8. The Story teller

←07 : The nature’s game

At first, I was Jaded and wondered what possessed me to this sleepy little town.
My senses took its own time to adjust to the accentuating silence, the grassy meadows and mountain cleavages.

Cars whiz past, heading east on NH1D, hoping to cross Zojilla before trucks clog up the ghat section. Tired motorists heading west look eagerly to arriving at Srinagar.

All doubts were gone when the clear blue skies and gorgeous mountain vistas reveal themselves posing existential questions before me.
Sun glanced over the peaks pumping a strange sense of strength and creativity.

Cold river banks in mountain cleavages welcoming us to sit on and watch the world go by.
It felt like the town was designed for us.

Strolling on the meadows of the valley along the curvy waters,
hiking the steep(almost vertical) mountains with cold sweats and grunts.

We kept our eyes fixated on the gorgeous mountains.
Moments later, the poignant story-teller came along.with his troupe under the supervision of the lonely eagle, the sun and the passing clouds.

The wedges of sunshine, the symphony of silence and the shadows of clouds were the lead artists.

The rooms we stayed were unsung heros of the story, with the roofing sheets responding to every nature’s call: to every minute weather change indicating signs of sunshine, rain and power switching with different alerts.

You hear a story that you already know.
Even with no thrills, no twists and no surprises you hear it again.
You knew of the tragic moments. Moments of love,pain and sufferings.
Yet you want to revisit them, re-dream the known dream and drool over it.

Perhaps,the art of story-telling does not lie in the story but the nonchalant ways of representing the story. Its the way story has been perceived.

Sonamarg for me is a great charming story-teller presenting itself in a new way everyday.
And the reason it stayed special for me is because I lived there.

Like an unexpected smile from a newborn, this journey has been full of surprises.

Like the perennial “Sindhu” river, things just started rolling for me, in my way!!

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07 : The nature’s game

06 : Saheb, Biwi aur Kashmiri Pulav

Going out alone is possibly the deadliest risk of life. Apart from benefits of agility and hitch-hiking, one may realize their true physical endurance, potential and emotional capabilities which is cautiously contagious.

Short trips, real short trips making my way out of main city to the road connecting Manigam bypass with a hope of getting transport to the destination I’ve longed to visit since ~13 years, kargil-Drass.

Been an hour, the lonely road, the lonely me with the star studded sky. I cursed my misfortune as the lorries took halt for the night exactly where I was waiting and none were moving ahead.

Is there a way? Is it written in my fortune? Should I head back giving up again?
“Not this time!!Let’s challenge fate”, went away another hour.

Then came an unexpected vehicle at the most unexpected time with top priority clearance in the city town country.

5 hours, 3 vehicles and 4 chai later, reached!! Finally!!
———————————

What the cook from last night said was true. There were little to no movement in this tiny village except the cargo heading to Leh-Ladakh, a cold desert. But nevertheless, glorious and beautiful from the gallantry of fallen men, who stood up for greater cause.

Post breakfast, the usual rites of begging for transport has begun. Not because I was miser to hire a cab, but there weren’t any cabs. Friday after-all. People’s Prayer day. Fridays and Kashmir, you’ll only get it when you visit Kashmir.

On a lonely road, in the lonely planet, a yellow board vehicle that says JK 16 which means Ganderbal district, which means, headed west. I waved alarmingly bringing the tiger to a screeching halt.

Where to?
I have no specific destination, just take me along.. sonamarg/naranag/gulmarg/Kangan. Any low key village is good for me.

The driver turned back and got his approval from boss of the cab with whom I’ve exchanged a weeny surprising smile strolling around at the war memorial.

Embracing the beauty of dusty cold road, sat in the front seat just looking out at the empty brown-fields. The plain path till zojila which I’ve crossed in early morning under dark skies and invisible valleys.

It was as if a blonde girl’s hair parted plaited into two units and driving through small deviations in the partition.

Just at the zero point snow sheet cover,


the driver retired  to prepare himself for the deadly zojila pass.

ngame

The black sweatshirt boss with a hair bun just got down and was having chai.

Solo? Yes.
You? Solo.

Not another word spoken neither a glimpse. Just embracing the hurling music of winds in the valley and the curves.
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Along the curvy elevated roads, it felt like having traveled a distance but still around in the same place. Like how it feels ending up at the same place having traveled the distance, having moved away from the beauties that knew how to pull us back and trap in its clutches of memories.

There were tall trees suddenly after a section. Like someone demarcated the boundary for trees. Seems like the cold desert and the green trees had a rift on who to have the trees.

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Khudrat ka khel“,told my conscience. (Nature’s play).

When I checked the physical map, police station is the checkpoint of the village, neither a district magistrate nor a panchayat office. Just police station is the highest authoritative office according to the milestones. Perfect!! I thought and got down.

A youth hostel, village of large exotic villas. Not my type. Went around the town to scout for better place to stay.

JKTDC guest house with two crowns over it. I sought if the specific room was available.
He quoted a figure I couldn’t afford and told my budget. Probably the effect of low-no visitation in the season got me the room I required at my price. Mansoor bhai opened up the room for me.

I saw one of its sort. In Dalhousie : kalaptop wildlife sanctuary forest guest house where Lootera was shot. Vikramaditya’s next after Udaan.

As expected, a British construction with indoor chimney, unfortunately sealed 20 years ago

Just as the afternoon Azaan had its closing cermony from the nearby mosque, a familiar face next door. The same girl, 3 instances. I feared if she took me for a stalker. Which later turned out to be the best company I’ve had.

The hibernating introvert in me came to life again.
Sure she would be irked with my one word responses and drifting through aisle like a whizzing mosquito.

A walk towards south. An informal visit to the flock of sheeps, the horses, another ramzan bhai and the wani restaurant. Drafting, documenting using the recall memories from the past few hours-days.

The dawn was not puncutal, the usual 7PM came.

A company for dinner after a long time in thajjias, just beside the mosque.

 8. The Story teller→

06 : Saheb, Biwi aur Kashmiri Pulav

05 : The Mehmaan

A half closed shutter,
Pincer vegetarian foods.

Today’s special
Kashmiri pulav
Paneer pakoras
Masala Green Tea

Hesitantly ordered “Kashmiri pulav?” I asked them if they would put in bananas or sticky fruits in them. I shared with him the horror of bananas and papayas in spicy fried rice being sold as kashmiri pulav and how my stomach responded to that “kashmiri pulav” to which he delicately laughed and said to trust in him.

I kept waiting meanwhile the autowala whom I’ve struck a deal has come up into the restro. The unusual Kashmiri Hindi accent. I offered him tea and he offered several words.

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I remember to have lauding him endlessly for the amazing pulav, the mirchis that complimented the cloudy cheese, the carrots that give bugs bunny feel, carefully marinated dryfuits. Sympathizing how wrongly one can spoil the name of “kashmiri pulav” down south hogged the pulav slowly, completely.

Just as Zakir and I parted goodbyes late in the evening, I was thumbing up for lift back into the city for the chaos, “so much of silence and peace is not good for health”, told my conscience.

An old man ‘?’ ,A proud Kashmiri has responded to my thumbs up with a bag of clubs.

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The man himself and his clubs.

Usually I would play the insanely curious interviewer, but this time he shot me, with questions.

Right from my travelling, my reasons,  my destinations and the papers in jacket.

On knowing I was free for the early evening, he asked if I want to watch a game of golf.
One of the golf course biggest in size and altitude.

Probably the loneliest game ever invented involving a lot of travel.
Hitting out of the park with the heaviest, strongest available club available and later search extensively to find it. Isn’t it what we do with ourselves sometimes?
Hurt ourselves knowing the obvious conclusions and later trying to heal ourselves?

The old man had the tongue of a gossiping aunt which never cease to flow.

He said holding the heaviest club positioning, swaying his bum in restricted angles,”I have all the comforts in the world. A home and a gypsy, a Wife and a issue.”

And there goes the first strike with the heaviest club that left a dubious thought, “is he imagining the poor innocent ball as his wife?.

When I complimented him of his nehruvian looks, he scoffed and said.. “I’d have been a much better looking PM”.

He told me later that I reminded him of his grandson abroad and how much they miss him around, wondering how career and life could harden one’s heart for their elders.

He is a young man trapped inside an old body. The old body and its package of apprehensions, sickness that restricts to live, eat, travel on his terms admiring the way i’m carrying myself through rich experiences.

He screechingly halted the gypsy saying in the middle of intense conversation buying flowers then calmly saying singing, “apni mehbooba se milne khaali haath nahi aate”. Laughs erupted in the gypsy.

The mischievous child in him is still alive and the aunt grew older quicker than her silver hair. A cup of coffee, conversation with his saheba.

He stormed out of his home with a fight and has walked inside with an unusual pleasantry forgetting the past rift between them,
may be  that’s how love works!!
I told them how stunning both were. A trip back to boulevard road with his driver, he was hesitant to leave his quiet house.The curious investigator is back with his questions with the shikaras around dal gate.

“What’s there in kargil? Why kargil. See book.. What is there.. See Kashmir.. Real Kashmir”,told the man who made my dinner.

This being the uncounted instance of the countless times I’ve been told “you cannot”, “not worth the effort”.

As if I listen!!

Its difficult, but there’s got to be a way out. The cattle has to move, people has to move, things are on move, why can’t I move?

“There is always a way out”, told my conscience.

Packed back the half bag, took ramzan bhai’s address and took leave for the day, waving goodbyes. Found out that the hotel’s name is Bombay Guest house”. the unusual mumbai connect, at least can you explain this my dear conscience.. ?

I realized how boringly philosophical I have become speaking to myself more than ever before. But isn’t it how conscience works ? Constantly deceiving mind to think of things that took-off, judge and have an opinion on every damn thing?

post.jpgAt the stroke of midnight, strolling on the dark lanes of dalgate road in search of a viable safe transport to visit the most influential memory of childhood, a place of sacrifices and memorials. Back on the roads promoting “thumbs up!!” with a tagline “pick the thunder”.

Not knowing that a team of trolls were waiting for me in the east.

07 : The nature’s game→

05 : The Mehmaan

←04 : Gateway to Heaven

No problem, I can make it on my own.
“aap tho hamare mehmaan ho, aap ki khusi hamari khushi”, Gulzar bhai told flexing his muscles around eyes and a broad nonchalant smile.
you are our guest, your happiness is our happiness.

“He really means it”,says my conscience.
Went with him with a leap of faith. Do I really have an option?

Beyond the hotel gate, A girl and a boy playing at the porch turned towards us in response to creaking gate sound and gifted a cute smile.

One of the best surprises in this unexpected journey.
Most underrated pleasures.
Like a smile from a new born looking right at us, just happy at our presence needing nothing else, looking eye to eye. Life is full of suprises just like this unexpected smile.

Gulzar was guiding directions to the hotel stay but I couldn’t take my eyes off from their strikingly beautiful light grey eyes and their smile.

At the hotel he introduced his elder brother, Ramzan bhai.
I nervously smiled and darted into the room.

Brushed.bathed.drank water. That’s when I realised how much I’ve troubled my jaws to chew gums to stay alert and awake.

Ears burning hot out of despair, fear and the warnings has cooled down

Land of paradise has cast a spell on me from thereon beginning with a children smile.

There were simple questions with deep concern.

Where do you come from?
How did you reach ? How was the journey ? for many days ? Alone ?

I was rarely asked my name during my entire stay in Kashmir.
Let alone the question of religion.

Gulzar brought his son, Faisal. To take me on a Shikara Ride.

The saying is truly true,
“Gar firdaus bar-rue zaminast, haminasto,haminasto”
If there’s heaven on earth, its here(kashmir).

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Like a  magic land which says no for footprints, there were miniscule ripples distracting the mirror images the lake has been forming.

Not just a treat to eyes,
the sounds of water being rowed back, songs of unknown birds welcoming the mehmaan,
sunshine providing the warmth by being mystically available peeking through mountains,
and the florists spreading their flower’s fragrance by their constant movement.

Justification of such experiences could only be relieved by experiencing again.Period.

I couldn’t see the time spent, neither did Faisal let me knew, but it was late in the evening I have returned.
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Bliss. Eternal, pure and euphoric ones.

Just as we reached back to the residence, in hindsight of ongoing hartal, Gulzar bhai recommended to have home made food. I’ve decided to have wazwan and humbly said no.
Ramzan bhai escorted me to nearby best restaurants on foot which turned out unfruitful.

Leaving no other options to have food at their home. I shyly asked for more quantity.

10 minutes later, Ramzan Bhai brought these beauties into my room.
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Never have I preyed upon food admiring each bite as I did now, thanking each grain for being on my plate, chicken for its sacrifice, beans for its best-toned shape.

One fine good meal, without which the night would have been incomplete. All the adversities and apprehensions I came with just vanished into thin air like the clouds. Left without a trace.

“please don’t feel shy, feel its your home and you are our little brothers”,said the brothers in turns.

From the nearby mosques, chants of Aazadi reverberated in my ears after azaan.

A brief conversation with bhai’s family, about how helpful the people are how delicious the food is and about my journey. Wish I knew kashmiri to praise the hands that made great food.

People aren’t against India. They were against Indian govt I quickly realised after several conversations.

Literal translation for Mahmaan in google is: A Guest. A stranger. A visitor.
Which is all I am for them.

And my new name for the time being, “Mahmaan”.

06 : Saheb, Biwi aur Kashmiri Pulav→

04 : Gateway to Heaven

03.Kings, Queens and the greenery.

The pack of apprehensions with which I began started piling up.

Which route to take? Is there a safe option?
Would I return In a single piece?
Would I be shot down?
If caught by the terrorists, would they feed me valley specials?
would they hire me? If so,what would they put me into?
Precision shooting? Recruiting? Human resource planning? Research? Or cooking?
Or would they leave me back where they found me saying “we’ll get back to you”  and never come around like it usually happens?

“I’ve come unprepared anyway, I will own it and accept what may happen” spoke my conscience.

The loud music, the annoying driver mishandling highway
as if he was high on grass,
racing as if he just got the news that his wife is in in bed with her lover.
I couldn’t recollect sins I’ve committed to deserve such atrocities. On top of that, hunger and sleep drove me to the verge of insanity.

The sort of music that I hate the most is now flowing in my ear canals. Unbearably loud.
I’ve made my truce with my ears to bear for a while.. For as long as this journey has to go. Indefinitely.

Greeted by abandoned streets of Ananthnag, Qazigund with shutters sprayed of black objectionable revolutionary slogans all over.
“Go back India”
“We love U Burham”
“Free Kashmir”
“Kashmir not for SALE”

Women passing by with face half swollen red. Terrified at first and sympathized of their situation in utter dismay. Wondering what put them in this situation.

Have I walked out into a War to find peace?
What sort of a person visits during someone’s distress ??
While the beautifully curvy valley has nullified my breakfast, the guilt filled my stomach for the afternoon.

Its heaven. But the heavier kind of..
Heaven filled with iron.
Iron: Carefully crafted barrels, triggers and the bullets.
More men in metal to hurt and metal to guard themselves, than the people around.

May be nothing happens if I can doze off for a while during the drive.
But the fear took over hunger and sleep. 2 birds at one shot.

Possibility of pellet gun making its way right into the eye,
possibility of stones hurled, the vehicle performing somersaults on roads.
Endless possibilities, an undying hope and a blind self-confidence that I can make it out safe is all.

Hope, just a pinch hope is all I had in my empty hands.

Just as the sun set out wishing happy journey, the apprehensions took a back seat and later shifted to dickie.. into the backpack.

Meanwhile, co-passengers in the backseat in a heated debate.
Conversations in the backseat trail off into head-shaking and agreeing to disagree at times about the engulfing love story the other is involved in,
the usual clash of egos and hesitation on who to say out first, on whether its love or not.

Fresh brewing love story.
Wish I turn back and say in a low descending voice “don’t get into it brother!!”
Instead sat quietly for he has to learn on his own and spoke of the situation in Kashmir.

Travelling in bits and pieces, by walk, by hired vehicles who could stop anywhere to save their vehicles being broken away from damages, begging for lift.
Inspections, questions and a lot of discouraging words, “why now, situation is worse here?” for which I was calmly dejected and hanging my head low, I chose not to respond when it sounded unconcernedly.

“Bypass bus-stand” screamed the driver, Thought I  didn’t hear properly. Upon confirmation, it was once a bus station. Now occupied by CRPF, barbed wires and fence of security.

Children approached the auto*, spoke  threatened the driver in kashmiri and he gave away a 100rs note smilingly, pleading something.

I guess threatening and pleading doesn’t need a language.

I am in plainsight of so many guns that I eventually lost count, I am in cross-hairs of some long range guns.snipers may be.

Never been so terrified in my life as I have been at this moment. Never been so watched, scrutinized.

I was scared to even raise my thumb for lift, fear fear and fear is all it was.
After several passing by vehicles, came a JKTDC bus at rather unusual time at unusual place.

I wasn’t asked my destination, neither did I ask them their’s. A safe place, a getaway from the surveillance was the need of the moment.

Dropped off at the last destination. Dalgate. People were moving around, vegetable vendors were out. My hot ears have calmed down.

As I scouted for a safe stay walking along boulevard road, Gulzar bhai met me and saved the evening for me. Like he was sent to find me.

An end to 2days of continuos journey of zero motives, just for the cheap thrill of being on move, to live, to see the place heard of in childhood.

Gates to heaven are never simple neither impossible..
However in this impractical world,
even with distorted ethical activites, this alternative heaven commonly known as kashmir and its quaint people had ticket to everyone with warm regards.

To the same question framed and shot in different ways with lots of concern:
“Why now ? its not safe now.”

I shot back a crisp reply peacefully : “Sahi ya galat, Jannat toh jannat hota hai.” ( however it might be, heaven is heaven).

05 : The Mehmaan→

03.Kings, Queens and the greenery.

02. Trains,tunnels and lullabies

Just another day, another train. This journey in itself is a story-teller.

Besides the gloriously urbanized down south,
existed its counterpart in the city up north: a deprived slum.

Abandoned stations were someone’s home.
Shadows of flyovers and foot-over bridges are kids’ hangout spots.
Space in between railway tracks their pavilion to dry grains(wheat).

Shirtless kids holding cards in their hands as proud as an oyster holds its pearl.

In the age of learning history of kings, queens and empires,
they had king, queen,jack and ace cards in their hands.

In the age of learning geography,
they were into deep study of viable sellable trash digging heaps of waste.

Though Patches of pale face skin hints of the vitamin deficiency,
their smile overpowered their malnutrition.

Sun was at his scorching best, but they were blissfully unaware of the adversities they are in.

With shrill elation, they waved and waved and waved.
Smile in exchange for a wave-back.And a high frequency shout in return.

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“Uncrowned kings and queens”
That’s how they got etched in my  ephemeral memory.
—–
These new co-passengers were very enlightening.
While one had pattern of leaves on his shirt depicting his love for the nature;
the other had disoriented arrows on his shirts displaying para-magnetism.

I could annoy them with my stupid puns, but I really hate to have elevated red patch on my face they might gift.

Had to water my fueling curiosity and shut up.
Though they looked like Anurag Kashyap’s antagonists, they were pleasantly welcoming and humble when spoken to.

And then just post evening, Loco-pilot took us into greenery. Variants of green having not seen before.
Even seen, unnoticed.
That is the trait of beautiful things, they don’t seek attention.

Lush green(in variable tints) farms, black soil, water bodies is all I could see around for the next 60-90 minutes with stations in between and negligible tractors, humans.

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Stinging wind blew across. Blissful fluttering of farms creating their own music.
Hampi is all I could think of. Repository of memories unfurled.
Vague green pictures flashed.
And came along the package of scars.
Scars that have been glamorously hidden in the disguise of words “letting go”.

The thing with memories and recollection is, they are hard encoded. One cannot refrain from those ugly scars the past left and just stay with the beauty.

Some things come with their own punishments.
One cannot refrain from past reprises and repentance.

The dawn came punctually. So did the night, came along a piece of moon.

10m wide water body. Trees. Green farms till visible end.
This was the view. While the moon adjusted its one half with brightness and other with darkness, its mirror image in the water body just romanticized the evening.

Just as I dozed off, the moon went to sleep.
When I woke up, the loud music of track and wheels questioned my intent to travel.

With darkness around, rounds of fear began firing up,
the thrilling speed has becoming scarier;
The art house turned into scary dark house.

The train became scanty and dark while the pleasant music of track n wheels sent shivers down the spine.

The usual questions popped again and didn’t let me sleep.

Have I gone insane ? Where am I headed to ? Is it worth the risk ?

Many questions but no answers, no hear backs. Just as the job interviews.

04 : Gateway to Heaven→

02. Trains,tunnels and lullabies

←01.Humble beginnings

This slow journey is a sleeper class Is like being in a public library.
Open to everyone.
Freshness out of the window.
Different faces.
And most importantly, Could wander around.. And chose where to stay*.

Packed my stuff and occupied my allotted berth. To join vikram and Sanjay, co-passengers for the next 24hrs(26)
Vikram dressed in  camouflage pattern shirt and sunglasses. With ab itch of curiosity asked if he belonged to any armed forces, for which he smiled and replied no. Of my many more random questions to him, that was the first.

Post Mysore, this got to be the destination I am happy to head towards.

This being away from a known place, known people felt good.
Distance and time of travel tells us how far we’ve come from home.

I kept looking out into the window. There were power lines. Towers of power lines were of two types. The one which offers huge opening in between so that wires can pass in between them and the other sort being tall erect with wires hanging on its shoulders.

Guess human anatomy  might have inspired those engg designs. Pun intended.
And then suddenly in the evening, the air is filled with sadness.
Melancholy prevailed.
Behind the sad blue skies, near the horizon were the happy golden smiles.

When I started assuming that the path is linear, began the curves.

Curves. Tunnels. Gorges. Rivers. Meadows.

The tracks were carefully banked and curved like brahma designs his daughters with intense care and attention.

Time flies away when we feel pleasure. The sun dawned and the night came.

Berths have been killed.Ripped. Supressed. But they stayed silent just as the earth.
Within half-hour of lying down on my berth,got involuntarily indulged in the the dirty business.
The dirty business of dreaming.

For the night,
Lullaby of wheels and track has replaced soft rock music,
Middle Berth chains replacing the pillow army, can sleep in peace without the fear of falling down.
—–
Its a tragic moment when we woke up in the middle of a dream not knowing its inception and the end. And moments later forgetting the dream.

perhaps life progresses in the same way.

Woke up. Packed.

And so, out of the station, up the road, and to the left. The bus stand. A begging mother and a weak child, 6₹ and a tea.

03.Kings, Queens and the greenery.