Monday, 6 July 2020

1986 India II: Kashmir

30.10.86 and 31.10.86 Srinagar

Not so much one day as two, since I would be travelling for 27 hours to Srinagar.  The morning, as usual, I took my oddly inappropriate sunbathing trip to the International: at least next time I won't need to pay extra.  Back at the hotel, I eat my first proper meal for two days.

To New Delhi station early to sort out reservations.  My Indrail pass had guaranteed me "a" seat; now I had to get one in particular. This didn't prove problematic.  The train pulled in shortly afterwards.  It was a very long train, and as the carriages went past, I watched out for my number.  The nearest to 753 was 11753.  Unfortunately, a group of soldiers were boarding it as it came in.  Shurely shome mishtake?  I didn't fancy the prospect of 15 hours banged up with squaddies.  With flagging optimism I walked to the head of the train.  The last carriage was 753.  Alas, it was locked.  Not just to hoi polloi like me, but even to the guards.  It took a handy Sikh with a screwdriver to fix it.

The first-class accommodation was spacious but not much else.  The seats were long and hard, the fittings minimal and not totally functioning.  Each seated six, and slept four.  There were two others in there, in the cooler window seats.  To my horror, I saw that one was smoking.  Purgatory.  In fact the cigarette smoker turned out to be a pleasant enough chap, as electrical engineer stationed with the Indian Air Force a little below Jammu.  I grew more worried about the other occupant, who began displaying a choice collection of skin diseases which he itched vigorously.  To slow him down I offered him The Independent to read – it does have its uses.  One of the clues in the crosswords had "haha" as the answer.

Even though the train was nominally an express, its progress was painfully slow.  The distance covered was only 500 km – about as far from London to Edinburgh – but it took 15 hours.  Things were not helped by the long stops at stations.  This gave time for the chaiwallahs to hawk their wares.  All the stations chefs cooking their greasy chapatis and fried rings were nearby too.  The tea comes in thermos flasks; I have no doubt it is safe enough – but the cups certainly aren't.  Despite the slow speed the trains thunder as if they were travelling at 100 mph.

At 9pm we made up the beds.  This simply meant pushing down the back of the bottom seat.  The bunks were hard but roomy.  It brought back memories of long nights travelling through Europe with Interrail tickets.  Particularly when the cold began to bite.  I was definitely cold.  Even with a jacket, jumper, t-shirt and girdling money belt, I was definitely cold.

I woke about 4.30am.  The sky was still dark.  By now, as the landscape emerged, it proved to be very different from that surrounding Delhi.  It was rolling and with plenty of vegetation.  It was also much colder.  We arrived at the railhead in Jammu 30 minutes behind schedule.  I had visions of being stranded in a place with little to recommend it except as a springboard for the Kashmir valley.  But Indians are not a rigorous lot; many coaches had waited for the train before setting off.

I bought a 60 Rs. "super" ticket.  This was partly with the aid of a lad who had obviously fixed on me as one of the few decent prospects off the train.  He followed me onto the bus, and produced the inevitable album of photos of houseboats.  I told him I wasn't interested, but the combination of his salesmanship and the fact that I would be arriving in Srinagar in the dark and – as he stressed – cold, with nowhere to stay, suggested it would be useful as a fallback at least.  We haggled over the price, and then haggled over the deposit.  True to my second-hand car-dealing family background, I was very loath to hand money over sight unseen.  However, it was only £6, the conductor seemed to vouch for him.  What the hell, let's risk it.

As we set off, I was confident that this was the last I would see of my money.  Although the bus was super, it was hard to tell.  It had armrests.  But at least it was relatively uncrowded.  The road out of Jammu was dull, but gradually I noticed its prime characteristic: up.

To begin with, the landscape was lush and rolling.  The road was wide enough for two vehicles – just.  Our driver was yet another maniacal Sikh.  He seemed hell-bent on pushing his – our – luck.  But then with a 12-hour drive ahead of him, he was in no mood to get stuck behind lorries.

Of these, there were many.  Apart from flights, this is the only route into Kashmir, and it is heavily used.  The lorries are brightly-decorated, and all bear in English "public carrier".  It is worth noting that all number plates use Roman characters.  They depend on the area – for example, in Delhi, they begin with "D".  I was confused by the occurrence of plates with "USA" in Agra: I thought perhaps relations were better than I imagined.  But "U" is for Uttar Pradesh

Along the way to Srinagar, there were innumerable roadside cafés – transport cafés, no less.  There were also larger villages, but even these were mostly one-street affairs.  It was noticeable as we went on that hookahs started appearing on the streets.  As we drove on, the vegetation gradually changed.  It became more scrub-like and the ground rougher.  Still we climbed, hour after hour; the bus never got out of second or occasionally third gear at the most.

From the cold start, the day had warmed considerably.  The sun's rays were strong and palpably hot.  Its light began to carve deep shadows in the twisting hills.  The road we followed hugged every bend of the mountains.  Often across huge valleys you could see the white ribbon we would take.  Each swing back was across a strategic bridge – "photographs forbidden".  Soon the vista behind us was an unending succession of dusty hills and valleys disappearing into the heat haze.  We had been travelling for half the day, and were now in the middle of nowhere, but a wild and beautiful nowhere.

We finally made it over the pass – at over 3000 metres altitude – and began a descent into the next major set of valleys.  After snaking round a few of them, we picked up the course of the Chenab river.  This was a huge jade-coloured giant, surging some 1500 feet below us.  The gorge was magnificent, surrounded by mountains.  It all looked so familiar.  It was like the Lake District – but five times bigger.  It was the same with the perspective of the hills as they shouldered each other, the perspective changing as we wound our way.

Further on, we started coming across cultivated areas, laid out in the characteristic terraced form.  It looked like pictures of Tibet or South-East Asia.  Some terraces clung to almost sheer faces.  One small village lay in a concave bowl down such a mountainside.  As we passed it, it lay in deep shadow, as it must do for half the day.  The river at this point was bending wildly.  Classical oxbow stuff, except that it was twisting around 1000 foot high outcrops of craggy rock.

Eventually, we proceeded upstream along a tributary, leaving the main river to join one of the five rivers in the Punjab before hitting the sea at Karachi.  This soon scaled down, and a sizeable valley floor developed.  The terraces evened out into neat fields with mud walls.  Some were flooded and looked planted with rice.  Noticeable were dwellings which looked like huge mud beehives.  There were other buildings which already were in a noticeably different style from the other Indian villages.

Along the way from Jammu we had every so often passed groups mending the road.  Sometimes, they were simply rebuilding the excellent stone barriers.  These were not a solid wall, but about four feet long, with both ends painted white for easy visibility.  From the outside, they were faced with stones and blended in well, hiding the road.  This benign paternalism was also evident with a steady series of "beacons", all in English, on a yellow background.  In little rhyming couplets, they admonished drivers to drive slowly, live long, stay awake and keep calm.  They were like the product of a very keen and slightly deranged copywriter who had been ordered to produce hundreds of the things.  Driven to the limits of banality, they achieved a kind of touching homeliness.  I looked forward eagerly each time to reading new ones.  Also noticeable along the way were the people walking.  Since they were miles from anyway, they took on a kind of visionary quality as they performed their mysterious odyssey.  

We had begun going up quite steadily for some time.  We had left behind the tributary, which had dwindled to a mere stream.  Now we were high among the barren rocks again.  The sun was beginning to sink in the sky, and its softening light turned the huge peaks around us into visions of velvety softness.

We passed through Banihal, on the way to the final pass.  I was struck how the trees had suddenly become autumnal.  India of the plains had been out of time, but here there were trees which stood like huge red and gold flames.  One tree just outside Banihal reminded me of the great chestnut by King's College chapel.  It stood perfect in its perfectly-varied autumn hues.

Finally, we come to the Jawahar Tunnel.  This is 2500 metres long.  It is totally dark inside.  As our driver gingerly pushed his way through, water dripped from the roof and sloshed under the wheels.  There seemed no light at the end of the tunnel.  Eventually, there was – the rear light of a lorry.  After this anti-climax, we soon made our way out into the Kashmir valley.  I cannot claim that the instant we were out there was a sense of liberation, or of having achieved our goal.  But as we descended and the valley took shape before our eyes, this did begin to happen.

The valley of Kashmir is enormous.  It spread out before us in width and length.  Along the latter, the ranges of mountains hemmed it in.  Not just one range, but two or three, the most distant covered with snow for the first time in our journey.  This snow was beginning to turn gentle pink as the sun sank behind the hills on the other side of the valley.  To the north, the end of the valley was lost in haze; but from our elevation we could see the perfectly flat valley floor with the winding river Jhelum.

Once we had descended to the floor – still some 1600 metres high – we moved on more rapidly.  As we passed houses and villages, it was clear that we were in a different world.  The houses used a lot of wood, particularly in their facings, and were often thatched.  They looked more Central Asian, not Indian sub-continent.  And the villages were different: there were trees growing alongside shops; everything appeared orderly and clam.

It looked strangely familiar.  The peasants in their long dark smocks looked like something out of Breughel.  And so did the villages.  Dusk was falling, and fires were being lit by the side of the road, and in shops and homes.  It was not just cold now, but bitter.  As we passed through villages we saw scenes from Adam Elsheimer.  And the fields and roads themselves wore a familiar aspect.  Lining the roads were rows and rows of arrow-straight silver birches.  Their golden foliage shot up with them like jets of water.  The fields were orderly and flat – just like Holland.  And the whole landscape – peasants, villages, fields and roads - fitted together with a sense of déjà vu: Kashmir was the Low Countries, crazily and beautifully placed in the Himalayas.  

The valley was now ringed with salmon pinks and real Tiepolo clouds that hung over the blushing crests of the mountains.  We rattled on through the darkening night, and finally began making our way through the outskirts of a big town.  Just as I was beginning to think this must be Srinagar, and wondering what would happen about the houseboat, the bus stopped briefly and a man leapt on.  This was nothing unusual because the Sikh driver had stopped before to let on fellow Sikhs and members of the armed forces.  But this new passenger made straight for me.  He identified himself as the boy's father, and said we should get off here.

I had decided to see what the boat was like.  It would have been foolish not to have tried one.  So we commandeered a rickshaw which took us a short way to Boulevard Road.  Here the man hallo'd across to the dimly-visible houseboats, and a fragile, spoon-like boat – a shikara – came out, piloted by another son.  Unsteadily, I mounted, and was borne silently away.  I realised that my options were few at that moment.

From what I could see on the outside, the houseboat looked like something off the Mississippi, all balustrades and fancy fretwork.  Mounting the steps on to the small veranda, we went through a pair of sliding doors into the living room.  By the dim electric lights this looked like a Victorian parlour.  The furniture was dark and heavy, the coverings chintzy.  In the middle of the room was a small stove, its chimney leading up to the roof, and then out of the window.  The ceiling was elaborately decorated with wood.  After the living room came the dining room, also taking up the full width of the boat.  This too was all heavy furniture, and silver in cabinets.  The light now was even dimmer.  As the owner explained, electricity was very unreliable here.

I was happier with Mr Abdul Aziz now.  His boat looked reasonable, even picturesque.  When he had bounded on to the coach in his loud check jacket and Islamic moustache he looked the typical spiv.  I realise now he is simply a very active entrepreneur.  He has six boats, a carpet and antique shop and possibly much more.  He is always prepared to sell you something, and usually to haggle.  In appearance he looks like a more pushy version of Lionel Jeffries.

Beyond the dining room was the kitchen.  Aziz explained that all meals were included in the 225 Rs., and he was the servant – the official server being on holiday.  Then came the two bedrooms, one with two single beds, and one double.  Both had attached bathrooms – not exactly spotless, but functional.

In the end, I chose the double bed room because it was self-contained.  A meal would be fixed for me, then a shower, some heat in my stove, then bed.  The food turned out to be generous though unexciting.  It was "ship" – a dish I was to grow accustomed to.  The tea was good though, and was to prove the mainstay of my diet.  My shower was warm enough; the bad news was that so cold were the mornings it was not worth heating the water: ergo, no shave or shower.  Ugh.

But worse was to follow.  As a normal precaution I spray the room before I sleep in it.  This I did.  But as I began preparations for going to bed, I heard a curious pinging sound, irregular, but increasing in rapidity.  Something fell from the roof: it was an insect, a kind of silverfish.  They obviously lived in the wooden roof; the fly spray had affected them too.  They dropped all over the place by their tens, possibly hundreds.  They were wriggling in their death agonies.  I could hardly go to sleep with them coming down, so I decided to leave a time 10xT, where T was some arbitrary half-life for them to fall off the ceiling.  By 10 o'clock they were down (sic) to one every 15 seconds.  Time for bed.  

This was large and comfortable.  It was also well endowed with covers.  With a healthy fire in the stove, I deemed one superfluous, and shut down the fire.  I would regret this the next morning…

1.11.86 Srinagar

The next morning I awoke early – and frozen.  It was bitter like an English December.  The blankets kept most of me warm, but my head and face were chilled and I had lost a lot of heat.  Jumping out of bed was a mistake, but one made easier by the fact that I wasn't going to shave and shower; straight into clothes and to hell with it.  I had hoped for an early start, but Kashmiris don't do it this way, evidently.  9-10 o'clock was when they started according to Mr Aziz.  He was not impressed by my requests for breakfast at 8 am.

In the meanwhile, I wandered the freezing boat, unable to do anything.  Boats have a definite feel all to themselves.  The imperceptible sway, only noticeable through the lamps' slow swing; the creaks alerting you to every movement aboard; the effect of water.  Especially the light on water.  Later in the day, the sunlight bounced up onto the ceiling, and dappled it playfully.  It reminded me of Venice, the Forestiera Valdesana, the sound of Mozart from across the water.

Intoxicated by my success in arriving at the fabled Srinagar (anagram: Sangri-ra), I was emboldened to try a quick dash across to Leh.  This meant a plane – by road, it was two days there is you were lucky.  It also meant warmer clothes.  Srinagar was bad enough, but Leh was worse.  I was tempted by a panchul, the characteristic smock-cum-overcoat worn here by all and sundry – including Mr Aziz this morning, looking quite ethnic against yesterday's city slickness.    Immediately, he offered to get one made for 220 Rs.  Later, one of his many friends came by on his shikara.  He was a tailor and brought swatches of cloth.  He quoted 500 to 1000 Rs., which I soon punctured.  We left it that I would go into Srinagar and find out if there were any flights.

By now, the sun was high over the hill which stood behind Boulevard Road.  On top were a Buddhist temple, and TV tower.  When I arrived yesterday, all I could see were bright unnatural twinklings high in the sky.  This was in addition to the countless stars visible in the crystal-clear air.  

Early morning there is a smokey mist which hangs a few inches off the water, floating over the lily leaves which surround the boat.  Fish ripples break the surface from time to time.  As the sun rises, there is a warm red glow along the top of the hill.  Surrounding mountains are just hazy blurs in the morning mist; they will not become fully visible until this afternoon.  From the boathouse's roof you can watch the sun rise, its rays slanting down through the mist at an even sharper angle.  There are a few lonely shikaras out at this time, paddling through the cold water.

I went into the Air India office at the tourist complex.  As ever, things are much more spread out than I imagine.  After queuing twice for half an hour, I found that there were flights in, on Tuesday, but none out.  Leh would have to wait until next time.  I decided to try to fly out to Delhi on Wednesday, giving me an extra day here.  I came back for the usual "ship" dish for lunch, brought by the ever-courteous Mr Aziz, along his precarious walkway, which led back to his boat, wife and kitchen.  Afterwards, I sunbathed on the roof.  Even in just my shorts I was hot: the sun was incredibly fierce.  The contrast with the night was extraordinary.

In the afternoon, I decided that since the lake lay at the heart of the town I should get to know it better.  After the usual haggling – helped by the complete absence of competing tourists – I hired an elegant white shikara for an hour or two.  This had a canopy, and a huge bed/sofa as well as several other seats; certainly more of a Bucintoro than my houseboat shikara, which is like a long shallow spoon.  Like punts, there are two modes of paddling: at the front and at the back.  Most people use the hunkered position.  Both men and women ply them, and they are used for every imaginable use.  Like rickshaws, they tend to be laden to the point of implausibility, with vegetables towering up unstably.  One was even shipping water, so great was its load.  The paddler calmly scraped it out as he went.

My white vision glided effortlessly along past rows of houseboats with touchingly English names like "Cutty Sark", "Rover", "Golden Fleece" and "Jacqueline".  They seemed built to roughly the same plan.  Apparently the number has gone up dramatically since 1947, and they are popular with Indian honeymooners.  My oarsman wanted to give me the full guide bit and sit facing me.  I dissuaded him – partly so that I could look at the mountains.  These now stood forth in impressive clarity.  They were like a huge wall encircling the lake and valley.  It was easy to believe that this huge freak of geography was really some Shangri-La.

As we turned into the lake, it became clear that Dal Lake is not so much a lake as a lagoon, like Venice.  I had always been sceptical of this comparison: the houseboats looked as much like something from Holland, say.  But passing along the back of whole villages set on the muddy islands on the lake I was immediately reminded of Torcello.  These were cities in the making, living communities with their characteristic wooden housing.

We took a left turning through a narrow channel surrounded on both sides by trees and fields of vegetables.  It looked just like the upper reaches of the Granta.  We passed a few huts.  From one of them a woman emerged, and spoke with the man.  Then we moved on to a huge field of floating lilies.  The water was completely still, and broken only by the great leaves.  The sun was reflected in it and turned the water to gold where it touched it.  In the far distance the great fort loomed like something out of a Kurosawa epic.  We hovered for a minutes, in one of those timeless floating worlds which lilies somehow evoke.  And then my little man made a suggestion.  The lady he had talked to was his wife.  He lived in one of the huts.  He was inviting me back for a cup of Kashmir tea.  Now, this presented me with a problem.  I know that hospitality up here is sacred; yet drinking tea in those conditions was chancing my arm, somewhat.  I used even circumlocution I knew in the Queen's English, but to no avail.

We went back, and immediately threw the whole household into commotion.  I could imagine his wife saying "how could you bring back guests when the house is in such a mess, and I have nothing in the cupboard?" She was dressed in a pink pyjama-style outfit.  Like many of the Kashmiri women, she had a distinctly gypsy cast about her.  The house consisted of two square rooms, each about ten feet by ten feet.  The living room had two straw mats, a radio, a light bulb and a framed picture of the man's brothers.  Nothing else.  Some cushions were hastily found for me.  I offered to take my shoes off as they had done, but they demurred.  Ensconced as the guest of honour (a power failure just hit half of Srinagar: very pretty to see the town turn blind – I'm back to lamp power again, more anon…) the babies were wheeled in, first his one-year-old son, and then his three-year-old daughter.  She was a bonny little thing, and wore some ridiculously squeaky shoes.  Other kids also appeared, but the Mrs was busy bustling in the kitchen and hardly showed herself.  His mother and sister were also around.

When the tea appeared, it was as I feared: in a cup that would not have passed muster in the greasiest of greasy spoons.  A least it was hot...perhaps all the nasties would be killed.  In the cause of improved international relations I drank.  Sweet and rather sickly but quite nice.  His tea looked even worse: pink with big leaves.  He insisted it had salt in it.  Then came worse, the biscuits.  Tea was one thing, but biscuits… My mind raced through all the possible avenues for germs.  It was terrible to contemplate.  I bit the bullet and the biscuit – which was crumbly and had poppy seeds on top.  I was unable to eat more than a couple of bites, and feebly put it in my bag "for later".  They also gave me a sort of pancake which followed the biscuit.  I did drink most of the tea.

I felt very bad.  Their kind of hospitality obviously meant a lot to them, and I was unable to appreciate fully.  I just hope I did the bare minimum.  I thanked his pretty lady wife – who seemed almost embarrassed by my thanks, and beat a retreat.  The little girl waved me off.  Interestingly, the man was very reluctant to tell me his wife's name.  Obviously, they are quite strict Muslims.  Although the experience had been a trifle delicate, I was grateful that it had occurred.  It gave me a chance to see close up these fine people.  I was also humbled by their generosity: they who had almost nothing giving to me who had almost everything.  I felt so powerless confronted by this gulf. 

We went on in the graceful shikara, past the floating gardens which gave this region its name.  Little vegetable patches were doing just that: floating in the water, a mass of mud and roots.  The produce, almost inevitably, looked excellent.  We made our way back through some of the shops – mostly carpets, artefacts etc – which abutted on the river in these backwaters.  There was a strange odour of peaches – which I later identified as the sweet stench of decay.  At the insistence of Ali I visited his brother's carpet and knick-knack shop.  And upset and utterly dumbfounded them by resisting their every effort – even of credit.  But it seems folly to me, to go back laden with such "souvenirs" – what a giveaway.  If memories are not enough, then too bad.  And who really want Buddhist artefacts all over the house – unless you are a Buddhist?  It just ends up as sad detritus.  Then there were the presents.  Jewellery, etc. – but how many times have we been given a little gift, and felt guilty because we hated its squat ugliness or inappropriateness?  Taste is not something that travels well.

As we rounded towards the Boulevard, I could see the other side of the houseboats, those facing into the floating gardens.  The sun was low and blood-coloured, and reminded me of sunsets in Venice.  The ranks of boats looked like palazzi on the Grand Canal.  When I got back to my houseboat, which was called "Manila", the air was cold.  A warm shower – my one allowed per day – was welcome.  Food was, yes, ship.  That evening I asked for a fire in the sitting room stove so that I could try to make up the time I was behind in these writings.  It is as I feared: the writing is beginning to take over my days.  Like Tristram Shandy's father, I cannot keep up with events.  I am renewed in my opinion that anyone who can keep a diary is either leading a boring life, writing boring entries, or cheating somewhere.

Because the lights were so unreliable Mr Aziz had lit a splendid oil lamp.  He and his family had gone off to visit neighbours and celebrate Diwali – both Saturday and Monday are festivals.  Almost immediately the lights dimmed completely, leaving me with the excellent light of the lamp.  Slowly the elements assembled themselves: the sturdy desk, the lamplight, the stove roaring away, giving out its thick heat with a slightly acidic atmosphere, the water lapping outside.  I felt extraordinarily Chekhovian.  As if I were in my dacha at the end of summer, by the lake's margin, with the stove burning to take off the evening's chill.  Even the fireworks outside seemed like something out of Uncle Vanya or The Seagull.  Kashmir seems to be subtly polymorphous.  Lulled by these thoughts I went to bed with another fire roaring in my bedroom.

2.11.86 Srinagar

Again I woke early; again I woke cold – even though I had wrapped up warmer.  I still found it hard to reconcile the hard heat of day with the numbing cold of the night.  It was if Kashmir subsumed summer and winter in its own special season.  One consolation is that I am less sad about not making it to Ladakh: there is really cold.

As I watched the sun creep over the mountains, three electric-blue kingfishers swooped over the water like fighter planes carrying out a low-level attack.  The day before, I had seen eagles in the floating gardens.  The multiplicity of animal life here is amazing; pity I am not better able to appreciate it.  Parenthetically, the hanging birds of prey who stack over the burning plains correspond exactly to my images of India derived from Paul Scott.  They were particularly ominous around the ghostly Fatehpur Sikri.

To the India Airways office again.  It turns out that the seat I thought I had is only on the waiting list: 54th for one flight, 4th for another.  I have to go again tomorrow to find out slightly less non-definitively.  Otherwise it's the old 27-hour slog back.    It's not that I find this totally appalling – I do and don't – it's just that having won Shangri-La in this way it would be nice to retain it by magically flying out of the kingdom.  Perhaps it is just the train journey I can't face.

Then for a brief walk round the town centre.  Once again, I am amazed by the distances.  The main market is huge and bustling.  I reach the wonderfully-named Jhelum river.  From one rather precarious bridge I can see another with hordes passing over it.  Below on the river, yet more houseboats, but not for tourists.

The architecture is very striking.  As I noted on the way in, the Kashmiris are keen on their wood: even the meanest shops and homes have carved panels.  In Srinagar I also noticed wood beams combined with brick à la Tudor style.  I presume this elegant architecture is partly a response to the harsh winters: the make-do shanty towns of Delhi and the surrounding villages would hardly do here.  I remain constantly amazed at how pervasive the English language is – even where there is no touristic need.  It is a slightly surreal experience to move through a kingdom locked in by mountains adjoining the Himalayas, not a million miles from Samarkand, Tibet or Afghanistan, without any difficulty or even sense of strain, thanks to all this English.

After lunch – not ship – I decided to hire a bicycle for a ride round the lake.  I was charged the princely sum of 2 Rs./hour.  But then the beast I got was probably not worth any more.  Nothing was either centric or in kilter.  The brakes were nominal, the tyres distinctly ropey.  As I risked my life among the insane drivers I began wondering what the hell I was doing.  I also wondered what would happen if the beast broke down in the middle of nowhere.  I decided to be circumspect, and "just" cut across the causeway over the lake.  Once more, the maps deceived me.

I went out along the Boulevard, past Nehru park, and towards the Oberoi Palace hotel.  The road ran along the shore of the lake; on the other side was a single row of evenly-spaced silver birches, their leaves a jet of gold as before.  Once again, I experienced a curious dislocation, for all the world this was just like some French countryside – even the weather felt right: autumnal with a warming sun but cool air.

Past the Oberoi and the new Centaur hotel, I was more or less on my own.  Great – provided the bike held out.  Out on the lake, groups of simplest shikaras were collecting weed using poles.  The groups they made on the water, with the sparsely populated floating garden villages behind, made them almost copybook Guardis.  The stillness and peace this radiated was identical.

As I went on, the curtain of the mountains gradually emerged from the haze, which was thicker than yesterday.  I was glad that drivers almost inevitably honked their deafening horns.  I understood now what this meant - it said: "by the way, old chap, I'm coming up behind you, so do watch out".  They are not at all: "get out of the way you great oaf…"

I never made it round the causeway.  Distances defeated me again.  There were also roadworks on it which would have done in my poor tyres.  I went as far as the Nishant Gardens, which were well stocked with locals and visitors.  On the way back, things felt even more autumnal – a kind of Himalayan hyper-autumnality.  The great fort loomed in the distance, the mountains reared up behind me, the Guardi-esque shikaras toiled away.  And just to complete my disorientation, a double-decker bus – made by Leyland – roared past.  I have no idea how they got it here.  Miracles will never cease.

Not content with this, I decided to take a shikara back from Dal Gate, going round the back of the houseboats.  Now tourist are pretty rare beasts at this stage of the season, and saying that I wanted a shikara had the oarsmen wetting themselves.  I chose a little boy and his simple boat (a) because I am a sentimentalist (b) it was cheaper and (c) I wanted to have a go myself.  Which I did for most of the way.  As I thought, shikaras are just like punts in that you apply impulsion lop-sidedly, yet somehow must keep in a straight line.  This I failed signally to do.  I frequently had to cheat by changing sides.  Eventually I sussed a modus operandi:  you plunge straight in, then twist out at the end to cancel out the torque.  It usually worked, but was not the graceful movement of everyone else.  Also, like a punt I soon managed to deluge myself by a few hasty movements.  By the time we arrived back at the Manila I was cold, tired and wet.  But at least I had tried.

And at least I have caught up with myself, god by praised.  And now my arm aches, and my head hurts.  Bedtime soon.

3.11.86 Srinagar

Yes, cold again; but at least I'm leaving the houseboat today.  I have really enjoyed the atmosphere, the smells and sounds of this boat.  Despite the privations.  Unfortunately, things were rather spoilt by Mr. Aziz putting on his entrepreneur's hat: he insisted the three days I said I would stay excluded the first night.  And that I therefore had to pay him four nights regardless.  We argued and haggled and eventually settled on a midway compromise.  I was going to give him 50 Rp. Extra… and then he had the temerity to ask me to visit his brother's bloody carpet shop.  On your shikara, mate.

The Broadway Hotel is relatively cheap – 330 Rs. - including breakfast, and warm.  I sat out in the sun and had lunch – one of the best meals I've had in India, a really light vegetable curry.  After lunch to the Air India office again.  Success at last: I'm on the Wednesday flight – I think.  Only trouble is, it goes via Amritsar…

Later that afternoon, I climb Shankaracharya Hill, a 1000-foot beast which lies behind Broadway.  I took the ascent quite quickly in order to watch the sunset.  I was quite breathless, presumably due to the altitude here: it's like starting from the top of Ben Nevis.  It was rush hour below, and all the honks and blares so beloved of Indians gradually became little toy noises.  The sun was still quite high over the mountain range to the west, out towards Afghanistan. As I rose up the hill, the lake hove into view.  To the south, the great Jhelum could be seen snaking through the city.  The fort rose up behind the town, though its impressiveness was diminished somewhat as I rose above it.  Strangely, the air was clearing as the sun sank.  Gradually the encircling mountains were becoming visible to the north and west.  As the wood fires were being lit towards evening, their smoke formed powdery patches.

I did not reach the absolute top, which is occupied by the TV tower for Kashmir.  Its generator gave out a huge roar; mercifully, it stopped when I got to the top.   The plan of the lake became clear.  Much of it was not water, but the floating gardens.  The serried ranks of houseboats looked like aerial pictures of London docklands during their hey-day.  The shikaras moved like pond skaters.

As the sun sank lower and grew redder, the smoke was tinged with blue.  The mountains to the east were starting to glow as the shadows lengthened on them.  A huge darkness was creeping across the plain as only the tips of the trees were in light.  The silver birches looked unreal, like an architect's model trees dotted over the plain.

I could feel the air grow colder as the last rays emerged from behind the mountain.  It reminded me of Venice where there was the same contrast in temperature in and out of the sun.  Just as the sun disappeared, the full rim of mountains were visible at last.  Two clouds hovered over the mountain top where the sun had vanished.  As it sank further, out of sight, their shadows raked upwards with a kind of Baroque artificiality.  I could grasp now the Kashmir valley in one glance, and could appreciate a new how improbable it was.

As I made my way down, the valley darkened before me and became a huge cauldron of boiling mists.  At ground level, I was accosted by someone.  I said "no thanks" reflexively, assuming he was trying to sell me something.  In fact he only wanted to know the time.  It is unfortunate that constant touting sours the atmosphere.  It was even more unfortunate that my mistake gave him an opening to strike up a conversation. This he did, ending up with an invitation to dine with his family – and to take back a letter for him.  My hackles rose.  I was being railroaded – possibly with kindness, but railroaded nonetheless.  My second-hand car salesman pedigree also made me chary of taking packages (the lights went again – and several times more: glad I wasn't in the lift.  Strange to watch the whole town plunged into darkness and then back again): drugs? Secret information?  No thanks, squire.  And yet one is reluctant to rebuff what are probably honest overtures.

I rewarded myself with some tea when I got back.  This was Kashmiri kahwa tea – green tea with slivers of almonds, served with sugar.  Precisely what my shikara man gave me, in fact.  Nice – I've just had some more.

More aggro in the restaurant.  This bod comes up from nowhere, shakes my hand and says he'd like to talk to me after dinner.  Reluctantly, I agree – again, it is hard to refuse.  I agree to look for him in the bar.  I do, and he is not there.  I go to bed.  20 minutes later, the bastard rings me – so he has my room number – and asks me to come down and talk to him for "half an hour, or an hour". Forget it, sunshine.  Then he suggests breakfast together.  I say I may seem him after dinner the next day.  But it is hard to give foreigners the brush off: subtleties fail, and they can ignore rudeness.  Pah.

4.11.86 Srinagar

My last day in Kashmir.  I have very ambivalent feelings about leaving.  I know that I must leave for the memories to ripen and fructify, so that the place doesn't go stale.  And yet.  It really is paradoxical.  I go out for a stroll in the city.  The morning is crisp and fresh – really autumnal before the crazy heat builds up.  The low sun catches all the birches and broad-leafed trees in their russets and golds.  The air feels sharp and clear, though it is hazy as ever.

On the river, walking along the Bund, is feels even more like England, like Cambridge: the paths, autumn trees, the mud and the water – could be the Backs but for the scale.  The poorer streets that back on to the river are amazing – like some medieval village, fossilised.  I walk round to the two bridges, and buy a tape of what I hope is Kashmiri music.  In its crudely printed cover and TDK it has all the hallmarks of a home-made or pirated version.  

I haggled with a  rickshaw driver – it becomes a point of principle – to take me to the Jami Masjid – another bleedin' mosque.  He takes me through the back roads, and it is a very long way.  The streets are full of appalling pot-holes.  It looks even more like a medieval film set.  The mosque is a bit different in that it has a set of cedarwood pillars supporting the roof.  This causes it to burn down every few years.  But it is impressive, especially the four giant trees used in the entrance.  It gives an idea of what biblical or heroic halls must have looked like – and felt like.

I was now in the heart of the real Srinagar, with few concessions to tourists.  So when it came to haggling with rickshaw riders, the boot was on the other foot.  They weren't interested in a long ride to Hotel Broadway.  First it was 30 Rs., then 20 Rs., I offered 10 Rs.  No go.  After half an hour of searching for alternative supplies, I gave in.  Humiliating – but educative.

Back round the swimming pool for some more ultraviolet.  I also tried the other Kashmiri tea - noon chai.  This turned out to be what my shikara host had.  It was pale pink, made with milk – and salt.  It was really rather horrible.  It also vaguely reminded me of something, but luckily I couldn't remember what.

I decided to round off my time in Kashmir with another trip on the lake: water, after all, is the essence of Srinagar.  Haggling once more, I hired a shikara for a slow, two-hour trip round the main lake.  The perfect serenity of the water and the mountains was marred only by the occasional motor boat (sic), the shikara peddlers, and the children after baksheesh – flinging lotus blossoms into my boat as a Kashmiri inertia sell.  Further out, the water was so clear it was like riding on air above swaying weeds and grasses.  The mountains were reflected and hung on themselves.  The harmony of elements – water, earth and air – and the placid motion added up to an unforgettable experience.  I must come back.  To paraphrase: if there is paradise on earth, it is only Kashmir.

1986 India I: Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri
1986 India III: Jaipur, Udaipur

A Partial India

More destinations:

Moody's Black Notebook Travels

No comments:

Post a comment