Shikaras And Sheermal
It is 8 pm in Srinagar. Not the witching hour by any standards, but everyone’s supposedly indoors except for our little group, gliding noiselessly in the darkness, dwarfed by dancing shadows on the spring-fed Nageen Lake. My colleague throws freezing vibes at the two of us seated opposite her. We have already explained that we didn’t take the vehicle to the houseboat because the circular drive would take an hour and this boat ride, 15 minutes. “Do you both know how to swim?” she asks. We stare silently into the black waters. “Twenty feet deep,” she pronounces and retires under the canopy in a huff. Suddenly it begins to drizzle and the boyish boatman hustles us into a huddle while he tries to balance the little shikara. That achieved, he starts to sway and sing. ‘Ye sama, sama hai ye pyar ka,’ the sensuous, floaty number from the 1965 film Jab Jab Phool Khile, that released decades before he was born, skims the cool breeze as we succumb to a bout of nervous giggling. Minutes after we are helped into the houseboat, my colleague banishes him to his home (much to his delight) and rearranges the transport for our return. Our affable dinner host, Showkat Tuman of the family that has been manning Mascot Houseboats since 1880, keeps us company at an eight-course wazwan that unfolds before our disbelieving eyes. In the opulent environs of velvet furnishings, carved willow work and hand knotted carpets, the array of kababs, dals, tabakmaaz, goshtaba, pulaus and gulab jamuns conjure up the spirited days of yore when Kashmir was all about fasting and feasting and Shammi Kapoor’s lusty outpourings. Most houseboats went uncourted by tourists this spring when owners were hit with a series of surprise cancellations due to the unpredictable nature of the land. We take a languorous shikara ride the next evening (this time in the fading sunlight), on Dal Lake, that of the terrific screen presence and 18sqkm wide angle and pass the forlorn structures of New Lucifer, Prince of Vale, Buckingham Palace, Cheerful Charlay, docked cheek by jowl in a lake often referred to as the ‘Chandni Chowk’ of Srinagar.
Foreigners may have demurred from visiting this season, but the rest of the country is up and about, ice lollies in hand, phone cameras in position and hyperactive children in tow, racing from one bagh to the other at fevered pitch. Extravagant legacies of the Mughals, the vast, sprawling gardens are at their most lush in early summertime and the famed tulips, in full bloom. Pari Mahal on the hill, glistens with raindrops and echoes with the strains of the Suchitra Sen-Sanjeev Kumar Aandhi while down below, opposite the famed Nishat Bagh, the Hazratbal Mosque, receptacle of the Prophet’s holy relic, glows in its marbled splendour. The streets around the domed edifice are fairly deserted and devoid of much female presence but we chance upon Khalil Mohammad Kalwal’s gem of a store, packed to its shelves with handmade artifacts of solid worth. Recipient of several State and National awards, the walnut wood haven is a collector’s delight. Srinagar can be tough on the wallet we discover because there is so much to covet and though Kashmiri goodies are available from Kanpur to Kovalam, we find ourselves falling in love all over again with feather-light stoles, embroidered Namdas, Dogra jewellery, papier mache boxes. At Polo View, the posh shopping street, not so discreetly watched over by gun-toting soldiers, we crowd around the counters of Amin-Bin-Khalik, better known as ABK, and point towards kagzi walnuts, deeply-hued saffron, plump figs, jars of honey, mini almonds and more, pleased that we are ‘sourcing’ from the ‘source’. Unlike the more populated Lal Chowk and Raghunath Bazaar which garner police attention often enough, Polo View is disquietingly peaceful and we hurry on to Sadiq’s Handicrafts housed in a quaint cottage where my colleague pounces upon the petit point purses and antique shawls with the well-honed instincts of a skilled marauder. At Krishna Vaishno Dhaba to which we have been directed by Kashmir-returned friends for ‘the best rajma chawal and aloo paratha in the world’, we find we have to fight for a seat. My colleague – she of the Pashmina around the neck and branded tote on her arm – decides to go forth in battle while we remain helplessly chained by the jalebi-seeking crowd hoping the bearers of dal don’t bump into her Dior.
Early morning en route to Pahalgam, we pause for a bit of crisp mountain air at the 1000-year-old Hindu temples of Awantipora, a protected heritage site. The leisurely two-and-a-half-hour drive to the prize honeymoon destination till the ’70s and Bollywood’s first love, takes us through Pampore’s saffron fields, Sargam’s industrious liasions with the cricket bat and mini traffic jams of shepherds following their flock. Aru Valley, 11 km upstream of the gushing Lidder River, is where the snow-topped peaks almost encircle you in their monumental embrace and riding the rapids remains the preferred thrill. Post some robust Punjabi fare at the legendary Hotel Pahalgam, favoured abode of yesteryear’s film stars and erstwhile royals, we board our vehicle for the journey back, replete with warm memories and bulging shopping bags, while indulging our taste buds with our new loves, the deliciously flavoured kahwa brew and the freshly baked sheermal…
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