Imagine having a cold water bath in Srinagar in winter. The very thought of it will give you a cold! I had risen early to switch on the geyser. Trusting that the geyser would have heated the water I poured a mug of it on the body and froze. Having started the routine I could not abandon it halfway. Watching late night movies had become a habit by the time I joined St Stephen’s in 1978. To save on pocket money I used to walk back to Residence. A bath became necessary after the long walks. Winter nights were no different. As there was no hot water supply in the Residence at night the only option was a cold water shower. The payback was restful sleep that extended well into the morning sessions my worthy classmates attended in the lecture theatres of Delhi School of Economics.
I was ready by 7 am, after an early breakfast, to leave for Jammu. On the way I noticed a huge ‘colony’ of birds moving in the general direction of Jammu. I appreciated the company. But, my getaway to Jammu lasted all of 8 kms. I was turned back by policemen who said that it had been decided to give preference to Srinagar bound traffic from Jammu today. I tried to reason with the guys, but they would have none of it. I phoned my host to find if he could help. He advised me not to attempt the trip if the convoy system is envisaged. Hence, I had no option but to return to the Guest House. Thus began my 2011 – the first day of a new year and that of a decade. Cheers to the New Year.
The type of construction of the GH where I am staying, situated in one of the prime localities in Srinagar, is of the ‘exposed timber’ variety. It is a traditional earthquake resistant construction of Kashmir and is called the ‘Dajji Dewari’, or ‘patch quilt wall’ in Persian. The timber, soft earth and lime mortar helps to avoid sudden failures such as quakes. This type of construction is seen in Italy, Turkey and Mexico City as well as in Kulu and Uttarakhand. The British Chartered Institute of Building has accepted the sturdiness of the construction technique and considers it as a possible solution for quake prone areas.
In the GH I made left over calls to wish New Year. One of the persons I called up was Khajooria Uncle. He asked me to take a drive to Chashmeshahi and Pari Mahal, if I had not been there before. I noted them as possible activities for the day. After completing the telephone calls I had to make I called on my host in his office. I had more than an hour of informative and eye opening discussion with him on J&K affairs over a cup of Khahwa and biscuits. The Khahwa is a ‘tea’ brewed with spices and is totally shorn of caffeine. The Almonds provide substance to the golden brew.
After lunch I accepted the offer of my host to provide a chauffeured car to visit the places suggested by Khajooria Uncle. With the ice having melted, many tourists were around in Chashmeshahi. I came across an animated lot from AP getting photographed in traditional Kashmiri attire. Perhaps jealous of the red-cheeked Kashmiri women one of them made a loud comment that her cheeks would also become red if she stayed on in Srinagar for a month! The Chashmeshahi has a perennial spring from where potable water flows all through the year. It is reputed to be operational since 600 AD and the source of the water is not known. The Pari Mahal, or the Abode of Fairies, was built in the mid-17th century by Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The six terraced structure is atop a hillock overlooking the magnificent Dal Lake and offers unmatched views of the Valley and Pir Panjal Range. The sun beating down on the mountains, covered in large part by snow, is a sight to behold from the Pari Mahal. The beauty of the Dal Lake is appreciated better from the hillock. The BSF guards the heritage monument. I met one of them who hails from Theni in Tamil Nadu and has a farm in Kattapana in Kerala.
On the way back to the GH I took a walk in the Mughal Gardens. As I entered the Garden I met Firdaus, a photographer. When he came to know that I have come from Cochin his eyes lit up immediately. He said that Fort Cochin is an excellent place and that he has a shop selling Kashmir Art in Varkala. Being a professional photographer I got him to use my camera to click a few pics. He bemoaned the state of affairs in Kashmir affecting tourism and his trade. Despite the entire area being covered in snow that is melting fast, one can appreciate the symmetry of the well laid out Garden. The mini lake within the Garden has boating facility. Since tourists were keener on walking around than boating, the still waters of the lake provided excellent reflection of the mountains and Chinar trees.
Walking in the snow without rubber shoes has its downside. It gets wet and the icy water soaks the socks too. After getting back to the GH I switched on the gas heater in the living room and sat down to write this post. The feet felt very cold and I took off my shoes to discover that the shoes and the two layers of socks had got extensively wet. I had to dry them before the dinner appointment with my host or get another pair from the car. I settled for the former and took the shoes off and set them against the grill of the gas heater, the smarter way to dry it faster. I got absorbed in what I was writing till I smelt burnt rubber. The toe of one of the shoes had stared yielding to the heat of the gas heater! Fortunately, I was able to minimize the damage and the pair is still in wearable condition for the dinner rendezvous. I was reminded of something similar that happened to me during the trek organized by the Academy as part of our training in Mussoorie. A group of about 15 probationers, including 5 ladies, opted for the relatively tougher Yamnotri/Gangotri trek. On one of the legs we were to halt in a Forest GH at the edge of Dodi Tal. Through the day we had to trek through rain and had also lost our way a bit. Only when one of us actually walked into the Lake did we realize that we had arrived at our night halt. Water had seeped in through my backpack and the sleeping bag was thoroughly drenched. To warm up before dinner and dry the wet clothes many of us sat around the fireplace and kept the spirits high singing to high heavens. Eager for a good night’s rest I brought my sleeping bag to the fireplace and held it not very far from the fire and joined in the singing to keep the shivers away. After a while some of us noticed a feather floating near the fireplace and wondered where it had come from. We did not have to wait for long since many more joined the ‘pilot’ feather. The source was detected as my sleeping bag, which was soon reduced to a few pieces of melted plastic. I had to make do without a sleeping bag for the rest of the trek, but the age was such that one could rough it out in the biting cold. So, today history almost repeated itself.
I have just heard on TV that traffic on NH44 has been normalized late this evening. I go for the dinner tryst reasonably assured that I will be able to resume my journey tomorrow. The two extra days I have spent in Srinagar has to be adjusted by suitably reducing the halts in the next 27 days.