The best part about Paradise is that you can carry it around in your head.
I was delighted when a shopkeeper in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul called me Hema Malini. Not, I hasten to add, because I am a fan of that actress, nor indeed because I have any pretensions of looking like a star, but because it was one more point to chalk up on my ‘Kashmir’ board. I have an obsession: Kashmir—the land from where my husband hails. And if you are in the tourist area of its summer capital, Srinagar, you are likely to find yourself bombarded with charm of the “Are you Madhuri Dixit?” kind. To find it in another country merely affirmed my belief that the whole world is like Kashmir. Or, to put it another way, Kashmir holds within its verdant folds, the essence of the entire world.
The ubiquitous valley
The upshot is that no matter where in the world I have travelled, I have seen something that reminds me strongly of Kashmir. Occasionally my heart has lurched painfully in my rib cage when I have encountered something better that Kashmir could have become, with minimal planning. For the rest, I have slowly come to terms with the fact that I must be an excruciating travel companion. Take for example the time when I was in Finland with five near-strangers. We had gone to visit Langinkoski, a handsome wooden country set in a forest near flowing water. While the rest of the group were ruminating on how a Russian Czar (Alexander Ill) sought out the obscurity of a rough log but in the countryside with no staff quarters or facilities for entertaining, I was transfixed by its resemblance to a but in Pahalgam. To add verisimilitude to my argument, the Kymi River roared over weathered rocks exactly as the Lidder did in Pahalgam. “Look!” I shrieked with the fervour of a fanatic. “They even have wooden shelves built into the walls of the kitchen where they display their utensils. That’s exactly how our kitchens are in…” but I realised that my companions had slunk away from my ranting.
However, I had the last laugh. The rough wooden jetty that perched on the river was made of pine wood that had weathered to an amorphous grey exactly like a tiny bridge in Pahalgam. I couldn’t resist immortalising the scene with my camera. Whoever I have showed it to looks at it disinterestedly, nods and says “Pahalgam” as if stating the obvious and then stares hard when I triumphantly point out, “No. Finland.”
If the combination of lakes, rivers and forests in Finland reminded me of Kashmir, visualise what the Swiss permutation of mountains, lakes and pine forests did to my imagination. One location that still stands in my memory is Ballenberg in the Canton of Bern. Traditional houses from all over the tiny country had been carefully transported from their original location and reconstructed at a location that had become deservedly popular with tourists. I was charmed to see so many different styles of wooden houses. The cheesemaker’s house from the Emmenthal region looked heart-warmingly familiar. There was a built-in table in the kitchen atop the stove. The concept behind it was to lay children down to sleep on the relatively warm (but never scorching hot) table and then take them to their beds. The top floor of the house is an empty shed-like space, presumably for storing cattle feed. Our 150-year-old house in Srinagar is almost identical to that! Except that our bare-as-bones top floor is a party room, to be pressed into service every few years at wedding time. Our hammam is hardly unique in Kashmir—every family has one, but it is specifically built for keeping warm, not a dual purpose oven-cum-warmer as in Switzerland.
Kashmir does not boast of a heritage village like Ballenberg and more’s the pity. Our heritage is disappearing before my eyes in the two decades that I have been married. The one glory that we do have to boast of is the chinar tree. Though it is said to grow to the east of the Balkans, the poor specimens I have seen in Prague’s fairy-tale castle gardens did not have the stately contours of Kashmir’s most iconic tree. Kashmir’s chinar tree trunks are majestic and mottled with an impressionist’s brushstrokes of white and grey, while the branches grow full until they cascade downwards with the weight of the leaves. The whole beauty of the chinar trees of Kashmir is their statuesque silhouette. Put it down to prejudice, but I have never encountered a comparable specimen anywhere else in the world. Istanbul has them too, but theyre too wispy by half to stand shoulder to shoulder with Plantanus orientalis, perhaps because they may be a different species within the same genus.
It is the same thing for houseboats. The forerunner of the British invention was an entirely indigenous, unselfconscious creation, far narrower and built for mobility than the houseboat. You can still spot the occasional doonga (a wooden canoe) on Srinagar’s lakes, but it is the houseboat, somewhat ponderous and built to be anchored to one spot that has acquired fame. It does make an astounding sight to spot rows and rows of nearly identical houseboats, their ornate cedar balconies intricately carved. Inside, each and every one of them, bar none, is decorated like a rather gawky handicraft shop, complete with Jacobean motifs on crewel-work curtains and Victorian sideboards made of walnut wood.
I had no idea that there were other communities, elsewhere in the world, whose homes were on water, so I fell instantly in love with the canals in Amsterdam, crowded as they are with houseboats. The vast majority of them are intended as residences by people every bit as edgy and colourful as the doonga people of Kashmir. The latter feel the intense need to conform, so every last doonga, or houseboat for that matter, looks like the next one, but Amsterdam’s boats are about individuality. Invariably the living room is on full or partial view, and the tantalising glimpses you are afforded of—chic, contemporary black and chrome interiors with minimal furniture or retro overstuffed armchairs with patchwork throws will leave your senses reeling for hours.
Finally, food. I had taken a friend from Sicily on a culinary trip around Srinagar. When we stopped at Khayyam Chowk for tenderloin tikkas hot off the charcoal grill, Lorenzo did a double take. The person at the grill used a large flat-bread as a glove as he folded it deftly around the red-hot skewer with the kebabs, easing the meat off the skewer in one fluid motion. “That’s how they do it in Xinjiang in western China,” croaked Lorenzo, who has chalked up more flying miles than an airline pilot.
I smiled a secret smile of triumph. It was exactly what I had been saying throughout my travels. Then the man looked up and noticed Lorenzo with his brown eyes and dark hair. “Hello Shah Rukh Khan,” he exclaimed with delight.
Illustrations: Radha Ramachandran
Source: Jet Wings