A Small Town Girl in Kashmir

I am writing this intoxicated in the warmth and the colour of saffron running in my blood with endless Kehwa I have had this week. No other place has wanted me to come down to my knees and apologise for the wounds we humans have inflicted on its body over centuries. If all of life is a deep inhale of stress and thinking, Kashmir is a long exhale of fragile beauty. Has a person, topic or place ever overwhelmed you with its complexity so much that you have avoided it for as long as you can, getting into it at all? Sometimes it is out of fear of being on the wrong side of the debate for lack of knowing enough. But then you are unable to give up on them as your soul is thirsty for it in a undescribable way.

This, I say with as little drama as possible, that my soul is trapped in Kashmir and I would spend as many seasons as possible in its lap to get to know every inch of its land possible whenever I can. We all have a place, person, image, thing, taste that we cannot get enough of. Kashmir is my infinite.

I try to gather the courage to pick up a book that could articulate Kashmir for me. You know the real one. I fear what I am looking for may not exist. At times you avoid diving deep half fearing what the dive will reveal, and somewhere knowing that the after taste would not be delicious. Avoiding getting into a debate neck-deep doesn’t mean denying the gravity it. On the contrary, refusing to take a side is an acknowledgement of two facts – the colossal nature of the issue and humility in comprehending the complexity.

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Aru Valley, Pahalgam during the rainy season, when the entire Kashmir is draped in green.

Three Colours Green

Pahalgam: The gentle drifting clouds at Aru and Betaab Valley are poetic. The million shades of green of the meadows and rolling hills bring out the laughter and fun from within you reminding you that at this moment, you don’t have to be anywhere else. The leaps of the overflowing rivers and the ever threatening loom of mudslides speaks of the complex ecosystem of this region.

The loud laughter on my way back with friends on the deserted streets invites spotlight from a bunker. I felt like I insulted Kashmir with my insensitivity. How can I be carefree when Kashmir has been ravaged so many time over and over again. But Kashmir is forgiving like a beautiful, smelling-great, stoic and poised mother, who does not display her hunger and keeps feeding her little ones.

Srinagar: While on the Dal Lake, in the Shikara (houseboat), a silver seller approaches. As he displays the jewellery, and habituated, I ask him to reduce the price of a solitary anklet, he refuses to take the anklet from my hands. As I run my fingertip on it, he rows away saying, ‘Keep it, just promise you will visit the valley again’. His smile is etched in my memory and I ran this sequence hundreds of time in my head for the past four years. His prophecy came true and I kept my promise.

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Gulmarg, during winters, when the entire valley is painted white.

Three Colours White

Gulmarg: As I drive from Jammu to Gulmarg, coffee, scarlet and bottle-green coloured rooftops zoom past splashing a mosaic in from of my eyes. The occasional wild horses in swamp and dry grasslands make for an inquisitive image with the naked skeletons of trees, white sheet of pristine snow and ploughed, tilled plots of lands for a backdrop. Men in uniforms are perched on mounds that are lookout points facing Islamabad, over under-construction houses.

As snow-spotting begins from Tungmarg, it descends a thoughtful, introvert-y quiet. Its whiteness has a riveting effect. The Kashmiri accent brings a smile. The food is soul-stirring. No one needs to sell Kashmir to anyone. Its absolute beauty has kept generations of maharajas, nawabs, kings, politicians and plunderers dancing on their toes wanting to claim it.

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The window seat with a view.

The book I read solved no part of my dilemma. It amplified my confusion, and confirmed my fears. Anyone who claims to have understood Kashmir is a lying fool.  Only those who surrender to its hypnotic beauty and immerse themselves, forgetting their past, present and future for whatever hours, days or weeks they are there, can be grateful of being in its company.  Understanding Kashmir would take lifetimes. You will know what I mean if you take a window seat and gawk out while landing and take-off. Because of the sheer beauty of humans, I am minorly compelled to borderline-stare at their faces.

Three Colours Saffron

The first time I had visited Kashmir in 2013, the driver had explained, there are three Kashmirs, Green, White and Saffron. I had then just seen Green Kashmir in rainy seasons of August. Am back to see White, in snow. The green Kashmir that appeared fertile and life-giving in August, appeared dried and barren in January.

If Kashmir was a person, it would be ageless, sans comparison, fragile, mystical, timeless beauty. The virile strength of the mountains protecting the regality of the valleys.

I hope I come back to see Saffron, when the fragrance of Kesar wraps the region in its embrace. I just hope that I live long enough so that I can go back to Kashmir when it is blooming, fertile, growing, flaunting its beauty unrestrained, dancing with joy, in love and in lust, in careless, oblivion of its own reckless and raw beauty.

You would hear a resounding yes, if you ask me. “Should I visit Kashmir?” Which is the best season, you ask? Any. Any season is good to be in heaven, right? To make a must-visit list for Kashmir is a disservice to its elegant existence. Just be in Kashmir, whenever the calling is answered.

When you come back, whisper to me how deep you fell and rose in love, in the embrace of its landscape, in the flavours and fragrances of its food, in the sheer beauty of its people and the music in their accent, the blink-and-miss dusks and the never-ending dawns, the gentle sublime freshness of air, the heat of the charcoal and essence of Kehwa. Oh Kashmir, you heartbreaking beauty.

Safety in Kashmir: A sensitive border between India and Pakistan, I am often asked if Kashmir is safe for travelling. There are no guarantees in travel. So, do check what is happening there real-time before you are headed there. I have travelled to Kashmir, on India’s Independence day, 15th August and Republic Day, 26th January – both considered extremely sensitive days to be here and I have lived to tell the tale. So depends how much you read into what the newspapers are telling you.

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