Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kashmir diary: One year after Ragda

My mind had been imperceptibly wandering. I’ve been travelling recently, tanking up on a lot of innocent countryside gossip and also reading up quite a bit. If these are not alibis’ enough for my not been able to update my blog, I’ve another fish story. From time to time, I have this somewhat nonchalant urge to not write, as if attempting to rebel with this constant creative pow in me. Thankfully I am back in my element now.

I took a lot of mental notes which have now begun to mishmash in my head. Before it is too late to recollect [being a terribly forgetful chap], I shall jog my memory. Let us start on chipper notes. Cynicism can wait.

On a pleasant August noon, as the maroon sun shone in its relentless form, I along with a band of buddies set off for the hills of South Kashmir. Past caring, past peacock color fields prancing with the rice crop and past scent laden apple orchards, we trundled onto a secluded spot where fronds of shining mist greet you in a perpetual slow motion. We were met with an insane amount of traffic on our way [the cars have more than quadrupled in the last decade] as honks blared with mad abandon. Some geese scurried for cover. Apparently it was a holiday weekend, and I figured out, everyone wanted to holiday.

War-weary Kashmir was emptying out on Pakistan’s Independence day eve. To Pahalgam perhaps. Sixty two years is a long time to keep your fingers dipped in old wounds. While in Delhi that baritone intellectual Jaswant Singh was turning the Hindu rightwing cock and bull story on its head by declaring that Jinnah was a great bloke [which he sure was], and while Pakistanis sang their ‘qomi-tarana’ [national anthem] without having to fear Baitullah Mehsud for the first time in years, we drove on to the lush green woods of South Kashmir to camp, an act unthinkable of, only a decade ago.

My Kashmiri friends are very meticulous. They amaze me with their knowledge of camping tents and allied outdoor gear like gazebos, sun shelters and sleeping bags. Raj and Salus got down to pitch the NorthPole tents and in no time five all-weather tents were up, doors facing one another, high up in the hills of South Kashmir. A brook danced on cobbles nearby. Soon barbequing began in all earnestness and the fragrance of small mutton chunks, marinated overnight, spread. A local, in charge of the nearby fisheries farm, came over to inform us that the smell of meat in the wild may attract animals, especially bears. I knew this was the closest to real nature – virgin, dangerous and best that I could get to. And if ever I attempted to do a mini Bear Grylls [Conservative British politician Sir Michael Grylls and Lady Sarah Ford's son, famous for his Man vs. Wild TV series] this was my moment.

At dot eleven the sole lamp in the camping site [habituated by our five tents] went out. The darkness was the blackest I have ever seen. There was nary a bark except for the sound of clean water. The crackle of palsy laughter and the perpetual stream of gags, perhaps the only reassuring evidence that humankind still existed. In feeble candlelight [we had conveniently forgotten torches or battery operated lamps], more than 7,400 feet above the sea-level, many altitudes away from our loved ones, in the middle of an eerie pine forest, my band was digging up happiness.

I loved the chill that perforated me in a million places, notwithstanding my Puma light jacket. I smelled rain and before long a mizzle began, prompting us to scramble to our waterproof tents. Soon heavens opened up and it began to rain old women with knobkerries [clubs] as they say in Afrikaans. The patter of cold rain on my cozy tent was enlivening and something to die for. [I so love rains] Outside, the wind rustled in the woods, as though trying to speak someone’s name. Staccato lightening lit up the mountain silhouettes. No one really slept that night. We kept hollering at each other from inside our tents, completely transfixed by nature’s awe inspiring nocturnal display. Sleep came at daybreak.

We were awakened by the sweet tweedle of country birds. Like a childhood fairy tale. I ran, with others, to the adjacent stream, loud with the sound of cold water. Usually used to controlled showers in the confines of marbled wash-rooms, it was fun doing a balancing act in the glacial brook. We threw water at one another, we screamed at the top of our voices, as if trying to sing human hymns to the rainbow trout fish that kept plonking from time to time. I was entirely unaware of the sun tan I was getting. [Days later the first reaction from a pretty female journalist colleague at work was thus: Good to have to back, Samy. You look bronze. Were you holidaying in Greece?]

The outback was outstanding. We fetched groceries from a nearby tiny village. Since they didn’t expect a horde of mad boys to descend upon their languid three shop market and hence stocked no poultry, we were guided to a place they called Vayel City [City, in the hills, in a forest range, the guy must be bonkers I reckoned]. Well Vayel City proved to be no NYC. It was another piddly little village with seven shops. Luckily they had chicken. And the foul from Vayel City became our forest feast.

When you go red in the face and your eyes turn mild jade with glee, you know you are high. An olio of untrammelled nature, night long rain and beautiful pals is one such recipe. High up in the green hummocks of South Kashmir, I was spaced out because I’d all the three – a dale so beautiful that you’d think you are dead and this must be the phantasmagorical heaven, they speak of in the scriptures. A million globs of rain, like angel tears, coming tap-tap-tap, quenching our earthy lusts. And friends – you can never have enough of ‘em.