Lads of the Dal
The vodka came as promised. That it was equal portion water helped me drink it straight from the bottle.
“There seems to be no shortage of water,” I told Abdullah the handsome scrawny teenager with shifty green eyes who was at once the janitor, porter and concierge. And now, my lifesaver, my brother.
“Yes brother,” he replied as his eyes flew from my wallet to the backpack that lay dripping wet on the houseboat carpet. It was just habit and no malice. “The Dal Lake provides everybody with pure and healthy water.” I believed that as I had just peed into a lurching toilet and the sound of the waters mixing with a smirching swirl still rang in my ears.
Starting from Delhi on a sweltering June morning, I rode into Srinagar after two days as rains lashed down portending an untimely and furious monsoon set to wash Delhi in a month. To rev up the journey, I had created the dark cloud monster which was chasing me but with just 20 kilometres to go, the monster licked me with its drippy long tongue. And how. I reached the capital city with the dismal realisation that rainproof gear was an urban rider myth.
Next morning continued to be pimpled with drizzle as storm clouds wavered threateningly in the ashen horizon. Moored along the edges, houseboats crowded each other and bobbed side by side along an uneasy line. The shikara (local name for the houseboat) shops were slowly hitting paddle. The first one to reach my houseboat was a youngster freshly shaved and with laboriously pruned facial hair designs whose eyes still dangled about in sleep.
“Are you Indian?” He asked.
“Pretty much, brother,” I replied.
“That’s good. My father is in Delhi.”
“Oh, what does he do there?”
“He is construction worker.” But of course. During the course of my travels this must be the hundredth guy whose brother or father or son is working in Delhi, the land of never-ending-constructions.
Courtesies in place, it was time for business.
“Sir,” he said rowing closer with a cheer trying hard to bloom, “flowers for your lovely wife.”
“No wife,” I replied.
“Girlfriend, then,” he helped with eyes now actually beginning to look up.
“No,” I said and before he could offer more suggestions, I added, “I am travelling alone.” He moved away with a perfunctory smile bordering on disdain to the houseboat next to mine where a honeymooning couple stood by the balcony of their bedroom – the guy’s hand disappearing somewhere inside her flowing, satiny nightdress. I sat still on the mildly rocking chair with my eyes glued to see where the hand would disentangle from.
“Good morning brother,” Abdullah said as he brought me pot coffee. “Next time you should not come alone.” Plucking my eyes from their panting focus, I sat with a sheepish grin as he laid the table.
“Maybe you should go out and try your luck,” he added with a wink. Try my luck or not, I was going out anyway than let my imagination run riot as the honeymooners’ boat rocked with each swelling wave.
I reached the boulevard on the town side of the lake. The previous night’s rains had left the gutters filled with porridges of muck. Though everybody went about their work and life, a strenuous stoicism charged through the air. The people, in Pico Iyer’s words, ‘had a loneliness that makes them stranger and a strangeness that makes them lonelier.’ Their attitude and resilience was one borne out of defeating defeat itself, an overpowering lethargy prevailed. However the younger ones traipsed about cockily as their stained kaftans fluttered angrily in the lake breeze. The exaggerated bashfulness and loud talk of the customary touts were cloaked under oodles of forced charm. Here was a bunch of people still grappling with the emotional blackout of being caught between the prettiest piece of earth and everyday life where death lurked round the corner.
A line of hotels of every conceivable taste and size vied for your appetite. From Manchurian chicken to masala dosa, the choicest of epitaphs was reserved for the pride of the Kashmiri palate, the mutton Rogan josh. Burping after maybe polishing off a tank of the oily, yummy curry with rumali rotis, I stood by the side of my bike taking in the wondrous sight of the shikaras gently rippling about in the soft afternoon sunlight.
Mohammed’s smile brightened up the otherwise grey around. Some foreigners vroomed around the boulevard on borrowed bikes with flaring dragons breathing out fire on the fuel tanks. My bike looked and sounded a little wanting next to these machines with ominous-sounding cylinders. So his compliment came as a surprise.
“Your bike looks nice,” he said leaning out of his auto rickshaw after giving me the directions to the nearby Shankaracharya Mountain.
“Well, thank you,” I said. “So is your English. What’s your name?”
“Mohammed sir, I am a graduate in Economics,” he replied.
“Well, Mohammed,” the million questions that well up when I meet an informed inhabitant began to vent. “Does it usually rain so much this time of the year here?”
“No,” he replied. “Haven’t you heard of global warming, sir?”
More than his analysis of the untimely, incessant rain, what intrigued me was his clearly cavalier attitude towards a potentially destructive climatic phenomenon.
“But,” I asked him a little incredulously, “aren’t you worried?”
“I am,” he replied yanking the starting gear of the engine. “But what can I do?” He put it into gear. “What I do is I get married but I told my wife ‘hey wait before we have children, let’s see where all this is going’,” he added with an unconcealed mirth.
“Now, if you will excuse me sir I have to attend evening classes,” he said as he began to move.
“So you are yet to pass your graduation?”
“No, I am doing my MA now.” He said as his vehicle lurched into the fog which seemed to make way for him.