Thursday, October 3, 2013


I left Delhi with an odd sense of calm. What would I find at 1750 feet that I did not know in the plains? When we left Jammu and Kashmir, we travelled through the Zojilla pass, and the mountains were immensely frightening. Sedimentary alright, speaking geological time, when the shales and loose stones and boulders were covered by water, they stood out against my fear, as brittle as the past, and lost horses in ravines, and bodies floating in ether, as they tried to leave the moraine of the past. It was freezing, last nights rain had dissolved the tar. Ofcourse, the road cleared, and so did the mist, and the tarmac became solid, a bright ribbon of road. The valour of soldiers and roadworkers from Jharkhand, and Tamil Nadu and Bihar, made our swift passage over the mountains possible. I was trying to in a patch work way to imagine the journey of Adi Sankara from Kalladi. It is a journey that I imagine in my mind, and with the help of theological treatise and commentaries, I try to understand why a Malayali would have walked so far. But the Himalayas have always been our legacy, and no Malayali wishes to give it up. We passed the ancient routes, and saw the road to the pilgrim sites with the pilgrims already heading to Amarnath, inspite of the dangers. Religious tourism is very palpable by that one thing called faith, it has no boundaries.
Our first stop, after a long day's journey through what seemed unnerving silence and endless mountains was at Anantpur. We had reached Kashmir. I was visiting it after 40 years, my last visit being in 1974, when I was seventeen. Kashmir seemed dusty, the road building, the incessant search to make things faster, faster faster, makes everything incredibly dusty. The new tunnel route through the mountains from Jammu to Srinagar will cut  travel time to four hours. Anantnag followed, with its fields and orchards, and then we came to Srinagar. It was 6 pm, the light was still there for us to  see this lovely town. The people went about shrouded in their grief, so palpable, it stuck a knife into the heart. It was curfew, a sizable number of people were about though, to pick up their provisions. A handful of shops were open. There were police and army men at every corner. Everyone ignored everyone out of habit. That sullenness, that grief, I shall never forget it. The road to the University was blocked, but we took another one, and went through: my first glimpse of Srinagar campus. Its unutterably beautiful, white buildings, hollyhocks and roses standing tall, the mountains ranging behind. We collected one of our team members, an Englishman, a computer professional who had wanted to know why we were two hours late? We ourselves could not remember...yes, cafe hopping in the mountains, we had stopped for breakfast, tea and rajma, lunch, evening meal...what else can you do with an entourage of young men doing their Phds and a handful of young women?  The participants mainly consisted of doctoral candidates and Assistant Professors who were geographers, sociologists, physicists, glaceologists, political scientists, ecologists, photographers. We had started at 7 am from Jammu University, since the early morning call had been heeded by all at 5 am, all the luggage packed, but since two people were found still sleeping in their beds, everything had to be untied and begun again. So we were late, yes, that's the reason we were late to pick up our soft ware engineer!
We drove into the free falling night towards Sonarmarg. Shepherds, men women and children were hurrying their sheep to Jammu in the night, taking their ancient routes. During the day, it was too traffic ridden.  We spent the night comfortably, in a hotel, where the sheets were clean, and the instant soup I ordered on arrival came courteously hours before dinner, out of a packet. I was so relieved to have it. Then I fell fast asleep, and at five am, we were on the road again. We travelled endlessly through the same landscape, and then finally we were in Leh. It was night, and the streets were like Aladdin's cave. Winter was on its way, and the tourists had mostly gone home. The town is a dusty citadel on a landscape which draws the traveller, welcomes him or her. Its an ambience many have written about. Leh, over  the next ten days unravelled its mysteries to us: the Kashmiri and Tibetan merchants, the Ladakhi men and women who sold their garden produce, the wonderful sense of the hills beyond, continuing in an ancient trail of dust and ambition, the glaciers fast melting, the pattern of rain which was slowly becoming to manifest itself as the South West Monsoon over the last couple of years, the memory of the 2010 landslide which the inhabitants had learnt to live with and ofcourse the hospitality of the local people. The taxi drivers tell us that Television news channels with their constant drumming into us that The Chinese are Coming have put their tourist figures very low for the last two years. "With the majority of the Indian Army stationed here, why would anyone think the Chinese are Coming?" But in Pangong Lake, the rumour is that the Chinese submarine constantly circumlocutions the rim, and the smoke can be seen from the surface.
 Leh has its calm, its silence,  bright hot sunlight, cool breezes, and yes, the noxious smell of petrol ruins the air, because neither the army vehicles nor the taxis control their emissions.

1 comment:

  1. From 1974 to 2013 (Kashmir), that is some passage of time mam. Some changes might have been stark with some beautiful things still existing... "...the streets were like Aladdin's cave", very true, they seem like caves which you wish to explore going deeper and deeper, scary and breathtakingly serene both at one go! Thank You for a very interesting account of your journey.