You can enter Srinagar
by the long and winding southern road from Jammu, and if you start early in the
day, you will reach when the sun is slowly dipping into the fragrant fields of
basmati rice that stretch before it. Or you can fly in, passing through the
seven gates of security control of a modern airport. We chose the road: a
Maruti steered by a Sikh driver with quick reflexes and a reassuring smile that
never once faltered.
On our way, we passed a town where only sweets are made and sold: barfi, kheer, gulab jamun, firun, and all varieties of halwa, to name just a few. All five passengers stormed out of the car and towards the shops, returning with cartons filled to the brim with sweets of all shapes and sizes, which soon began to ooze their milky stickiness in the relentless midday sun. An hour or two later, we halted by an apple stall tilted over a precipice, offering magnificent views of the hills where small clusters of three to five houses have their own private post offices (you would think a lot of epistoling goes on around here).
All along, a clean-shaven, down-to-business man in a starched shirt sitting in the front seat had been using this car as his office, distributing seats at universities in Delhi, Kolkata or Allahabad to the lucky few for rather handsome amounts. He was still on the phone when he turned to talk to the man behind the improvised stall laden with fragrant Kashmiri apples.
“Two kilos,” and back to his phone, “Yes, madam, that’s how it is. I don’t know, madam. I can’t study for them as well …”
“ ₹60, sir.”
“Madam, that will be ₹60,000 rupees.”
Seven months back in
time, I was exploring Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi. Without looking for
anything in particular, I entered one of its many quirky antiquarian shops, a
small space stacked with oddities. Looking over the shelves piled with curious
tomes dealing with subjects like the psychology of passion or dispensing pre-Cosmopolitan advice
to disoriented memsahibs accompanying their husbands to India, my eyes fell
upon a book in a dusty brown hardcover, with A Lonely Summer in Kashmir written
on its spine.
It was a travelogue written by an Englishwoman, Margaret Cotter Morison, at the beginning of the 20th century. After being let down and left on her own by a female friend who was to be her travel companion, she went alone to the mountains of Kashmir at the end of May 1901, taking only her British bulldog Jones (not counting the male crew she hired in Srinagar). Her journey took her from Srinagar to Islamabad on a houseboat, and from there up into the mountains, where she spent five months before descending to civilization.
In August, I took her book with me on my own trip to the Valley, to see what she felt and wrote about the place where she arrived in no mood “to appreciate all this”.
“Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir and the only big town, is a place full of life and picturesqueness, which captivates the visitor by its novelty and perpetually amuses him by the many quaint similarities to places seen before. With the polo-ground, tennis-courts, and smartly dressed ladies, one might think oneself in an ordinary Indian station; at the Residency garden-parties, where croquet is played on the softest of lawns, and strawberries and cream dispensed under cool spreading trees, any one would think himself at a country house in England; on the river above the town, where house-boats are crowded close together for over a mile, the sight recalls Henley a few days before the regatta; a row down the town where houses and temples line the banks, where gracefully carved wooden balconies overhang the water, where men and women loiter chattering on the steps, and half the population lives in boats, brings back faint memories of Venice.
“But a visit to the Dhal Lake, with its willow-lined water canals and unique floating gardens, or a stiff climb up the hill, called the Takht-i-Suleiman, to obtain a panoramic view of the city, so green in spring-time, with grass growing thickly on all the roofs; and lastly, the perpetual swarm of merchants round one’s boat thrusting themselves and their goods in at the window repeating their never ceasing cry of ‘Only see, lady, only see; don’t buy, Memsahib’ these are suggestive of Srinagar, and only Srinagar, for their like is seen in no other part of the earth.”
Everybody thinks we are all 9/11 here,” said Ahmed who had returned a year
ago from a 15-year sojourn in South Africa, where he had been running a
jewellery store and where his family still stays. Soon after returning, he had
met with an accident and had lapsed into a months-long coma that kept him here
longer than he had expected.
We were sitting on a moonlit terrace that served as a bridge between two houseboats, Ahmed’s and ours. The moon was a perfect circle, Dal Lake serene, and the mosquitoes merciless. Rashid, our host, had brought dinner from home—another houseboat on one of the tributaries of the Jhelum—rice, daal and rotis, and strong black tea. My friend and I had just arrived in Srinagar and landed here on our driver’s recommendation just before dusk turned to dark.
Ahmed was in a fun-loving, joie-de-vivre mood, and ended each sentence with bursts of hearty laughter. “I miss spending casual drunken nights with my South African friends after a hard day’s work,” he said in his thick South African accent. “Here, everything has changed. We’ve become a military outpost.”
Looking around me at the coloured lights from houseboats’ verandas reflected in the dark waters of Dal Lake, and hearing the soft sound of paddles displacing the surface algae, it felt like a night at Wullar Lake from one of Miss Margaret’s descriptions, but tinged with an indistinct feeling of doom. “It was almost as clear as in the daytime, only with that strange deceptive light the moon gives, which casts over the most every-day objects a tinge of unreality.”
After the breakfast
on Rashid’s family houseboat—Kashmiri bread smeared with salty butter served
with kehwa; and the traditional herbal tea with vestiges of
cinnamon and saffron, and a single cardamom pod floating on its transparent
surface—we went for a walk along the famous bund that runs parallel with the
Jhelum. Old, dilapidated houseboats were moored on its banks and a few chickens
or sheep would climb up and down the concrete stairs. Somewhere down the
pathway, a short building to the left caught our attention. The letters
inscribed on its façade read Mahatta Photofinishing Department.
Inside, on the first floor, a man in a white kurta with silver hair was sitting behind a counter displaying beautiful images of the old black-and-white world of the Valley, now reprinted on silver gelatin archival paper in postcard format: distant snowcapped peaks; desolate rushes of Dal, Nagin or Wular Lakes; bridges and façades of the Old City of Srinagar; tribal girls in heavy adornment watching grazing sheep. Several old-school cameras were exhibited on the shelves behind the counter with a few rolls of film, and large hand-coloured prints covered the walls. In the adjacent room, a classic photo enlarger and a stool for portraits looked as if they were waiting for someone, and had grown out of fashion in the meantime.
The gentleman in white
was Mr. Mehta, the owner of Mahatta’s photo studio which has been in existence
since 1915. Back then, retouching was done on a houseboat moored in the river
just in front, while this building was occupied by a gentleman who later moved
to Bollywood. After he was gone, tending to his call to become an actor, the
studio switched to this space. So said Mr. Mehta’s introduction to his father
Ram Chand Mehta’s book of photography that lay open at the other end
of the counter.
Titled Kashmir Views, 1934-1965, it presents a selection of Ram Chand’s best images of the Valley, which had been found in the attic of this studio, and was later reprinted by his son. It further read that Ram Chand was the youngest of three brothers who had established Mahatta’s, and that the studio was, from its inception, patronised by the elite; a portrait taken here would immediately become a cherished souvenir.
The genteel clientele would fix the portrait appointments much in advance. When the day came, they would arrive, meticulously dressed and on time, though, in those days, the cars were but a few in Srinagar. The customers would cooperate with the photographer, since the final result depended on them sitting still for an extended period of time, to wait out all the nuanced shading and light adjustments used on spot to achieve the Photoshop effect.
My father, Mr. Mehta reminiscences, was effortlessly formal: he was never seen without his dark suit and a neatly furled umbrella. In fact, one quick glance at his large format portrait, captured on film by his son and now hanging by the entrance, confirmed these words.
“Since digitalisation took over the world of photography, I’ve dropped it,” said Mr. Mehta. “Only looking at these old images keeps me from packing up my shop and retiring.” However, no matter its owner’s disappointments with modern developments in photography techniques, Mahatta’s is a sort of cult institution, with several offshoots strewn from Mumbai to Lahore, while at the same time, this Srinagar studio manages to somehow retain its distinction among the rest.
Just as we were about to leave, a tall and self-assured man with strands of grey in his hair entered the studio from the street side, followed by an elegant, slim young woman with a camera slung over her shoulder. She immediately started eyeing the walls, the photos, and glass displays. “My daughter is a professional photographer,” the man said. “She’ll be looking at these things forever … I’ve just come back to the Valley after 40 years in Delhi. Everything has changed so drastically that I’m afraid to even go to Gulmarg, for what I might see there. This here,” and he pointed at the postcards huddled together beneath the glass, “is the Kashmir I remember.”
When Miss Margaret
first sailed back to Srinagar, passing under its seven bridges after five
months of absence in the mountains, she wrote about her encounter with humanity
as one which “always causes a curious thrill when one meets it first, half
excitement, half regret”. Nevertheless, the sights and scenes of the city still
induced a familiar thrill. This is what she encountered:
“For an hour we went
through this busy water-way, as much the centre of life in Srinagar as the
Grand Canal is in Venice, then we passed the Maharaja’s garish palace on our
right, and the more picturesque metal-domed temple on our left, and so under
the last bridge of seven, which bears the stamp of European handiwork, and is
in consequence more serviceable and harmonises less with its surroundings …
rows of poplars shade the path, chenar-trees and gay flowers grow in the
gardens … so I betook myself to the recreation ground to see what English
society was doing … I was in time for the unavoidable cup of cold tea …
and in time for the little pink and white cakes …”
We decided to take a
walk around the Old City of Srinagar on a Sunday. The streets were empty and
desolate and the sun blazing, compelling the dogs to look for relief in the
shaded nooks and under eaves. We thought the Jama Masjid’s inner courtyard
could provide a retreat from the sweltering heat for an hour or two.
In ten minutes, we found ourselves in front of a clean-cut monumental building that was originally constructed by Sultan Sikander in 1394 in the recognisable style of Kashmiri architecture, with four short spires and no domes, but more than 300 deodar pillars supporting the structure. After leaving our shoes in the care of a friendly old man at the entrance, we passed through its lofty gates and entered a spacious courtyard with a pool in the centre. People, predominantly men, were sitting or lying on the neatly-cut lawn in the shade of a few trees, chit-chatting and idling away. Two were soundly asleep on the masjid’s carpet, locked in the prayer position, without a twitch running through their limbs.
Pretty soon, the space filled with children—girls in colourful, frilly skirts splashing by the pool or running over the grass, loudly counting to a hundred and backward, sending flocks of startled pigeons up in the air. It seemed the mosque’s courtyard, at this hour, serves as a meeting place, a getaway from the heat and dust, alluring for its cool hallways, shade and greenery.
After a while we left to explore the Old City lanes. The aged wooden buildings, crammed together and curving into passageways, looked dismal with their tilted hinges, drooping balconies, and broken windows. Still, they retained a certain charm and a kind of tragic beauty. Looming in the darkness of the upper window of one, I noticed two policemen, fingers tight around the locked triggers of their rifles, eyes intent on passers-by. Further down the road, at the beginning of a bridge, another rifle barrel could be seen protruding through the coils of barbed wire. It felt uncanny, and I wondered how it was possible to go about your daily life under such gaze. And when do you get desensitised, if ever you do?
Just a few turns of the corner away, things were not so uncomfortably quiet. Standing at a small crossroads, a group of men amusedly and intently watched several scrawny boys in shorts hurling stones at five or six armoured policemen who were, in turn, hurling the stones back with their professional army-green slings. At moments, one of the boys would dart forward, make his throw, and then bolt. Infuriated, three policemen jumped into a jeep, hit the accelerator, and started a mad chase after the last boy who disappeared behind the debris of a demolished building. After the jeep and the boys vanish from sight, we are silently ushered to disperse, and everyone went their separate ways, like spectators of a street theatre show that had just ended.
As one local journalist later told us in the privacy of a hotel room, protests during weekends and after Friday prayers are traditional, almost ritualistic, and young people here plan their Saturdays and Sundays accordingly. They most probably meet for a cup of chai and a snack in the morning and then pick up stones to hurl at the cops.
At one point in her travelogue, Miss Margaret, so obviously taken in by the Valley’s nymphal charms, concludes that “all is mysterious and beautiful and unexpected in this silent land of water, where the inhabitants seem amphibious and no child is too small to wield a paddle”. A 100-odd years later, it seems that, in this enchanting valley where the number of dailies exceeds the stitches on a pashmina shawl, no child is too small to wield a stone, and can even turn ambidextrous while doing so. Nor are they ever considered too young to become professional conflict reporters who only at the peak of their careers and with enough working experience under their belts consider getting a formal education in journalism.
The prolonged tensions have taken their toll, and the feeling of irritable exhaustion prevails. Across the city, at cash register counters of shops or on the walls of offices, one-liners that would seem overly didactic in any other city suppliantly state the obvious here.
“What starts in anger ends in shame,” and “When there is Ali in Dewali & Ram in every Ramazan, who are we to draw a line” are only some of them. As if all the beauties and paradoxes of this Valley have been so finely woven together into an elusive, mist-thin shahtoosh that could, as if in a magic trick, be drawn through a tight ring in one brisk, elegant swoop—and made to disappear.
Protests during weekends and after Friday prayers are traditional, almost ritualistic, and young people here plan their Saturdays and Sundays accordingly. They most probably meet for a cup of chai and a snack in the morning and then pick up stones to hurl at the cops.
As we went further
into the Old City mazes, a sequence of scenes unfolded.
A woman in a black burqa, leaning on the arm of a tall man, stopped by one of those chicken and pigeon cages lining the streets on both sides and picked out a bird. The shopkeeper’s hand briskly pulled it out, to be done with it in a matter of seconds. A little further down, a man stopped his bicycle next to a butcher’s stall. The latter handed him the bloody head of a lamb, carefully placed in jute wrapping, which he tied to the back seat of his cycle—not dismounting at any point—and then pedalled away, disappearing behind a curve. A little ahead, on the right, through a door slightly ajar, somebody’s hands threw a heavily salted cow skin on top of a pile. The smell was pungent and
In yet another street, several boys were engaged in some kind of game with a ball, aiming at a stray dog crouched fearfully beneath a wooden bench. I looked up from the scene and, just above them, there was a boy in the attic window, dressed in white from head to toe, eyes rolling back while he licked the rusty railing with a slow tongue. It was so unnerving I could almost feel the taste of blood in my mouth. The playful boys noticed me observing the scene and sneered, with something akin to a feeling of superiority over my unpreparedness.
Leaving them behind and wanting to untangle ourselves from those laneways, we stopped to ask an elegant man with blue eyes and a goatee, dressed in light green kurta and pajamas, the direction to the Khanqah of Shah-i-Hamadan, the first mosque ever built in Kashmir. He immediately suggested that he take us there and started down the winding streets. In one of them, he met a man coming from the opposite direction, leading a girl with a ponytail by the hand. They greeted each other silently, and our guy gently took the girl’s hand. The two of them kept walking on, never once turning around to check if we were following.
Soon we found ourselves on the bridge from which the back of the Khanqah could be seen (somebody told us an ”aum” sign is allegedly inscribed in the Khanqah wall that faces the riverside). Then again another narrow alley and we were at the mosque’s side gate.
The Khanqah of Shah-i-Hamadan
was founded in 1395 by the Persian Sufi Mir Sayed Ali Hamdani, who came to
Kashmir with many artists and craftsmen, and is said to have spread the art of
weaving pashmina as well as Sufism.
At the mosque’s wide portico, several men were engaged in lively conversation, while covered female heads bent in devotion behind a beautifully-woven silk curtain. In front of the mosque, fruit stalls decked with Kashmiri apples and others selling fried items—green chili peppers, fish, thin potato slices, chickpeas, and lotus stems, along with the accompanying piquant chutney—attracted passers-by. Among this lively rush, the innermost heart of the Old City came to my mind again: its tense silences and madness tucked away behind the attic railings, its dignified men and little girls, and irate boys, under the ever-watchful eyes of the militia, taking it out on the street dogs.
At 4.30 the next morning, Rashid knocked at the door of our houseboat, saying
that the shikara man was there, sitting in his boat in pitch dark, waiting to
take us to Dal Lake’s morning mandi: a floating bazaar where villagers exchange
vegetables without ever leaving their shikaras. As we pushed our shikara away
from the wooden pier and started towards the meeting waters, the sound of
morning prayers crackled through the surrounding mosques’ speakers and began
resounding over the sleepy lake.
“In the winter of 1984, Farooq Abdullah drove his car across the frozen lake, and kids sometimes play cricket, if the ice is thick enough,” Rashid told us as we reclined on the soft cushions of the shikara, still negotiating with sleep. But still, he continued, this morning mandi regularly takes place in winter as well, though it starts an hour or two later, with shikara men carving out navigation canals in the ice.
He then expounded on all the Bollywood movies that have or have almost been shot here and pointed out the most famous houseboats on the way—the biggest, the most expensive, the most eccentric—though at that hour, they were all still indistinctive silhouettes, pretty much alike. However, Rashid knew their familiar sequence by heart, as well as the highlights of Baburnama, which he started recounting with an almost religious zest. To me it sounded like a surreal lullaby.
After half an hour or so, we passed by the Dal Lake Market. All the shops, where you can barter only from a boat, were tightly shuttered. Penetrating deeper into the lake’s ever narrowing canals, fringed by fields of equally tightly-closed lotuses, rushes, and dilapidated houses, the scenery gradually changed. Miss Margaret’s description pins it quite well: “The Dhal is not a lake whose beauties can be taken in at one glance, its banks are curved, its water-ways so intricate, that the traveller feels lost as in the maze of Hampton Court.”
“Here, the lake looks like the Amazon,” Rashid said. “The government doesn’t want anything built around here, so people work at night. Sometimes a whole new world emerges at the break of dawn.”
Pretty soon, a few shikaras started silently trailing behind us, “gliding with ghost-like silence over converging canals” towards a little clearing where others were waiting in boats overflowing with fresh vegetables or flowers. Several Japanese tourists were flashing away with their cameras in semidarkness.
A Mr. Wonderful Flower Man—as painted on the flanks of his flower-laden shikara—skimmed lithely to our boat, trying to sell us his flowers and their seeds: blue jasmines, pink lotuses, black lilies, Kashmiri tulips, and blue poppies. Finally resigned, he extended a half-open pink lotus to me and paddled away with long, slow strokes.
Then a Mr. Delicious Man offered us his array of sweets neatly piled on top of each other in the confines of a wooden box: chocolate, lemon and vanilla walnuts, coconut eyes and coconut chocolate eyes, vanilla chocolate fudge or plain chocolate fudge. Tempted, I fell for a vanilla walnut—a whole walnut coated in white sugary mass. It was the sweetest disappointment I had ever tasted but it was too late to give it back, having already bitten into it. After the Delicious Man had left, the intense fragrance of cardamom and saffron, which oozed even from the spices’ plastic wrappings, lingered in the air for an elusive moment.
On our way back, pink lotuses were slowly opening their petals as the sun rose above the lake, revealing the colours and shapes of the dark silhouettes we had passed in the predawn hour. As we glided past the Dal’s floating gardens—which could be taken for a piece of land if Rashid hadn’t pointed them out—I thought of how deceptive and ingenious they actually were. Miss Margaret wrote about how they come into existence:
“… the rushes growing in the water are bound together, cut loose below, and then a dab of soil is placed on the top; in each little cup of earth a plant is placed, and hundreds of plant will grow thus on these green rafts, the moisture below and the warm sun above bringing all vegetation very soon to perfection; to prevent the whole structure from drifting, long sticks like hop-poles are inserted to keep them anchored to one place … when the owner, for any reason, wishes to shift his site, he has only to remove the poles and tow his garden to some other part of the lake.”
Rumour has it that when Mughal emperor Jehangir stayed in the Valley, he was
so taken by its beauty that he uttered the following line: “If there is ever a
heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” But he was not the only one.
Two centuries later, the Irish poet Sir Thomas Moore expressed the same sentiment in his romantic Orientalist poem Lalla Rookh: “Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere, with its roses the brightest that earth ever gave, its temples, and grottos, and fountains as clear as the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave?”
Then again in 1901, Miss Margaret, looking at the Valley from a peak not more than three or four days’ march from Srinagar, as she put it, wrote something along the same lines: “This grand view of the Valley formed the culminating point of my lonely rambles, and if I have dwelt over long upon it, it is partly because it was the most beautiful sight among all the lovely sights I had seen …”
The Mughals, having the notion of “paradise” in mind (various etymologies of the word most often collide with the image of a “walled garden”), had undertaken to (re)construct as many around the city of Srinagar. On our last day, we visited the Nishat Bagh, the “Garden of Pleasure”, finished in 1633 by Nur Jahan’s elder brother. It was, I later read, Miss Margaret’s last stop in the Valley as well. From her description, it seemed at first that nothing had changed: “The garden behind the summer-house rises steeply up in terraces; a broad watercourse runs down the centre between two rows of Cyprus, which, by their blackness, accentuate the prevailing brightness; green grass, bright beds of flowers, and the never-failing avenue of giant chenars …”
However, it is clear
from her writing that, back then, the only way to reach this garden was by
boat, and it had taken them more than an hour of measured paddling. Avenues of
chenars and cypresses were still there, but so were the couples and families
with kids strolling around in traditional Kashmiri attire available from
hangers tucked deep in the shade of tall trees, posing in front of intrusive
cameras with the Zabarwan mountains rising in the backdrop.
Several groups of three or four were lying dispersed across the lawns. A man
was walking from one to the other, selling miniature pears. Later, as the sun
began to sink in the sky, and its assault on the skin gradually abated,
we let ourselves be pulled into a more relaxed mood. Margaret’s little picnic here must have resembled this moment: “Sitting among the hospitable roots of a great chenar-tree we drank our tea and listened to the tinkling of some neighbouring temple bell and to the nearer laughter of our boatmen and some other natives … Gradually the sun sank westward, shadows lengthened on the mountains, the surface of the lake reflected back the evening glow, and our last day in Kashmir settled to a perfect close. We stepped into the boat once more, and were borne in the gathering twilight back to Srinagar. On the morrow followed the river journey down to Baramulla, then long tonga drive of two hundred miles out of the country of romance, back to the duller territory of British India.”
After the sun had almost dipped into the water, we headed back towards the city, taking an auto that swiftly outlined a semicircle around the lake. In less than 15 minutes, we were back in its folds.
That night, we heard shooting and detonations from the mountains surrounding the city. The sounds reverberated over Dal Lake like a persistent namaz. Nobody bothered to wake up, or to record it in the newspaper the next day. There was no somnambulant rushing out onto houseboats’ verandas to scan the darkness.
It only felt as if someone has taken the floating paradisiacal garden of what used to be Kashmir, lifted out the anchoring poles and relocated it elsewhere, to thrive in some other, more favourable climate.