(click on the picture)
I have just returned from that trip to Kashmir which I had promised myself six months in advance. In many ways it was a journey down memory lane, because I was revisiting after nearly forty years. There are far more cars around, and the roads are much more congested, but, as I feel more and more frequently these days, the truly remarkable thing was how much had not changed.
We took a train from Durgapur to New Delhi, then a GoAir flight to Srinagar; we returned a week later the same way. Saves a great deal of time, which is good, because trains bore me more and more: that is one way in which I have changed. If and when I go again, it will be by air all the way and back. But the airports, clean though they might be, are another crashing bore: I wonder why they had to turn them into shopping malls. One funny thing about Srinagar airport is that there are birds hovering and chirping all over the lounge, and you are always at risk of being bombed with poo. And the multiple-level security check at daybreak on the way back really tests your patience.
The hotels are overpriced everywhere, but the service is good. Weirdly, all the tourist hotspots are choc a bloc with eateries offering shuddh shaakaahari fare: evidently, Punjabi and Bengali tourists have become a minority. The only time we tasted good meat was when we sampled Kashmiri wazwan in Gulmarg. The men, I found, are in-your-face chauvinistic about their good looks, but the girls are awfully pretty too, despite hiding almost everything behind their burqas – you can’t beat nature, no matter how short your dresses are. I was tickled to see that even the IndiGo airhostesses, normally attired in the tiniest of frocks, had been ordered to don trousers for the duration of their stay in Kashmir.
There are notices in English all around you, and the Kashmiris are truly creative with spelling. One sample: a sticker behind a car read ‘Peopels die, memory is feed, but love romens’. And the Pahalgam Development Authority uses the acronym PDA unabashedly even in parks; evidently, like those who named the ADDA in Durgapur, nobody told them. A restaurant was named Taj Mehal. I was pleased, though, to read the word ‘cashmere’ on at least one shop signboard. And one legend that I read on a great many cabs and autorickshaws was ‘Believe a snake, but not a girl’. Make of that what you will.
Something most irritating is that hawkers and touts (for everything from clothes and hotels to horses) crowd and badger you wherever you go, as though just walking around or drinking in the beauty of the surroundings without constantly paying people is a crime. And everybody sells genuine pashmina and kesar, like your joynogorer mowa in Bengal.
Walk around, and sit and look, if you really want to savour Kashmir. Yes, just walk, walk, walk. And don’t travel to too many places: you get all you want – hills, snow, forests and rivers, deeply soothing silence – in any one place you visit. My tip is, just go to Pahalgam and stay for a few days. It will be enough (add Gulmarg if you wish – it’s beautiful too – but avoid Sonamarg: there’s nothing different and special to see, and that is one place where they go all out to fleece you, the whole tourist business being totally unregulated).
Srinagar was warm to hot: in the afternoons the sun was blazing. The last light faded only when it was 8 p.m. The other spots were much cooler: in Pahalgam, after sundown, the mercury went down to about 20 celsius, if the internet app could be trusted. The shikhara ride is truly enjoyable, especially if you can make it early in the morning or late in the evening, but remember to bargain shamelessly. Climb up the hill to the Shankaracharya temple only if you are very devout (the temple itself being strictly ho-hum, artistically speaking) or if you want to enjoy the view – and it being a CRPF camp, photography is prohibited, remember. As for the famed Mughal gardens, we were lucky to see them in full bloom, but if you are in a hurry, just see the Shalimar. And stroll along the lakeside boulevard as far as you can; it’s a treat. But the ambience would improve vastly if all motor traffic could be driven off at least for a stretch along that road, as they have done in Nainital. The only vehicles that might be allowed are the spanking clean, bright red topless double-decker buses that saunter up and down inviting tourists to ‘hop in, hop out’.
Stopping by the Indus (on the way to Sonamarg this time) has always been a skin-crawling experience for me – this is the river after which the land and probably the religion is named, this is the river which bears mute testimony to so many thousand years of history, from Mohenjodaro to the early Aryans and the visit of Alexander. That was one high point of the trip; another was horse-riding in the rain around Gulmarg. Pupu agreed, which made it even more satisfying. Aru valley above Pahalgam could really be a part of the Tyrol were it not for the colour of the people’s skins: one could almost hear ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’ ringing in one’s ears. At Chandanwari – where the pedestrian pilgrimage to Amarnath begins – the best thing was sitting beside a cascade gurgling from beneath the tongue of a glacier, azure sky above, lush green conifer-studded hills all around, the sun dazzling yet the wind cold even at midday.
But I am getting old, indeed, for I found that what I enjoyed most, after everything, was the leisure and escape from work. And having Pupu beside me and enjoying herself: it’s being rewarded far beyond anything one had hoped for all one’s life.
Countless thanks to Aakash for being there for us, twice over, in Delhi. It is old boys like him who make me feel truly rich, and blessed. I look at my current crop of pupils and keep wondering which ones will turn out to be like him fifteen years from now.
I came back to Durgapur tired but content to get back into harness again. And the weather has improved vastly, what with it having rained repeatedly over the last few days (indeed, we were chased around by rain from day one!): so my fear of being boiled or baked upon returning turned out to be unfounded. The first news I got was grand: after ages, someone from Durgapur has cracked the central civil services examination in his first attempt, and he happens to be an old boy of mine who remembers me with respect and I hope some affection, because he came over personally to give the good news, and we had a long chat. Power to your elbow, Debotosh Chatterjee, and keep in touch: I hope to hear great things from you in the years to come…
P.S.: Some photos can be seen here. I am tinkering with Google Photos, and compared to Picasa it 'sucks'. For captions, click on each picture and look for 'Info' at the top right - that's the best I could do for now.