Call of the Valleyby Ashis Ghatak March 4 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 6 mins, 26 secs
A photo-essay by Ashis Ghatak: On the placid side of Kashmir and its infallibly hospitable mountain folk.
I wonder why stories of Kashmir carry along with them some invariable and unsaid apprehensions. Kashmir only evokes the thoughts of the time before the term ‘heaven on earth’ didn’t become clichéd with overuse.
I first got to know the paradise-like bounties of the land when I had once walked on the verdurous meadows, crossed mountain streams and marveled at the towering glaciers from their source of creation. Recently I went there again. And once more, when I came back home, not just the wind song kept humming in my ears, but the memories of there as well.
Faces of the smiling and warm mountain men of Kashmir pop up when I sit to write on them. Every time I aimed my camera to catch a glimpse, there was a warm smile of approval. In the most excruciating evening of incessant snowfall, when the shops were shuttering down, the owner of a small shack offered us the kangri to warm our frozen palms and gave us kebabs for our hunger.
We met Javaid at his village near Sonamarg. We had met him seven years ago. He was the trek leader of our group. The lockdown has hit trek leaders hard, since they were in a prolonged one much before the COVID-19 cast its dark shadows. “For us the lockdown started ever since Article 370 was abolished and the tourists stopped coming from then only,” Javaid states.
Seven years ago, we were walking on the path of a village left deserted during winter. There were only patches of grey in the thick wrapper of snow. The day was murky since dawn. It was raining continuously, making the thin strip of the trail extremely slippery. We were walking like scattered acorns on the wayside.
Each one of us, done for, was stooping on the trekking poles and was expecting to see the end of the trail at the next bend. Suddenly one of our trek mates, a middle-aged woman, slipped and to our horror we found her falling down uncontrollably on the snowy slopes. Our collective shrieks intensified when Javaid flung himself on her on the stony slope, before she hit a boulder that was jutting out. Javaid increased his speed of glissading and swung towards her right in the nick of time to save her.
Javaid became our hero. When we met him again this time, he told us something, which he hadn’t that day. There were scratches and abrasions all over his body after he had screeched along the snow. Diving into danger to save lives comes so easy to the hillmen. Political turmoil has taken a deep toll on them but not their affability. Their benign nature has taught them, from birth, to accept whatever happens with a smile.
We met a man in Sonamarg who pleaded with us to give us a ride in his sledge for some money. He kept on entreating us despite our typical stern urban nonchalance. When finally, he couldn't persuade us, he resigned with a smile that didn’t hint at any bitterness at our refusal.
Affee was our cabby. Infallibly courteous, he spent most of his time driving us wherever we wanted to go and complying to our whims of taking frequent photographic breaks. Indeed it needs patience of a different level to drive a group of itinerant photographers. His smile never faded. Under his deeply piercing and evocative gaze, there was a sense of cool contentment. I wonder whether that smile came as an armour for living in a valley always restless. There is an uncompromising pride of Kashmiriyat in whatever they do. That is why Affee insisted on a long detour to take us to an unassuming wayside shack to get us the best Kashmiri Kahwa.
I remember Bilaal bhai, the auto rickshaw puller who had once guided me to explore his city. Whenever I asked him to take me to a costly restaurant, he opposed it because he strongly believed that his ‘son’ shouldn’t waste his money even if he has it. On my last day there, Bilaal bhai had taken me to a salon to get my stubble shaved because I look older than my age in my grey beard. I was fondly rebuked when I offered him the money that he had already paid to the barber. For people like Affee or Bilaal Bhai, hospitality is the Kashmiriyat they can never dispense of. They made me feel valued.
I also remember the middle-aged stout man who runs his shop from quite early in the morning near Dal Gate. Every day would start with a buffet breakfast at his tea stall. And what a great spread it would be! Starting from homemade plum cake to vegetable, lamb and chicken patties - to varieties of bread topped by customised varieties of tea. “The shop is yours, please help yourselves to whatever you like with your own hands,” he said. And this was not salesmanship but just the way he is.
There was one gentleman whom we met on the boulevard of Dal Lake. He runs his family business of three generations of houseboats. That morning during incessant snowfall, he was waiting for any boatman to take him to his houseboat. We struck up a conversation with him to take his photo. He was walking with a fluorescent yellow umbrella and it was looking brilliant in this monochrome landscape of the frozen Dal Lake.
He told us the same gloomy story of how their business has reached an all-time low. A boat came through the narrowest strip of water, and he broke the glassy layers of ice with his oar. Even if the morning was bleak, the daily business had to start. The boatman opened his floating tea stall after anchoring beside the lake. Some locals huddled with us under the shade. The man with the yellow umbrella hosted all of us with cups of tea and home-baked bread that he was carrying in his bag.
Finally, I remember the station master of Kashmir railway station who seems to have emerged straight from the fiction of Ruskin Bond. I have never come across a station as beautiful as this. During winter the upper surface of rails are the only speck of black amidst the resplendent white snow covering the landscape. The signal flags lie wrapped inside the closet during the winter months. The station hibernates like a painted picture. The station master, a 28-year-old youth, was pleased to meet us. He escorted us to evidence the artistic wooden architecture of the vast waiting rooms. Believe me, the station is worth a visit.
We got to know how with supreme care the man has been maintaining the station where no train chugs in and out. The station seems to be frozen as if in a fairy tale of elfins and elves. The station master is the only traveller from the modern times. Even, the dogs that run over the snows to devour pieces of bread from him reminded me of Jack London’s novels.
“It has been months since I haven’t met my family. I wonder when I will get a transfer”, his voice trailed off as we left after some hours of indelible memories.
I guess, the grass is always greener on the other side. But being here, meeting the mountain men, spending a few days and nights with them, I feel the pasture is the greenest at this side of the fence.