Monday, December 24, 2012

Postcards from Kashmir - II

Continuing on the ruts of my previous post, we move from Srinagar to the idyllic villages that rest on the foothills of the mighty Himalayas flanked by gurgling streams and balmy pines. This is another Kashmir, with another facade, equally fascinating and inspiring as that of the city and its pristine lakes. 
Unfortunately the day, and how grudgingly, comes too soon when one has to leave behind this dream and return to the forced, the mundane. A sense of loss, a throb of fear grips me unaware as our taxi speeds into the relatively modern city-scape while the rustic scenes of the villages fade away into the blur of the descending evening twilight. What if I cannot come back? What if the conflict hits a peak again? What if the still struggling situation of peace crumbles one fine night? The thoughts leave me a little shaken, for we did see and sense the tightness of the lingering turmoil in the valley. The silent, uncomfortable presence of the army, armed and alert, almost everywhere and their uniforms oddly camouflaged with the landscape - the busy market streets lined with them, the saffron fields dotted with vigilant soldiers, their tired eyes looking for signs as we very consciously eat our fragrant Kashmiri pulao on a terrace restaurant, the airport buzzing with multiple security checks - were constant reminders of the fragility of the situation.

With a sinking feeling, I make my way inside the airplane. Reluctantly, I buckle my seat-belt and moments later when we take off, I watch the cloud-engulfed mountains garland the valley of Kashmir. It was difficult, imagining it as this beautiful, unfortunate paradox - the awkward coming together of beauty and terror. It is then that I couldn't help but recreate bits and pieces of an old, haunting poem in my mind - 'Postcard from Kashmir' by Agha Shahid Ali, one of the most talented contemporary poets from the subcontinent and Kashmir's very own, who took the tales of his land to far and wide. 

"Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

This is home. And this is the closest
I'll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won't be so brilliant,
the Jhelum's waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.

And my memory will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped."

~ Agha Shahid Ali, 'Postcard from Kashmir' from The Half-Inch Himalayas

A cold November morning unfolds on the streets of Srinagar. The battered dome of Hazratbal undergoing a face-lift. Dance of the pigeons. Like the boys of Kashmir, they too fly away, unbeknownst of their fate. Doll-faced little girls, blushing at my touristy request to photograph them. The rural landscape patterned with terrace fields and trails of smoke escaping from the tin-roofed houses. The jagged peaks of the Himalayas at Sonmarg, the 'meadow of gold'. Pony boys' persistent pleas for a ride. The postcard-perfect village of Aru in Pahalgham. A camera-shy pashmina goat in the midst of a scurrying flock of sheep in a lavender patch. Folds of pine and fog give an impression of a surreal, layered curtain. Beautiful shepherd huts down the meadow. A village shop, rickety yet colourful. The famous Kashmiri embroidery and the ubiquitous paisley motif on a shawl. The much-celebrated maple leaves carved on a houseboat panel. A papier-mâché heaven. To the city we return, where the sublime Jehlum once again greets us with a stoic silence. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Postcards from Kashmir - I

“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.” 
(If there is ever a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)

~ Emperor Jahangir during his visit to Kashmir in the 17th century

A sublime world, barricaded by timelessness. The centuries-old yet still breathtaking Mughal gardens will vouch for that. The restless stride of the clock ceases to exist in the valley. The dreamily skimming shikara on the calm waters of the lakes is a testimonial to that. The coming together of a bygone era with its proud remnants of old, dilapidated mosques and a modern water-old chockablock with houseboats and floating bazaars. 
Kashmir - the forever fragrant land of saffron and roses; the land obsessed with its pashmina and chinar (maple); the home of the whirling sufis and the imposing Himalayas. Like the very atoms of breath, every inch of the place is soaked in an enduring, ethereal poetry. Such was my joy on finally reaching the much-fabled paradise, that my heart swelled with a desperate, greedy thrill - as if there was no tomorrow; as if I needed to live every single moment to the brim then and there; as if I had a million tiny hearts throbbing inside me, all at once.

Then there are the unforgettable lessons Kashmir offers - the robust mountains tower you, till the remaining shreds of conceit and worldliness inside you leave for good, humbling you forever; the deep lakes, those serene pools of wisdom, inspire the good in you; and, the surviving fragments of an old world narrates countless tales of perseverance. But the most profound messages swim in the eyes of the Kashmiri people, who, with their warm, maple-hued gestures tug at your heart long after you have left the valley. Be it our extremely well-read, Rumi-quoting, warm cottage owner who, very gladly takes it upon himself to show us around the remote, crumbling pockets of old Srinagar and quite abruptly breaks into a perfect rendition of "Annie's Song" on the way; or, be it the ever-smiling taxi driver from a village who insists upon us having tea at his place which happened to be on our way up to a local vista point; or, be it our concerned houseboat manager who calls us long after we've reached Hyderabad, only to make sure if we reached home safely.

For a land so ruthlessly torn with strife and its people so relentlessly bruised by an eternal, meaningless territorial conflict, to us city dwellers to have arrived from the complacent comforts of our cocooned lives, Kashmir was a lesson in silence. Of the resilience, the stoicism, and the everyday war with oneself to keep the hunger for life alive. 

An early flower seller rows away into the morning gold. The chrysanthemum-laden boat. Rows of neatly stacked houseboats on the ever placid Nigeen lake. The breathtaking Shalimar Bagh and its legendary roses - the quintessential 'Kashmir ki kali' (the blossom of Kashmir). The remnants of a resplendent valley autumn. A tour of the senses with the hypnotic rogan joshKahwah, the traditional Kashmiri tea - the fragrant wonder that cardamom, cinnamon and a few strands of saffron could do to your regular green tea. Srinagar, a surreal water-world from its topmost perch. The old city, where the Jamia Masjid stands proudly and quiet flows by the river Jehlum. Dusk veils the valley and the tired shikaras on the swarming Dal lake call it a day. 

PS. I've taken the title from Agha Shahid Ali's poem 'Postcard from Kashmir', a piece of nostalgia that has stayed very close to my heart over the years. More about it, the mountains and Kashmir's rural face in the next post. 

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