Where Fairies Reign Supreme

I discovered that my friend was no good for walking. That was odd. I always thought college kids were good at outdoors stuff. 
It was on my insistence that we walked up to Pari Mahal from Cheshma Shahi. On the winding road that leads up to the fort, recently opened for tourists, it is easy to forget the city you leave below. Except the occasionally passing cars (and in our case, a group of guys listening to Himesh Reshammiya) there is no sound on the slopes, except for the birds twittering in the bushes. The bushes, on their part, were pink and green owing to the season. The almond blooms and narcissus. The fabled fairies had perhaps descended from their thrown open castle, and were now playing in the fields. Holding their skirt hems up, on tiptoes. Lest noise, would let their secrets out. On the Zabarwan, where they reigned supreme. Hiding their honour from the eyes of mortals. They talked to each other in slight whispers, which you could hear being carried in the wind. By dusk, they would have disappeared, and left the woods look lurking. Fearful. Where bears and army men patrolled. I dare say, detested.

The fort itself presented a different story. All forts do. It’s hard to say what the reason was. The overcast skies or the barren grounds or may be the dying Dal lake visible from the top, but Pari Mahal whispered a sad story. It spoke of a lost empire. A prince, who had fallen from grace. And escaped, but couldn’t escape humiliation. Its face carried the strife it had been a part of. Or rather witnessed, because Pari Mahal for long could only be seen from the Boulevard as entry to commoners was denied.  It somehow narrated a more grand, more recent tale of Kashmir. The one we know by heart.

The walls of the castle-fort were blinded. No light peered in. The inmates were isolated and alone. Like caged birds. Scared, perhaps. But not hopeless for sure.  From their fortress they were free to indulge in the best the nature had to offer. It’s seldom a privilege to the caged.

But Time seems to have made a deep impact on the scarred face of Pari Mahal. As an old widow who had nothing more to say, so she chose to stay quiet and be oblivious. And witness, the passage of time and her peril. The unkempt gardens of her fort do her no justice. Like the wedding cake of Miss Havisham, a fine reminder of the time that was – or could have been. 
It is hard to imagine what Pari Mahal would have looked like at the time it was constructed. Or more important still, how the Dal would have looked from its terraces. I imagine the lake would have looked an unending mass of clear water, in which the surrounding hills here deeply etched. In which the blue of the skies found ample space. Sadly, viewing from the top, the Dal appears much like the fort itself. Ravaged by time and  men. From the terraces of the fort, you can see a helipad, some army establishments and the golf course. Almond trees scattered here and there. Some greenery splashed across the canvas, and if you look intently the Boulevard appears as a thin ribbon of grey. All things together, the landscape looks like a broken symphony – that started off in a celebration and a few bad notes later became a wail, and then died.
As it started to get dark, some bright lights appeared in the distance. That was the newly opened Vivanta. You can see that in the photograph below, in the right corner. A few more, and the dim streetlights around the Dal were on.

And before it got too dark, we walked back to the car and the man at the car parking who didn’t issue a receipt for the parking money.

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For Spring is Sure to Follow

In the part of the world where I come from February is not spring. February is a part of the legend called winters. But on days like these the sun shines through, and though there are no new leaves, no flowers – the sky shines like spring. Pseudo-spring.

The afternoon temperature was 12 degrees Celsius, and the sun shone brightly. On the bund, where I happened to walk this afternoon, the sun shone brightly.  The Jhelum sparkled in the newly found light. The pigeons, domesticated by the houseboat dwellers, flew in circles over it.
 On the brown grass and barren trees, the spring-like sunlight, produced a unique effect. Autumn-like . But not quite autumn, yet. The spring buds are already there.
The sunshine is there, too. But no, it’s not spring yet. Let us pause for a while. Let’s celebrate chilla-e-bachh – the little chilla – for a while.
This year’s winter – the chilla-e-Kalaan – the elder brother will not be easily forgotten. But let the smaller sibling take its time. So while we still have our kangris and hamamsburning, and our pherans and daraaz in use, let’s celebrate this medley of seasons. This cameo of an autumny-spring in winter.  (Thats my invention – the word ‘autumny’).
And as usual, Charles Dickens says it the best.“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

Theories of Sweet Nothingness – Written for 14th February

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you, I could walk in my garden forever.”
~Alfred Lord Tennyson


Valentine’s Day is pointless. We all agree. Its not religious. Not from our culture. Not from anyone’s culture. But is still, may I say it, the day of love. Note that – day of love. Not of lovers. Technically, there is a difference. But isn’t love too blind for the study of technique? 


Well, you can’t be serious on Valentine’s Day or about it. Until, of course, you are a businessman (or his daughter).

Until this winter I had never been to the Botanical Gardens in Srinagar. It is apparently a very popular place to go, especially if you are in love. Only in love, some people may protest, but that would be an exaggeration. You need a ten rupees ticket to enter the garden, not a valentine. I had gone there with a friend (not a valentine) when he couldn’t drive all the way up to Pari Mahal because of the snow, and we decided to take a detour to the Botanical gardens instead.



Since everything was covered in snow, it seemed even more beautiful than, I presumed, it would usually look in summer months. The walkways were all covered with trampled snow, and foot marks.  Lot of them going in one direction only, and not coming back.

Since Botanical garden is a showcase of botanical wonders of Kashmir, it is not much of a sight when the flora is gone post-autumn. The trees were all barren except the evergreens and the firs. The beds were covered with snow, and hard to locate. We trampled many, I am sure, but no one could tell. The snow covered them all.

(Note the S and A)



Apart from us there was only one group in the park. They were three, I guess, two women and one man. At one point we heard one of the women shout, “Suno gaaon waalo!” (“Hear O villagers!”). Apart from that there was not a soul. (Except the bored men in the ticketing booth!)

Come spring and the Botanical Gardens are abuzz with star crossed lovers sitting behind hedges and trees, idling their time away. Mostly college and university students who are, in most cases, supposed to be attending classes. “Whisper sweet nothings in my ear, O Beloved.” Infatuated teens who are basically just fooling themselves into believing the love that doesn’t exist. Moving from tree to tree, and hedge to hedge – finding all of them occupied with love birds which came in early to roost, the beloveds take a walk further up towards the hill until they come right up to the boundary wall. There they find solace, away from the noise of parking cars, and from the sights of other lovers, they are free to whisper as many nothings as they wish – or deliver a lecture on the theories of nothingness, if they please.


The lovers’ games are one such sight. The beloved never looks into her lover’s eyes. Or into the eyes of anyone else.  This love is just too much ridden with guilt and shame. She will cover her head, hair and face in hijab when in public, but when alone she will let her hair down for him. (Not that he knows what to do with it.) On roads they will walk together, but a few feet apart. Modestly, pretentiously. In buses they will sit together, one seat apart, and communicate in loud whispers with heads bent.

Overlooking the garden are the many small hutments of the tourism departments. Till recently these were given out to top-notch bureaucrats for their official residences. The scenes the local varieties of Romeo and Juliet play are visible from such huts. I remember a conversation I once had with the wife of one such top-notch bureaucrat. She was giggling within herself while narrating the scenes of lovers in the garden. Like a TV serial. Take a cup of tea, sit back, and watch the daily matinee. Mrs. Bureaucrats obviously don’t have much work to do.

In bigger cities – it would perhaps be better to say in newer (not necessarily modern) cities – on Valentine’s Day, Love is spilled across the streets.Inflated in heart shaped balloons. Heart shaped key chains and car hangings. Heart shaped hairpins. Anything that can be heart-shaped and still be saleable.  And very attractive, very interesting heart-shaped cakes.




Obviously, this has repercussions. Kashmir’s women in black, Dukhtaraan-e-Millat (Daughters of Faith) are famous for their protests against this day and roughing up a good number of girls.


But St. Valentine’s day is losing its reverence slowly. In the Islamic world only, though.  In Uzbekistan Valentine’s Day was banned this year, and instead, a day to celebrate the birth of Mughal Emperor Babur was put in place by the state. In Iran, the people were warned against celebrating this day. Saudi Arab is obviously against the day. To me, personally, the day never held much significance. It never defined romance or love, or anything relevant. Somehow Valentine’s Day never brings up images of love as we know them from epics and literature. Juliet and her Romeo. Laila’s Majnu. In fact, it never brings up any idea except pink teddy bears and Archies cards. 

So what is this thing called love? What is the obsession with 14th February, anyway? And the days preceding it – Rose Day, Promise Day, Teddy Day? What-not-day Day?  If someone were to ask me what heart I would take, it would be this  – a heart of foam on coffee – taken with my friend, the one  from the Botanical Garden, of course.




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Berries not to be eaten

Well, I did what I wanted. An evening walk on the Shankaracharya Hill. For that I had to risk being mauled by the bear which is rumoured to be roaming on the hillside these days. But I did go finally.

I did not take the road uphill – the Boulevard side. It takes about an hour to climb up from  that side, on good days that is. On days like these – cold, and dim, it may take even longer. So, going the nostalgic way, I went from the side we used to climb it when we went with our school. The United Nations side. It takes less than an hour to climb to the top, on any day and the descent is, of course, much faster.

The whole hillside was brown. Sand coloured. Save the evergreen trees, there was not a  leaf of greenery anywhere. That was good. It is autumn, after all.

I came by a couple sitting on a rock. I did not photograph them. But for someone who just had to express his love, I couldn’t skip snapping.

Or the men who were secretly gambling on the hillside.

The beautiful little berries which are not to be consumed.

Or the golden sunshine.

The sound of Azaan could be heard all over the hillside. You could feel close to nature.

Even without the reminder.

 I remember, the sky was featureless. Sunny and cloudless.

I had expected the hilltop to be windy, as it used to be in summers. But wasn’t. There was a slight breeze but I was so hot from the uphill climb, that I didn’t feel it cold.

From the top, the whole city was covered in mist. The pictures are not bright, but I couldn’t help it. Its, perhaps the weather, and perhaps, my unpromising photography.

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