Kashmir, the turning point in my life

Zojila3

Way back in 1987, I was a scatter brain, not confident, had a track record of not being efficient in handling money and was dyslexic. I however was into outdoors, sports and always a trekker. By then, being a member of Youth Hostel Association of India, I had walked with a broken foot in Chandrakhani Pass, Himachal Pradesh, Kalsubai peak, highest in Maharashtra, Matheran and places in Western Ghats . Listening to the options, was absolute music to my ears. One was Pindari glacier and the other, Unbelievable! A 15 day trek to Ladakh. The YHAI office was just opposite to Charni Rd station, I promptly ran to Bombay Central station and checked out on Jammu Tavi tickets. It was as I believe the Universe had come together to conspire to ensure I go to Kashmir.

This trip is special and will always be. Many incidents, memories of my life are a blank slate today. However, this trip, a turning point of my life is etched permanently in my memory. I first booked my tickets and then took permission from my parents. My father surprisingly agreed. (He was comfortable with me going alone, never with anyone else). Mother and I have never ending issues, she let her elder daughter travel and stay in a hostel, but never me. Had it not been for my father, she would never have allowed me for this trip.

Please understand these were pre-historic days compared to today’s internet, advanced days. Ladakh was the northern most tip of India and we from coastal Bombay had NO clue of what such cold can be. Thankfully a second cousin and lived in Jammu, as her husband is from the renowned Camalin Dandekar family owned a factory and were well-versed. The family was relieved, there was ‘some’ contact. I only knew from the brochures which told how you should get acclimatized to ‘altitude’ and such basic things. I was excited, firstly was to go alone and most of all to Kashmir. Nobody could believe my parents had agreed to let me. I vaguely recollect the only things I heard from general janta was “watch your wallet,” “Kashmiris are cheats, you will be fleeced” and such. These were their experiences and I was not interested in listening. I did go to libraries and read up on Ladakh in books, magazines and newspapers – yes, there was NO Wikipedia or Lonely Planet then. And loads of information and tips given by the J&K tourism centre at World Trade Centre.

Being a student, I was on hand-to-mouth-subsistence money, which meant second class travel and one long journey. Though Jammu Tavi was superfast as I recollect. I had stayed  at my cousin’s for 2 days and we had booked my ticket for Srinagar on a state transport bus of J&K. On hindsight I think the only one sensible  thing I seemed to have done, was to take my student’s identity card. I can’t tell you what wonders it did to me in Kashmir. My experience changed my life forever. I had decided to stay only at state tourist homes. This tip was given to me by the J&K tourism people. They had said i’d get good discounts, not knowing I would get up to 75%.

Wherever I stayed thereafter in Kashmir I was given a discount. Wait, moreover wherever I ate, I was NOT allowed to pay. My secret to look ‘not alone’ was to show i’m waiting on somebody. I would walk in looking confused, I’d see foreigners or tourists and take a neary-by table & sit by myself. Remember i was just 18-19 years old then. Whenever i was asked if i was waiting for someone, i’d answer in affirmative. But I would end up in a tricky situation at the end of the meal, because as i’d remove cash to pay, the Kashmiri uncles would just not let me pay. At every restaurant the owners would say, “you’re an Indian student who is alone.” They would either take token money after persistence, or most often refused to let me pay. There was something good in them that made them feel protective towards me. Their eyes would shine that a ‘girl had come from India by herself.’ “You are a guest of Kashmir” and they would ensure I was even dropped by one of their staff or family members.

These uncles would speak to me and asked how my parents had allowed me to come to Kashmir. Now let me explain, in 1987 skirmishes had just begun, there were intense anti-India sentiments. I being starry-eyed Indian who believed Kashmir should remain united with India. However, this opinion changed nearly in the middle of my trip. Never one to be scared, I loved to debate I’d have engaging conversations with Kashmiris and army officials. As part of our trek, we were made to travel short distances in army trucks or lorries, that’s how most traveled in Ladakh, back then. That uncle said he was proud of my parents to have shown faith in Kashmiris. He said, it was their pledge that I would be sent back a changed person and my story would be different. (I always knew my story would be different).

I vaguely recollect that it had rained for four consecutive days in Srinagar and the city was shut, all vehicular movement had stopped to and from Ladakh and other highways. There were protests and some talks of army action. In the midst of all this I was absolutely besotted and judge me for being ‘filmy.’ I did all touristy things like riding a horse and going on the route where Bollywood films were shot, in Pehalgam. Problem was, my horseman was so dead gorgeous I couldn’t get my eyes off him, I vaguely remember him mumbling Shammi Kapoor and Sunny deol. Yes I was a young college girl from Bombay, who had come to the Himalayas highly influenced by, Shammi Kapoor’s Kashmir ki Kali and Dil Deke Dekho and who found every Kashmiri handsome and beautiful. I remember seeing blood-red cherries, like never before. We’d get yellow ones in Bombay back then.

After a short break i was to join Sonamarg, where our base camp was. I swear now when i look back i was so god damn ill-prepared, all information i had got was from asking around, the information given by the 2 aunties at YHAI was so brief, 1 would have thought, the journey was a B’bay-Pune one.

I’ve vague memories of the base camp and girls sleeping in a classroom. I don’t remember anything but waking up at night shitting and puking. An army doctor was called on the day our trek as many like me were ill. Our trek was kicked off by Farooq Abdullah the CM. I gave my camera to some members of my group from Orissa and cursed i was laid in bed. Oh! did I mention, we had no flannel, thermals, enough warm clothes or sleeping bags back then? There was no twitter where one could call on friends to give their jackets and stuff. I had one huge rug sack, trekking shoes, gloves, sweater and jacket. None which could help me survive a winter in Pune, forget a summer in Kashmir.

The army doctor came visiting the camp and told us the water was contaminated and many of us had got gastro. Frightening. That was the time I remember missing my dear Girgaum and Bombay. Wonderingif i’d taken the right decision of going on that trek. I somehow made friends, it wasn’t a difficult task, but the way I was told to be careful, as if i should suspect every Indian of being a cheat. Almost all were helpful, friendly and yes nobody was a cheat. There was a mix, some college students, many working, some turned out to be Income Tax inspectors who were in the same trekking batch as mine. This small group took me under their protective wings and ensured I drank black coffee, ate biscuits and walked few steps every day to regain strength.

Our delayed trek began. We got feedback that due to the heavy rains and blockades rest of the groups were returning to the base camp. Tempers flew around and our trekking batch decided whether we traveled in trucks or lorries we should move. We had to wake up at unearthly hours to get on the Zojila pass. Most of the memories are blur, but I remember Drass, because we were put in a school there. The windows had NO glass and was killer cold, we were happily told it is the coldest or second coldest place on earth! At night when we’d go to the toilet, we could hear sounds of the wind, the urine would get frozen in that cold! It all seemed eerie. No I don’t want to remember, the way we we were put up by YHAI, no wonder they charged us so less. The toilets, less said the better, to shit between wooden planks at a height that one could faint. Yes, the best part was we got to see places at subsidised prices, we met new people, it gave us confidence and we trekked on some beautiful and difficult paths. I do hope we haven’t contributed to the environmental degradation.

The whole terrain of Kashmir and Ladakh is distinctly beautiful. And yes, my SLR with film rolls were with me. That was the best part, I’d stroll around with my camera and met some wonderful kids and people. I had to ration the films because they needed to be developed and printed. Most of all the fear of my photographer father at home who would scrutinize every frame. I couldn’t waste a single frame, forget the roll.

I visited all the places one needs to in Leh and nearby towns, villages-Lama Yuru, Hemis, in fact saw Dalai Lama as he had come to launch the Hemis festival and went around drinking Tibetan tea, their food and was well acclimatized. And till now I haven’t highlighted one main point, we never got more than three ‘lotas’ of hot water to bathe. It would mostly end up getting ice cold, that’s another story of going on treks. In Leh for the first time we had the luxury of paying Rs 5 or 8, requesting some hotels to allow us to bathe in hot water. In 1987, Rs 5-8 was a lot. The whole road journey made me feel I’m in one dream world, in my Never Land. It was straight out of films, as I had expected. The beauty, the colours of the terrain, the trees, the greenery and most of all the grand Himalayas, all exquisitely sensuous and beautiful.  I was just too overwhelmed. By then our trekking group had become fairly big.

We met some interesting people too. Some medical college students from Bombay, who seemed strange. They had brought millions of pills for everything. They’d show off big time, scream that every bottle of water-whether straight from the melting snow stream to a bisleri was contaminated and had to be purified. So they’d jump, screech, pull out some pills pop them in their bottle see the fizz, count upto to some number and drink. While it seemed fascinating to them, it completely alienated them, not that they were keen on being with the rest of public. Even when the whole batch moved, they would move together so when a small group of us decided to go to Amarnath, i was shocked to hear this medical group had shown some interest.

Finally, many of us, mainly from Bombay and Pune decided to go to Baltal. The IT inspectors did some sweet talking with the army officer at Baltal and we got to stay at the army station for few hours. Me being the youngest, one inspector spoke to the army officer to let me sleep near the coal burner. It was a HUGE copper vessel with a chimney and coal burning at the bottom. It was the warmest memory of this trip.

Most of the members of those who had initially said they were interested, turned around after walking a few metres. The army officer told us that the official road to Amarnath had not opened till then and since i ended up being the only girl in the group, he sent two sentries to protect our group. All this was told to me much later. We had to wake up on a chilly morning and started trekking by 6.00am.  Now, if you have seen Tarey Zameen Par then one will know what I am saying. 20 people will walk on a path, will not trip, no stone will give way under their feet and they will be able to walk without any problem. The 21st person, that’s me, will be THE one who will trip on a stone, slip in the mud or water and yes this happens even today. Now imagine this on a mountain full of snow, where we had to make a path, with no proper footwear to walk in snow, i was living Lucy Balle.

On the way we saw a baba in white, Muslin cloth in that snow & cold. He looked completely doped out, who walked like a charged bull and then after a while saw him walk back. I mean in times of buses and ponies/horses which human walked up & down Himalayas as if in times of Vedas? They need a better purpose I thought. That Baba was the only other human apart from us whom we’d seen the whole day. We reached around noon and nobody was there except our group. While all walked to the shrine, I slipped from one end to the other and had to be caught to ensure I didn’t slip down in the valley. It was just like slabs of ice piled up. As i’d heard and read, a drop of ice kept falling from the ceiling making formations.

In some time I realised my feet were swollen and one member warned me I had would be victim of frost bite. Soon some match sticks were lit to warm my feet, I sat barefoot with few men scrubbing my feet and after nearly four weeks I recall crying that I was a young, college girl who for the first time was out for so long in the most unbelievable circumstances. Then the men told me all girls had backed out and I was the only one who had climbed with them. And the fun was about to begin on the descend. I was fed gluco biscuits and within an hour we were back on our feet. The walk back was a mini shock-there was a land slide and the road seemed unrecognizable, we spotted a fox and the sentries showed us how the path we had made had got covered in some areas.

The last two days were interesting. I met a Sikh volunteer who was recovering from the 1984 riots, he described his horrifying experiences. That was first time I met somebody who had survived the Sikh riots. Some termed him crazy, but the fact was his experiences were real and they had left him scarred permanently. I think he was brave to volunteer to be with strangers, meet youngsters who may have given him a reason to live and hope for. He needed help and he had chosen his path-trekking, as a way to reach out. That was brave. All said their farewells and I began on another three days of travel back to Srinagar and Jammu. Again a time to be on my own, but this time with treasure of experiences to shar.

I owe a lot to Kashmir for this trip, it made me a new person, a new woman altogether. The small attention the locals took to protect me was touching. Due to the political environment, they ensured, when the bus stopped for passengers to go out and pee, the men in the bus would send the women from their families to accompany me. They took care never to leave me alone. This kind of hospitality I have NEVER encountered in my entire life before or after. It spoke immensely of the faith the Kashmiri had in themselves and more so in a stranger girl from a land they didn’t like.

Seeing the young army cadets who were sent to Kashmir to fight in the tough terrain, it irked me to learn they were seen cheap labour. To face death and be treated in this manner, before one’s life had begun, it taught me the first lessons of management, which I experienced in life much later, However, I was lot more prepared to fight than these young men. Their spirit brought immense pride.

The Kashmiris would discuss with me about college, life in Bombay, impact of films and most of all the politics. I was too young, may be my vision was tainted, but they never disrespected or rejected it. They didn’t rubbish my idealistic view. They allowed me to learn a lot about their lives and they let me into their world to see the bitter truth. I learnt a lot of real history being with them for a month than I’d have learnt in history books or through our biased media. Yes, I am part of that very media, but no denial it is biased. I used to write every day or 2 days to my parents on inland letters. Letting them know I’m fit and safe. When I returned, most expected me to tell some sob story or was cheated. To their shock my story was rather new. They of course refused to believe and not that I cared.  It was like I found my true self, I had found my course of life and swore never to stop travelling.

I began believing in myself, because till then I was never given a reason to. My experience taught me to have faith and most of all it taught me to travel on my own. I learnt to be comfortable in my own company. I developed a habit for going to Himalayas, nearly every year & I admit i love these mountains more than humans. I also learnt to live in a new place, meet new people, speak to strangers who don’t know my language and who may even dislike the place I come from. They still welcomed me warmly and that was an eye-opener.

I knew one thing for sure, I’d return to this beautiful place again. I went back in 2007, to Ladakh, but this time in luxury. I can happily say, i observed not an inch of difference in the topography, it was beautiful as ever. The colours of the soil are as violet, red and brown like before, the cabbages greener than I’d ever seen. The saag (vegetable grown there) greener than the spinach we eat, cherries redder than our blood, small apples that are juicy and tasty, the fragrance of Kashmiri saffron that can drown you and most of all the Himalayas standing majestically towering over you…one circle of life completed after 20 years, taking me back to the place that changed me forever, Kashmir.

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Neeta

A lady journalist in permanent Azad mode, observer.. Developed a balcony garden, lover of rains..photo & video journalist