Destination: Kashmir (1957) – 2

From Qazigund it took around 2 hours to be in Srinagar. In doing so we travelled through some idyllic country in the Valley. The green fields were bathed in brilliant morning sunshine with distant blue hills in the background made the whole Valley very seductive. No wonder Kashmir became for many years the favourite location for Hindi film shoots. In Srinagar the bus took us to the new elegantly constructed Tourists Reception Centre. It served the tourists for more than forty years before it was burnt down in 2005 by terrorists. That was a day before the Friendship Bus was to be flagged off by Indian Premier Dr Manmohan Singh in 2005 for Muzaffarabad in Pak-Occupied Kashmir as a measure friendly gesture in the midst of the generall unfriendly environment between the two countries.

We made it to my brother’s place through attractive leafy avenues of what was the Residency area of the town. Brother’s house was bang on the Bund – the embankment along the Jhelum River that flowed through the town. The Bund, as we learnt later, was one of the prime tourist spots where virtually every tourist would come in the evenings for a stroll by the side of the River. We too would roam about the Bund going up and down. It had some fancy restaurants and fine shopping towards Amira Kadal, the first bridge. While strolling here my parents met and made friends with one other Bagchi who used to be the Principal of the Indian Forest College at Dehra Dun. They also became friendly with a Tagore family whose daughter, then a kid, became a famous film actress and eventually got married to the young Nawab of Pataudi.

The Bund was perhaps the life of the town which had nothing more touristy than it, barring the Mogul gardens. Sitting by the first floor window one would never tire of watching the Pir Panjals in the distance and the passing humanity down below on the Bund at any hour of the day. Men and women would saunter up and down dressed in their best. It was a veritable fashion parade in which both men and women took to the ramp, as it were. Having been brought up in the backwaters of the country we were not quite familiar with the ways of the fashionista and hence we found their displays interesting.

The Bund had several Ghats on both banks. These were landing points for shikaras – flat-bottomed boats colorfully furnished with lots of cushions – that carried tourists on their sight-seeing trips or the locals on their errands. Apart from assorted shikaras other boats conveying goods and commodities or even shikaras hawking fruits and vegetables were seen on the Jhelum. Even some houseboats were parked along its two banks one of which happened to be a showboat with a queer name of “Suffering Moses”. It was a show-boat, kind of an emporium of high-end Kashmiri arts and crafts. It was there even around 11 years later when I was posted in Kashmir and then again in 2011 when my wife and I saw it, but this time we found it had discarded the boat and was located on a firmer base by the side of the River – close to the place where the boat used to be tethered. The name “Suffering Moses” remained a mystery until I happened to find a website in which the owner seemed to have explained that since his shop contained products of excellence that could be produced only after a great deal of “suffering” hence the word was prefixed to his own name which was Moses.

Srinagar in the 1950s was a small town and till then not much of development had taken place. My father and I would walk down along the Bund towards the inner city and found it smelly and filthy. We would go down up to the fourth bridge – Srinagar happened to be a city of seven old wooden bridges and another, the Zero Bridge, was added later – looking for the stuff that we needed but would come back disappointed. We, however, had no apprehensions or fear although it was just about a decade after the Pakistani attack. Militancy had not raised its ugly head till then. People were friendly and we saw no signs of animosity. Of course, on an occasional wall one found anti-India slogans. These were said to be the handiwork of those who had opposed the state’s merge with India and were still against the ruling dispensation

The best parts of the town were the areas known as the Civil Lines dominated by the Residency that was the residence of one-time British Agent for the princely state of Kashmir. Residency had been converted into a museum that had fantastic carpets one of which was supposed to be wall-to-wall type for its massive hall. Apart from fabulous textiles of the Afghan era and some exquisite locally excavated archaeological artifacts it also had colourful papier machie stuff and some intricately carved walnut wood furniture. Its grounds had a well- laid out garden presided over by a huge chinar tree. Sitting under it having tea served by the immaculately white-clad bearers of the Museum restaurant was a real pleasure.

While visiting Srinagar if one didn’t do that obligatory pilgrimage to the Mogul gardens one would be reckoned to have seen nothing. Hence, we dutifully piled into a shikara one Sunday morning for our visit to the gardens. Jhelum was linked to the Dal Lake through numerous crystal-clear streams with weeping willow trees bending down on them as if to seek and touch the waters. On these narrow streams a large number of “doongas” were parked. These were mobile houses for numerous families who spent their lives on the River and its tributaries. I had seen quite a lot of them in the town near its several bridges.

Ours was a leisurely trip down the Jhelum, its picturesque tributaries and Dal Lake, that massive body of water which had still-developing Promenade on one side and a bank of colourfully decked up houseboats with fancy names and on the other. The houseboats here and the ones on the Nagin Lake were reckoned as high-end type and were mostly patronised by Western tourists. One by one we did all the three gardens. Among the three, the most impressive was Shalimar with some massive chinar trees and large open spaces where Kashmiri families had come out to picnic. Kashmiris are supposedly great picnickers and on bright summer holidays they would not remain in their stuffy houses or “doongas”.

On our way back we came up against a powerful storm giving us a fright. The shikara was already slightly overloaded and it could tip over in strong breeze. Eventually the skies cleared up and we were home a little after sundown after a daylong outing. We saw some fabulous gardens, a few overwhelming chinar trees, successors of those that, we were told, were native of Persia.

We stayed through May and June but never felt the need of a fan – the weather was so pleasant. In fact, inside the first floor house we would be using covers during our afternoon snooze. I mention this since I saw in 2011 that fans had become a standard fixture in houses. And, hotels had air-conditioners which were unthinkable in 1957 or 1968. How sharply the weather has change in just 50 years!