It was 1985. My brother and I, aged six and eight, were beyond excited for our trip to Kashmir that our father had planned. We couldn’t wait to emulate our hero Shammi Kapoor who had slid down the slopes of mountains in Kashmir screaming ”yahoo″. In our heads Kashmir was covered in snow everywhere. When a cousin, the same age as me, asked me if I could bring back some snow, I solemnly promised I would try.
Memories from the trip are faint, but there are moments that have stayed with me through the years. I remember the exquisite woodwork, the chilly Shikhara rides on the pristine Dal Lake while gazing at the mountains in the distance and clutching on to hot water bags for warmth while sleeping. The pretty flowers and gardens in Srinagar were enticing, but I remember waiting impatiently to see the snow in Gulmarg.
We reached Gulmarg when it was dark. Next morning when I woke up, my father asked me to look outside. Everything was covered in white. I couldn’t wait to get into the snow immediately, but as adults would have it we had to wait till they said we could.
When we finally did go out, we had to wear awful, squelchy boots that seemed to sink into the snow. My mind whirred away thinking of ways to bring some snow home for my cousin, but the thoughts were soon forgotten when we sled down the hilly slopes and threw snowballs at each other. Thanks to our shenanigans, my brother fell very sick that night with high fever. Our father decided to cut our trip short. I was heartbroken.
On our way back from Gulmarg as I watched the snow-clad road speed past from the bus, I said goodbye to Kashmir in my heart, wondering if I would ever return. I don’t know why, but I felt unbearably sad at the thought of going away. I did not know that Kashmir would change in a matter of months or that my father would die in five years, leaving us to only dream of the marvellous holidays we’d had with him. I certainly didn’t know that I would become a writer and my books would take me back to Kashmir, 33 years later.
Kashmir was different and it was evident all around us — from the gun-toting army men stationed around the city to the children who grew up amidst widespread violence.
I was ecstatic when I received an email in June, inviting me for the Bookaroo festival to be held in Delhi Public School in Srinagar this year. I immediately told anyone and everyone but was met with disbelief and fear. My mother thought it was too dangerous, but I just had to go. There were other impediments too — the trip which was to be in October, was postponed because of elections in the first week of November and at home, my mother-in-law was undergoing surgery.
Swati Roy, one of the founders of Bookaroo had set up a Whatsapp group and gave us instructions. The day before our trip began, she sent us two photos. One was a poster from the school where the festival was to be held that read ‘desperately waiting for Bookaroo’. The second, which Roy had taken from her flight to Srinagar, was that of snow-capped mountains.
We finally reached Srinagar to relatively clear skies with no snow-clad mountains in sight, much to my disappointment. My warm clothes were no match to the biting wind but we braved through the evening, listening to the older students of the school sing songs and read out heart-wrenching poems they had written. Kashmir was different and it was evident all around us — from the gun-toting army men stationed around the city to the children who grew up amidst widespread violence. There were very few tourists, but maybe there are more during summer.
It began to rain the next day and fellow writer Bijal Vachharajani and I wondered why it couldn’t snow instead. The day Bookaroo was to begin, it actually began to snow, to my disbelief. It was like rain but colder and thicker. I thought it was an aberration and wouldn’t last, but I was wrong. It continued to snow well into the evening, covering everything in a white blanket. It filled my heart with joy. The unseasonal snow, while lighting up our hearts, did have a downside. It had apparently ruined several crops and orchards.
We were to dine that evening at the house of Vijay Dhar, our host who owned the school. Our van took us to the gate, but no further. Power lines everywhere had gone down and everything was dark. We got down at the gate and with the help of our mobile torches, made our way towards the house which was a good distance away. It was absolutely surreal and cold and we were scared we would slip and fall as we carefully made our way on the curving driveway to reach the house, looking at the winter wonderland around us, which was glowing even though there were no lights.
There was a sadness in their voices when they recalled the old days, when business was good, when violence wasn’t something that happened on a regular basis.
Every moment of this trip felt like an adventure, including my workshops and sessions. I was apprehensive when I started, wondering how to weave in my story about a trip where things go horribly wrong, with my reference point being of children who lived their safe and even entitled lives in Bangalore, but I needn’t have worried. Children everywhere are the same – there’s always that one smart alec who would give funny answers and make everyone laugh.
The day before we returned, we went to the Dachigam National Park and the views there – golden hued leaves scattered on the ground, lush chinar trees around us, snow covered mountains in the distance — were so unbelievable and surreal. My heart felt full, like it couldn’t comprehend all this beauty around me.
I also had the good fortune of visiting two Kashmiri homes of family friends during this stay and their hospitality, their insistence on plying us with soft blankets, hot water bottles and endless rounds of food endeared them to me. There was a sadness in their voices when they recalled the old days, when business was good, when violence wasn’t something that happened on a regular basis and they seemed to be resigned to what was happening around them. The skies were grey, the mountains white, the chinar leaves had wrapped the trees in gold but the colour red was anathema to them.