance at marriage and kids. Big loss and all.
I cribbed and occupied the back seat but my mood changed consistently after what I saw outside. Srinagar is in the middle of mountains, that much I was convinced about. After the great Matheran fiasco of 2007, I was careful in expecting vast differences between internet pictures and the actual place. According to the pictures that I gorged off the internet, Matheran was supposed to be dipped in greenery and Vanilla Mountains because of some godforsaken white mud, which turned out to be bullshit of course because there was mud alright but brown; brown mud, brown dust and brown air.
Srinagar, on the other hand didn’t need Google images to promote its hills and mountains and their greenery. It did need promotion, however, on the people front. Owing to curfew and its very many delights, the roads were empty, banks closed, schools and colleges closed. It did make for a splendid first visit. I had never seen so many trees up close before; either that or I haven’t noticed trees in other cities because of the people hovering around the city.
Anyway, Srinagar looks tired; like it cannot put up with having to balance between 2 extremes. One, that is its alluring ambience and then the disturbing – almost killing silence that it is surrounded by. It’s not a silence that one sighs and takes deep breaths in. It is a silence that one foretells danger in. Like a premonitory sign that something bad is about to happen. Scary, murderous silence. And these silences were peculiarly more haunting when I was around the hills.
Our first stop was at the Shikhara on Dal Lake. It was biting cold but the lake was ambushed by mountains from all sides so I couldn’t really focus much on the cold. The views were enough to keep me warm.
My first lunch in Kashmir taught me that rice is to be avoided at all costs in and around Kashmir, the way you would avoid Ragi rotti in Chinese restaurants. Have at all the localised momos and other fresh veggies here. The special Kahwa tea is refreshing and slightly addictive especially on cold mornings. The roti-sabzi combination is probably the only other substitute for a diet that cannot digest fat rice. But that’s all about the food that I can remember about Kashmir. I may regret saying this but what the hell, there is a chance I may wake up in a foul mood one morning, read the crap here and just delete the whole site. Here goes anyway, Food, just like anywhere else is the same everywhere, even in Kashmir.
But food is hardly what brings Kashmir closer to me. I found Kashmir in the sheep and cows. I have never developed long lasting bonds with animals so the fact that I remember the animals in Kashmir so vividly, is surprising.
The cows and sheep there are lovely. But what makes it lovely maybe is that Kashmir is just like anybody imagines it to be, or like they show in the movies. The cows are white or proportionately black and white, the grass, greener than your neighbor’s, the sky you can almost reach because your head is literally in the clouds. That’s how I thought Kashmir looked like and that’s how it actually does.