Solo Travels- Bijbehara

Solo travels in Bijbehara, Srinagar.

The last time I visited Bijbehara, was in 2016, for Mufti Sahab’s funeral. The Dara Shikoh, Mughal Garden is his final resting place. Brijbehara, is famous for it’s Chinar Trees and is known as the Chinar town. Also known as Vijbor or Vijbror, it’s around forty five kms away, from Srinagar. The oldest Chinar tree in the region can be found in Paadshahi Bagh. Both the gardens were closed, due to the ongoing pandemic but my taxi driver- Farooq Uncle, is a real hustler. He convinced the guards at Paadshahi to let me enter by telling them, I’ve come all the way from Delhi. The one’s at Dara Shikoh Garden, wouldn’t let us in because there were a lot of young boys, who were loitering around, trying to gain access.

Anyhow, on the way back we were famished and stopped midway, to pick up something from Hattrick. Right next to it, an older gentleman was serving the best Kahwa, I’ve had in Kashmir.

Special Kahwa, served from this beautiful Samovar.

The only way to survive Kashmir on your own, is to miraculously find, soft spoken, kind local men, who like you, don’t like to listen to the word no. Now, before you start judging me, it’s in the context of work. I’ve never liked flexible people and especially when it comes to working with me…I like people who can lock horns, are stubborn in a quiet kind of way. They mitigate the effects of my aggression with their voice, yet manage to get the work done by not budging. Uncle is like that. He’s like a much older version of my former assistants. Plus, SC adores him. He calls her beta and fusses over her. ‘ I’m bringing a doctor for you!’, he told me yesterday. ‘ Na, I‘ll bounce back’, I reassured him. Like I say, this is the best place to travel on your own. From the hotel owner to the staff, everyone is awfully kind.

I find it unnecessary to look at different things or visit different places. It’s when you see the same thing over and over again, each time it starts to appear different and this is Jannat. Firdaus- jahan asli mein sadko par hure chalti he, where the women are stunning and the men gorgeous. Jahan sirf roshni badalne se sab alag lagta he aur mausam badalne se sirf ped, paude nahi badalte, aap khud andar se alag mehsoos karte ho. Yeh Jannat to he hi, jahanum bhi he, jahan itni khubsurti aur itna dard he. Both heaven and hell simultaneously, exist in Kashmir-there’s unparalleled beauty and gut wrenching pain, everywhere!

With the change in the technology and the increased megapixels that the cameras offer you now, the quality of the pictures is far superior, from my earlier works in say 2010. But when you live somewhere or spend an extended period of time there, drive around all the time, literally chasing the seasons, the moments you end up catching, can’t be caught that easily in a shorter span. But nevertheless, we try.

Eid in Kashmir

www.facebook.com/598600680197738/posts/2488338081223979

Gangtok

I arrived here, with the usual amount of drama I like to surround myself with. Though, honestly I wasn’t looking to, I just wanted to get out of Uttar Pradesh. To know why, you will have to listen to my Notes from the road. But since the monologue is so long, I was unable to upload the actual reason. Connectivity is terrible..takes forever to upload photographs and each voice file has taken a couple of hours of retrying. So, sorry, it will just have to wait.

Once I left Kushinagar, the only time I felt absolutely safe to stop the car post sunset was when I saw a group of men with long beards. Oh no, no, I find no comfort while crossing Punjab at night. There is something about old men in skull caps, that I have begun to trust through my travels. Though, of course they were shocked to see me, it was nice to be able to stretch my legs, buy a couple of beverages and make my way to Siliguri.

I reached Siliguri post midnight and got off the car yet again to stretch my legs and get gas filled. The boy at the fuel station was chatty but uncomfortable about having me prance around at that hour. ‘Aap beth jaye,’ he kept insisting. Many questions later, which were all directed towards me, ‘kahaan se aa rahee ho?’ ‘Kahaan Ko ja rahee ho?’ and the usual ‘darti nahin ho?’ He advised me to head towards Gangtok, right then and since he seemed earnest, I took his advice and made my way.

Around 17 kms away from Gangtok, I just couldn’t do it no more. I caught a wink and realised it was time for a nap. So I parked at gas station, covered myself up with a sheet, from head to tow and went of to sleep. At five I was rudely awoken by someone banging on my window. It’s never happened before and it scared the shit out off me. But the look on that man’s face was freaking fabulous when I revealed my face. Since the fuel pumps are really tiny there is no place for stray cars and stray women to park, so I left.

My usual app has been of no use to me here, since my primary concern is the parking of my white horse. So I just walked into the first place, where I could park and asked for the best deal. I’m glad I did because they gave me the best room and were absolutely amazing.

Spent the entire day nursing a headache, puking and sleeping while it rained outside. Higher altitudes are very unforgiving to my health, I once almost died while I was on a trek with my cousins. I had to be given CPR, that’s why I did’nt do Ladakh to Kanyakumari. Bhai Sahab saas ki kami se nahin marna chahte, high speed pe,jaye ge hum, Inshallah. I am going to drag my assistant to Ladakh with me, someday soon.

Anyhow, the next day as I was making my way towards MG Road, I stopped at the Gurudwara. Now, I didn’t know that it was a station Gurudwara, which is maintained by the Indian Army. Though, I didn’t manage to get any photographs from the couple of hours I spent there, it was one of the most interesting encounters. Anyone who knows me, would vouch for the fact that as a woman, especially alone, I stay way from uniformed men. There have been too many experiences through out my life’s journey to trust vardis. Before you start screaming, lekin border per humare jawaan, this is purely from the point of view of my personal safety, taking into account that I travel alone and have a vagina.

We broke bread, while they tried to figure me out. Since Punjabi refuses to roll of my tounge despite my best efforts and my name is so fantastic, Sikhs always think I am hiding something. But despite that, from the young to the old, they were all very nice. Unfortunately, one individual had worked in Kashmir and since I have an uncanny knack of pissing the shit out of people, he was going on and on about Kashmiris so I gave him a lowdown of my own personal experiences with the armed forces there. ‘CRPF se hoynge, Sardar nahin honge and then the truth came out-Madam itne din ghaar nahin jate, aadmi he, kyaa hota hoga unka haal, aap ko bhi samajhna chaahiye!’ We should sort out this sexual frustration problem, if we care so much about border pe humare. Actually, when we can’t sort out their ration this ain’t going to happen no time soon.

The day went by as it does -shooting at various places and with a brandy and pizza for dinner as did the next- just eating, shooting, driving- getting stuck in slush and somehow making my way to Ravangla. Intercept with some massive leg pulling. A couple of individuals I know, have been fretting over me going to Bhutan, since it will steal their thunder. . But I have only three reactions to pettiness- silence, abusing or massive leg pulling! So while they have sleepless night about me entering Paro, I will be going where the wind blows!

P.S- By the way if you are alone and need help, Sikkim is the one place where you have the nicest, cleanest, most helpful vardis.

Solo Date #46- Prem’s Restaurant Pune

I take a quick detour towards the Osho Ashram, which took my breath away (I managed to step in to take a leak…perks of being a bibliophile). After a lovely meeting with the Ma at the bookstore and promising myself and her that I will return, I head to a cafe for breakfast and some reading.

Solo Date #43- Udaipur

Natraj Restaurant, Udaipur.

If you land up in Udaipur, don’t leave without visiting the Natraj Restaurant. The Rajasthani/ Gujrati Thali is delectable and of course I love playing dress up…I never miss a chance to pose for the local photographers.

Solo Date #35-Paonta Sahib

Paonta Sahib, which is at a distance of over 200 kms away from Delhi is a town in Sirmour district of Himachal Pradesh. The Gurudwara in this town, has historic significance for Sikhs, as the Dasam Granth was written by their tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji, here.

The Dasam Granth, is a controversial text, as many historians claim that only part of it has been compiled by the Guru and the rest by the 52 poets who were part of the durbar at Anandpur Sahib.

During my stay, I visited the Gurudwara and headed to the Riversong Restaurant for dinner.

Solo Trip To China

So here I am, in the land of the Red Dragon, for the very first time. Apparently, I visited Hong Kong and Taiwan when I around six or seven years old. But you know how fantabulous my memory is! Like the couple of pictures in the old album which faded, so have all my memories.

So,  this is technically not the kind of journey I embark upon. It’s a serious business trip, the first one I have ever been on- that requires for me to play adult. Ya, ya, I know I entered adulthood a couple of decades ago…but my friend…let the body not fool you.

As for fooling, there I was assuming to be the shit..oh my God so bloody good at the masking and all…and not one but a couple of different people broke my illusion. As you are aware, I hate flying! So on the flight to Hong Kong (then took a ferry to Shenzen), I watched that God forsaken film a number of people asked me to see, to keep myself distracted. Well, so much for the autobiography my brother wanted me to write. After watching the film I realised it ain’t going be that interesting, after all! What a snooze it is to be so damn predictable! 

Anyhow, Shannon my co passenger from Ireland, was travelling to Hong Kong for the very first time to get a gig as an English teacher. Though, the men in my family have been doing this for decades, I had no idea what this journey would be like for a single woman. At the Shekhou port the lady at immigration, gave me a hard time. That should have been my first clue. 

Though, the business associates, picked me up and helped me to check into the hotel, even at the best of places, there are very few who understand English and even fewer who speak it. The language barrier is worse than it was in Europe. The people also seem a bit indifferent, so no one smiles back or greets you. It’s almost like being invisible in a strange land. 

Plus Google baba and Facebook don’t work (only on International Roaming you can gain access). But it is not for leisure, may not be pleasant but it is an adventure, nonetheless. Plus, I always find ways to make mischief…just got to confront the wall.

Solo Date # 25-Rock Garden

Nek Chand's Rock Garden

Rock Garden Chandigarh

Backpacker’s Cafe, Chandigarh

For a pre holi date I stop over at Chandigarh to reminisce one of my favourite dates-which was sneaking away from our friends in the middle of a wedding and coming to check out Nek Chand’s creation. The place is packed as it’s a Sunday. I wander around, trigger happy and slightly nostalgic.

To cheer myself up I head to Backpackers Cafe in Sector 9. I avoid malls like they are the plague, so I skip the one at Elante. I expect it to be less ‘happening’ and more chilled out. There are couples everywhere. The food is prompt to arrive but is half cooked and then there’s a crazy chaos, as some big shot is about to arrive and all his cronies are too disturbing for hang around with. I get my food packed and split.

Solo Date #23- Lalit Khajuraho

Panna, at the Lalit Khajuraho

Panna at the Lalit Temple View Hotel, Khajuraho

One of the reviews stated that the Lalit Temple view Hotel, ‘exudes a certain arrogance’, which was what piqued my curiosity. I dropped in after my visit to the Archeological Museum, which adjoins the hotel. After visiting the temples, the museum doesn’t remain a novelty. Plus, the renovations, the noise and a person who follows me around to ensure I don’t take any photographs, makes me want to flee. So, I do- to bask in the sun at Panna.

When I think Lalit, imagery of the the one in Srinagar comes to mind. Of course, the grandeour of it isn’t replicated in Khajuraho. But it does have its own charm. The salad isn’t unappetising, yet it’s not as fresh as delish as one would have wanted. The service is good, the ambience great and the place bustles with foreign tourists.

 

Solo Date #22-Raja Cafe

Raja Cafe, Madhya Pradesh

Raja Cafe, Khajuraho

Bang opposite the Western Group of Temples, close to Bamboori Treats lies this unassuming restaurant. The signage is tiny and the exterior is unimpressive. But the place bursts with energy, as travellers from all over the World enjoy a delectable meal and bask in the sun.

The owner- the grandson of one of the Swedish cofounders, who bought the cafe from the Maharaja keeps a watchful eye on the staff and politely smiles at the guests. 
Through the trip, it becomes one of my favourite hangouts in Khajuraho. I’m not the only one who returns repeatedly, the noisy women traveller’s group who was there in the afternoon is also there in the evening. So are some solo trippers, enjoying  cold beers and breezers. A must visit on your next trip to the land of the erotic. 
 

Chuk Chuk Chuk

Have an absolutely fantastic weekend, at the Jashne-Rekhta. Barring my phone being picked from my pocket, while shooting, it was my idea of perfection.In the 36 years of my life, prior to the past one and half years, other than my men (kidding), nothing has really been stolen from me. First my car was stolen from infront of my house, then my car was broken into and the bag and tab were stolen and yesterday my pocket was picked and my 15 day old phone was stolen. 

Obviously, some energies are releasing and something fabulous is coming my way.But as the rail gari, is going chuk, chuk, chuk, I’m having a hard time trying to not worry about the camera.

Did I not mention, I am on the way to Khajuraho? I type this in a darkened compartment, having just a few palpitations on my way. If you know me, you know that other than driving on my own, all other means of transport send a shiver down my spine. Knowing, just how uncomfortable this was going to be for me, the Father sent the driver and the Sugar man to drop me. Last minute the Mother decided to accompany them too and when I reached the station, the paltan increased as the Anonymous Aunty dropped in to surprise me.

I have not felt this lost and this pampered in a long time. As AA, settled me in, fussed over me-gave me a book to ‘distract me’, music to ‘soothe me’ and a million standing instructions, the man on the lower berth just looked at me and smirked. There are a million things I can do alone, travelling with strangers in a confined space,  is obviously not something I do, well.

Solo date #19-Valentine’s  Day

Valentine’s day date in Delhi

Though one is footloose and fancy free, V day is a good day to give one’s self some loving. I head to Surajkund for the famous Mela. Though, the whole world and it’s mummy (it seems) is there, I wander around by myself, window shopping and trigger happy.

A couple of hours- a bottle of wine, gulab jamun and some chick flicks later, I am all set to call it a night. I re-read the messages from the day and wonder what and why the hell was I fretting so much about love a few years ago. ‘The power in a relationship lies with the one who cares, less! As long as you don’t care,you’ll be fine!’, I remind myself. Oh, I’m not a cynic, I am a realist!

Solo Date #18-SPS Museum

Sri Pratap Singh Museum, Srinagar

There are a number of activities  one can enjoy in Srinagar- go for a shikara ride, paragliding, take a bus ride on the hop on-hop off, visit the floating post office but the winter, especially the chilian kalan-forty days of the cold, put a damper on everything. Since most of the locals leave for the summer capital of Jammu and there are hardly any tourists around, everything kind of comes to a halt. But the museum is open-sort of.

Though the new wing is yet to be inaugurated and the old building is closed to the public, one is pleasantly surprised. A few years ago I had sent an article to GK (which was never printed),  about how mismanaged the museum was, with broken cases and bukharis being used close to national treasures. 

The staff remains primarily the same so it still not like a nice, quiet, well organised place but it’s a great initiative, a must see for the different kinds of galleries. On the ground floor are the Archeology gallery, Numismatics Gallery  and the museum shop. On the first floor are the Culture and Society, Jewellery, Arms and Armory and Decorative Arts Galleries. On the second floor which is at the moment non functional,  are the Textile and Painting galleries. 

Solo Date #14- Gulshan Books 

Gulshan Books and Cafe Nehru Park

Gulshan Books, Srinagar

After a day spent in Gulmarg, I’m feverish and all I want to do is spend a day in bed with a book. So I head to the best place in Srinagar to find one.

Gulshan Books is a quaint bookstore on Residency Road. It’s the place to find practically, any book that has been written about the Valley. I was heartbroken when it got damaged during the floods but it’s revamped version is even better.

Though, now there’s a cafe on the Boulevard too, I prefer the familarity of this one. Plus, with my ADD( it’s an assumption), I find it difficult to concentrate on a book, in public spaces. I buy a copy of Rahul Pandita’s, ‘Our moon has blood clots’.On the 19th of January, the Kashmiri Pandit community marked their 27th year in exile, from the Valley and Pandita’s book narrates the pain ofthat displacement.I  head back to my apartment for an afternoon of reading. 

Solo Date #13-Books and Bricks

10 things to do in Srinagar

Books and Bricks, Srinagar

After a morning spent making pictures in different parts of Srinagar, I head to a quiet cafe in the afternoon. I’m on a mission! I need to figure out if Srinagar, is still safe for female travellers.

Though, there are a number of places to hang around-Cafe Arabica at  the Broadway, Chinar-the coffee shop at the Lalit and the coffee shop at the Taj, I want to sit somewhere, which is bursting at the seams. So, Books and Bricks it is!

Nestled in Gogji Bagh, the cafe looks like someone’s personal library, what with all the books stacked up. With only around eight to ten tables, this American diner has a perfectly cozy feel to it. I warm myself up with a coffee and some waffles.

 Though, there isn’t a single couple around, the place is swarming with young girls, chatting over burgers and coffee. I’m glad no one is bothered by my existence.The service is prompt, the food delicious and the conversations, I accidentally eve’s drop on ( the tables are too close to each other) are  highly entertaining. 

Solo Dates in Kashmir

Before I post anything from my trip…the Valley clad in snow, the conflict or the cold..I want to dedicate the next few solo dates to Kashmir. 

Yesterday, as I walked around taking pictures of the snow, I bumped into one of the journalists working for Star. He wanted a bite about the cold…I urged more tourists to visit. As I tuned into take my staple diet of Fb, last evening, a Kashmiri writer’s post, gave an account of the harassment she faced while strolling through Srinagar. A decade of wandering around the city in the worst circumstances, plus being here at the same time at the same spot, with the security forces around, I am baffled by it! I am sure there are a few rotten apples every where, it’s unfortunate when someone encounters them.

There are a number of things I dislike about Srinagar . Personally, I like cities which are melting pots of various cultures, with a diversity of religious practices,  clothing and thought. Though, I would love to live in Kashmir, I would hate to bring up my kids, here. Plus, I don’t know how to fit in, which is a prerequisite to surviving,  two- three tier cities and small towns in India. But the good outweighs the bad. As a woman, I very rarely feel unsafe here…around the security forces, yes, (a number of times, I have faced their brunt) around a local kashmiri man, nope. Barring, a few instances last year, in a very  specific area, where the boys were heckling, I’ve never been harassed. 

I wish I could give an unbiased, account of my travels. But we all suffer our prejudices; some of us are just honest enough to claim them. I don’t wear tags, therefore I don’t need to see the world through feminist eyes. 

So these solo dates are dedicated to my decade in Kashmir. A place I have no connect to but which feels like home. To all those who made an outsider, feel like an insider … thank you.

Solo Date #12-New Year’s Eve Date

A 100 solo dates

As we get ready to usher in 2017, I head out for a pre new year celebration. My plans for a solo date at The Piano Man have been altered. The Bengali Babu will be joining me, now. So before the craziness of the night begins, I go over to Inox to catch Dangal.

Solo Date#11-Sakley’s Mountain Cafe.

Sakley's Mountain Cafe

As another year comes to a close and one finds ones self wishing for a few ‘mask -free’, days. I head out for a quiet evening to Sakley’s in Greater Kailash-1. The staff is polite…the food fabulous and no disturbs me, as I sip on my Sangria. Well, other than my phone which buzzes every few minutes, with different people wanting to have various conversations. Next time, no phone on solo dates!

Found this treasure on the table- ‘ My solitude is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them-and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own.It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone they are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers.- Thomas Merton.

The 50th Day

50th day of unrest in Kashmir.

                   Since there was a call to march to Badami Bagh, the area was cordoned.

 

 

 

Lal Chowk on the 50th day of the unrest of 2016.

                                               Lal Chowk on the 50th day of the unrest of 2016.

 

 

50 days of unrest in the Valley.

             50 days of unrest in the Valley.

 

A Rajasthani man busy with his occupation while most parts of the city are under curfew.

A Rajasthani man- busy with his occupation while most parts of the city are under curfew.

 

 I wake up with a tremour. The fear of flying coupled with a general anxiety about visiting the Valley at this time (after last month’s sojourn..do you blame me?) makes me incredibly nervous. The cab is a little late…the parents are awake and for the first time in a long time, the entire entourage (parents, the help and the dog) come outside to bid me adieu. My hands start to tremble in the cab. ‘It’s a sign…my final goodbye’. ‘Madam T3 jana he?’ asks the cab driver. ‘Haan’. And of course that’s not where I’m supposed to go! Get dropped at T3 and as I get off the cab, I realize I’m at the wrong terminal. Hail another cab…reach the airport, on time thankfully and just keep walking around in a daze. I just can’t seem to calm the nerves. One of my greatest fears in life is…fear. It’s a vicious circle, the minute I start feeling afraid, I become so nervous about the fact that I’m scared that I start behaving incongruous. Trip a few times and only after I buy a few books do I calm down. A few more faux pas later,  I am convinced the universe is giving me a sign but I have already boarded the flight. 

After visiting Kashmir continually for the past nine years, you would expect more from me, as I would from myself. But over the course of the past year, one has witnessed the growing suspicion towards the Non-Muslim in the Valley. Plus, I’m arriving all alone fifty days after Burhan Wani was killed. So it ain’t going to be a walk in the park. Anyway, share a cab and land up at the same hotel where I stayed last time. After all, I need to be near trouble. 

Check in and an hour later I step out into a mild drizzle. The weather is perfect for a nice walk. Though, there’s a lot more vehicular movement most areas are cordoned. It’s an odd mix of normalcy and captivity. Walk towards Yaseen Malik’s territory and get into an argument with an armed personnel. He tries to flex his muscles and I try to pretend I ain’t scared of nobody. We argue for a few minutes and then his companions break up the party. ‘Madam aap aage jaa ke kaam karo.’ I try again and succeed. In the corner sit two men at work. I chat with the Rajasthani workers who have been working in Srinagar for the past sixteen years. ‘ Hume koi kuch nahin kehta yahan par. December tak rahte he. Phir March me vaapis aate hein.’ 

Take a quick glance at Lal Chowk, which looks as deserted as it did last month and start to make my way towards Badami Bagh. The Joint Resistance leadership was supposed to walk towards the 14 core of the Indian Army at Badami Bagh and though, it’s a little late, I want to go there to see what’s up. Autumn is almost here, the weather is beautiful and without the conflict it would be the perfect place to live. The light drizzle turns into a mild shower and I hail an auto. The movement of traffic is restricted but there are a lot more people around this time. A few pictures here and a few pictures there and I ready to go back. ‘Madam kaun se channel see he aap?’asks the auto driver. I inform him that I am a free lancer. ‘Humari awaaz pohachti he ke nahin?’. ‘Yes, people know what Kashmiris want,’ I tell him. 

By this time we have reached my destination but he wants to chat. So  while it rains we have a heart to heart sitting in an auto parked outside my hotel. This forty year old auto driver, from the territory of the Mirwaiz has completed Msc. Four of his friends have been missing for over a decade and he himself was imprisoned for a few. ‘Unhone itna mara poocha militant he, mene bola hu,’he confesses. ‘We just want our freedom because we were free in the first place. Both Pakistan and India just want our land and they don’t care about the people. But at least Pakistan doesn’t torture the people of Azad Kashmir. I leave my house at six a.m so that I can earn some money. What can I say to you? Look at our people. Madam is saying the people who were killed didn’t step out to buy milk and toffee. NC, tortured us for many years but I never felt as bad as when I read this. This is the worst kind of betrayal.’ We eventually say goodbye.

I come back to my room and wonder why I was palpitating. That’s till, the announcements, the whistling, the yelling and the hum kya chahte begin. So for now, the light remains on the entire night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solo Date #10- Nehru Planetarium

Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi

Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi

I’m sure I must have visited the Nehru Planetarium as a child, on the usual school trip but I don’t recollect it.  Have I found the second most romantic place in Delhi, after my flyover? Hell Yeah! It’s also the perfect place to take yourself out on a Sunday afternoon before you head out for the evening. That’s exactly what I did.

 

Caught the 3 p.m show at the planetarium, that was once the official residence of Jawaharlal Nehru. Forty minutes in a darkened auditorium, looking at projections of galaxies merging into one- one devouring the other, the planets and their moons-juxtaposed with the screeches of little children. If you don’t want the disturbance, visit on a weekday.

 

The place was packed… in fact the 250 seating capacity was full to the brim, for the four p.m show. The exhibition area, the bookstore and the souvenir shop are soon to be upgraded.

Address– Teen Murti House,

                   Teen Murti Marg

                    New Delhi

 Nearest Metro– Race course (Yellow Line)

Show Timings– English-11.30 a.m and 3 p.m

                                Hindi- 1.30 p.m and 4.00 p.m

 

X’mas

Wake up to a call from the one who waits. ‘Don’t you have to go?’ ‘Yup but it’s too damn cold.” It’s 8 a.m…it’s a Christmas morning in Kashmir. I sleep for a few more minutes and then drag myself out of the electric blanket. The room’s freezing as usual…I light up the gas heater. The tiny gas cylinder with a round dish like apparatus starts with a whoosh.
A quick trip to the the loo and the ice cold water that gushes out of the tap wakes me up for all of eternity! No hot water means a dry bath…body scrub and baby wipes.

A few cups of tea later, I rush to the Holy Family Catholic Church on Maulana Azad Road. ‘Madam, bag check karao,” directs the vardiwalla. The security is tighter than usual…the vigilance has exponentially increased. But that is true for the entire Valley. Even when one was crossing the Banihal Tunnel, one could sense the doom in the air.

The Church looks different from the last time I visited. Much has changed after the floods. I’m too early, the Christmas Morning Mass only begins at 11 am. After all the ‘Chillai Kalan’, the 40 day long period of the most chilling, biting nights has already made it’s grand entrance with the night temperature dropping to -5. I pay my respects, I am now in all too familiar territory, with the convent education and all…and find a place in the middle of the tiny church, on a pew next to the heaters.

It’s a long wait, the congregation slowly trickles in. All the carols we sung in school are now blaring through the loud speaker, in Hindi. At just around 11 a.m arrive a throng of my peers. They make it to the front of the church and park themselves between the altar and the first pew, blocking parts of the aisle. The mass begins. I catch only parts of it, about how riches don’t bring happiness etc. I’m unusually distracted by the photographers. Halfway through the mass there are more photographers in the church, than members of the congregation. There they are snapping away to glory. I take a few photographs from my seat. A number of times during the service, the Priest stops his sermon to ask them to move to the back. But to no avail. By now my blood is boiling. I ask one to take it easy. He apologies but it all continues. There’s no space for the Priest or  congregation to move. I just take a few shots from the back of the church and step out.

There is a standard procedure that outsiders follow when they come to the Valley. Fraternising is the best way to gain access. But I keep to myself, everywhere. Unless, I am interested in someone as a subject or out of an inquisitiveness that I rarely experience, I speak only when I’m spoken to. So I wander aimlessly, waiting for the congregation to step out. The throng comes out too.  There I am keeping to myself when one of them approaches me. “Mere behan banogee kya?” I kid you not..no hi no hello..no introduction…that’s the opening line. Maybe it’s my size or that I look like a dumb, lost child…but a lot of boys I encounter feel the need to be my saviours – my princes on white horses or my brothers. Instead of warming up to him (like a true cynic, I don’t believe words or trust actions only intentions), I turn nasty. ‘I don’t want to speak to you, forget being related to any of you. The way all of you totally disregarded what those people asked for! Why don’t you try behaving like this in Hazratbal?”

I have no idea what takes over me sometimes but my voice has now become awfully high pitched and  there I am yelling at what has formed into a group of  influential photographers of Kashmir. FYI it’s a lot, I hold in high regard due to the risky nature of their vocation!

My unsuspecting peer, doesn’t know where to look. ” Too many of the new guys come from villages and are uneducated, you can’t accuse all of us of being uncivilised!”, he says. In retrospect I realize arguments such as these are unnecessary. First, I don’t make pictures as a means of earning a livelihood with editors telling me what to do and when. Plus, I wrote once about ethics that everything boils down to who we are in private, when no one else is watching!

Anyhow, a familiar face sees me fretting and approaches. It’s Mr T, a young accredited photo journalist, someone I have bumped into on many occasions…he has all the characteristics of a ‘good guy’. This is the first time, we have a long chat. He calmly explains to me the behaviour of his colleagues, tells me what is happening in the Valley and parts ways having exchanged numbers.I get a call from my assistant who isn’t in the Valley these days. “Don’t go to the Shrine today there may be trouble.” he says. “If there was the press wouldn’t be here”, I reply to my Mother hen.

A few conversations and some photographs later I quickly rush home to get out of my white jacket and red cap and to put on my pheran. Now, I’m dressed in my Dargah attire. On the previous day, one had visited the Shrine for Eid-e-Milad-ul-Nabi celebrations, a festival to mark the birth of  Prophet Muhammad and was returning for the continued festivities.

I’m too late. By the time I park my White Horse and head towards the Shrine a swarm of men is moving towards me. An hour of this that and the other and I am ready to leave. As I head towards my horse, I  get a message saying that there’s a strike tomorrow. It’s from Mr T, then another asking where I am. He sends a photograph of a procession and asks if I want it. For a minute I don’t understand and then it dawns on me. I’ve heard rumours of this being a common practice amongst photographers. ‘Na, thank you’, I write back.

Come back to my Oh so freezing apartment. Grab a quick bite and drop in to say hi to my land lady- A fierce Sardarni in her late , she’s lived in Srinagar, for what seems like forever. She has all the qualities of a Kashmiri-strenght, resilience, vulnerability and a prejudiced mind set.  Each time she sees me, she reminices about the time past. We chat for a while and another message appears from Mr T. ‘Heavy stone pelting in Jama Masjid.’ he writes. “Oh shit!”, I say out aloud. “Ke hogeya”, asks my land lady. I tell her. “Iss time pe tussi nahin jaoge!” It’s already 6 p.m and pitch dark outside.  “Menu jana bhi nahin he, dekh chukki ha aur nahin dekhna.” I’m going to buy some veggies and and then I’m going to pray. “Sardara di kareengi pooja ke Musalmana di?”, she asks in her customary way. I feel my temperature rising but I know it’s a waste of time. “Mein bin pende da lota..na ithe da na othe da. Mennu sab same lagda he ji.” I bid her adieu.

I am very distracted by the day I’ve had. The Anonymous Aunty calls. We talk about the weather…I try to pray but I just go through the motions. Check my messages and Mr T has very sweetly sent a few more. Chat with the boy for an unusual amount of time and fall asleep. A quarter of an hour later, I wake up to the tremor. I hear doors opening and shutting and people stepping out of their houses. ‘Wild horses aren’t going to drag me out of this warm bed, tonight!’ I fall right back to sleep. At 4 a.m the rat in the house manages to make me jump out of bed, with his daily visit!

Solo Date#5-Drive.

Alas!I’m in love.

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Since I’m a terrible creature of habit, driving a new vehicle is disturbing for me. I bitch about how it’s no match on the previous one, irrespective of how good or bad the former has been. It takes me an average of six months to get used to new cars and new people. A trip during this period is highly advisable. So I head to Pushkar, just me and my white horse ( I am now  my own Prince Charming!). 
It’s the day after Diwali and National Highway 8 is fairly deserted even at half eight in the morning. Off we go zooming towards familiar terrain. ” Have you left? Where have you reached?”, the boy is at it from half seven. “They’re always nicest when they don’t  have you”, I think to myself. ” Do you know my car starts to beep when it hits a particular speed?”, I yell excitedly into the handsfree. I’ve tried all my experiments on an isolated road. The lecture begins…

The desolate road- the dearth of cars and humans, makes me hungry. I reach over for my supply of snacks and beverages. Dig into the bag of banana chips and suddenly Mr Akhtar’s voice resounds through the vehicle. ” Woh Shakl pigli to har shai mein dhal gai aise. Ajeeb baat hui he usko bhulane mein.” As each chip makes it’s way into my mouth each moment of what shouldn’t be recalled  plays through my mind. “Should I call the wahmbulance?”, I imagine Lily( from the Modern Family) asking me instead of her queer Dad. “One more tear and I will whack your face!”, screams my parent ego state.

A sip of Mango Frooti, fresh and juicy later… Tom Petty and Queen manage to uplift my mood. My companion and I are now in for the ride of our lives. Many wonderful tunes and a few toll booths later, I arrive at my destination already in love with my companion- the white horse.

Day 5- Earthquake Diary

I  couldn’t drag myself out of bed this morning. The excess luggage has screwed my back. Somehow, managed to leave for Tudi Hill by late morning and what a trip it was. At around 12.50, as I packed up my cameras and was making my way towards the exit, I suddenly felt the tremors and then there was just utter chaos.