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The Autumnal Faces Of Srinagar And Dal Lake In Kashmir Mesmerises
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, and thou hast thy music, – John Keats
I visited the valley of Kashmir in a divided mind… there was the magnetic temptation of its ethereal charm that fed my girlhood dreams, and then there were those gory tales of a battered valley wracked by terror and mayhem. There were three consecutive bomb blasts in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, on the day I left Kolkata (the capital of the state of West Bengal) on a package tour. So my mind was in a state of excitement to meet BEAUTY AND THE BEAST! My husband was disturbed by those front page news reports of the early morning carnage and tried to dissuade me from my rash decision. I begged him to let me go because there was no safe haven on Earth these days and I believed I would return home…
It was autumn – the season of “mist and mild fertility”… that was exactly what the still small voice of the Srinagar morning whispered to me on the first day. Indeed, as I drew the floral curtains of my hotel room, I stood mesmerized as I encountered the autumnal face of a flushed city yet to wake from its cold slumber! My heart skipped a beat as the golden-bronze Chinar trees, along the road, lit up and the magical leaves rustled from the first caress of sunlight! Older leaves of ruddy and gold color fell silently from the branches in rapid succession only to create a red and gold trail of long stripes. My eyes had traveled far and were completely riveted by the sight of the distant snow caps of the royal Himalayas, glowing orange as the first wave of sunlight slid down its slopes… I forgot about the bomb blast and the terrorist attacks and ran down the wooden stairs of my hotel to breathe in the morning air of the “honey-dew” city so elegant!
As I walked down the road, I avoided Café Coffee Day because it reminded me of my crowded city and the typical Kolkata smell that I wanted to escape from… I was dying to live the Kashmir of my dream! So, the first curious face to greet me with a warm smile was that of a mature old Ahmad Kader Miya at a nearby tea stall. I tried coffee for the first time; his green tea brewed with saffron, cloves, green cardamom, cinnamon sticks and chopped almonds. Its mellow flavor blended well with the calm season’s feel, embracing my spirit with a sense of warmth. The taste of coffee is covered with a disappearing bitterness that somehow connected with the pleasant bitter taste of walnuts. Kader Miye’s grandson, the teenage Abdul, who served tea for the second time with a shy smile, reminded me of the similarly innocent youthful faces on the front pages of Outlook magazine, killed by the army on charges of terrorism. Why do these children give up everything for… ?
I diverted my thoughts as I watched Srinagar quietly settle down to its daily activities: Does this silence mark the restoration of peace or a lull before another bombing? I couldn’t help but think… I absentmindedly opened my purse when I was awakened from my thoughts by the cracked voice of an old man with a henna beard and kind brown eyes who told me that the tea was free. intended for “Mehman Newazi” who simply introduced me to the local culture of offering tea to a first-time visitor to the city…
In the later hours of the morning, as we walked, we saw silver birch and poplar trees glowing in the warm sunlight. We also saw the exotic Nilgai (Bluebull), Asia’s largest antelope grazing in the gray scrub forest nearby. We also came across a herd of cute cashmere goats of the light brown and milky white variety with shaggy hair and apricot noses, led by a shepherd. They had unusual spiral horns! Locals have informed that these goats produce the finest wool, and the fibers extracted from their bodies are used to make exquisite pashmina scarves. Despite the busy market, the city has its own leisurely rhythm and we forgot about the time… We got down to a small bus stand and took a bus to the legendary Dal Lake. Although there was a lot of activity until then, the lake itself is calm. It felt really romantic with the dry Chinar leaves crackling under our feet as we headed towards the Shikaras (wooden boats) for the ride. We walked silently, surrounded by this cluster of tantalizing Kiners, glistening gold in the softened sunlight…
Like Venetian gondolas, Shikaras are a cultural symbol of Kashmir. Some of the rowers in colorful Phi ran (a long embroidered woolen dress), puffed on their hukka, the local tobacco, in a cheerful spirit. These people are hardworking and polite in their manners. They flashed smiles, and my eyes admired the faint blush that spread over their rough, weather-beaten faces, and their blue eyes that shone with a strange light! They welcomed us and we hired two bushwhackers.
There was a mischievous interplay of mist and sunlight that created magic as we reclined on brightly colored velvet cushions in the thicket, surrounded by colorful, floral canopies. As the oarsmen lustily plunged their spade oars into the cold waters of the lake, the long-billed grebes floated low in the water like crocodiles. The furrows created by the movement of the oars occasionally glowed golden green. Orange light trickled over the distant mountain peaks surrounding the lake, the white snowy cliffs reflecting the hue. It was a relaxed, romantic ride when time didn’t seem to get out of hand…
The boys moved away to capture the mesmerizing views of the pine-clad Himalayas surrounding the lake from all angles. The pines stood tall in verdure on the majestic mountains, and the clusters formed various geometrical patterns; while the Chinese, nearby, blushed as my eyes thirstily soaked in the unimaginable color and lines around. We also had a glimmering glimpse of the silvery blackness of the water ice as he emerged from the still lake to fish for his breakfast. The water looked so clear! A bunch of floating white lilies looked so serene! Sunlit lotuses were smiling rosy… Small ducks, egrets and egrets floated blissfully…
The chill in the air whispered the message of the coming of winter. The boatman regaled us with native songs at our request, and while the wild, powerful melodies floated in the air, I breathed Kashmir… Some women from the valley rode past, heading for their house, which floated on the lake, that on the other side … They carried vegetables, fuel and things for daily needs… their skin looked so discolored that, however, it failed to fade their dimples, rosy smiles. Despite the harsh dictates of life upon them, the men and women of Kashmir seem to have taken life in their stride. I never found them complaining about the injustice of life, either the harshness of nature or, more often, the harshness of man. If their aquiline noses, blue eyes, and ruddy cheeks seemed to be in striking harmony with the natural abundance that fueled them, their cheerful spirits, in the face of the grim violence that finally bled the valley, spoke volumes for their sturdy genetics that matched the majestic The Himalayas.
As we glided along the Dzhelum River, we passed crumbling houses, the only evidence of life being some patches of vegetables and backyard chickens pecking at grains in the frozen ground. This part of old Srinagar tells the story of a decaying past that could once have been glorious, as noted in Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”…
We crossed a nested cove, surrounded by golden-green trees and lush meadows located on the other side of Dal Lake which looked like Keats’s “fairy land”… Elegant houses from afar invited us to spend the night floating on the lake. The marble dome of Hazrat Bala, visible as an “egg-shaped pearl” from a distance, beckoned us to feel its ancient story of Moi-e-Muqqadus, the holy hair of Prophet Muhammad…
The distant face of an old fisherman bent over in search of a lotus root reminded me of Tai, the mysteriously eternal boatman who comes to life from Rushdie’s page…
The autumn face of Srinagar and Dal inspires me to say:
“No spring or summer beauty has such grace
As I saw in an autumn face…” JOHN DONNE.
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