Despite been advised to leave after 8 am I took to the NH44 at 0645 hours. This time I was not stopped anywhere with bad news of the roads ahead and in the first hour I did 60 kms. Then the traffic changed. Trucks were all over the place and a thin layer of ice on the surface of the road made navigation tricky. Speed had to be sacrificed for safety and there were delays near Quasigund, Banihal and Patnitop for traffic to clear. The delays also gave me an opportunity to get some magnificent photographs of the snowy peaks, slopes and villages. The terraced farms look like rich dark chocolate cake with yummy snow white sugar icing. Men and women ventured out in their Fairans holding the Kangri within. It looked as if all the trucks in India were either lined up to go to Srinagar or they were on their way to Jammu. One must admit that the drivers of these trucks were extremely disciplined in the way they used the roads. Immediately after the Banihal Tunnel very strong winds blew about dusts of snow and icy cold water drops. To lower the window and feel them on one’s face was delightful - a child all over again? I tried to locate the shop where I had eaten boiled eggs with tea on the way to Srinager five days back. It was closed. The entire landscape of the region had changed in the past five days. Barren fields and trees that looked like forlorn sentinels were entirely cloaked and bejeweled in snow.
Deepak, SP Dhubri District in Assam, had told me to try out the Rajmah/Chawal in Peerah on one of the journeys between Jammu and Srinagar. While going up I was in between meals and hence, marked the spot mentally for the return trip. And today I was in time for lunch. I recognised that the Khajuria Vaishno Dhaba was the busiest and the most populated. I walked in and ordered Rajma/Chawal with desi ghee. In a short while I was served a large plate full of long grain rice with rajma and desi ghee almost spilling at the edges of the plate. The aroma of the rice, the curry and the ghee was enough motivation to start the wolfing act. An accompaniment to this combination is a chutney made of dried pomegranate seeds. I had two helpings of the chutney. This is possibly the best vegetarian meal I have ever had and ties for top spot with the dal/roti on Khyber Pass in Delhi University. The thought and taste of the feast lingered on and made me sleepy during the remainder of the drive to Jammu.
Patnitop was filled to capacity with tourists, mostly from Jammu. The snow and the Sunday combined well for the parents and the children. Getting across Patnitop took me more than an hour and vehicles were queued up for almost ten kms on either side of the Resort area. Once I got past this last hurdle I accelerated to arrive into the Jammu ORH by 5 pm – 10 hours for 300 kms on a congested and slippery road was a good drive full of experience.
I had to meet Khajooria Uncle before leaving Jammu. Without any prior announcement I reached his house by 7 pm with the thought of leaving soon, as I did not want to upset his routine by staying long. He would have none of it. Topic after topic was discussed and time marched on along with a couple of drinks, dry fruits and specially cooked food. Uncle is a much in demand expert on J&K issues in the media, given his rich experience and wide exposure. He maintains his unequivocal stand on sensitive issues in public fora and ruffles cozy feathers in studiously built up nests in the echelons of power. All the time I listened to him I felt as if I was in the presence of my own father. But he echoed it while I bid him goodbye, when he said, “I feel as if my own son has returned to me.” I found it difficult to hide my moist eyes from this wonderful human being.