25 January 2013

Led Zeppelin wrote a song about it and everyone knows the material. I wish I could go on about those things, but I can’t because I spent ten days in the disputed territory of Kashmir and the idea of this little book is to put down things that have happened.

The horrible, horrible sinking feeling after reading about the conflict between India and Pakistan, that to this day takes place, left when Alex and I touched down in Kashmir. We were met with a cool, clean air, and inside a strange man wearing sunglasses who kept trying to get us to fill in a form. Turns out he is just a very jewelled up customs officer.

A short man wearing a nice white hat and brown poncho smiled at us when we walked out of the airport doors. He barely had any teeth and asked I remember him. Before I could answer he was hugging me tightly.

We jumped into a jeep and threw our bags–and the mysterious red box that we’ve carried all the way from Delhi–in to the back. The only word spoken the entire car trip was just a murmur to the boom gate attendant. The driver slipped him a rolled up bunch of cash and we pulled smoothly away.

The streets were a blur of Persian-looking men. They were all wearing grey or black or brown full length ponchos. Persian-looking writing was painted directly on the walls with logos of some companies in English. But there weren’t many walls, instead mostly tiny 1.5 metre wide shops all held together with ridged tin sheets. Just as dilapidated were the cars pushing their way through the traffic like in a busy metro station, but here in Srinagar they use their horns and don’t worry about which side of the road is which. Buses are even louder, older and coloured in bright pinks, purples, gold and greens. Adorned with beautiful lattice work over most of the windows and panels too, but you often don’t see them as men are hanging off it. It all repeated over and over like were were driving in circles, but we weren’t as the snow capped mountains were changing slowly as we drove.

Big guns snapped me out this blurriness. Every few hundred metres there were men looking darkly out to the streets through barriers and dense barbed wire. They looked out so darkly. Sometimes there were little two-men sentry outposts, and always the soldiers held the automatic rifles ready. There was no tension in their glances, but their faces hung gloomily and alert and you didn’t really know who they were supposed to open fire on.

‘Here is the lake’ the father said.

Graceful Victorian-era houseboats lined the shore, and all over was very still water. It was so still that it was like some specially cleaned glass, showing a perfect reflection of the intricate wooden trims of the boats. Now there were no more cards around at all, and it was very quiet except for gentle paddling. Around the water came a long, thin boat to pick us all up. IT was colourful like the buses and the man paddling was using just one oar with a love heart shaped paddle. There was a solid thud of wood as we hopped on and a creaking when the boat rolled around. The water was only two inches below the edge of the boat.

‘This is shikara’ the father croaked quietly.

We drifted slowly through a maze of houseboats. It was eerily quiet. Lots of boats, but no people. It wasn’t like an abandoned city, because it just is one.

We moored up at two houseboats joined by a common wooden terrace, with a little bridge going to the small house that was actually on land, so it is on a tiny island. Alex and I walked up to the terrace and looked out to the lake. It was surrounded by mountains so large that even at the distance, they stood like walls.

We met Rose, Riyaz, the mother and a niece. We sat down in a large room covered by a huge red carpet with our shoes off. They huddled Alex and I together under a blanket and smiled when they weren’t speaking broken English. Would it be rude to ask to leave? We wanted to get a damn sense of of where the hell we were in the world. It became even harder to ask after they gave us two ‘firepots’. Small handheld woven baskets with a ceramic pot inside. Inside the pot was charcoal. It glowed red hot and head radiated out that became more and more welcome as the sunset and the temperature plummeted.

Eventually we were taken into the kitchen, which was just a tin shack with a wooden roof. The shoes had to come off again and again they didn’t bother closing the door–curious given how every member was crouched in, limbs folded around their own little firepots.

The rice, dal and vegetable curry was delicious. Mild but tasty. Everyone was on the floor, the women sitting in the grubby half of the room close to the cooking, separated by a small wooden wall about 50cm high. Everyone was slurping the food out of their right hands in this dimly lit tin shack. Behind the slurping was the final call to prayer echoing over the water.

That was the first day in Kashmir. There were ten. It’s best not to put the remaining as a day by day thing because it just didn’t feel like that then and certainly doesn’t feel like it now.

Slowly I got to know the family. What helped was that I was seen as the young fun visitor compared to the three other visitors. Alex, the strange hippy still living with his mother at age thirty.

Gary, who seemed to be going through some mid-life crisis of sorts and left South Africa in search of ‘something more’ in India despite having done several years travel in his earlier days. He loved to laugh loudly like the short man that he is, and this must have certainly helped him through his time in the Kashmiri hospitals. His problem is that he had low blood pressure, but he’s also a hyperchondriac. He was staying in a neighbouring houseboat without any firepot and a light that barely worked. Feeling faint from the horrible conditions he was living in, he just ran to the hospital, and only just made it. The hospital was overcrowded, with some beds holding three people. All the linen was stained with blood. The ‘doctor’ assessed his neck pain and told him he had multiple sclerosis, then gave him some medicine that sent his blood pressure through the roof. He took a photo of himself on his probable deathbed, looking up at the ceiling with a grey and purple face. Don’t know how he recovered but we laughed about it.

Then there is Jenny or Jen as we call him. In an internet cafe, some Kashmiris were having a flick through his passport of of curiosity after recording required details. They also handed it to me, and as always, I laughed at the photo, but stopped abruptly when I read:

The guy driving us to all these places and showing us around was Riyaz, the eldest (second eldest if you count the son who ran away from the family) of the family. In reality, he is just a child who never grew up. He is probably the main reason why we all smoke hashish every bloody day and night. Whether it be in the mountains overlooking ‘Asia’s largest late’ (supposedly, but wouldn’t be), or at 3AM playing our twenty first game of Uno, or those long drives to the mountain valleys with reggae or 70s Bollywood music blasting, he’s always asking if we should roll another joint.

Smoking didn’t really change anything, it just made everything a little more slow and dopey. What really changed the place was on the third night, the light rain changed to a light sleet.

A day before the snow Alex and I were on the lake with our faces in the sun and firepots tucked in. All day we sat there being taken towards the mountains where some fishermen were, then through the island farms, then through the town. Like Venice, nobody owns a car in this town, but unlike Venice, rubbish was piled up and tangled in the tall water grass. The wooden houses looked as if they were abandoned because they were teetering over the lake with snapped wooden planks shooting off, until you saw a mother come to the glass-less window with her baby and waved to you. You wave back and smile over and over again. Sometimes the rot was so bad through the wood that tin sheets were used as plasters. Children were climbing over the wood and broken brick walls playing games. They stood up as we passed but didn’t seem worried about falling in despite all the human waste oozing out of PVC pipes straight into the water next door.

So since it started snowing I started to wonder how all these people would be going on, because these towns, on land or not, are the town of Srinagar. Over time, the snow was shovelled away by the young men of the family with the paddles of their Shikaras. Firepots were refilled and everything stabilised to just another winter in the Himalayas.

Everyday life was not the same everywhere though. Up to the mountains we drove with the reggae booming, and up in the valleys the snow was definitely not being shovelled anywhere anytime soon. On the lake we were near 2000m altitude, but here we were closer to 4000m. The gypsies live on the mountains and they are surrounded by them in a way that the vast area of flat farms and tiny clusters of village houses beneath them must seem like a different world altogether.

But we were also from a yet another different world altogether, but we all knew how to play cricket. The wickets were just a small mound of snow and it was difficult to find the flimsy plastic ball after somebody hit it a long way down the side of the mountain with the splintered bat.

Other days we would walk up to the little lookouts and be stared at for throwing snow at each other and making snowmen. One time we finally set out on a good walk through a valley I can’t remember the name of. The trees were so straight and sat so steeply on the slope of the mountain. Riyaz pointed to the remains of an avalanche from two days ago, and it made me worry why there was so much snow where we were walking through just on the other side of the stream. Each step your feet and your legs went very deep in the snow. It started just ankle-deep, but eventually the snow was knee-deep and were were so tired we all just fell backwards and lay there cocooned by snow.

Each night we would come back in the night and always the nephew would be there waiting to take us the 100m over the water back to the houseboats. Always there was just the paddling and always the call to prayer was being relayed out, not so loudly. They were chanting, not wailing as is the norm. A little ethereal.

Always there would be, eventually, a meal waiting, and almost always the power was gone. We sat in the dark eating and sat in the dark joking and we sat in the noxious, gassy, smokey warmth of Gary’s room talking. The smoking was getting too much sometimes. I ran my hand across the mirror and my fingers were black from the smoke. This is how I got to know the woman of the family: Rose.

Rose is the second eldest daughter, unmarried, of the family. She is so quick off the mark, and never held back from making fun of me for eating too much. But we bounced off each other like this because it kept our jokes going about how crazy she is and how crazy I am and just how crazy it is that we’d fall on the floor laughing so much. We sat in the dark together. She would ignore calls from her friends and I would forgo getting high again. She kept telling me that she was ‘free’ and has no boyfriend. It was a problem for her that I was four years younger.

In fact, in this beautiful place, everybody carries a bit of fire with them. It truly is just a sad place, and I haven’t even mentioned the wars nor how I only just made it out of here, but the Kashmiris keep going with–always close to hand–a little firepot.