How I love Kashmir? Words beseech me and that’s a feat because I am rarely ever gobsmacked! My association with Kashmir is roughly 30 years old but if you consider vivid human memory then I would say 27 years to be precise. My first real trip to Kashmir was at the age of 5. We flew to Srinagar and stayed at the Centaur. We drove all over the state for 2 weeks in an Ambassador (for the uninitiated, this is the most sturdy, rural & iconic vehicle of India). Even as a child all my memories centered on a deep sense of awe. I was perpetually smitten. I fell in love with something new every day, sometimes every few hours. I had never seen these many colors before, that’s what I remember thinking so often. I had been to Baramula Army Base as a 2 year old and that’s where we were headed on the first day to meet old friends. I remember meeting one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen over there. We were visiting a Major General if I remember correctly and his orderly had his family over from a village elsewhere in Kashmir.
Her name was Renu and she was exquisite, I asked my mother if she was a film star (she was gardening with a typical Kashmiri head scarf on and it looked so chic). I can still picture mom turning around to tell the General’s wife that the women in Kashmir only get prettier! So it wasn’t just the place, it was the people too. Kashmir invoked feelings of oneness with nature, something city kids never felt and I carried that feeling with me for the dozen trips we took thereafter.
It was at age 13 that I had my ‘real’ Kashmiri food experience. I guess the palate is more honed by that age and I was always a self proclaimed gastronome. We had been invited by a Veterinary doctor friend of my parents. The word ‘wazwan’ floated around the car through the drive. We had to spend almost 3 grueling hours discussing possible tension in the region (how gullible we were, looking back that was probably the most peaceful the valley would ever be) and all I could think of was the food. The layout was fantastic, rich and highly exuberant and the flavors were perfect, way more than I had expected. That’s when Kashmir became the ultimate holiday package for me. Through the teens and early twenties I kept a keen eye on the socio political developments in Kashmir, a part of me was constantly saddened. Kashmir became like a first kiss, lovely but you could never go back and feel it again. I was resolved to that idea for a decade and even adopted Goa as my backup piece of heaven till I heard about a group of friends headed to the real and only heaven on earth, Kashmir. This I had to see.
I stressed about the Chinar’s on the Dal Lake, they had to be there or it wouldn’t be perfect. I thought endlessly about the florists on shikara’s, the sunsets at the lake, the horse ride to Gulmarg, the river rocks that changed color in water, the glowing ‘kangri’s’, the soothing ‘kahva’, the aroma of burning wood, the sweetness of mountain tea, the crispness of the air, the clarity in vision … oh my God! Kashmir was that ultimate piece of heaven and more! So we took the first flight out that Monday and I prayed, I prayed for peace and more selfishly, I prayed for ‘my Kashmir’, the pretty one! My prayers were answered manifold. Everything was perfect. My nose thanked me for the air, my eyes wept at the beauty, my hands wafted on the surface of the Dal lake for like an hour and I bought the largest, most gorgeous, most exotic bunch of flowers I had ever received, or seen for that matter. The people were wonderful and the women were actually prettier, the serenity was so unusual for the turmoil this region had seen, it tugged at my soul. I saw everything I wanted to see and I felt the fulfillment I had felt years ago, the déjà vu was so unique. The river was exactly like I left it, I swear I knew the horses going up to Sonmarg, the gardens were exquisite and I was once again, smitten!
The icing on the cake were definitely the tulips. It was tulip season (which lasts for barely a month according to the hotel manager) and we just had to see it. I can’t help but get nostalgic but my first exposure to a field of tulips was a lovely Hindi movie called ‘Silsila’, were Amitabh Bachchan serenades his heroine in the tulip fields of Holland. I stood here in Kashmir and I could see the whole song unfold in front of me, I was in Holland, I was missing only the clogs. It is inexplicable … you have to go there to see what I mean.