Often, when people ask me what I do for a living, and I loosely tell them, “Oh, I am a travel writer,” there is a visible note of approval in their voice, a “How exciting!” is the regular response. In Sri Lanka, at a party last New Year’s eve, when I mentioned that to a stranger, she apparently thought that it was my way of getting her to dance with me, and she refused to believe the line. We did end up dancing though.
Not that she was wholly wrong. For technically, I do not travel and write. Not one tenth as much as I would want to. Majorly, I read about lands and people, looking for places popular or beautiful, for stories that have culture and can inspire, and then create holidays for people. When people, usually foreigners, come to Delhi and need a professional guide, I show them the Delhi and the India I want them to see - the good, the bad and the ugly.
On 24th of April 2012, however, I set out for Kashmir as the tour leader of a 25 member travelling group from interior Tamil Nadu. As they sat chattering animatedly with each other on the plane, all I could think of was how in the devil’s name was I going to make them like me, when I couldn’t even speak their language. This story is about a lot more than that.
Let’s start right at the beginning. The story of Kashmir will always start with that cold breeze that touches you as soon as you get down at Srinagar airport and stays with you till the end. It will, as it must, talk of the beauty of the land – of the omnipresence of the Himalayas in every frame, and the streams that always ran parallel to our car throughout the trip. It will talk of the apple orchards and the saffron fields that you read about in your Lonely Planet Guide, but it must also talk of the chinars – those magnificent trees with barks so large that you could not help but think of them as what Enid Blyton would have described as the faraway tree.
What the guide books will never tell you, for they are always written only to glorify, is of a shadow that shrouds the land. Of the barbed wire check posts that you start seeing right from when you leave the airport, the soldiers standing in the farms, the uniformed man watching you from his makeshift asbestos cabin near the Dal.
When we read about Kashmir on travel websites, they tell us of the grand houseboats on the Dal, Gulmarg’s cable car (the highest in the world) and Sonamarg’s popularity as a snowboarding and horse riding destination. Visit Kashmir, they tell us, to spend your honeymoon, to live in the land of the Gods, to ski, to paint, to love. A tourist’s heaven, they blurt excitedly.
It’s a state that depends desperately on tourism to make daily ends meet. It is the story of the handsome Firdaus, the seventeen year old history honours student, who sits in his pheran in a dingy shop just outside Gulmarg and has to rent out snow jackets and shoes to tourists eager to ride up the highest cable car in the world. It is also the story of Pervez, that young boy of Sonamarg, whose job is to seat tourists on underfed, overworked ponies and then guide them uphill over six kilometers of grass, slush and rocks to those snow-white hills where we ski and sled so joyfully. Everywhere there are hundreds of young men like Firdaus and Pervez, and that includes the courteous bell boys at the Adhoos hotel where we were staying - them with graduate educational backgrounds but no jobs that these degrees should have procured. It’s also about Farooq and Fayaz who drove us around the beautiful state for six days, and became my friends. One evening, I slipped out of the hotel and went over to Farooq’s to spend the night with his family. As I saw the lean man, hunching over his food, the wrinkles and grey hair shining in the lamp’s beam, I figured he must be around fifty. “Thirty two,” he replied when I asked him. “Twenty five,” quipped Fayaz. It is the tale of a state whose political misfortune and stress has caused an entire generation and the next to age quicker.
And that is why a writer should not be asked to write about a place from the internet. A content writer has only the freedom to look at a place for its lush verdant valleys or powdery white beaches. And of course Kashmir has oodles of the former, be it Gulmarg, Sonamarg or Pahalgam. But a travel writer has the power to smell the air, to look inside a house, and most importantly the power to bring out a story, hopefully with compassion and life.
In Kashmir, you shall see handsome young men, with their middle parting hair and stubbled beard. The women are light eyed, their heads covered with scarves. It is a race that is naturally beautiful - apple cheeks and glowing skin.
Kashmir has had a torrid past, but conditions are now improving steadily. The last three years have seen tourists come in thousands, the most in the last twenty years. And that’s how we came in too, to ride the shikaras on the Dal, tramp through the Mughal Gardens, buy original saffron and dry fruits, and click a dozen pictures in all these places.
But that day as we left the airport, I was absolutely unaware of how the journey through this beautiful land would completely overwhelm me. As my tour party sat chattering animatedly with each other in the tempo traveller that drove us from the airport to the hotel, all I could think of was how in the devil’s name was I going to make them like me, when I couldn’t even speak their language. The breeze kept blowing merrily though…
Coming Soon: Day One in Srinagar and the perils of travelling with a group of ‘un’ likeminded people.
Part Two is now live: You can read it here