Thursday, June 24, 2010

Kashmir – Srinagar, June 18-21

The road from Jammu to Srinagar is gorgeous, with plenty of green rice fields, pine forests, mountain views, and gushing rivers. It is a plentiful land, and the road is full of trucks and buses going back and forth. My sumo – jeep – was full of Kashmiris, and I was in the front seat with a Kashmiri woman. I was exhausted from the previous 2 days, and as I was dozing off she literally held me in her arms for most of the journey. At breaks and meals, she, along with a Sikh woman and a guy from Jammu, invited me along with them and although communication was a problem we had a great time giggling the whole day.

As you head up the valley, the military presence increases. To me, it seems like an awful lot of police and army forces. To locals, this is far less security forces than there has been over the past few decades. Once you cross the big tunnel and enter the Kashmir Valley, the temperature drops dramatically, and there is an unmistakable sense that you have entered a different land. The rhythm seems different…is it the Muslim presence? The mountains? I have no idea what it is, but it is very palpably different.

I arrive in Srinagar and Raja and his cousin Wahid pick me up and take me home, where I shower and am immediately taken to the house of another cousin who is getting married in two days. So many cousins and relatives, all so alive and smiling and full of joy. What strikes me most, perhaps, over the past several days is that the people in Kashmir are peace-loving people and this is so apparent in the family structure and their daily life – and the irony that exists with the conflict situation…I don’t know how to put this in words.

Raja has a beautiful brother, Jana, and a gorgeous sister, Rohi, and his newlywed wife, Roma, who all immediately treat me with the utmost kindness. Their formalities and sort of initial distance to me last about 20 minutes, particularly in the case of Roma, who within a day is leaning on me, holding my hand and shoulder very casually…this is a culture where within gender boundaries, physical affection sees no limits. It’s a bit strange to get your head around if you’re not used to it, but it’s very endearing.

So Kashmiri people…previously, my only contact with Kashmiris are the salesmen who are really the only ones in India that can make me part with my money…they are oh-so-charming, so beautiful, they befriend you with no hesitation and they get you before you know what hit you. A great example is at Delhi Haat, a marketplace in Delhi where there are craftsmen from all over the country…I had not intended to purchase anything…yet at the end of the day, opening my bags, it was hilarious to realize that every single thing I had bought was Kashmiri.

Well, here in Kashmir I haven’t had anyone try to sell me anything yet. I’ve successfully avoided going anywhere where I can spend too much money…but that kind, humorous insistence definitely pervades. Kashmiri hospitality is directly linked to how much they can feed you, and everyday I have several dozen offers for tea and food. Oh, by the way, they drink salty tea. Think Indian masala chai, but instead of sugar, put salt in it. Yeah. Weird. Not totally against it but definitely not my cup of tea.

And, they are majorly carnivorous. Especially around wedding time. 15 sheep were slaughtered for this wedding, and the meals were prepared over two days by a team of about 15 men, stopping for salty tea and hookah breaks.

The first evening is spent at the wedding house, where I am welcomed into the female drum circle and I am just getting used to the size of the houses – since the family structure is such that when the sons of a family get married, their brides move in, and when the daughters get married, they move to the groom’s residence, homes are spacious and often have nice wide open lawns. The Khan residence is no exception, and I love watching Raja’s father water the beautiful roses and variety of flowers, and the garden which is primarily chillis (they dry them, powder them, and then they’ve got enough chili for a year! And believe you me, Kashmiri food is spicy…)

The next day we head over to the wedding house in the morning, but my camera is having some problems so I decide to go into the city to have the camera looked at. We stop at home so I can get my map etc, and am duly intercepted by Rohi who insists that it only makes logical sense for me to have lunch first before I go into town. Given no option to say no, I eat, then I go. After having my camera looked at with no success, I meet Sami, a corporate lawyer who fulfills the Kashmiri role and offers me food and drink. I get Kashmiri cherries, after being told with a sorrowful look that this year, heavy rains have led to a poor harvest so please excuse the cherries that are not as delicious as usual. No problem, they were quite tasty.

Sami’s friend Mukhtar took me around Dal Lake, the once pristine lake in Srinagar that has made the city acquire its famous fantasy nearly mythical status…and we discuss a bit about the political situation and the amazing nature of Kashmir. It’s undeniably beautiful here, and speaking in terms of natural resources, extremely wealthy.

In the evening I head home, and almost immediately after arriving at the Khan residence, we head back to the wedding house. The dinner is delicious – a few people, including Raja, have gone to some trouble to get me an individual plate of as-vegetarian-friendly-as-possible food. The paneer in tomato sauce is mouthwatering. Haak is a very common leafy green vegetable here, almost like a combination of spinach and kale. In Kashmiri weddings and celebrations, people use very large plates and 4 people eat from each dish. There is a huge serving of rice, and on top of that is piled the dishes – usually mutton – and then the cooks come around, one dish at a time, and put it in the middle of the dish. 8-10 varieties of mutton are served in this wedding. Looks delicious.

There are a few Kashmiri things that I really love…the custom of washing your right hand before you eat – this is done with a copper pitcher, plated with nickel, and poured into a bowl…somebody else will pour the water for you…and at the wedding, the gigantic teapot, with two compartments, one for coal to keep the chai warm…these communal aspects of life are what I love about this place.

The wedding day – I dutifully did as I was told and put on the salwar kameez that Roma chose for me from her wardrobe, didn’t move a muscle as she did my makeup, and off we went! So much joy, so much singing, so much food, so much love…wow.

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