What do you expect from a place whose photographs you have seen since your childhood which is in the news only for unhappy reasons? About which, paeans have been written and have paled over the years? A place that has inspired poetry but has been singed by bloodshed.

I arrive in Srinagar, Kashmir, to be greeted by a smiling driver who picks me up from the airport and immediately starts assuring me that all is well in the valley and that tourists are safe. I wonder if I look afraid or is it now his regular drill. And then, as we get closer to the city, he tells me there’s a strike. In Srinagar, you don’t ask what they are striking against unless you want to get embroiled in a long discussion of their disillusionment and angst against everybody and everything. You’d rather look at the mountains. So I quickly avoid the topic and ask him, what it is then, that I could do with myself, given that the entire city is going to be shut till evening. He suggests a ride down the Dal Lake.

A boat ride down the Dal Lake was on my ‘to do list’ anyway, so I promptly agree. So once we get past the drill of the haggle for the boat ride, (Rs.200/- for an hour) I hop onto my little yellow submarine, oh all right, a rickety yellow wooden boat that calls itself ‘Lucky Boy Deluxe Never Sleep!’

But the air is crisp, the Dal Lake right there and the mountains are glistening. So what’s in a name! Now, if there is a silver lining to everything, there was a silver lining to being a tourist in Srinagar whilst it was striking. For my Lucky Boy Deluxe seemed to be the only cruiser in sight and the Dal Lake looked as though I had reserved it! So as I settled in, I began to take it all in. The neatly parked boats at one end, with oars hanging out. The stationary cavalcade of Shikaras, to my left, each one with a more ridiculous name than its neighbor and the weed- lined greenish Dal Lake against the mountains.

Whilst the tourist traffic was thin, there were enough attractions and the hour slipped by. As I renewed my agreement for another hour and as the morning led to noon, the skies turned warmer and the sun peeped out a bit more. And through its many watery lanes and by-lanes, through crevices and crannies, several boatmen began to appear. But as one would say, these were not ‘passenger trains but goods vehicles!’ For each had a treat in store and oared upto my Lucky Boy, presenting their goods. I started with a cup of strong Kashmiri Kahwa or Kashmiri tea sans milk, prepared with minced almonds and cinnamon. Suddenly, it seemed surreal. Here I was, in the middle of a deserted Dal Lake, sipping Kahwa. Having rowed for a while, the boatmen was yearning for a break and some banter. I obliged. He spoke of Hindi pictures and the time when the ‘heroes’ would come to shoot songs on the Dal Lake and never want to leave. Though names eluded him, he could remember Shammi Kapoor and Kashmir ki Kali.

Kashmir From nowhere,another boat joined us. He took over the conversation explaining that our neighbor was right behind us, pointing out the various mountain peaks, the Lalit that was once the Oberois and The Taj that sat atop a hill till he quietly pulled out his wares. He was a young jeweler, carrying gemstones and many trinkets, going from boat to boat and presenting his treasures. A fruit seller too came and went, his supplies looking slightly stale. The oars were picked up again and from the broad vistas of the lake, the boatman navigated towards a narrow watery lane, bounded by shops on both sides. Though I am yet to go to Venice, I would imagine that this is how it would be to have water-taxis and to be completely dependent on them to get onto land and into the city.

The shops had their shutters only half open in response to the strike. But a prospective customer is always good news and my boatman parked against a shop that stocked traditional Kashmiri wood-work. I came out with three Kashmiri boxes and a hard bargain. The next shoppers stop was a shawl wala. When in Kashmir, how can you not visit a Shawl shop? So I climbed out of my boat again and stepped into a world ranging from synthetic pashminas to authentic toosh. Each displayed and showcased with pride and generally with a price tag that was off limits. But these are gracious charming Kashmiris who still retain an old world art of selling and I come out one stole richer and a few hundred bucks lighter.

By now, my boat meter has no doubt soared and there was a rumble in my tummy as well. So I bid adieu to my Lucky Boy Deluxe for a while, only after booking him for a sunset ride on the Dal Lake and headed for lunch to Adooz, a much-recommended restaurant for Kashmiri food. A sumptuous and memorable lunch later, there were Tulip and Mughal Gardens to be seen. And a visit to the Pari Mahal as well. Each one a lovely sight and a testimony of Mughal times and sensibilities. But as the sun began to come down, I headed back duly to my favorite bit of Srinagar, for as the sun began to fade and the air got cooler, the lake acquires sensational colors and streaks, and the mountains glowed as though sunbathed. For a moment, for just one brief moment in time, it took me beyond all historical divide, gunpowder and battle lines to a wonderful land called Kashmir.

Save Save Save