EPIPHANIES FROM THE LAND OF A THOUSAND GALAXIES, SPURTING RIVERS AND BLUE SKIES

At Hunderman village

Flights are the second best walk into the clouds after paragliding, I thought to myself. Ever since the airplane flew from the scorching earth of Delhi to the astounding skies of Srinagar I kept wondering if what I saw from the terrace, the sky and the universe, was real. The wings of the plane would triumphantly cut into the clouds fusing with the yellows and oranges of the sun. The arrival of Srinagar flight is as calm as the breathtaking view outside. It is neither too cold nor too hot. The innova with some chirpy passengers waits in the arrivals lane. The driver waves to me and I sit for the ‘road less travelled’. The first voyage to a place that has witnessed ‘a thousand mutinies’, head of India’s map and a well-known bone of contention between India and Pakistan- Jammu and Kashmir. Since there are no flights to Ladakh, I would see entire mesmerizing Srinagar en route to Kargil.

There were many Kargilis and Ladakhis in the car. Some giggling, some sleeping while others eating as happens in many of the normative trips. For all the Kargilis it is no less than a surprise that I am going to Kargil. “The place is only remembered in the history for the war of 1999. Otherwise, Ladakh and Leh are considered one place, while Kargil is looked down upon as some aloof and remote area”, informs the passenger sitting besides me, Zakir Ahmed, “The tourism industry has given less number of funds to Kargil, and thus, no tourist visits to Kargil. Actually, hardly anyone knows that Ladakh has two districts-Leh and Kargil”. Zakir introduces me to a social media freak namely Firdous who says “You see the facebook event creators and all these trip planning companies advertising Leh by luring them with camping, stars and deserts”, “The same companies are shaping our travel interests, and we don’t know about so many uncharted domains like Kargil itself”. I nodded in agreement.

We halt by the local dhaba close to the famous Drass river. The turquoise blue waters of Drass river and the gushing flows colliding with the rocks and big stones is a melody to my ear. Adjacent to Drass stands sky kissing Tiger hills, it seems a humble river flirting to a magnificent mountain. My musings are perturbed when Firdous asks me to come inside the dhaba to have lunch. It is ironical that food for thought is sometimes enough for satiating hunger. We don’t get the usual rotis we eat at our homes, but rumali rotis along with the lip smacking Kadhai chicken I have ever had. Firdous says “this place has a nominal food price with scrumptious taste”. We eat our lunches discussing everything from politics to environment. The TV news channel is a great break from Aam Aadmi politics to some Jammu style chaotic politics. Zakir tells me about the widespread corruption in Kargil ranging from appointment of school teachers to electricity projects dammed by the floods and the utilization of substandard material in the power projects. To which I say “Well, Zakir, corruption is a systemic worm present in varied forms everywhere”. He further says “There are lack of adequate telephone towers in here as compared to Leh, although funds are allotted comparatively more to Kargil, however, the network situation remains bleak”.

The stroll to the natural bounties where I stand in the middle of the road, is neither too wide nor too narrow, with gigantic mountain ranges and none of the homo sapiens. Everyone I see is engrossed in clicking photographs, captivating what eyes are seeing in the present bit. As we walk ahead, I glare at some mountains with an abrupt flatness in between, Zakir tells, “These are the consequences of landslides, many a times, people are killed in such landslides, the environment is like the rule of karma, as you sow, so shall you reap”. The mountains are sometimes green, sometimes red and other times yellow. The sun and the mountains play among each other resulting in color pigmentation.

As we move ahead, I gaze at these small bits of ice stuck in between a set of two or more mountains at the highest altitudes called ‘Glaciers’. In some places, water comes streaming down the glaciers, pure white in color and coldest in temperature. Firdous tells “So, glaciers are melting, you can drink this water, it is the purest in form”. Moving further, in between the two mountains and in the folds of its peak, is a breath-taking view of a glacier. I ask the driver “Can we stop the car here?”, the driver says “Yes, this is that famous glacier everyone keeps talking about, all the time in news ever since the partition,” “The Siachen glacier”, Zakir says. “The Siachen is guarded by the army”, informs the driver.

While I was deeply dozing off, the car gets stuck in between the flock of sheep. The driver sprinkles the pepper of his knowledge by informing me “these are bakarwals and Gujjars”, “Bakarwals and Gujjars are the nomadic groups migrating from Western Himalayas, generally rearing sheep and goat oscillating between high and low altitudes of mountain ranges of Jammu and Kashmir” speaks Zakir.

The sheep would literally walk by being a part of the flock, and if any sheep wanders they are put back into their flock by the bakarwal. Sometimes they get stuck into the fences in an attempt to move out of the comfort zone of the flock. The bakarwals and Gujjars would often produce weird sounds to signal them to rush and hurry up. The whole process takes around ten to fifteen minutes and the way is cleared. ‘Not all those sheep who wander are lost’, I wonder to myself.

“But”, the driver asserts “these groups are facing grave environmental ramifications, many of them are losing their livelihoods due to the deteriorating climate conditions and enormous environmental damages”. “Time and again they have been demanding state’s welfare measure against such environmental vulnerabilities”, Zakir adds.

Everything looks authentic, unchanging and eternal up here. It appears as if each part of the nature from river, sun, skies to the chivalrous ranges, everything is in consonance with each other. The city life is fast and rushy, so the daunting realisation is that even a place like Ladakh confronts the misgivings of so called ‘growth’. The hustle bustle of cities have costed the peace of glaciers and nomadic life.

Curves of the mountain terrain in Ladakh and Zojila highway are more uneven than life. The winds blew carrying an ample of mud in its mouth urging me for a hairwash. However, the thirst to explore remains ceaseless.

The car heads towards an uphill village called Hunderman. The village is close to the notorious Line of Control. Nothing is more wonderful than to see that humanity in these remote areas remains intact. The kids would run and insist for a picture together. On asking their names they would say shyly say ‘Tahira’, Fatima’, their names were as innocent as their faces. Tahira wants to be a doctor, and offers me ‘noor chai’ — a tea with a pinch of salt. Alongwith with Zakir and Firdous, I sit in a house with low lying ceiling, munching khurmanis and thinking to myself — ‘Why do they say spaces in our hearts matter more than spaces in the house?’

Tahira takes me out to show me an 800 year old house, sustaining the ravages of time, brimming with hope. On even an high altitude, Zakir pinpointing to an army camp, “we can’t enter their camps, just see them from a distance”, I didn’t bother to ask which country’s army is there- India or Pakistan. On Pakistan, a passionate journalist called ‘Rizwan’ sings songs on the memories of partition, the bitter reminiscences of separation, and croons “Mere samne wali sarhad pe kehte hai ki dushman rehta hai (It is said that there is an enemy residing on the opposite border)”. There is no reason why I regret partition, infact, I am indifferent to it. Nonetheless, it was sheerly about the contexts we are placed in, for some of them, they longed to see the faces of their relatives.

In proximity to Hundergaon, is the ‘Line of Control’ or a term that I innovatively use ‘Lack of Care’. Rizwan tells “There are some 3000 separated families residing in the villages nearby LOC, when on some auspicious occasions they manage to see each others’ faces they faint because of the emotional turmoil, it is incredulous for them”. I could only listen to all that silently. Separation is painful especially when states decide so and not our fates.

We get back into the car, the sun serenely sets in the yellows and blues of the sky, we bid adieu to the distant mountain ranges falling under territorial jurisdiction of ‘Pakistan’. Around dinner time, we reach to the hotel ‘Zojila Residency’ in Kargil. On the way, Rizwan keeps up the entertainment dose. The conversational journalist chatters about everything from Godhra riots, the revolutionary life in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the left activism and politics and lends me Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry from his collection. At times, he gossips about the history of Kargil, and the advent of Balti language.

The next morning is not as cold as nights in Kargil. The Drass river flowing can be easily seen from the window. It looks composed and quiet. I will meet some friends of the loquacious journalist today. He is a poet and a storyteller for the next voyage on the road. He hums Faiz’s poem ‘Hum dekhenge, Lazim hai ki hum bhi dekhenge, woh din ki jiska wada hai (We will see, It is certain that we will see, That day which has been promised)’, certain songs are so peculiar to JNU and its culture. We get down at a small dingy restaurant to meet his friends. The suit and dupatta clad women say ‘Asalam Walikum’ and although, we have seen in serials what to say in response I could just say a ‘hello’. They were shying away from me and I didn’t know how to establish a comfort level. However, “their suit and dupatta should not be misunderstood as domesticated femininity” says Firdous. Rizwan introduces them to me and they do some gossiping-cum-chuckling amongst themselves and express a willingness to take pictures. We take a plethora of photos together in interesting poses and even selfies. A minute ago, women who seemed introvert have become long lost friends. As women, wherever you go patriarchy follows, we share stories on mobility restriction and while others, on prohibition from wearing jeans. However, their suit and dupatta should not be misunderstood as ‘domesticated femininity’. Meher tells “We do have curfew timings, but all of us are studying in colleges and most of us are in our postgraduate courses.” I grin to her gleaming eyes. And to this Shahida exclaims in her Urdu tone ‘‘Woh safar hi kya jiski darqar ijazat ho” means “That journey is pointless wherein you need others permission”. The tempting meat momos are speciality of Kargil, “Please get some meat samosas as well”, Firdous orders.

The evening has swiftly passed and the dinner is munched at Aashiyana. I just eat some soupy noodles and head back to the bedroom. Ever since I have come to this room, there is a sense of strangeness surrounding this room. It feels I have entered into this arrange marriage with a cold stranger. The room reciprocates in a similar estranged manner. So I step out of the room and ramble to the river closeby. The spurting sounds trigger a thousand moorings in my writers’ mind. I sit with the diary and gazing the stars up above the sky, the silver luster glimmered my eyes. I can see the orion, the three stars constellation and the entire milky way, in symphony with the river and surrounding peaks. There is a meteor or as they say shooting star, dramatically, I wish to come back again. The pages of diary await sprinkling of moorings. I begin to say but am interrupted by the wonders of technology and it is not my 4G, but the phone beeps with a message. Networking barely survives in Kargil, however, sometimes technology knows the right time to barge in. The message reads “There are nights and moments I toss and crave for you. Much like drug addiction. I long for your arms, your embraces, your warmth, your mouth and an urge to be consumed.”

Before I go astray from the whole diary entry course, I begin to scribble “I kept tossing that night and longings dwindled in number. I feel my own hands to make sense of how they would be like, had you held them now. I miss our walks in the campus, the tea, the moonlight that witnessed our love-making. All that tells me that you didn’t want to let go of me, but you did. May be love and intimacy are two poles far apart from each other. Maybe it was not about two energies, and probably, it has been as shallow as this from always”.

The next dawn the horizon appears orangish in color with silver river. The sun is generous unlike Delhi, the optimist light interacts with the river surface. I check my phone and it is 9:30 am. Like a long lost traveller, I make my way back to the hotel. The room is as strange as last night. It hasn’t quite liked me since I have walked in and so have I. ‘One side will have to make a move’, says one remote part of my mind, ‘Why should I?’, I respond back.

The phone rings with ‘Rizwan’s’ name on the screen informing me to be ready by 11 am for the next adventure.

I wear my jumpsuit for the day and pack my bag with a camera and a diary. I see the married stranger for a moment, and tell the room to take care of my luggage. The driver is as vivacious as yesterday. The laughing passengers say me a ‘hi’. I don’t miss fast paced Delhi at all with fake smiles and superficial relationships. Every fellow Kargili here, is like an acquaintance forgotten in earlier births. It is as if we are here to complete the circle of meeting everyone we have met or seen, bad or good, we repeatedly meet them to absolve the ‘Karma’. My spiritual self-thoughts are halted with the drivers’ harsh brakes. “I don’t think we can go further, it is a steepy terrain, you will have to walk on your own the rest”, we express a ‘yes’ to his command and get off the car. I still have no idea what lay in the store for me.

As far as the beautification of this abandoned place is concerned, it is zilch. The co-passengers are not as puzzled as I am. I am bewildered as to why we are in this remote corner devoid of natural bounties as in the rest of the Kargil. It almost seems like I am back to Zojila highway, with winds and mud fused with each other.

Moving farther the barren landscape, the scenery is striking. The neatly designed grasscape looks nothing less than a superpower’s architecture. It is engaging yet subtle. That’s where we see a Buddha carving and some pali engravings on the walls besides it. The sight of Pali writings instigates a discussion amongst the passengers on history. “What came before Pali or Sanskrit? Obviously, Pali comes first and Sanskrit was derived from Pali, says another co-passenger apparently a history expert”.

The last eventful part of the trip to the grasscapes is a source of amazement in a barren land. As Zakir puts it across “Not everything barren has actually been abandoned”. The thought of departure is like the idea of parting. Tomorrow is one of the heart-wrenching days of parting.

Waking up early I approach to the same boundary stone where I sat to write the diary. I tear the page of longings and yearnings from the diary, to give it back to the river as a token of gratitude. The paper flies eagerly as if glad to have been welcomed into the arms of the blue river. The gush of the river is like a loud roar, as if craving for poetry. What better occasion than this. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I say ‘Goodbye’ to the water companion.

On our way to the airport, we go for a small trip to a tibetan market. I buy some korean styled cups for Rizwan, scarves for Zakir and Firdous, a chinese lamp for the driver. They express utmost gratitude with those glittering eyes.

On reaching airport, I hug everyone, Zakir, Firdous and Rizwan. The beam in Rizwan’s eyes and he utters “Hope to see you soon around Jawaharlal Nehru University,” Zakir says “I hope your advent here is a bugle of fortune for other tourists to see and rejoice in Kargil”. With ‘amen’ on my tongue, I immediately say ‘Inshallah’.

Tomorrow’s morning begins with the Arya Samaj temple chants near my house. Everything looks grey unlike blue and silver. The polluted waters and contaminated emotions out there. “Brace yourself”, I say to myself, hurrying for the work. A smile on my face as I enter the office. “The boss is freaking out for your story”, says the Bengali colleague.

I rush to his white looking cabin only to find him working with his head as if staring from his chin.

“So, are you done with your story on Kargil?”

“Yes, almost.”

“Can I see the draft in an hour?”

“Yes, sure”.

I run to my work station and immediately begin to type “The conversations with Kargili Humanitarians- Had it not been this ubiquitous humanity in Kargil, I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend the discourse of Kargil, it was not merely the gripping beauty of Kargil or the succulent cuisine. The lifelines of two districts of Ladakh Leh and Kargil have run bitter ever since the tourism industry has remained impartial in fetching equal funds. However, Kargil is an undiscovered treasure in the land of Shahjahan’s paradise. The yearnings of flora and fauna is no different from the dwelling citizens. With 3000 families thirsting to meet their acquaintances, the bakarwals facing grave livelihood concerns owing to the climate change, it wouldn’t be a hyperbole to say Kargil is the place I found my long lost soul. A place of sufferings and smiles, enormity of mountains and modesty of low-lying valleys, a ceaseless struggle to be themselves in the world of pretense and disguise is, Kargil”.