June 28, 2004
Wonderland of Kashmir
I always thought Kashmiri people were unobjectively boastful when describing their homeland as "heaven on earth", that is until I arrived here on the 1st of June.
The city of Srinagar centers itself around Dal Lake, a romantic world of decadent beauty that only seems possible within ones imagination. The lake is full of charming houseboats, small islands, floating vegetable gardens, wild birds, and lotus flower fields -- all bordered by beautiful yellow water lilies. These calm waters are connected by shady canals and traveled by row boat that are driven by men and women, young and old all pressing the water behind them with a single heart shaped paddle. Despite the many warnings I have heard about Kashmir and the violence ensuing between India and Pakistan over the political future of this paradise, I feel nothing but calm, serene and at peace inside the snow covered peaks and lush green mountains that seemingly protect the valley where the lake is situated.
I traveled here with Rahil, a brilliant young Kashmiri man who has an old soul, wise mind, and responsible and generous heart. We met in Bagsu, where Rahil is owner of a precious and semi-precious stone shop. Enchanted by the healing and energetic properties of the unique stones and their delicate settings, I decided to purchase a few to support me on my journey. I wear the ring and malas daily, and feel naked without them as they have quickly become a part of my inner and outer identity, as if they have adorned my body from birth.
Even after the purchase transaction for my jewelry was complete, I found myself frequenting Rahil's shop for cups of chai and long conversations about everything and nothing. Through these visits I came to realize that Rahilís friendship is even more precious and rare than the stones that he sells as he is one of the few men who are capable of cultivating a true friendship with a woman with no ulterior motives.
During one afternoon of chai, Rahil announced that his sister had just gotten engaged to be married. As the only son and main financial provider for his family, even at the young age of 29, he was excitedly obligated by tradition to travel home for the engagement party. Wanting to escape the monsoon of weather and emotions in Bagsu, I happily accepted his invitation to come along.
By the afternoon following our day of departure, I was sitting in the kitchen of Rahil's family home sipping tea and listening to the loud, warm and enthusiastic Kashmiri chatter of a family happily reunited. It did not require much time in the company of the Guroo family for the sources of Rahil's many great qualities to become evident. Ghulam, Rahil's father, a retired and formerly successful travel and tour operator, is a very quiet yet extremely confident man (much like the personality of my own father), who allows the vibrancy of his wife and daughters to color the energy of the household. Rahil's mother Hasina and two sisters Mahbooba and Rifat are all bold, bright and beautiful spirits who have clearly contributed to Rahil's profound understanding and respect for women.
Most activities center around the kitchen were food is always being cleaned, cooked or eaten. It seems a pot of Kashmiri tea -- characterized by green tea leaves and the saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and almonds that this part of India is famous for -- is also always in brew in expectation of the unannounced but always welcomed guests that are continually stopping by. Since tea is never consumed here without bread or biscuits, baskets full of diverse baked goods are also always being offered.
There house is a sweet two floor A-frame that is not quite finished but completely charming all the same. It is situated on a small island just along a canal that serves as a main artery of travel. All day and well into the evening colorful shikaras -- long colorful water taxis with bright, covered, cushioned and curtained sitting areas -- pass by leaving romantic Kashmiri love songs lingering as they move into the distance. It seems like everyone who lives here has done so for generations as the boat traffic is always accompanied by greetings and gossip being hollered from water to land and land to water.
I spend lots of time in my room, the only completed one on the second floor of the house, perched by the window where I observe the going-ons of the community. From this vantage point I have seen small children bounce out of their boats and into the lake as they play with one another. I have watched Hasina carefully select vegetables for the dayís meals from the veggie walla (seller). I have witnessed the shikara driver known to all as "old man" quietly slip from his boat to a quite and westward facing part of the lawn, to bow in evening prayer. I have observed Ghulam meticulously and lovingly attending to the flower garden that borders the front yard. Mostly I see shikara's filled with Indian tourists lazily passing the time of their holiday en route to nowhere in particular or Kashmiri men and boys parking their boats in the yet to blossom field of lotus plants just across from the house, where they sit and leisurely pass the day fishing.
I have noticed that I am not the only one who likes to perch in the windows of the second floor bedroom. On more than one occasion I have been visited by local birds that are less afraid of me than I am of them. My favorite visitors are a couple of nightingales who like to fly in my room to take a rest on my curtain rod. Other fluttering and soaring friends I have had the pleasure of watching include eagles, water hens, woodpeckers, and my favorite, the turquoise feathered kingfisher.
It is more than just the exotic and friendly birds of Kashmir that come right to the house for visits. There seems to be a mobile shop for every need one could imagine that always floats up to the house just when you need them to. From the shore of the island one can purchase bread, milk, fruit, vegetables, clothes, fabrics, plastic containers, ice-cream, flowers, saffron, carpets, jewelry, live chickens, and barbecued mutton. My favorite sales boat is the one I call the "bodega (a Span-glish term used in New York City to refer to the corner store) boat" offering everything from toilet paper and cigarettes to soda and choco-pies.
The values that govern the Guroo family as well as most people's lives here in Kashmir are conservative and defined by their Islamic religion. The women of the home pray five times a day, everyone visits the mosque on Friday for prayer, no one in the house consumes any liquor, and the woman ensure that their heads are always covered, especially when the calls from the mosques are heard announcing that it is prayer time. While dramatically different from my own belief system, I have found a great respect for their devoted commitment to their traditional ways.
The only practice they have that leaves me a bit uncomfortable is their constant annihilation of flies and mosquitoes. My Buddhist vows of not killing and serving all life forms in our common desire to exist in peace and happiness has left me with a greater appreciation for the life of insects and routinely saddened by their execution (for the record, even I am surprised that I have become an advocate for the humane treatment of bugs). Recognizing that these values are not part of the Guroo family moral code, I offer respect by biting my tongue and shoeing the flies towards an exit in hope that they will escape an encounter with the swatter. I am happily rewarded when I observe that the familyís lack of compassion for bugs is made up for by their regular consideration of the fish and birds around their island. Rifat often saves her mutton bones in order to feed the crows, and any leftover rice from someone's plate is routinely dropped in the water at the joyous pleasure of the fish.
The serentiy and lack of schedule I maintain here is a nice change for me and as such I expect to stay for a while.
Posted by Jyllt at June 28, 2004 07:52 AM
Girl, your time with the Guroo family sounds really lovely. Happy to know that you are on the right road and made yet another friend, to accompagny you on the path of self discovery, and discovery of others.
Posted by: Mag at July 31, 2004 11:26 PM