30th April, 2015, Morning
A “vacation” planned for the next 10 days. Mumbai to Delhi to Kashmir. Excited? Not sure. Child alert constantly nudging my “cute” brain.
Packing done? Yes. Enough warm clothes for baby? Yes. Wait, put in some more! Fine, I’ve taken all I had. But Delhi will be hot! Punch in some soft ones. Done. Baby’s food? Water? Yes, all arranged; these are last moment items to put inside the laptop bag. Set a reminder. Cool! Travel medicines? The father’s responsibility. My clothes? Three jeans, 4 shirts, 2 jackets, one pullover; I look hot anyway! I look into the mirror for a reassurance; try to smile and understand which my best selfie angle is. The mirror doesn’t quite reciprocate my confidence. It says I’m acting stupid. Hang the mirror. Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder…whoever that is!!
What else? O yes, informing maids. Softly warning them to be there the day we are back…otherwise…I don’t know what. I try to warn; end up pleading.
1 hour later
Well, what else? Go for a pedicure? Chuck it; in Kashmir feet will be all covered by those stupid woollen socks for which I ditched my lacy pink and off white ones! But you do it for yourself; not for the world to see. Point! But who will finish the last few commitments before switching on Vacation mode? You want to sleep at night or no? Be practical. Also you have to shop for a weather appropriate face wash and a baby cream; and the horrible bank job breathing close to the neck. Phone rings. Husband says, “Book the Delhi accommodation please, I’m too tied up!” Oh buzz off! But then pedicure? Go for it. Chuck it. Go for it. Chuck it. Ok, chuck it. Apply nail polish instead, and some cream; the feet will look hot!
2 hours later
Browsing through sites to find a good accommodation deal at Delhi. Zeroed in to Red Fox.
Last moment packing, unpacking, repacking. Dilemma of life : to carry laptop or not to carry laptop. Angel brain says, you are going for a holiday; no space for work. (Just that you will have to do all the baby work and take his tantrums with a smile, because hello, you are holidaying!) Devil brain says, don’t take chances; emergency is always an emergency! And what if hubby refuses to let you use his laptop when you want to document your travel dailies? He is always working, remember?
Devil brain wins; laptop in!
3 hours later
Neev pukes half way through dinner! Alarm in the brain. We’re travelling tomorrow and what if….!! No, Angel brain interrupts, nothing of that sort. But Devil brain knocks at regular intervals.
But no further shock as night falls.
1st May, 2015, Early Morning
We’re at Pahalgam where Salman Khan is shooting. We are shown the room where he’s half lying on the bed and giving interviews. I stand in a corner watching. The reporters have strange long mikes, with a longer stand…like those we have on the stage. Suddenly one reporter stands up and starts hitting him with one of those stands and shouts, “bol, bol tu ne apne bechare driver to kyo phasaya; bol aaj…!”
I spring up on the bed and burst out laughing at 4.30 am. The baby shifts sides bringing me back to my senses. “Don’t over-react,” I tell myself.
1 hour later
Routine follows. Two glasses of cinnamon-honey water, green tea, biscuits, yoga, boiling baby’s water, preparing his breakfast and arranging to carry his lunch, cleaning his bottles and flask…!
New addition this morning : covering stuff with old bed sheet so that the dust doesn’t settle when we’re off.
All huffing, puffing, arranging, dearranging, complaining insanely that I am all alone in this thankless world, as hubby sits buried in laptop totally unaware and unconcerned of what I am blabbering, the little monkey wakes up and demands that I attend to him instead of going for bath! And he wins the deal :(
2 hours later
Time to leave. Driver calling incessantly on my mobile. Maid asking anything else to do or she can leave. Doodhwala wants to know when we’ll be back. The car cleaner knocks and smiles sheepishly expecting “bakshish” before we leave. The door-bell just doesn’t stop ringing and I am mad! Neev wants to carry one particular damn book which is heavy and has no space left for it in the suitcases; he’s whining around. Hubby asks, how about tea, with that irritating smile which suggests that he wants me to prepare it. I throw a look which says “I can bite”, and disappear to lock the windows and closets.
15 minutes later
We are sitting inside the car. The car is about to start when we both realise that we haven’t carried our shoes. Both are on travel wears and we’re headed to ultra-cold Kashmir two days later.
Hubby says, we’ll buy.
I shout, stop the car.
I rush out; run upstairs; pull out the shoes; get into the lift; settle back to the car.
30 minutes later
Crowded airport. Guess everyone is holidaying.
We settle into the seats. Just when I am about to philosophise that life indeed and after all is beautiful.. just that you have to experience it in the right context, I look down and realise that I forgot to apply foot cream! My feet look terrible.
5 hours later
We throw our luggage into the hotel room and run out for lunch. Flight was pretty delayed. Hungry like hell. Hubby on phone; no signs of hanging up! If the caller is reading this, my sincere request, keep yourself shorter please next time. I throw at him the dirtiest look I can afford and go ahead to pick up lunch for myself and Neev. Hubby reasons later with some kind of nonsense like “work is worship”; he uses words like priority, commitment, responsibility, etc.
1 hour later
I super tired but baby won’t sleep. Hubby on computer and phone, as usual. I take him around the hotel. He loves the pool side. I want to relax on the poolside chairs and sit with a cup of coffee. I look at Neev and wonder whether I can bribe him with cookies. Angel brain says, go for it. Devil brain says, tough luck! The little thing has a mind of his own now and he is smiling mysteriously looking at the water, and then looking at me. I try to hold him; he runs! I chase!
3 hours later
Visitors – professional and personal. Both mine and Tuhin’s. Neev roaming around the restaurant and pointing out to the boys whenever he finds something fallen on the ground or on the table. My clean freak child is giving a tough time to them. As long as he does that, I feel settled.
Thankfully he doesn’t break anything. Just that he tried to have water from a glass and dropped water on himself! I changed him twice already. Hubby as usual says, “Let him be; you are giving him too much attention”! Before the sentence ends though, he gets up from the chair and rushes at the little being. The laptop was put for charging and Neev is trying to use the keyboard!
1 hour later
Off to India Gate.
I am scared of Delhi when I read about the plight of women here. But I love the city. The broad roads, the flyovers and the shopping joints feel royal. We cross Chanakyapuri and I am nostalgic about my first visit to Delhi with friends during my MBA. Such fun we had! Neev sleeps on the way. We are free to have the ice cream and walk aimlessly.
Waiting to crash on the bed. Enough for the birthday eve!
2nd May 2015, Early Morning
My morning starts early as usual. Quite some beautiful messages waiting in mobile and social media. I start scrolling through when hubby wakes up and wishes. I glare at him. He reasons that 12 in the night I was too sleepy, so he felt that it’s better to sleep and not waste time wishing! He yawns and smiles sheepishly. Then sobers and says, let’s go for breakfast and you can have whatever you wish!! Oh I didn't know this was supposed to be a birthday special…grrrr!
5 hours later
A blissfully lazy day. Pool splashing, eating, watching, helping kiddo create illegible designs with crayons – thankfully on papers, listening to endless gyan and philosophy on life from husband, catching up with old friends, responding to wishes, taking calls, etc.
My soul brother Ranjan Pant comes over to spend the day together. I love the words “soul brother” when I use them on him. We had been together in college, and since then he has been an emotional anchor in every happiness or madness my life may have gone through. He’s not biologically connected to me, and yet, strangely he has managed to call and enquire whenever I am battling a personal low! “Is everything fine?” He’d ask. And then he’d pose endless questions and say the right things, sharing appropriately my concern without interfering by an inch. With such people, you feel the presence of God around you. They might be as flawed in their own lives as any other human being, but for you, they are just perfect! Talking to him is like feeling confident and beautiful all over again, when regular grinds seem less meaningful.
We get nostalgic over our past, have fun praising and criticising common friends, fight a war of words as we always do, take digs on each other, and talk endlessly. He carries kheer for me which his mum has prepared, and I gulp it down in with a big, fat spoon, till my 3years old hero wakes up and demands the rest. We laugh remembering a philosophy of a friend in college, which said every human being goes through a statistical quality control (SQC) in heaven above; only those who fail the test are sent down to the earth. So we all are basically losers and failures. Ranjan had passed the test and was meant to be retained; but he had to come down to share the burden of sins that I put on the world!
9 hours later
Packing again; a different kind this time. Warm clothes to be kept handy. For baby two kinds of warm clothes – for low temperature and for very low temperature – whatever is required after the flight lands!!! All soft clothes pushed back, full sleeves and warm clothes available just as you open the suitcases. Chef has been instructed to prepare Neev’s food specially and deliver at 6.30 next morning; got to carry that on the way.
1 hour later
A very old and very dear friend calls up. Birthdays are meant for reunions, I guess. We’re talking almost after a year. And we talk for almost an hour, catching up and pouring out – the choices we have made, the decisions we have taken and the opportunities we have created for ourselves.
Phone tucked between shoulder and ears; hands busy in packing, washing (Neev’s water bottles / fruits), feeding…!
This is to reiterate that we women are good at multi-tasking wink emoticon
2 hours later
Hit the bed and off to sleep. Kashmir tomorrow!
3rd May 2015, Early Morning
Take a bath first as I do every day? No! Bad idea. Bathe the baby first today so that if I get wet, which I will, I still am changing anyway. So Neev’s breakfast, bathing him and bathing myself. The routine follows.
1 hour later
All set. Ready to leave. The cabbie we had called seems nowhere. Man becomes angry young man; calls, shouts, panics. Cabbie finally answers call and says he’s just coming.
In a while a car enters. We hurdle our luggage into it. Super-hubby gives him a piece of his mind for being so irresponsible; we could have missed the flight! The driver apologetically says that there was another guy he was scheduled to drop. That took time. We yell at him once again for picking up another customer and risking our travel “chand paiso ke liye”!
Finally reach the airport. 50 minutes in hand. Hubby asks, “What am I supposed to pay?” The driver says, “The company already paid for you”!
We are taken aback. I am about to ask, which company! Hubby knocks me gently into silence and says, “Still keep this for bringing us here so fast”. Forces 200 bucks in his hands and we both pull our trolleys away really fast.
We enter the airport and burst out laughing. God knows what “our driver” and this driver’s “passenger” are doing right now!
2 hours later
Flight lands. I am ready to get down. Called mum and said, “We’ve reached”. Suddenly I find man missing; baby asking where’s man! Puzzled I look around. If he’s gone for something at this moment, then it must be important! I control my irritation and reason it out. I pull out the heavy bags kept in the cabin storage. Hubby returns!
Angrily I ask, “Where were you”? Is this the time to go missing? We are getting late. Everyone has got down already!
He stares at me for a while in silence and utters, “Duffer, this is Jammu; we are flying to Srinagar. Sit tight on your seat”.
I just meekly protest, “Don’t call me duffer”!
55 minutes later
We come out of the flight.
The words that hit the mind, first thing, is, I don’t want to go from here! It’s a long stretched runway; fields and Army camps beyond that; outlined by snow-capped mountains touching the clouds. Soft green and light blue dominate. Eyes feel just so comfortable.
I smile cheek-to-cheek and start clicking photographs. A red eyed Army guy calls from behind and warns that this is not allowed! Hubby looks red too.
And it’s pleasant here; not as cold as I had expected!
Our trip is booked with Hiban Travels. They have sent a driver to get us picked up from the airport.
30 minutes later
On the way, the security personnel get our bags opened and check inside out. We’re happy that they’re strict with these.
We cross the almost dry Doodh-Ganga first, then the beautiful Jhelum. Jhelum here is neither ferocious nor broad as I had expected. It flows calm and tranquilled, along with us. As we are totally engrossed in the scenic extravagance, we are also shown the damages caused by flood. The driver explains at what level the waters had reached, how Jhelum overflowed, and shows us the reconstructions that are happening around with new hope!
20 minutes later
Dal Lake. Vast. Beautiful. Heavenly.
Immediately we want to get down and walk for a while. The driver assures us that this is a stretch of 25kms and we may step down at a better place. But with every rotation of the wheel, our excitement is on the rise; every moment feels exceptional and exclusive! Pine trees and shrubs, boats and shikaras, mountains afar in grey green and white, ripples on the water and reflections of clouds dancing on them!
30 minutes later
We stop briefly at the Mughal Garden. A well maintained expanse of land with beautiful plants and flowers; but the speciality of the place is that you can play with spring here. There’s a thin stream coming swiftly down and the architecture is so planned that you can sit a step over it, feel the spring flowing beneath you, yet not get wet, and soak yourself as much as you wish to.
Anywhere you go, you find Bengalis loitering and shouting at each other. This place is also not free from the “traveler” community. A “mashi ma” is shouting on top of her voice from one end of the garden to the other, “Pluto-o-o-o-o-o, aayi Pluto-o-o-o-o!” Her voice on the first “Pluto” goes ahead in ascending decibels and it takes a reverse descend on the second. Everyone is looking around for Pluto. I expect a dog to come out running, but there’s a young guy in early 20’s coming out with long hairs and dark glasses. Seems to be mother and son. Mother scolds, presuming that son had gone to the spring even when she asked him not too; its Kashmir and he would catch cold! Pluto keeps convincing that he hadn't touched the water.
We move on.
45 minutes later
We halt for lunch at a small but cozy place. As much as I have travelled through the mountains in the past, I have always experienced that whatever be the level of resources, they have a heart as vast as the bounteous nature where they have spent their lives. Extremely well behaved and courteous, they win hearts in a jiffy!
Half way between lunch, a well-built, “pehlwan” kind of person walks towards our table. Looking at his red eyes and big body, my chewing automatically slows down.
But he comes and talks in an unusually and weirdly soft but shrill, womanly voice, “Khana theek hai Sirjee?” I am about to laugh; kick myself below the table and let the pain dissolve the laughter!
20 minutes later
We’ve reached Nigin lake; about to board the house-boat. A shikara carries us there.
There are many houseboats standing side by side; ours is called Shalimar.
What a lovely wooden structure; reminds of those beautiful wooden houses on hill tops. Large windows have double curtains with white lace inside and pink thick cloth with Kashmiri thread work outside. A perfectly designed living room has mahogany tables and other furniture, lamps and vases. The table has an exotic collection of books – from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens to guide books on Nepal, Kashmir, Himachal. There is also a copy of “From Light to Superlight : The Unpublished Letters of Shree Aurobindo!” I wasn’t quite expecting this book here, given that the wall décor and architecture here talk about Muslim scriptures, sermons and symbols. I learnt later that the owner of the houseboat reads all kinds of books, in favour of or against or diverse from his tastes; and he keeps them for his guests. If one of the books ever goes missing, he is happy over the loss because he believes that books should not stay confined with four restricted walls. Once read, it should reach the next deserving mind, and not to the insects who feed on papers!
The living room leads to a dining space; crockeries and cutleries kept in large wooden cupboards and of course, Kashmiri carpets on the floor. Two bedrooms with a bed and a dressing table and attached bath in each, follows.
What a peaceful place to be at!
We sit and touch everything around, trying to gather whether these are real or just our hallucinations. A young guy, Irfan attends to us. His is the oft repeated story of the resourceless. Studied till 10th and then could not afford school because he has a family to feed. But he is continuing with his studies through private arrangements. His smiles brighter than his problems! He plays with Neev; the kid who usually doesn't react well in front of strangers is strangely at ease with him. Probably innocence has its own natural connect. Or the beauty and vastness around has made him shed some inhibitions and receive the available warmth more openly, as much as I. The weeds surrounding the houseboat and the insects hovering over them did make me cringe, thinking of hygiene of the place, but I was assured that there are no mosquitoes or harmful insects that could cause inconvenience and I have, quite against my nature, accepted the logic, or the lack of it actually!
We are served Kashmiri Kahwa with rich almonds spread over it, a special salted tea and tea at regular intervals. Given this weather, all hot beverages are welcome.
Irfan strikes an instant rapport with Neev as he fixes the batteries in his new car and plays around with him. He does a much better and reliable job than any of the baby sitters I had ever hired. May be because he does this by choice, not under the compulsion of drawing returns! The carpets on the floor look clean; shoes not allowed inside. Neev rolls and somersaults. Irfan lifts him and shows him around. The little monster tries to climb the stairs to the terrace. He is stopped by gentle and able hands.
God bless this guy. I am not shouting at Neev for messing up. Neev is not complaining and whining for being stopped from whatever he thinks is appropriate doing! Bliss!
Shawl sellers, photographers, jewellery sellers start showing up. This is probably the only junk in this ambiance! We politely send them off and don’t allow them to talk too much peace away from us. But not before I have opened by wallet for a pair of beautiful Kashmiri jhumkas!
Women will be women!
2 hours later
We are going around the lake in a shikara. The peace and silence is engrossing! Even the baby is quiet. On one side the sunlight dominates; on the other side it is shades and clouds. Both reflect beautifully on the water. Far away along the shore, we are shown the apple orchards and chinar trees. Small boats with yellow and orange sails brighten up the palette. Ducks, swans and kingfishers sit on the water; otherwise there’s abundance of pigeons and a different breed of sparrows. The overpowering ranges engulfing from the sides. Sometimes they are soft hues of green, blue, brown and white. Sometimes they are black. From gentle to dark, they seem to stretch like barren chunks of rock, devoid of any plantations on their bodies. They look scary, but breathtakingly beautiful!
Another boat sails parallel to our shikara and claims that we must get dressed in traditional Kashmiri dresses and get ourselves clicked. We allow Neev to do that. He looks super cute as they dress him up on the moving shikara and put artificial flowers around him; he gets mad by the time they give him a row in hand. He tries to splash water all around and complains as I stop him from doing that!
One hour later
Night falls around 7 here. We hang around to ask more, know more and experience the houseboat. Tea, biscuits, bread butter gives us company!
They were right. There are no mosquitoes here. And the insects that I saw hovering over on the lake hasn’t entered the houseboat; neither do they cause any kind of inconvenience.
One hour later
Irfan runs around for dinner arrangements.
Soon, we wish each other “good night” at an unusual hour. But as our bodies touch the bed, we realise that have taken enough for the day. The kid falls asleep almost immediately. My eyes keep awake for a while.
The only sound audible is the sound of row splashing on the water to push the current behind and take the boat forward. Someone is rowing a shikara and singing some Kashmiri song very softly.
I step out of the bed and look outside the glass door. A heavenly sight hits my senses. Its one night before the Buddha purnima and the moon is shining brightly up with a fullness which makes it difficult to detect that it is still one day away from attaining the perfect round! The view is ethereal and majestic, as the ranges respond in shining white to the magnificent illumination and the water reciprocates the beauty with the shivering reflections within its ripples.
If you haven’t seen a moon lit night in the mountains, you are probably many experiences away from feeling the blessings of Mother Nature on earth!
And the boat rower. Tirelessly rowing his boat in the cold, with the large row and singing his strange endless song! He seems to be a divine participant of this view, as if, without him rowing and singing right now, something would feel missing and incomplete.
I remember a song by Tagore. It said, a boatman stops rowing only once!
4th May 2015, early morning
The world here is still sleeping. I walk out of the bedroom, cross the dining space and reach the living room. Last night all glass doors and windows were shut tight so that the cold is blocked as much as possible; curtains were drawn from end to end. From one such corner, where the curtain has left a small space, sunlight is struggling to enter theroom. I open the main door and welcome a very bright morning. I keep changing places to keep pace with the sunlight and get my feet warm by its benevolence. The chair, the tool in front of the mahogany table, the carpet on the floor near the door and finally, outside. The morning sun pleasantly touches more than the body, and I sit there mesmerized with the calm of water around, the golden touch on the white peaks above, kingfishers awaiting their turns, and the myanah groups negotiating God-knows-what among themselves. Srinagar is dominated by these birds and right since we landed, the good luck charms had been greeting us in multiples of two!
I hour later
I wake up Irfan around 7. Tourists usually get up late here. He’s surprised that I’m up before him. He gets the hot water pipe activated through some centrally located switch, and runs off to make arrangements for breakfast. As I watch him doing the chores, I feel genuinely sad. The boy is hardly 19 or 20 and is reasonably intelligent, handsome and compassionate. His life should have been much better than arranging breakfast and dinner for guests. Tourists often behave impatiently and unfairly the moment something goes wrong or something doesn’t work as per their choice. The poor boy must have faced the brunt so many times!
By this time in Mumbai, I am already bathed and active with hundred different stuff to do. But a strange laziness has taken over now. I don’t want to get up. I don’t wish to move from the doorside even for a minute. As if a minute distracted is a minute wasted, and something will happen which I will miss out on! Hubby Singh wakes up. He is singing Md. Rafi with lyrics that are mostly personal. I start laughing and say that everyone gets creative in Kashmir. His logic is impeccable but. “What do I do if I don’t remember the lyrics? Not sing?” He asks, irritated with my reactions.
The little one wakes up. His first tantrum of the day : he doesn't want to wear the sweater. Daddy darling pleading him with “please pehn le beta”. I rush in and push the sweater down on him. Dad-son throw at me a very dissatisfied look. But mom-son are together in the decision that we’re not hurrying and we should laze around. Rockstar dad starts getting anxious. “I have asked the car to come at 9.30; we should hurry up,” he says. I declare it is supposed to be a vacation. We will not bind ourselves with times and deadlines. No one is holding a gun on our shoulders, demanding us to visit each and every spot. We will go by our own time and relax as much as possible. He sulks saying “I had committed a time,” but I can see that he is not too much against the idea!
Neev’s second tantrum of the day : he wants to climb down the stairs of the houseboat and play with the water of the lake! But strength of the monster mom is certainly something he can’t match up with yet. We keep fighting.
2 hours later
We are sitting at Hiban Travels office. The brothers Faiyaz Ahmad and Nisar Ahmad are extremely well spoken people. I am impressed with the manners, the softness of his voice, the language. Even at our best moments or with our best people, we can’t behave like this.
They talk about their experiences as travel agents in North India. One of the boys in the office suddenly says, "so many people come here for shooting"! Immediately everyone starts talking together and there is a mini commotion. They are almost jumping out of excitement. We take a while to understand what they are talking about.
“Salman Khan is shooting in Pahalgam!”
I immediately say, “Neev ke saath Salman Khan ka ek selfie package mei include kijiye.” We laugh over it, have tea there and start off for Pahalgam.
1 hour later
Srinagar to Pahalgam is almost a 3 hours journey. The roads have poplar and pine trees on either side. We drive past the Jhelum, apple orchards, small villages with wooden houses and sliding roofs.
I buy kesar for my mum-in-law on the way. The rate is 200 bucks for a gram! There’s also some maroon colour masala they prepare locally, which is supposed to be added to the vegetables during cooking. The aroma is so heavenly, I can’t help but pull out a note and grab the box for home.
3 hours later
The car enters Pahalgam and we encounter the first shock of the tour! Hiban Travels suddenly says that local sightseeing is not included in the package. We had clarified everything right from the beginning and this is a clear breach of trust. The cost of local travel is peanuts compared to what we are paying them as the cost of the complete package; yet this sudden development is not something that we can take kindly. It’s not the money; rather, it’s about the principle! And they are charging us quite exorbitantly anyway. Tuhin talks very curtly and firmly, and disconnects the call before any further argument comes from the other end.
Many local drivers listen to the conversations over phone. Later they tell us that often tour operators tend to do this to the customers. Most of the networks don’t work at Pahalgam and when suddenly customers learn about such things, they can’t immediately contact the agent. So they burst out on the poor driver, who has nothing to do in this entire fiasco!
So much for getting impressed with the sweet-talkers. Both I and Tuhin are sad. At Mumbai we have hectic and stressful lives. Every moment of corporate existence is about saving yourself from some disgrace or the other, for which you may or may not be responsible, and making sure that you continue with grace and dignity with all your wits, merits and diplomacy pulled together! Of course para-phrasing the lifestyle in one sentence sounds far simpler than what it actually is. We certainly didn’t come to the mountains to continue the games of out-witting each other. But we should have been careful and we should have taken everything in writing. I was more concerned of our safety, because getting into a tussle with the localites while travelling is not the best idea.
We try to force the thoughts from haunting us any further and enter Hotel Mountview. It is a beautiful property with a garden at the back, as the river Lidder flows vigourously in front. Even from the rearmost corner of the hotel you can hear the sound of the waves lashing against the rocks. There are tables and chairs kept on the garden and we are eager to come back here and sit in the sun as soon as we settle into the room.
We move in our room in the corner of first floor. It’s a big room and arrangements look good; but more importantly this has a large wall size window which overlooks the city. The view opens to the ranges preluded by dense pine forests and the river, and a vast expanse of green meadows in between, houses of bricks and wood, a mosque, tourist buses and cars standing on one side of the road, Mountainview’s garden just below and the Lidder river flowing in force from the right, till it vanishes between the ranges far away. There’s a bridge on the river a few miles away, which provides path to the horses and pedestrians. Just where the window ends, few inches above the ground, there is a cushioned sitting area and we all hit that even before we had unpacked and changed.
2 hours later
We have come out to sit in the sun. But sitting is a tough bet. My kiddo runs around trying to explore every corner and I am running behind him. He runs inside from the garden, climbs up the stairs in haste, comes down half way as if hit by some unknown urgency, topples two steps down and gets up himself, yells to pretend that he’s crying, runs again outside when that doesn’t work…all with me following him from behind and reacting to his nuisance like a lunatic. When I rush back to the garden as he laughs at me from a few feet ahead, I find the Pita ji settled well on a couch and taking a head massage!!!!
1 hour later
I am still not at peace after the verbal exchange between Tuhin and the travel agent. I ask him to speak to them once again, and this time he must point out that we’re here with some trust and that trust shouldn’t be misused during the rest of our stay with them. He calls up. The agent now sings a different tune and apologises for being careless. One brother talks on behalf of the other and agrees that they had been talking unfairly in the afternoon!
I am settled again.
4 hours later
Pahalgam is pretty cold. Neev ends up finding water somewhere or the other and I have to make him change 4 sweaters in one evening!
Somehow I feel that the Kinley bottles they have given us are locally packed. We go out and buy mineral water from outside and return to the hotel. On the way we are almost mobbed by shawl-sellers, kesar-sellers, jewellery-sellers etc. all of whom are offering the best quality at least price! We dodge them either with an assurance to come back or with a smile or by simply behaving as if we didn’t hear.
WiFi is bad here, and so is every kind of net connection. Other than writing this travel diary, there’s nothing else that I can do to keep in touch with the rest of the world. Not that I am any sad about it. We go for buffet dinner and ditch the veggies that look over spicy and oil loaded. But the staff is extremely well behaved and they help out with whatever they can.
By 10 we retreat to bed. After a full day’s activities, Neev is the first one to sleep.
5th May 2015, early morning
As baby continues to sleep, we lavish ourselves with hot cups of tea. We laze. We talk. We fight over who is using the washroom first. We sit by the window and watch the sky change its colours and the ranges brightening up slowly.
Neev shifts sides. It’s time to wake him up. I stealthily crawl over to him and touch his face repeatedly with the tip of my fingers. He thinks its mosquitoes, tries to shoo away with his hands. In a while I am walking two fingers on his belly. He opens his eyes, realises it’s time to be up and I am on the job, pulls up the cover on his face and tries to avoid me. I wait for a while, then slowly pull the cover down. I call his nose a “samosa”, his ears “dumplings”, his fingers “alu bhaja” (French fries) and pretend to eat them. He violently uses his hands to protect his nose, ears and fingers; tries to throw me away but I am back again; hits me, I move, the fist lands on the adjoining pillow, I laugh and call him “popat”, he shouts in protest. This continues till the boy’s Hero jumps in and rescues him from the Villain. Pita Ji picks him up and sits near the window. Boy looks at me from there; I keep giggling; he protests feeling humiliated; Pita ji calls Mata ji “heartless”!!!
1 hour later
A ravishing breakfast sitting in the sun, the mountains towering afar and Lidder producing fierce noise as water hits and cuts through anything that comes on its way. I can see the valley activating to its routine. The horses, the vendors, the farmers, the woodcutters, the cleaners, the lawn-mowers are already on their job. It’s barely 8.30 and the sun in up enough to glide through the mountains and touch the river. We try to talk to some of the locales here. Their lives simple, and in most hearts, one basic wish : “Humein Kashmir nahi chodna; yahi ghar hain humara. Bohot log chale gaye, darr gaye, bhaga diye gaye. Koi aur mulk, koi aur desh hum dekhna nahi chahte. Yahi humara khuda hai.” I don’t nudge further for more information. But what I gather is, they just want to be left alone with their families; they don’t care whether Kashmir is a part of Hindustan or Pakistan, as long as they are allowed their peace and security, and not asked to vacate their houses. The last sentence though is purely my assumption.
In a while we would start for Betab valley and Aru valley.
2 hours later
We sit inside the car arranged by the hotel. Everyone here seems to be good with kids. The driver, Basheer Ahmad picks up Neev and starts talking to him. The little one looks around for us, but otherwise seems settled in the arms of a young stranger. Strange it is that we are bound with Basheer by no more than a transaction and few hours of togetherness, but the affection of the people here seems so real, spontaneous and non-manipulative. They certainly know how to touch hearts and I can say so because my child is very selective towards being touched. He has embarrassed us in the past but here he happily cuddles up to the chests of these young guys and there’s not a word of protest!
We reach Betab valley in 30 minutes; take our tickets and enter. The Lidder here looks more playful than ferocious. We sit by it for a while, Neev finds immense joy in throwing pebbles on the water, his hands are black with dust; now he wants to wipe his face with those hands! I hold his hands tight so that he can’t do that. He dances around in protest. I get his hands washed in the water carefully because his tendency is to play with the water and get himself wet. We walk through the willow trees and reach the open land surrounded by the ranges from all sides. At the further end of the valley, the Lidder flows again. We spend time there watching, running, playing, clicking photographs, or just sitting in silence till Neev brings us out of the spell!
I look at the little one running around and making friends with all his innocence. I would have loved Neev to grow up among such bounteous nature. With the vastness and beauty around, his psychological developments would have been way deeper. As a teacher, I have always believed that you need to involve the youth in constructive things and introduce to them the joy of pursuing it. Don’t show them rewards of money or recognition or appreciation. Talk to them about happiness, about fulfillment, about beauty. Motivation then comes from within and they don’t depend on external push. If the youth trusts you and takes a step forward to walk with you, never cheat on them. I have tried to give the best to my students. It felt, they were quite happy to be with me. If you introduce beauty to the youth and envelope them with it, I believe they would stay away from nuisance because their system would reject them! I wish I could work out such a system where Neev gets to revere among nature, trust the beauty of being, and absorb as much as he can from the vastness around! In Mumbai we lead much compartmentalized existence and I’m not sure whether I am protecting him well from my limitations and the vices that I must have picked up from my life.
Basheer meets us again in a short while. He lifts the kid and walks back to the car talking endlessly to him, as we follow happily!
2 hours later
The Aru valley.
Betab was a horizontal stretch of land. But Aru is vertical. The fun of Aru is in climbing and trekking. It is not really meant for tourists like us, who has a child to take care of.
As we enter, Basheer warns us that there is a toll that we have to pay and we must demand a receipt against that. The local people at the toll point often tend to put the money in their pockets if they can manage to skip drawing the receipts! “With such dishonesty, end of the day the government misses out on the money they should spend to promote tourism! And it is all of us who suffer hence, because of the myopic greed of some fools.” He says.
Just before we enter Aru, we stop at a Dhaba. Thank God we decided to carry bread-toasts for Neev from the hotel. Otherwise this food was certainly not for him. We order for some delightful kahwa which they prepare with almond powder toppings, and then a bowl of Maggie. The dal-chawal-papad that comes later seems to carry a different colour altogether! But everything seems tasty when served hot to the hungry. We gulp it down as the butter serves to comfort Neev’s lips as they had become too dry.
Bengalis around once again. Two mashi ma’s in sari-sweater-socks-shoes-monkey cap (we are wearing just a sweat shirt) bargaining over something. “Ek hajar rupiya dega. Deta hai to bolo!” The seller mumbles, “1300 last price aunty.” The lady loudly says, “Bhogey jao” (our version of go to hell) and walks off. The seller of course follows with further pleas but doesn’t look confident enough to convince!
The place is quite dirty because the prime mode of transportation here is horse-rides. There’s horse-shit everywhere and they stink. We try to climb upwards but don’t make much progress because of our obvious limitations. We sit in one place and gasp. There’s paragliding happening much above; we see the colourful parachutes gleefully flowing in the air. “You wish to go for it?” Basheer asks. It is a big YES, but we can’t do that with our child. He assures that the child can be with him till we go and come back, but I won’t dare to do that. Moreover, if Neev gets mad, he can shout and bring the entire Pahalgam at his feet!
We are told that almost a thousand feet above “they” are shooting. A sardar couple (honeymooners) get excited. “Waha pe Salman Khan bhi Hai?” The lady asks starry eyed. “Honge, Madam.” A guy trying to sell a horse-ride assures. “Kaise pohche wo waha pe? Chad ke gaye ya ghode pe?” My devil brain prompts out, “Ud ke; Salman Khan hai bhai kuchbhi kar sakte hain!” Of course I don’t say that, but the guy with the horse doesn’t say anything much different. “Unke paas personal helicopter hote hain madam.” She sighs, then says “no” to the horse relieving the newly wed husband and breaking the poor horse-owner’s heart!!
We hear there is a Lake much above. People ride horses or trek to reach there. It is a difficult path. There’s a board which defines the charges for pony rides and the packages for overnight stays. Certainly not for us!
1 hour later
We’re on our way back. The car stops at different points which provide beautiful views. It is getting cloudy and we can feel the chill taking over! Once back, we’ll have to pull out some warm clothes, which we had bravely ditched till yesterday, or even today morning.
Once the sun is up, you actually don’t need a sweater. It’s pleasant and enjoyable. Only for the breeze, may be you need a soft sweat-shirt or anything with a hood that covers your ears. You go for a blanket for the night and early mornings!
Off to Gulmarg tomorrow!
6th May 2015, morning
Pahalgam to Gulmarg
Pahalgam to Gulmarg is almost a 6 hours journey. We have to go back to Srinagar and then take another direction to reach Gulmarg. The path looks like heaven. The car takes twists and turns and the Lidder flows with us. It breaks to confront nature-blessed patches of land, large rocks and vegetation overgrowth on its way. It spreads itself further on its sides to accommodate them all and moves happily like a thick, broad stream. We cross a small village with little kids coming out of a government school. There are huts all around and some broken, tattered wooden shops, many of them beyond repair. We are informed that this area is still quite lacking in basic amenities and they avail water for their regular usage from the river. In white shirt, grey trousers and blue sweater, boys turn and make space as the car blows horns from behind; girls have salwar kameez with a dupatta covering their heads and face, colour combination being the same. Even visually their social and economic difference with us is so apparent and prominent that I feel naturally disturbed. These girls with their restrictions and kids with the limitations in their disposable resources is so distanced from the life that I or my son live. In their eyes, they reveal a desire to sit inside the car that is carrying us; they keep looking without blinking even once. It’s difficult to keep watching them. I turn towards my right. A while back we had purchased candies for Neev so that he keeps quiet and grants us some peace. He has spread the sticky orange all over his lips and hands, and has also wiped those on my milk white trousers!!!
As we cross Srinagar, the internet on my cell phone starts working again and news links start downloading. And we get to know that Salman Khan is convicted by the Sessions Court. Twitter and facebook is ablaze with opinions and thoughts. Some abuse; others support. Another update comes soon. He’d be in jail for 5 years and the term might start with immediate effect!
Salman Khan! What a journey. The first macho actor to formally introduce “fitness” into the film business and declare face is just a part, body makes it whole. He debuted as a handsome and stylish personality; eventually started getting known for his arrogance, high headedness and temperamental fangs; broke cameras as much as he broke hearts of the women he dated; the hero with large eyes was media’s favourite off screen villain; and then a sudden makeover! He is now called the man with a heart of gold. From an abusive lover he graduated to be the most loving father to many children of whom he is not a biological parent. From a trouble maker, he redefined himself as the nation’s most selfless actor. His unusual dance moves, mannerisms, his bent for charity, his vulnerability and his witty one-liners make the right kind of noises. He made a raging style statement out of the khaki. Precisely, he made it difficult for people, to not love him!
And now this! Sad for Bollywood but fair for humanity. No one can get away. No one should get away.
I read the posts in social media which talk against the verdict. I want to ask them, what would be your reaction if you were to lose a member of your family (God forbid) because someone was irresponsible enough to drive in a drunk state? Would you forgive him and get along with life because the accused has otherwise been nice to many others, has made careers and have given away a mountain’s worth in charity? You can’t. So please retain your balance, support him if you can and offer gets so overpowering on us that we tend to let go of all logic and believe that everything he does is right and “heroic”. He tried to shut off the evidences, he gave a nightmare even to those who supported the witnesses (one of them being a dear journalist friend) and got his driver to take the blame at the last moment. These are not minor charges. There’s a difference between a real life and reel life conduct. The sad truth is, he did end up indulging in something which is a criminal offense and law is catching up after more than a decade.
And then I find CNN IBN’s interview with the victim’s family! A person died while sleeping on the footpath; his wife says “Hum ko 10 lakh diya gaya; 10 lakh se kya hoga aaj ki taarikh mei? Humari to rozi roti kamane wala hi chale gaye! Humei Salman Khan ka sazaa se koi matlab nahi hai; humein aur paise chahiye ghar chalane ke liye.” The CNN IBN reporter covers this as if he is talking to a lost & found hero! Waah duniya. I wonder what the victim would bring home had he been alive today. Few crores? The family is trying to take full advantage of the situation, shamelessly so, and we are debating over justice. It feels they would happily go to the court and say, koi nahi mara thha 13 saal pehle, if the actor promises a ransom!
Salman Khan has been my favourite too, and I wish that evening could be removed from history. I too don’t wish to call off that “Salman Khan Experience” from films so early and I wish that he be protected. I remember those fights on Salman v/s Aamir Khan with friends in my teens; crying at the end of Saajan and cursing the makers for the not-so happy-ending with Khan; Maine Pyar Kiya! Oh Boy! The eyes, the voice, the innocence; convincing my mother to travel to Hind cinema in Kolkata which was more than an hour away from our place to watch Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (the film released in only two theatres initially); believing sincerely that there can’t be another guy like Salman Khan…irrespective of the newspaper reports that claimed otherwise…till Shah Rukh Khan debuted and my loyalty shifted permanently. But a soft corner always remained and I loved the romantic hero Salman Khan of ‘90’s to the action hero of late. But more than films, I appreciate him today for the work he does through Being Human under The Salman Khan Foundation. When Tuhin’s book, “Daddy : The Birth of a Father” released, we had kick-started the social media promotions with Salman Khan, calling him a better and bigger dad than all other biological fathers, because those kids were born in his heart. I really believe so. Many today are arguing that the Being Human initiative is his way of saving himself from the burden of the crime, but I tend to ask, how many of us has the capacity to take care of little children and stand by them in their miseries and ailments, like he has? How many of us have ever donated a rupee to aide others? This level of involvement certainly doesn’t come from money; you need real passion to do this. And that makes him a gem of a father, who stands apart! I wish that “father” didn’t have to face this disgrace, but sadly, Karma does catch up, today or later.
And just as the Karma of many evenings shows its effects today, I am sure that the Karma of recent years will equally reflect very soon, because the cosmos has a balance sheet to match before it reaches the end. I don’t understand though, why is everyone so eager to call him a hero who’s too good to be punished for a crime, or call him a villain whose good deeds too should be judged with an evil taint! Why can’t we simply accept that an apparently bad person can have a very good side to him and vice versa?
6 hours later
We enter Khyber Himalayan Resorts and Spa! It is grand and beautiful, and as we fulfil the entrance formalities. We are treated again with the lovely Kahwa.
This is a huge and beautiful palace. Neev runs around and is totally beyond our control. As we sit with our Kahwa, he tries to explore around and find what lies beneath the royal tables, what happens when the throne-like chairs are turned upside down, what lies below the carpet, why is there a sitting arrangement on the floor, and tries to touch the large exquisitely crafted brass wall decors. He settles finally for a few minutes when they hand him over a piece of cake!
30 minutes later
The rooms are lovely and the wall size window again opens to the pine forest stretched upwards as far as the Himalayan ranges are visible. On the branches of the pines, on their bases, at different areas of the ground and in between the rocks, chunks of snow stubbornly hold on to the soil. Yuppie! Time for my leather jackets and overcoats to finally see daylight.
2 hours later
The little one is in no mood to sleep. So we set off to explore the property as someone among the staff guides us through the way. The architecture here is such that the reception and restaurants are right up on the top floor and the rooms follow on the subsequent floors. We walk around the different eateries, luxurious balconies, and mind blowing porticos that offer the view of a lifetime. Snow clad ranges a stone’s throw away, punctuated by dark brown patches of lands where the chunks have melted and blackish green pines. “You’ll be there tomorrow,” the staff pointed at a direction which looked like heaven!
We settle at the café for a while and Neev is hooked to some cookies like a greedy little monster. With every bite he passes a delightful smile as I sit there too powerless to restrict his intake because he is being thoroughly indulged and pampered by the staff. A group of young guys and girls are sitting close by. Probably they are college mates who have come for a vacation and are enjoying their lives sitting together. I concentrate on them instead. They are playing Dumb Charades and not sure when everyone in the café had started participating in the game, trying to guess the words they are trying to enact. Neev has just stepped out for a walk with his dad, busy clicking pictures together. And here, almost 30 of us are shouting, guessing, laughing, trying, failing and succeeding with weird words that the guys were bringing out from the most remote spaces of their vocabulary.
1 hour later
Back into the room. Television is full of Salman Khan. Same news, different ways of retelling the story so that it sounds fresh. Depressing.
I step out to take a walk. From the first floor balcony all you see around is pine trees with snow patches, wooden cottages of the hotel with protruding balconies and electric lanterns lit at regular intervals. There are also some candle lanterns hanging from the lower branches of the pine trees. A heavenly aroma spreads through my senses and I turn. A boy is carrying some burning fibre and walking towards me. I ask him what he has put in it. He says, coconut fibre with camphor, cinnamon, elaichi and some locally manufactured perfume to keep off insects. “It spreads positivity ma’m, and also warms your soul,” he philosophically adds with a smile. I smile back and return to my room.
Tomorrow at 10 we are scheduled to reach Gandola. I look outside the window and the endless stretch of peaks look inviting. Night falls late here and morning starts early. So even at 8, I can faintly see the ranges in the darkness. How would tomorrow be? I wonder! What would be the experience up there? I remember a friend advising me to carry pristine white chiffon sarees; I had told her that I am carrying enough baby diapers instead. I break into a giggle and hope that it’s all a chiffon sari experience tomorrow and not a diaper experience!
7th May 2015; morning
Today is Neev’s birthday. As soon as he opens his eyes, we both pounce upon him, kissing him on his head and face, as I and Tuhin push each other to steal our turns. Neev of course is enjoying the least. He wants to kick us back to our senses, and tries to run away. My facebook post on him populates with responses, birthday wishes and blessings; I read out each of the wishes to him showing photographs of the friends and relatives. After listening to them and watching them for a while, he returns a one word response. “Cake!”
2 hours later
We walk out of the hotel with our guide. We hire coats, gloves and shoes that can help us work our way through the snow. They keep our shoes with them and i find it a bit difficult to adjust to these boots. The guide, Nazir, lifts Neev on his shoulders and he seems pretty settled there. The little one has already tasted the benefits of laziness! We walk up to the cable-car stand and wait for our turn. The guide has already taken our tickets.
As we fly towards Level 1 of Gandola, breath-taking scenery around mesmerises us. The mountains are covered by snow and thin streams break out here and there as the snow melts! The sun shines bright and as we come out of the station, we are ready to jump on the snow and play around. I am carrying a huge bag full of warm clothes predicting that it might be too cold up there and the clothes might get wet. But to my surprise it seems pretty pleasant here! Neev or Tuhin doesn’t actually need the jackets that have been hired! We walk ahead through a rough terrain as snow melts in at places and creates potholes of water. But that doesn’t make it difficult to walk along. Sledge owners, hawkers and other sellers make it difficult for us as they try their best to sell whatever they have to offer. They refuse to leave alone even when we have uttered a firm “no”! We finally hire two snow-bikes. They asked for 2000 bucks per bike till the second point; we bargained it for Rs. 3000 for two bikes till the same distance and back. Tuhin sits with the driver on one. On the other, Neev sits in front and the driver, Shabbir, affectionately shoes him how to hold it tight. I sit at the back and the driver in the middle. We drive over the snow in speed, crossing steep slopes and the white plains of the valley and scream and shout, sometimes in fear, otherwise in excitement. Neev though looks very steady. No tantrums or undue expressions or choices, which he usually forces on us. He is quietly following instructions. We whiz past to reach Point 2, from where the entire Gulmarg is visible.
Tuhin’s bike catches up soon. Some snow has entered Tuhin’s boots and a part of his trousers are wet. He folds it in so the cold doesn’t touch him. We click ourselves on the bikes and start playing with snow. We pick up those beautiful flakes from the ground and throw at each other. I make Neev too do the same, but guide him from getting hit. He has picked up a cough this morning!
As we keep loitering around and playing, Neev goes back to the bike with Shabbir and he shows him how the vehicle works! I shout and warn that he can’t be trusted with that information because he’ll just press or pull anything that he desires. The driver smiles and assures that he’ll be fine. Neev gets to start the motor of the vehicle and stop it, and examine a lot of other switches on it, and turns at me to pass a divine smile. Monkey Singh is happy with his adventure! Shabbir commented, “Madam, his brain works really fast on these. He’s very sharp. Give him a racing car when he grows up. Make him a player.” Oh yes of course! Racing car and stuff! But player? That he already is.
As we play around on the snow, we have removed all of our warm clothes. The drivers said that it is warm till the sun shines. Everything changes the moment it gets cloudy. Then even four sweaters can fall short!
This is probably the best day of my life. I don’t remember having enjoyed so much ever before!
2 hours later
We bid adieu to the drivers. They don’t even stop for their incentives. We call them from behind and hand them over some notes. They had not only been friendly and caring, but also took care of every simple thing that could make it a complete experience for us.
We come back to the cable car stand and board one to reach Level 2. Level 1 was 10,000 ft above the ground; Level 2 would take us to 14000ft above. As we travel, the scenery around seems ethereal. Almost devoid of plantations or any stretch of brown soil or black rock, the height of snow here is 4.5 feet from the ground. It’s cold here, and windy too. All jackets are immediately on. As I come out of the cable car, I realise that there can be an oxygen issue here because I am finding it difficult to breathe. Also the ground is slippery and it feels difficult to walk. We still march ahead and stop at a huge rock. The hawkers again make life miserable. We ignore them and concentrate on the beauty that surrounds us.
But soon I realise that it might not be a good idea to continue further with the baby. To my ultimate horror, the sleeves of his jacket are wet and so is the bottom of his pant. Also, I can see him losing his natural enthusiasm. He tries to bury his head into me. He looks very tired. Probably he’s also feeling the oxygen deficiency! We rush back into the cable car station which is comparatively closed and covered. The hawkers try to stop us, threatening that we are missing out on a very important experience. We just shove them off and they step back dissatisfied. Back into the station, we warm up Neev by rubbing the palms of his hands. We change him, give him food and water. I had packed ajwain paratha for him before leaving the hotel. Soon he regains his energy.
20 minutes later
We are travelling back by the cable car. Neev’s body feels warm and I am super worried. I am just keeping him very close to my body and rubbing his hands, touching his cheeks with mine.
15 minutes later
We’re back. But we need an ATM to pay off the guide. And we realise that ATMs would be available in the market and no vehicle goes there. The only option we have is riding a pony. Because of Tuhin’s health issues, pony ride is a strict “no” for him. The guide suggests that tomorrow when we travel back to Srinagar, we can pay our driver and he would collect the payment from him.
After returning we had given medicines to Neev. And then I forced him to sleep. No fever, thankfully, and the moment he entered the hotel he was back to his exploratory phase.
Now he seems in his full bloom.
We loiter around lazily. Roam around wherever we can. Three times the monster wants a costume change. I indulge him..his birthday after all. I read out to him more messages that have come through social media. He wants my mobile now. His chacha, dadi-dada, dida (maternal grandmom) calls. He doesn’t quite talk because he can see those cup cakes in the cafe. He gorges on one, spreads it all around, gives me the plate to finish the powdered remnants because I told him not to waste food, and cleans the table himself by throwing all morsels on the carpeted ground!
3 hours later
On dinner table the hotel serves a birthday cake for him. The attendants at the restaurant are lovely. Once the cake is cut, we request them to share it with all the kids around and with all the stuff. Everyone wishes him. At the end of the dinner he also gets a chocolate mousse from one of the attendants. “This is the only gift I can give him at this moment,” he says. Neev of course is elated and overjoyed.
I watch him loving everything around here and responding to these beautiful people. He doesn’t do this usually. He is a reserved son of an extrovert crazy mother and I-laugh-either-if-you-pay-or-if-there-is-good-enough-reason father! But here he is enjoying himself.
Srinagar tomorrow. The last wing of our trip. I wish it did not come so early!
8th May 2015, morning
After filling the regular pages of my travel diary, I step in for a long, indulgent, luxury bath. I haven’t had this opportunity in a while and today, given that Neev is still fast asleep, I make the most of this time.
1 hour later
After a heavy breakfast boys go for pool splashing. Usually when I give a bath to Neev, I make him regret for being mischievous with me. I rub some soap lather on his face so he can’t open his eyes for a while and as he screams in protest I peacefully wash the rest of his body. Today he has a break from that. I wait for Neev to come out of the kid’s pool and change him fast. The pool’s area and also the water, however, is temperature controlled and I don’t have to rush him through the process like I do otherwise. He gets into his clothes and keeps looking greedily and dreamily at Daddy darling enjoying himself in a bigger pool with no one to prompt him out by force!
Once Tuhin is done, I send him upstairs for the last minute chores. I have completed all of mine, given that I am an early riser. So I explain…no, not explain…I plead to Neev that he must give mom half an hour of rest and should not run around; I sincerely don’t wish to spend this time chasing him! He seems to relent and settles in a chair of the open air café; I sit down with my cuppa as the sun warms me well and the view in front services and comforts my eyes.
5 hours later
All the way, the driver tries to talk to Neev. He doesn’t respond. “Is he turning into a snob?” My brain alerts as I nudge him to speak. He nudges me back, but doesn’t bother to do what I want him to!
We check in to Hotel Grand Mamta.
And then, Return of The Salman Khan! Television is bursting with the news that he has been granted extended bail. Abuses everywhere on social media. Some have “lost faith” on the Indian Judiciary System “once again”. Some make a mockery of the “charity card” that celebs play at their convenience. Rest shout from rooftops that the “large-hearted” star doesn’t deserve such a grilling punishment!
I really don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Just a few days ago whenever someone said “Salman Khan”, none of us would think of the hit and run case that came associated with him. Whether we liked his films or no, we raved about the style statements he made and the fun things he did. It was the judiciary system that suddenly came out with an update and we jumped in to comment/discuss/opine/support/protest! It was not our agitations or petitions that made the court to sit up and take notice; it brought up the issue in public through its own delayed procedures. So fast is our transition from love to hatred for a person; from trust to despair against a system; so impulsive is our impatience. The sentence has just been suspended till the court reopens; it hasn’t been called off.
2 hours later
We are waiting at the hotel reception. Neev wants to draw something with his crayon pencils on the glass of the aquarium. I have a tough time stopping him from doing that. I threaten him of police, ghost, an angry bad man who might just appear from somewhere, but nothing works. I try to sweet-talk him out of his desire; he shouts. Then covers my mouth with his little hands and gestures me to shut up!
It’s drizzling slightly. We hire a cab and set out to roam around the place. In a few minutes we are crossing the Dal Lake again. Thank God we did not stay on a Houseboat on the Dal Lake! Not only is that area dirty and crowded, but it is very much on the main market and the boats are parked over a narrow stretch of water. Had we been staying here, we certainly wouldn’t have experienced the serene silence that we were blessed with at the Nigin Lake.
As we move ahead, Dal lake appears again in its usual depthless expanse. This time it is not a sunny morning but a cloudy evening, when the sun has disappeared and light is fading away slowly. The crimson, orange and violet on the sky looks blurred because of the overcast. The soft drizzle creates further ripples on the water and the mountains afar seem foggy. But it is quite warm in Srinagar, and we are wearing no more than a jacket. That too because, if we shed it Neev would demand to do the same! We drive along the Dal Lake. Some areas are secluded, some residential and the rest buzzing with activities – goods or a ride for sale!
It is around 7pm when we reach the Hazratbal dargah. We cover or heads with whatever we have and enter, take a walk around, bow our heads and come out. The drizzle has just got heavier and we rush back to the vehicle. It is 7.20pm; shops are already shutting down and people are ready to call it a day!
9th May 2015; morning
Neev gets up and cuddles into the bed for a while, lingering on as long as he can. Then suddenly he throws his hands around my neck, kisses me and says, “Thank you ma!” Robinhood Dad was relaxing on the sofa; suddenly sits up straight and demands, “Hey! I brought you guys for this trip. Come here and thank me as well, just like you did to her!” Neev stays glued to me, making no attempts to move.
2 hours later
The day starts with a visit to Shankaracharya temple. People did scare us saying that 242 steps would be difficult for or 3years old, but we still went for it. As we climb up the steep stairs, we find many kids demanding to be carried. Parents show them how my “brave” baby is walking all by himself! Neev takes all the compliments with a smile. Soon, when they are out of sight he starts his own whining complaints against the steps. Eventually his father pulls him up in his arms. We reach the top and Neev is fascinated by the difference in music caused by the bells of different sizes. Once we bow our heads in front of the shrines, we come out and look downwards. The topography looks strange as the Dal Lake seems interrupted by Houseboats, bridges etc. and it breaks and joins back many times till it reaches its vast round. We spend some time sitting on the stairs and come down after a while.
1 hour later
I am fascinated with a Floating Post Office standing on the Dal Lake. It is actually a Houseboat, which is being used as a post office! How amazing is that!
We move to the Shalimar garden. There’s nothing extraordinarily spectacular here, just that it has well maintained lawns, plants, flower beds, water-works, etc. The soil is moist, but we sit for a while. Outside the gate, I find shops trading Kashmiri handcrafted jewellery in white metal, oxidise and silver and other items made of wood or porcelain with local designs on their bodies. Enough photographs later we leave from there.
3 hours later
We halt for lunch and set out for Harwan Lake. That’s another heritage garden almost 20 kms away from the city. We loiter around the area gushing at the blooms and drive till Daichigam National Park. Entry is restricted here, but the driver uses his contacts and manages to walk us inside. As we walk, I am startled to hear him talking to Neev in pure, flawless Bengali. I ask him how he knows the language. He doesn’t answer; just smiles.
However, we don’t spend much time here as the sky looks overcast again and the signals of the weather aren’t too encouraging. We pull up whatever warm clothes we’re carrying and start off for the hotel.
We request driver to wait for a while, so that we can freshen up and come out again. How can the stay at Srinagar end without a last Shikara ride?
10th May 2015, morning
We start for the airport well in advance. Security checks would be a long process, we are warned. On our way to the airport, we cross the Lal Chowk, infamous for the recent militant activities. The driver shows us around the area and points out the most dangerous lanes and the prime spots where encounters had occurred. Tuhin asks, “How is the situation today”? The driver says, “Even today if the police suspects anyone having some anti-social motives, they can arrest without a warrant simply on the basis of their suspicions and the accused won’t get a bail for two years; neither he would be granted the privilege of a hearing! Many innocents also get unfairly arrested under such circumstances and we can’t do anything about it”! Shocked I ask, “What assurance do you guys have here regarding your safety and security then?” He smiles. “Allah Miyan ke bharose jee rahe hain, Madam (we have the assurance of God)!” “This happens only with Muslims?” I probe further. He nods his head. “It can happen with anyone!”
The driver then tells us his story.
“I had just appeared for my 12th. The year was 1995-96 when militant activities were at its peak and elections were near. Farooq Abdullah’s office reached out to my father, requesting him to allow me to become their polling agent. Their offer included 10,000 bucks and a government job soon after. My father outrightly rejected the offer and sent them off. But I was young and the “government job” was an important word for me; we weren’t rich! Without informing my parents I went ahead and agreed to work as a polling agent. Soon after, there was a knock on the door quite late in the night. We were having dinner. Those days a knock on the door at such an hour meant that men of the house would rush inside and a woman would open the door. My mother walked out; we continued with our dinner in silence. In a while, my father was called. For about 45 minutes we have no clue what happened. I, my brother and my sister sat holding our breath, when Abba walked in and slapped me hard. “They had come to kill you,” he said. “Somehow I convinced them that you are at your fufu’s place.” Ammi started crying. She said, “I pleaded with them, requesting them to leave you alone and we guarantee you would never again do anything. But they already have you in their hit list. They’ll not leave you.” She wailed! And all these because I had been a polling agent and the militants did not want an election. We knew they are keeping a watch on us. Abba called a relative over, and in half an hour in broad daylight, I, disguised as that relative and wearing his clothes, fled from there. I stayed for a while in Jalandhar and was soon sent over to my mama’s place in West Bengal. I travelled through Nadia, Krishnanagar, Sodepur, Siliguri and other places, resting nowhere more than a fortnight! My education and career went for a toss!”
“Didn’t your family seek help from the Abdullah family?” I asked.
He smiled. “They did. My father went there a million times. But they refused to recognise me, let alone of any help! I returned after 12 years only when my dad gave away all his savings to the militants to buy my life from them. Three years post that settlement I came back. And I am a driver since then!”
I am too powerless to verify the truth of this. But in a land, as beautiful as Kashmir, of which we outsiders go to seek peace and revere in its beauty, has so much blood and curse below its soil. I wish and pray, this heaven gets liberated from its curse!
3 hours later
Every time I go back from the mountains, I feel a strange vacuum. As if, I am leaving behind some part of myself within this vastness and this serene beauty! I know these are not mine, but they feel mine. We wish to establish our holds on everything beautiful and make them a part of our being. As I enter the airport, I repeat the same words that I said when I landed. “I don’t wish to go back!”
The security here is a big bore and a real spoilt sport. True that they are doing their job, but their means are just so flawed. Four times I am stopped over one or the other bags over “the stamp is missing” (O yes, of course it was my duty to check!), “the stamp is invisible” (there’s a difference between invisible and illegible, dude, aren’t you educated? And was it my job again to ensure that the stamp was legible enough. Anyway, if I would have pointed that out, your officer would have suffered a bruised ego!), “please take out the laptop and start it…it starts? Ok put it back in” (WOW!) and finally “We can’t allow you to carry the box of masala” (keep it weirdo!). And at the final check, the lady asks me to drink water from the baby’s bottle. I oblige. She doesn’t bother to check whether I drank water or Bacardi. Finally just before boarding, a Spicejet officer asks, “Hope you aren’t carrying eatables?” Tired and angry by then, I request him to find out and retain whatever he wants. He doesn’t speak further and lets us in.
2 hours later
It’s a long flight. We are hungry and check for food. We are shocked to realise that they aren’t carrying enough food for the passengers! The flight attendants are clueless about what the meal boxes carry. Also, everything other than one veg and one non-veg meal box is exhausted. We realise that they are carrying food only for those who have pre-booked the meals with them. Had I not called them out in advance and requested to be served immediately, we would have gone without a morsel! Even nachos and coconut water wasn’t replenished! Thankfully I had fed toasts to Neev just before boarding and a boiled egg was still there in my tiffin box…somehow it escaped the eyes of the security! But then I wonder, what right the Spicejet officer had to ask me whether I was carrying food inside the flight!
1 hour later
Baby sleeps on me, making it impossible for me to move or stretch. Hubby dozing off at the window seat. Suddenly he wakes up to the turbulence, looking around alerted, puzzled and confused. I comment, “Don’t worry, it’s not an earthquake!” He frowns at me, his deepest till date; then looks away. I find him turning towards the window and giggling; one of those rare moments when he has found some humour behind my one-liners!
With the mundane of Mumbai staring back at us once again, he has only these to entertain himself now! There’s no other choice.