We touched the border of Jammu and Kashmir the next morning, leaving behind the man and the experience with him to Himachal, but I. As I drove through the ironed curves of Dhauladhar mountains in that quiet dark night, man’s face kept appearing in front of me, his words had found a way into my mind, flashing back and again like an old printing machine with all the noise, repeating all night almost like a soundless GIF, “Who am I”.
Even if I put away the madman tag, what an important question for life it was, Who am I, I literally asked myself, A traveller, a writer may be, or at least a teacher. but is that it? Is that really all who i am. Would that be enough to go with the last breath? And what if I am to come back again on Earth? Would I like to live this life all over again; same, travelling, going to Kashmir just like right now, again! Who in a world of having no time asks this any more, but it was asked! And more so after stopping a moving car in the middle of a jungle at night, meeting eye to eye like meaning it. As I kept thinking why in the first place it could have happened, that too just before starting for Kashmir? Could it be a message from above? Or an otherworldly intervention, or was it a signal from the divine mother for me to think harder on the longest, possibly the loneliest drive of the night.
The Days of Nectar
The last time when I left Kashmir, it was a time of great turmoil; for this land and possibly for the whole Asia at large. The government had whispered loudly at whim that something big is going to happen. Anyone not Kashmiri must leave the valley by 5th August. Two years ago, today.
Uncertainty unsettled the order whatever little there used to be in the valley. It was rather a fear filled time as rumour of war with Pakistan spread like wildfire. And people in thousands started leaving daily, fearing for their blood, leaving Kashmir for far away places they might feel safer at; where guns cannot be heard anymore like eagles screech. Shops were shutting for good and roads were being blocked like never to open, streets felt like abandoned hotel rooms. The silence in the air carried thorns, anger in the people; the one who were leaving, and even the ones staying.
Around that period, away from it all, before any such information became news; I had already left for the walk of my life, away from any civilisation, amongst the purest of waters and to meet the rarest of trees that can only be found at that height- the sacred bhojpatra trees seen only in the higher Himalayas. I was even above the cotton boats of altocumulus clouds, with Rasool. It was a phase of great flow, as it seemed centring around me and pushing towards nature, with love, with a goal.
Yagya pulled up at peerah, a small village in Ramban district on the Jammu-Srinagar highway. This place is known for its local lentils and serves the most delicious Rajma-Rice in India, which comes doused in pure desi cow ghee along with tangy pomegranate chutney.
Before the pandemic when I was visiting Kashmir, even for work in villages far, I tried coming back in the night to eat with Rasool, on his boat Solomon and sheeba, but more because of his birds, at his bird park.
Rasool was a compassionate cook; never ate curd in the night and advised me never too. An exemplary and aware caretaker, tuned with nature, even to an extent that he could tell when the fishes under his boat were most active or still, mindful of each sound and when any of his bird would need what! He used to wake up at the same time each morning and after his only little prayer, used to fold his quilt and his sheets. It isn’t a big thing as I am of the same habit but it were his hands, the way they worked through creases with rare precision and patience, and it extended to every aspect of his life; it was a delight to watch him put things in better shape each passing day. His voice which gave me the sight of the days gone, of when Kashmir was heaven, and Dal used to be a place of contemplation and poetry, of old souls sharing wisdom and numerous stories of birds and fantasy. He was a magnet that nature had put in charge of, there were stories of him magically pulling many birds out of danger whom he used to take care of like his own children. For all my days filled with his stories, he became my discerning door.
Rasool seemed to know time because he knew water. Not because he was born on the banks of the ancient river vitasta/Jhelum but because he had become a boatman very early like his father, just like his father’s father.
I didn’t know then why Rasool had insisted of coming along with me to the sacred mountains of Amarnath. But It will only be later, much later one afternoon on a mountain peak, after a steep ascend we were sitting to catch our breathes back, quietly gazing at the top of the mountain tops when words arrived on his tongue just like silence appears out of nowhere: Narayan, do you know why I am here today? I kept my silence. I couldn’t see my father when he died. I wasn’t there. He had stopped me from leaving home but I left regardless and all my life i have been living with this guilt that i couldn’t even gave my hands for his body. I wasn’t there with him when he wanted me most and it had needled me every moment. You know, when he was young, he too came on this yatra, with someone like you, his friend. I remembered his stories of bathing in the coldest waters of Sheshnag. When you told me you were going, a voice inside me asked to go along with you, for not that you were alone but I wanted to live what my father lived, somewhere in between I thought I will meet him. And it is you who made it possible.
It did not take much time for us to learn that something is in the offing, it had been some time we were sitting here and no one had come after us since we had started. It was rather nothing short of alchemy to be experiencing this sort of fulfilment in nowhere-ness, in nothingness. To see almost no one when there used to be thousands walking on other days through this entire stretch. Yet at every kilometre or two there were people from different states who had come only to serve food, alms, tea and have made tents to rest for the pilgrims, but even then there was a feeling of deterioration like something is not right, a feeling of decay, of its over.
Tents at many places were left open without anyone guarding them anymore. We walked with elderly Sadhus, devotees, few pilgrims from southern Indian states, and village women walking barefoot on the freezing earth, all were seen making it slowly through this old, revered way. We experienced a stark change in the way the most beautiful landscape greeted us but in people, who one by one were leaving carrying their tents, leaving the land empty and sooner, for a rumour floating in the air that the war is going to happen. This news came at a time when I and Rasool entered the holy waters at Sheshnag, a word came loud and clear possibly directed towards us from the passing by army men. Leave.
Suddenly i realised we were entering the legendary Jawahar Tunnel; the only link that joins Kashmir with rest of India, apart from faraway highway that joins Laddakh through Himachal. That sweet melancholic pang arrived around my navel on the first sight of the valley that I will be seeing Rasool again, and his only family. Eight swans, eleven ducks, almost innumerable roosters, sheep, lambs and one badly injured king cockerel who became my best friend, whom I loved feeding all day, he must have recovered by now. But there were still many hours before we would be home, in Srinagar.
When Rasool and I descended from the sacred heights, soon after the remark by the army man, and reached home the next day late in the night, the birds went quiet, and Rasool started crying. The Swans had been stolen, Rasool said, sobbing. It could have been for meat or money. After asking neighbours we learnt that three days ago, certain butcher was seen taking them away. His heart pounded, almost collapsing with his head down between his legs. It took a lot of heart and talking with him to make him stand up and walk again with a renewed energy. Sometimes however strong a man is, he only needs someone who be by his side. After a rally of hope and reassuring words, early next morning we rowed for three hours around the lake to reach another lake Nageen where the said man was. And even before we had touched the land, he heard from far that all the swans and the babies are still alive. They were misbehaved with, were tied like prisoners for last four days, haven’t been fed well and were mishandled; he single-handedly took all of them out untying them one after other without a single word exchanged with the man, the thief who was stunned, stood watching. Rasool walked out carrying them like myself, putting them back onto the boat as I rowed back to our birdhouse carrying smiles and the loudest of laughs that Dal must have experienced on that afternoon. I could make a small one minute film of that wonder of what happened, us saving the local Swans.
After reaching back when I asked Rasool how did he do it as no one came forward to stop him in their own home, he told me, you know Narayan when I reached, it was not me who reached first, it was my smell, and the big swan the moment he realised I have come he started crying out loud, and hearing him all the babies started honking and hissing in excitement, it was their strength that I could carry them back, otherwise I would have never done what i did if I was alone, thank you.
While it all kept coming back in flashes, we reached Srinagar around evening and decided to stay not in any houseboat as we needed to park the car and leave early but stayed right in front of Rasool’s houseboat, at a hotel close to the Shankaracharya hill.
Two years doesn’t feel a long time but when a place like Kashmir and someone you know goes through such tumultuous experiences one after other, each passing moment starts feeling like an eternity. For Kashmiris, even more the ones living on water, everyday life has become a curse. The boatmen of Kashmir are left far behind not just by their own people but even time. Houseboats have now become things of the past or so people say. High maintenance and no tourists in last decade has resulted in boatmen taking up day jobs as a labour or salesmen.
Even though houseboats evoke a curiosity and amusement but for long terrorism and now this Pandemic has pierced their hope of any revival. Today these houseboats stand like a non-recycle-able waste, i told Yagya, as we kept our bags in the room, Kashmir is like home for me, this region, its memory is intertwined in my mind just like water knows its source, and here it is this big old sea, Dal.
Dal is as Old as the first universal sound. It was here, it is said that the first freshest water from the Himalayas got collected when the ice started melting, or so became Kashmir, it is but a collection of water.
We came out of our hotel, cross the road, got a boat and arrived at Soloman and Sheeba.
The dawn of sadness arose within me when while walking on those wooden planks again, gingerly unwinding my way through those crackling wooden sounds, excited to see the birds first, but as i turned right to see there was no one, none at all at the back of the houseboat, it was all dead, lifeless, almost without water; grasses had grown taller than the houses, were not tended to for months, park seemed to be falling apart. The only bird park in the whole wide Dal, which Rasool and I worked on tirelessly three years ago which was his only family as much I made it now looked comatose, bare. The swans, sheep, lambs all were sold during the Pandemic.
Rasool seemed out of light when I met him. Let alone happy so much that he couldn’t even smile when he opened his gates, which he does not open anymore for anyone. Everything is over Narayan. There is no income at all here. No one wants to come to Kashmir anymore. I am in pain constantly and I don’t have any more energy to work. I only wish to leave quietly now.
There was nothing much at this time that I could do or say, it was completely opposite of what i had thought. At least children would have come in these times of staying at home during the virus had i had helped him somehow; to feed the birds, sitting, watching them play. We will leave tomorrow morning, i told Rasool, lets go to our doctor friend, he knows you, lets get some tests done. We’ll get to know the cause of the pain and i will come back soon. He refused to even move. I tried again asking him to come out to at least eat something that evening but it didn’t seem he had any appetite.
It was the moment i was almost about to leave, Rasool shouted from behind, Narayan, wait let me wear something, i will come.
Before we took Rasool to eat, i pulled him in to meet with the doctor who had become a friend in my previous visits. I asked him that we need to get his tests done tomorrow. Meanwhile as Dr. Bashir took his time to look at Rasool, I walked towards the hospital balcony to look at the most beautiful Chinar. Under it was a blood donation camp. As I am told my blood is rare, I felt like offering some to whomsoever, to Kashmir.
We never know life Rasool bhai, I told him on our way back, holding his hand when the time came to leave him that evening, this bird park is important but we will see what can be done. First is your health.
On the road next morning, as we were leaving behind the Pir panjals, driving past this paradise on earth, I realised that actually paradise is only where care is, where love for the other has some space to bloom. Heaven lies in the relationships that we create, because for sure I do not have any one heaven; and just like in Kashmir my heart lies with my children in Turtuk, the last village on the indo-Pakistan border. Cold like Ice. In the foothills of Siachin glacier, where the Himalayas are left behind and Karakorams arrive, giving way to the valley of grief, the valley of river Shyok, where my students live. This Omni’s last stop.
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This was the last image i made of Rasool before we left. The reports came out for more tests to be done as soon as it can be done. I wanted to share with you all that i am going to try and arrange a crowdfunding campaign for him soon; for however i can help him and the Bird park sustain, i will try my best.
If anyone who is here reading this post and feels like helping, contributing, coming over to help, anything, there will be no greater joy and gratitude.
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