Losing and finding yourself in Kashmir

“Srinagar. It is stopping at sidewalks and traffic lights when the convoys of rulers and their patrons in armored cars, secured by machine guns, rumble on broken roads. It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning and never being defeated”–BASHARAT PEER

The day before I was to leave for Kashmir, a killing had taken place. Violence erupted and the next day, which was the day when I would arrive, was declared a bandh. I grew up in Kolkata. Bandhs were as normal as power cuts. My father ran a factory in Barrackpore where Naxalites would routinely gherao him and hold him to gunpoint. He never flinched. He and I were tear-gassed at Esplanade in the early 80s. When that is the preface of your life, your book takes an altogether different twist. But there was more. I arrived post lunch on a Friday. That is not a day and time to land in Srinagar. It is when clashes take place.

The greatest clash within Kashmir is that between perception and reality. Between the questions and the answers. Kashmir is 51 shades of grey.

Some years ago, Shama Naqushbandi wrote, “It is for this reason that when I think of Kashmir, I do not think of polemics between good and evil. I do not think of India and Pakistan. It is of no consequence to me whether Kashmir falls under the aegis of one flag or another, or whether it gains independence. I do not see politics.” I so agree with her. The eye must be trained to see what it must and miss what it should.

Just then a friend calls. “Is there unrest in Srinagar?” I reply, “Not quite as much as there is in JNU. Or Twitter.” As someone famously wrote, “Some days it storms. Some days it shines. That’s how flowers grow.”

From the airport, the road to Vivanta Dal View, Srinagar, is dotted with mute soldiers carrying guns that they do not necessarily want to lift. And with mighty Chinars that do not want to bow.

“Tum bhi ab Kashmir si ho chuki. Husn ke itne saarey pehredar jo baithey huey”–VIHAAN

I am just not a fan of non-vegetarian Kashmiri cuisine. I stay far away from the gushtabas, ristas, yakhnis and the tabak maas’s of the world. But a recent introduction to Rajni Jhinsi (who I think is the finest Kashmiri cook in the country), made me fall hopelessly in love with muchch – a divine mutton kofta curry. Evidently, the head chef at Vivanta hadn’t heard of it. I was told to wait until the next morning for the chef at my hotel to show up. I had the most divine meal courtesy chef Seva. The muchch was fantastic. He also made me some shalgam ki sabzi and served me ghaanth gobi leaves under the guise of haak. Breakfast there is equally sublime. Methi alu with puris.

As is expected of any touristy place, a cavalcade of clichés follows you in Kashmir. Here are some. Ahdoos. I gave up on the restaurant years ago. Someone pointed me in the direction of their bakery. The cheese puffs were fantastically forgettable.Then there are the 4.30am shikara rides to the vegetable markets where you are fleeced. So why bother? Much romance has been infused into the shikara ride to the bookstore in the middle of Dal Lake. Pass that as well. Then there is Chaai Jaai, a Victorian style teahouse. I mean really? Kahwa and chintz? Oh puhleez.

Instead focus on the fabulous parts of Srinagar. The serenity that envelopes the Hazratbal Mosque. Visit the fabulous Dachigam National Park, home to the hangul or Kashmiri stag. It also has musk deer, Himalayan black bears, otters and even long-tailed marmots. Visit Saklain’s Coterie where you get soaps, scrubs and shampoos made with the freshest and finest Kashmiri produce. Pick up a bottle of kalonji oil. It is more virtuous than Portia was. Down a few blocks from Saklain is the temple of all things tasteful: Amin Bin Khalik. Marvel at the morels. Pack some. Pick up walnuts and pine nuts from there. Ask to smell the saffron. It reeks of richness. And do buy the garlic pickle. Visit Moonlight Bakery. Their walnut fudge is the eighth sin. And sample the tujjis from Imran’s, a street-side stalwart.

If you must do a day-trip from Srinagar, I would suggest Yusmarg. Most people don’t even know about it. Yus is a shortened version of the name Yusuf, the Arabic name of Jesus. And legend has it that Jesus came to Kashmir through this valley. The road to Yusmarg is filled with apple, pear and almond orchards. I stopped at one of these orchards and picked up a fallen apple. It was the juiciest I have ever had. On the way to Yusmarg, stop by at Charar-e-Sharief. Home to the sacred dargah of Hazrat Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali. Also known as Alamdar-e-Kashmir. It is the most pious spot for all Kashmiris. Irrespective of religion.

Once at Yusmarg, sit in the many mirthful meadows there. Walk up to the Doodh Ganga. Stop by at the dargah made by the Gujjar tribes. There isn’t much to do in Yusmarg. Which is just fine. Because one goes to Yusmarg to undo oneself. I went to meet myself there.

The next day, after a brimming breakfast, Shakeel (the best person to drive you around in Kashmir) asked me whether I wanted to visit a temple. The Zeashta Devi Shrine, Zaethyar, in Srinagar is the abode of a goddess created by Lord Shiva.

But it was on the drive from Srinagar to Pahalgam that the secular might of Kashmir is revealed in its full glory. At Mattan, the Mattan Temple was once an important pilgrimage seat of Kashmiri Pundits. It has beautiful Shiva Lingam that is preserved within a brick structure surrounded by a crystal clear pond. Since ages, this is the place where Kashmiri pundits and priests worship the sun god. And in the same compound is Mattan Sahib. In 1516, Guru Nanak visited Srinagar, Anantnag and Mattan. The Gurdwara Patshahi Pahili is a significant place of worship.

And there is no greater hymn of harmony than two religions sharing the same space.

“Dariya bhi main. Drakhat bhi main. Jhelum bhi main. Chinar bhi main. Dair bhi hoon.Haraam bhi hoon. Shai bhi hoon. Sunni bhi hoon. Main hoon Pandit. Main tha, main hoon aur main hi rahoonga.” –ROOHDAR ( from HAIDER)

The appearance of the Lidder is the prelude to paradise. Its clean waters hurdle over the stoic rocks. The water is a graceful shade of green.

It is said that the enzymes responsible for the production of serotonin thrive in areas with high-quality oxygen. And in such a location in Pehalgam I spotted The WelcomHotel Pine-n-Peak.

I was happy to feast on Himalayan trout. And then, The Kashmiri hokh syun, which literally means dried food. Given the severity of winters, Kashmiris sun-dry their vegetables during peak summer and store them for use during the harsh winter. Try the dry quince apple (bamchoont hache) mixed with yogurt. It is simply outstanding.

From Pahalgam, there are some fantastic day trips. Sheshnag Lake is mesmerising. As is Chandanbari, an important part of the Amarnath Yatra.

Leaving Kashmir is always difficult. As one drives past the fountains of Dal Lake, the fresh walnut sellers on its streets, the chinars that line its streets you marvel at its raw beauty. And its heartbreaking state of feeling lost. No longer knowing the way. But maybe that is what it makes it a balm for people wanting to find themselves. You lose yourself in Kashmir. You find yourself in Kashmir.

“Khoobsoorati ko aksar hamne bhataktey huey dekha hai. Maine in chand alfasso mein Kashmir ko likha hai.” –DHAWAL BAROT

The author is a connoisseur of luxury and an ad guru. He launched his agency, Equus, and has some of the most prestigious corporate honchos as his clientele

From HT Brunch, November 4, 2018

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First Published: Nov 04, 2018 00:17 IST

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