Mumbai right now is heat and dust.
So I escaped to Srinagar, up on the Northwestern border of India, near Pakistan and at the foothills of the Himalayas. I felt guilty, but I caved to my needs for cold weather, green spaces and solitude and left.
Srinagar is a small city with a troubled history. The driver who met me at the airport was a short north Indian man wearing large 70s style shades and an oversized suit. His car was an ancient van of sorts with worn towels covering the seats, no seat belts and what felt like no suspension.
Once at Dawa Lake, I was bundled into a Shikara – a long, narrow, low boat that gets paddled from behind by a single lily-leaf paddle by one man. This is the preferred method of water transport and it’s a beautiful way to get around – the boat itself is quiet while the boatmen shout across the water at each other. They would often paddle alongside each other for a wee chat. They might float alongside and share a hookah for a moment. There were salesmen paddling up and down selling their wares – jewelry, saffron, junk food… you name it, they would probably bring it to you.
On the houseboat, the valet of sorts, Muhammad, greeted me. He brought me Kashmiri khava, a sweet yellow tea made with saffron and a plate of biscuits. We talked a few times over the weekend, and he constantly impressed on me how beautiful his city is, how I should come back for a longer stay. As I was preparing to leave, “Inshallah, you enjoyed Srinagar and will come again for more time.”
I was taken to see some of the Mughal gardens and relished being in places where the air smelled heavily of flowers. I lay on some grass and spent ten minutes staring up at the leaves of the oak tree and enjoying being exactly where I was at that point in time.
The next day, I was taken on a drive in the countryside around the city. Rice paddies and mountains. People working. Women in colorful, clashing patterns, carrying impossible weights on their heads. Men standing around in their grey Phirans and knit caps.
We stopped for a Chai break and my driver told me about the surgery in which he was cut open from here (collarbone) to here (lower stomach) and had everything taken out, so he can’t really eat much these days, and his twin daughters.
He took me to a Hindu temple where I ate some kheer (milk with rice in it). To a Mughal mosque that fits 50,000 worshippers and where the gatekeeper who gave me an overdress to cover my body gifted me with a Quran as I left. My driver told me it was a very special gift, and agreed seriously with me when I joked that it was because I obviously need the religion. We had another chai break, companionable in our language differences.
We followed this with a trip to the Stone Mosque – a beautiful Mughal building where the stone is simultaneously heavy and airy. The final stop was a shrine to the man who brought Islam to Kashmir. The entrance, exit and entire interior are decorated in beautiful papier-mache. I was not allowed in, because I am a woman, but I could take a photo from a side window. As we were leaving, a man showed up and started handing out free handfuls of raw meat to people there. Literal handfuls, unpackaged.
On my last day, I took a 2.5 hour Shikara ride on the lake, being rowed by a tiny old Muslim man who did not speak any English and his equally ancient colleague who spoke slightly more English and would occasionally tell me what something was. We stopped midway through for a chai break.
The air was crisp, the sky was slightly overcast in a bright way, the himalayas surrounding the city were blue, the lake was calm and clear. The air smelled of lake water, mud, the occasional cigarette and a cool breeze. I sat and meditated on the beauty of the world around me and my good fortune.
I spent the rest of the morning reading, writing and drawing. I revisited early entries in my journal and amazed at a 22 year old me who was proud of finding my own way around London and using the Metro successfully, sitting there 6 years later, on a houseboat in Kashmir on my own, and living in India. I have swallowed a lot of fears in my life, and moved in ways I never could have anticipated.
I got the peace of mind I needed, the clean air I desired and the green spaces I craved. I also got a sense of growth and freedom that I never expected. After three days of considerable silence and solitude, I feel in touch with my own soul again and I will always remember Srinagar for that.