Despite advice to the contrarian by well-wishers, I decided to visit Kashmir amidst reports inundated of clashes between the Kashmiris (call then Separatist, Militants or ordinary Kashmiris) and the security forces (Military, CRPF or Kashmir Police). A voice within me mysteriously kept assuring : “They will not harm a Tourist”. I trusted my inner voice and booked myself on the airplane – June 2017, Destination ‘Srinagar’.
Adil, a young taxi driver waited at the airport to drive me in his Innova to the pre-booked ‘Gurkha’ House Boat situated on Lake Nigel in Srinagar. Passing through the deserted roads, closed shops, (the separatists had ordered Kashmir Band on that day post killings of three of their members a day before) and passing besides the famous Dal Lake, the tension was palpable. It took little over 45 minutes to reach one end of the bank of the legendary Nigel Lake.
Shikara was the only mode to reach to the other end where my House boat along with few dozen others stood quietly floating besides one another in anticipation of the elusive tourist. Smiling Faroque, the owner cum boatman, picked my bag and with pleasing alacrity placed it on his traditionally decorated Shikara. 15 minutes of smooth rowing over calm & serene lake nestled among appealing mountains (snow peaked with slopes full of Chinar trees) the Shikara parked itself at the bottom ladder of my incredibly Beautiful Gurkha House Boat No ‘5’.
As I climbed up, I was amazed looking at every inch of this huge boat adorned with meticulously carved wood that compelled me to wonder, how much time and craftsmanship it must have taken to create a single such master piece.
Aware of my arrival, the care taker of the Houseboat No 5, Iffaque, escorted me in to this lavish 2 bedroom Houseboat. (Larger groups can select House boats that has up to 3-5 bed rooms). Entering through a sufficiently large and impressive Sitting Room (that would comfortably accommodate around 10 guests) I passed by a cute six seater dining room and then towards two Bedrooms that stood adjoining to one another. Being the only guest, I had the choice to select the best one to settle.
Amusingly, even before I could begin to taste the customary welcome Kashmiri Kava, and assimilate the astounding surroundings around, a queue of tiny boats selling Kashmiri Shawls, Jewelry and various artifacts stood lined up near my boat. Only a stone hearted could turn them off with curt. I indulged. Discounts were galore. Iffaque informs me that offering discounts was uncharacteristic of these seemingly desperate sellers. Reason : Tourism had literally dried up due to the fear arising out of prevailing unrest and violence in the valley.
After purchase of some shawls and stoles and the sun refusing to set, Shikara stroll was the best to go for. At Rs. 500/- per hour it seemed to be the most prudent way to comprehend the beauty of this beautiful lake and its surroundings. As Faroque slowly rowed his Shikara over the calm Nigel, rows of ripples emanating from his row, simmered magnificently in the setting Sun making the entire scene look incredibly outstanding. We passed through some fascinating floating vegetable gardens, stream of ducklings swam fearlessly oblivious of the underlying tension and from near a captivating wooden bridge that not only helped villagers to cross over from one place to another but also facilitated smart youths to put in their fishing rods to best use, plausibly for a tasty fishy meal later.
As the enthralling stroll over the lake ended, the Sun too bid bye for the day. It was now time for some good wine followed by a quintessential Kashmiri dine. As I planned to retire for the day, the sound of crackers bursting came from all sides and corners. I asked Iffaque. He said Pakistan had defeated India to win the Cricket final. I was sad. Wondered what was making these Kashmiris to turn their back towards India. Hope there is some resolution and Kashmir returns back to its original glory, sooner than later.
I leave Srinagar with a sense of ambivalence. The joy of beauty on one hand and sadness of strife on the other. ‘Beautiful Kashmir’ seemingly has become an oxymoron. And it is so ironic.