Yesterday, as I sat idly flipping through Hindi film music channels, the television screen suddenly came alive with a popular song sequence from an old Hindi movie from the 1960s. The story was set in the scenic locales of Kashmir, and this particular song was shot on the famous Poplar Avenue on the outskirts of Srinagar. Remarkably, what caught my attention immediately was not the handsome hero or the pretty heroine, or the melodious song; but the scores of stately poplars along the road. The tall, majestic trees, swaying gracefully in the breeze, simply stole the show from the smartly turned out actors on the scene.
The very sight of those trees (now sacrificed, I am told, to ‘development’), triggered a crowd of memories related to Kashmir, my birthplace. That is to say, I was born in Kashmir but never knew the joy of growing up in that paradise. My memories of the place are all related to our short annual visits to Kashmir in the school summer vacation. The prospect of visiting our hometown Srinagar used to keep us on edge during the run-up to the holidays (in our childish impatience it seemed that the last day of school would never come). The journey tickets were kept as safe as lottery tickets.
At last, school over, the arrival of the Big Day…riding to the station in a luggage-packed taxi…settling into our compartment…tucking in for the night – then waking up ten hours later (or 14 hours when the train was late) in Jammu…and boarding the bus for Srinagar. Ah! the journey to Paradise seemed interminable. Finally, arriving at the Reception Centre in Srinagar – half-dead with exhaustion but alive with excitement. No one who has never spent a day outside Kashmir can imagine what the journey from Delhi to Srinagar feels like. It signifies an escape from the terrible, burning heat of the plains to the soothing coolness and greenery of the hills. Those chilly mountain breezes are enough to make a sick man well and give longevity to an average person.
And the water! I have never tasted such healthful, mineral-rich water! I remember filling our bottles with that sweet, cold water when our bus stopped at Battery Chashma (Ramban) on way to Srinagar. That same life-giving water, oozing out of rocks and thrown up by springs, has nourished generations of Kashmiris. There seems to be an ever-available reservoir of water thanks to the numerous natural water bodies in the region. Kashmir is both blessed with and beautified by milky-white falls, pearly springs, jade-green rivers and turquoise-blue lakes, reflecting the azure sky. Which makes me think – few places in the world have such clear blue skies with fleecy white clouds such as are seen in Kashmir. (In other ‘developed’ places, the very first casualty of the rampant pollution is the sky, which turns from a bright cobalt blue to a dull bluish-grey; and in industrial belts, more grey than blue).
Thinking of water always reminds me of the boating trips we enjoyed in Kashmir such as the ‘touristy’ sojourns in decorated ‘shikaras’ on the Dal Lake, surrounded by ornately carved houseboats with royal-sounding names. The other type of boating we did were the ‘commuting’ trips – which were rides taken in ordinary boats down (or up) the river Jehlum, from ‘kadal’ to ‘kadal’ – mostly to visit our relatives. As a child, even these short trips were like dreamy journeys, watching the houses pass by on both sides, looking up in awe as a bridge came into view, and letting my arm hang over the boat’s edge, feeling the cool water lapping my hand.
Boating trips on the lakes and rivers was only one of the numerous pleasures that the Valley afforded us nature-starved visitors. I also have memories of horse-riding in Gulmarg (though I must admit that being a timid rider, I rode with more apprehension than enjoyment!). The highlight of our holiday was invariably Pahalgam, and every time I visited the spot, I could not help but marvel at its incomparable charms. Where in the world can one find so much beauty in one place? The crystal-clear water of the Liddar, the wind singing through the trees, the snow glistening on the distant peaks, the pine-cones strewn around on the grass…these images are etched on my memory forever. The picturesque locales of Pahalgam are more attractive than the prettiest picture-postcard. One of the destinations that was a must-see for us Delhiites were the Mughal Gardens. I recall with a smile the ‘waterballs’ (rubber balloons filled with water) that were sold for Rs. 5 apiece by small boys standing at the gates of the gardens.
Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Dal Lake, Mughal Gardens – these are of course, places that any pleasure visit to Kashmir must include. But what I really love about Kashmir is that you don’t have to be in a fancy tourist spot to enjoy the cool, crisp air that blows through the valley. Even casually walking down a nondescript lane surrounded by greenery can be an uplifting experience. And even the most ordinary thing tastes so good in that fresh air! I have lovely memories of enjoying sweet, fragrant ‘kahwa’ with ‘girda’ sitting in my grandparents’ home in Srinagar. My experience of Kashmir is made up of these and a host of other ‘vignettes’ such as gathering pine-cones in Pahalgam, rolling down grassy slopes in Gulmarg and wading in the water channels of Chashme Shahi Garden, with the bubbling stream lapping over my bare feet. Ah, those delicious experiences!
One of my most memorable trips ever to Kashmir was made 30 years ago with my parents and brother, when we spent a few days in a guesthouse on the idyllic campus of Kashmir University. In the evening when the garden chairs had been laid out on the lawn, we would settle down to a leisurely tea amidst the sweet-smelling flowers. And every time I looked out towards the horizon, there was the pristine white dome of the Hazratbal Dargah. And that for me, is the quintessence of Kashmir – beauty, fragrance and divinity – all combining in a breathtaking panorama.
(The author is a free-lance writer, editor and translator based in Delhi-NCR.)