Srinagar : 20 years later
Returning to Srinagar after 20 years brings an exciting mélange of emotions – while infrastructure has grown, the essential serenity of the valley lives on untampered
Srinagar is that tortured land which for millennia has suffered many degradations while the people have stoically survived; like people everywhere under similar circumstances, who cannot leave and must live on. This was my fourth trip to the beautiful valley because I wanted to show it to my children and grandchildren – 20 years ago, when I was here the last time, my kids were still finding their feet. Now my kids are married and their spouses and their kids were coming in for the very first time.
It was fascinating to learn that there were at least 40 commercial flights every day – all of them coming in from different parts of the country. If there was nothing for people/tourists to do here, then are the airlines losing money? My son's flight from Mumbai was full, my daughter's flight from Bangalore was full as was mine from Hyderabad.
We stayed at the Air Force Mess. Rashid, the head waiter from the Mess, greeted me with a chirpy, "Aapka toh baal safed ho gaya!" (Your hair has become white!)
I then reminded him that it was 20 years since the last time I visited. To which, he smiled and said "hum bhi boodha ho gaya" (Even I have become old). He may have grown old but his finesse in the kitchen remains unparalleled. He is the one who had first treated me to kahwa – that delightfully warm, saffron-laced green tea cooked with almonds.
Ahdoos: A century old
We had a date with Ahdoos, (through email, if you please!), the old restaurant which manages to serve the full Kashmiri wazwan – a rich epicurean delight for all food lovers! It was started a 100 years ago as a small bakery, the first in the valley, courtesy the present incumbent Hayat Alam's great-grandfather, Abdullah Had, who was working in Maharaja Hari Singh's kitchen entourage.
Ghulam Hasan, Hayat Alam's father, who can be seen casually lounging around dressed in spotless whites at any given time in the restaurant, has this to say, "My father and grandfather must have worked on the alphabets in English and come out with this name, which for the family and the restaurant has become iconic. In fact, the name is today synonymous with the best of Kashmiri cuisine."
That it is still surviving with all its dining rooms full and its hotel rooms occupied is kudos mainly to this 74-year-old who has been steadfast in his belief that he has a good thing going and he needs to nurture it for the next generation of visitors while keeping the tradition of Kashmiri cuisine alive.
A word of advice from Ghulam Hassan, "People who are not used to much meat should try our dishes one at a time. So have the gustaba one day and come back for the roghan josh the next day. Try the rista on the third day. You can always have the methi chaman and the haak to ease the palate. Of course, the tabakh maaz has to be tried by itself."
Those rolling vales and the endearing open places where Shammi Kapoor romanced Sharmila Tagore and his younger brother Shashi danced around singing to Raakhee – well, they are still there. A little neglected and slushy, but the few horses that roam free add to the charm. A solitary Shiv Mandir on a rise looks down on a shanty town. As we troop up to the temple, I find that a large horse also decides to follow me, sure-footed up the steps. I step aside and quickly click a picture – obviously, he thinks of this as his domain.
The temple is well-maintained and the kids love the brightly coloured cosmos and calendula all around. The sense of openness extends beyond the horizon as the hills form a gentle background to this serenity. We take a peep into the erstwhile Maharajas' summer cottage, which we are told is now being used for conferences. We take a ride up to the peaks on the gondolas. My four brave kids decide to trek up to a small lake at 15,000 ft, along with the guide, Shabir, who does this for a living. I do my grandma duties and keep the three little ones occupied at the gondola station. The cook there happily made Maggi noodles for the kids who enjoyed this forbidden treat – "But Nani… But Dadi ….. mama does not allow us this." Not a speck was left!
The young parents are back, exhilarated at their trekking adventure. Before the kids can complain about Nani/Dadi breaking food rules, I confess! As long as the kids did not throw a tantrum, Granny survived!
We stop at a handicraft store where the kids bought a few knick-knacks. I was sitting in the Gypsy when I spotted one of the youngsters from the store walking across, maybe going home for lunch! He too sees me and comes across. He pulls out one huge apple from his bag and gives it to me, "Yeh aap ke liye, aap khao!" (This is for you, please have it!)
I am touched by his endearing gesture but tell him to carry on – it is probably his lunch. He tells me "Main aur le loonga, peecche poora baagh hai" (I will get some more, there is a whole orchard behind!)
That got me out of the car – to see ripe apples on the trees! What a treat! Of course, at the Air Force station, we had been breaking apples from the Commandant's house (without his knowledge)!
Seeing my excitement, the boys from the store came back in 15 minutes with at least a dozen apples, which would have weighed 3-4 kg. And they would not let us pay a penny! They got us a knife and we were all crunching down the apples and walking around the store!
On the way back, we stopped at another restaurant where Mayur, my restaurateur/foodie son-in-law ordered another round of Kashmiri cuisine, the ones we felt were rich and flavoured enough to leave a lingering memory – the roghan josh and methi chaman along with the rista were ordered and wolfed down! Meanwhile, Preetika (my daughter-in-law) suggested that we wash it down with kahwa and we did.
The iconic symbol of Srinagar has always been the Shankaracharya Temple which looks down on the Dal Lake as well as the Jhelum river. In my earlier trips, we had walked up a narrow path, now the administration has made steps, making it much easier. Nevertheless, for those not used to walking, it could be difficult. We see many older women and men sitting down on the sides, catching their breath while younger people go running, jumping!
There is a huge peepal tree on top, under which an open space has been erected, with benches all around. Enjoy the view from the top, before you take the final few steps up to the sanctum sanctorum. You come down and take a peep into the little cave where Adi Shankaracharya is said to have meditated .
The famous Mughal gardens
Mughal emperor Shahjahan is said to have laid out the famous Shalimar, Nishat and Chashmashahi gardens for his own pleasure. On our earlier trips, we went there for picnics, but apparently turbulent times are not conducive to those easy outings anymore. Ashik, our driver, took us to Badaamvari, a newly laid out garden by the J&K Department of Agriculture. They have tried to maintain the architecture of yesteryears with lots of almond, cherry, apple, walnut and peach trees planted all around. In the midst of the rolling lawns, one enterprising youngster had set up a rack of traditional Kashmiri clothes for those who wanted to get their pictures clicked. But in this day and age of mobile phones with their exceptional images, who needs a traditional camera?
From our rooms in the Officer's Mess, across the runway, we could see the Shivaliks. It turned cold and began to rain. We huddled in our jackets and, early next morning, we saw snow on the hills! Our vacation was complete!