Firdaus. Urf Jannat. Heaven.
There’s a popular saying in Persian about Kashmir – Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast. It roughly translates to “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this.”
I saw it for myself earlier this month. It’s been on Dad’s bucket list forever. And I’ve grown up listening to my grandfather’s anecdotes about the chinar tree from when he spent some months in Srinagar back in the 1960s.
As a family we’re making full use of the fact that I have all the time in the world (as of now). So we packed our bags and headed to Kashmir.
12 years of schooling etched CBSE into my DNA so I am only comfortable sharing experiences in points and lists. Read on to see how I struggle conditioned dispassion towards everything with genuine awe in trying to elaborate on my time in Kashmir.
- Will start with the one that is most obvious and hence, would get me max marks if this were an exam.
Kashmir is stunning. Gorgeous. The many poems and songs in praise of its beauty have at no point overstated anything; if anything they’ve been rather modest, perhaps succumbing to the inadequacy of words.
The hills are lush, the rivers crystal and ferocious, the roses across the valleys giant enough to put the finest bouquets to shame. The chinar trees spread across the valley are majestic and mighty; the matriarchs of Kashmir. (I was told by the local people that the Kashmiris regard the chinar as their mother) The wilderness is unkempt and unpruned; the closer you go, the more mysterious they get.
- As if the landscapes weren’t pretty enough, you have the people. Kashmiris are the most exceptionally attractive population I have ever laid my eyes on. Cheeks as if kissed by dewy roses and a jawline so chiselled, Sephora should launch a contouring kit named after them.
- Khoobsurati chehre pe hi nahi, dilon me bhi hai.Tots Bollywood but also very true. I’ve usually preferred travel destinations abroad over travelling within India for two reasons: cleaner toilets and more amiable people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting Indians are bad people. They just don’t find the need to be polite to tourists, especially domestic tourists. And they’re not always nice to women.
Toilets were far from comfortable even in Kashmir. The people, however, are exceptionally wonderful. It took me a long time to wrap my mind around the fact that these people were genuinely nice, and I wasn’t experiencing a series of aberrations.
Kashmiri people are kind, generous and unbelievably courteous. Sure, tourism is their primary source of income and they cannot afford to piss the tourists off. But they go way beyond common courtesies and efficient service. The staff at one of the lodges we stayed at prepared a whole host of Kashmiri dishes for our dinner, something that wasn’t included in the buffet we’d paid for. Another hotel refused to charge us for a halwawe decided to order in one night, insisting that it was their privilege to acquaint people with their local cuisine. They follow traffic discipline in a way that would put most Indian cities to shame (except in the matter of seatbelts). And these are just few of the many instances that left us absolutely floored. It’s almost idyllic in the way they help the ageing cross the streets and bring water to the homeless and ponies that seem to always waiting outside every window. Not exaggerating, aai shapath!
These people are unfailingly warm and respectful, and this is despite their rather palpable issues with the Indian State (I’ll come to that in a bit)
- Speaking of lovely people, I must mention here our driver throughout the trip, Mr. Gulzar. (I prefer to say Gulzar saabthough, does more justice to the weight of his character)
He saved the lives of 16 soldiers during the Kargil War and almost bled to death in the aftermath. Once he was done being a hero in real life, he went on to become quite the villain in reel life. It seems he was that guy in the bad guy gang that beat up Randhir Kapoor in Kasme Vaade and Rajesh Khanna in Roti. He’s also driven many of the 80s stars around in his car for shoots across the Kashmir valley. The man has several amusing anecdotes in his kitty, starring the brightest of Hindi cinema’s stars from the 80s.
How do I explain his pleasant disposition except to say that I shall always fondly remember his hansmukh misaaj?
- I don’t remember having mentioned my obsession with rivers/oceans (water bodies in general) on this blog. So let me mention that now. I LOVE THE WATERS.
I’ve been lucky to have grown up in a city situate on the coast of the massive Arabian Sea. The vast waters have always been a source of comfort and calm, and in that regard, Kashmir was my happy place. I had the fortune of dipping my feet in the icy cool waters of both Lidder and Sheshnag rivers and rafting across a small stretch of the Sindhu (Indus). And watch the foamy, ferocious flow of many others, especially the Jhelum.
Couldn’t keep my feet in the ice cold water for any longer than 7 seconds at a time but the thrill was worth it. It makes me a little sad to think that the people living in the valleys have the fear of gunfire to mar the gurgle of its pristine waters.
- About gunfire. We personally didn’t witness any; the trip was entirely peaceful. But there are armed personnel everywhere. EVERYWHERE. It’s hard not to be struck by the stark contrast between the vast saffron fields and the giant lethal weapons in the hands of those guarding them. There is palpable tension between the locals who feel like their homes have been encroached by the armed forces and the army that is probably just trying to do its job. This friction is the smog that clouds the heavens hiding in between the valleys. The elephant in the room, at least as far as tourists are concerned. We know its there but we don’t talk about it. You’re never quite sure what side you’re on, who is the wronged and who are the wrong doers.
So you talk about the weather and the blooming fields and the saffron and the almond trees and the apple orchards and the walnuts and the cherries and the Mughal gardens and pretend that everything is fine.
- Speaking of elephants in the room, there is another thing that occurred me after almost a week into my stay in Kashmir. There is abundance of heritage and culture and yet, there is one thing that is strikingly absent.
The Kashmiri Pandits. Had I not known about them, I would never have been able to guess that those people ever existed. All trace or evidence of their very existence is all but extinguished from the face of Kashmir. (or at least the towns and cities I visited and/or drove across) No sign boards, no shops, no houses, no temples (except the Shankaracharya, but that’s a heritage structure and there is no way to destroy that without inviting attention). Nothing.
Our understanding of what happened to the Kashmiri Pandits is based entirely on stray media coverage (that gets little attention in light of the gravity of AFSPA) and heresay from refugees spread across the country. This is a tragedy. One I wish was spoken about more actively. I do not by any means intend to imply that other tragedies that have plagued the valley are in any way less significant. But the story of Kashmiri pandits cannot, should not, be erased from the pages of history, as it has been from the valleys that were once their home.
- There is one thing that every Kashmiri we interacted with asked of us when we said our goodbyes. “Pray for Kashmir”, they all say. And pray I shall.
There are cinematic clichés about civilians paying the price for political power games on one side and extremist terrorism on the other. Now I see why the cliché exists. It is rooted in reality – a reality so evident and obvious it’s almost funny.
It’s hard not to empathise with the people – so full of kindness and generosity, being eyed with suspicion by virtue of their very presence. They have got to be really, really nice if even someone as cynical and generally sceptical as me was so moved. There is such warmth in their welcoming smiles that even an atheist would perhaps wistfully hope for the cosmic powers to watch over and take care of these people, their homes, their fields, their rivers, their sheep, their children. (If I’m being blind or naïve or foolish or guilty of oversimplification – please don’t tell me about it. I choose to be foolish this one time)
- Too much sentimentality? Doesn’t sound like Twiggy, no? Moreover, I am not a fan of the number 8. Nine is way better. So I’ll come back to the hotness of Kashmiri men. I don’t understand why all of Bollywood is not full of Kashmiri people. Oh, and the men are very good at flirting! Old school, sledgehammer flirting. No time wasted in trying to be subtle or coming up with witty pick up lines. I’m going to miss being hit on by cute strangers who don’t sound the least bit creepy and actually leave you alone when you express disinterest. No questions asked, no dirty expletives spouted in a failed attempt to mask bruised egos. Such genuinely respectful people!
Okay so here are some photos. And CBSE also recommends ending every answer with a line of conclusion for getting that extra point. So,
Conclusion: Visit Kashmir, people! Beautiful place, beautiful people!
PS: If you intend to buy Kashmiri carpets, pashmina shawls and other handicrafts, visit KCI Emporium on Shalimar Road, Srinagar. I can provide contact details to anyone planning a visit.