Ringggg… my mobile buzzed, defying the serenity of the sparkling snow-clad peak of Apharwat, Gulmarg.
I reached for my phone wondering who it is, disturbing the absolute peace at 14000 ft… A call from the airline canceling our flight back to Delhi the next day pushed me back to the reality. Slowly, absorbing the news, I decided to inform this to my husband and daughter after reaching Srinagar. Seeing them playing blissfully in the snow, I didn’t have the heart to disturb them with this news.
It was our sixth day in the Valley and we wanted to end our trip at the high… literally. Destiny seemed to have other plans though…
By the time we descended to the Gulmarg car parking, it was late in the afternoon. We were terribly hungry after a long walk and the entire running around in the snow. When we expressed this to Aijaz Bhai, our ever-smiling guide and driver, he seemed to be worried and in dilemma. A handsome and happy man in his late 20’s, whose entire mission was to make sure our trip was pleasurably memorable, was hesitating about something!
After a lot of coaxing he uttered the dreaded, “Raaste Mein stone pelting shuru ho gaya hain, aur woh cars ko target kar rahein hain!” (Stone pelting has started on our way back, and they are targeting cars.)
Immediately an unknown fear engulfed us; stone pelting had been in the news for a while now, we never imagined we would encounter it so closely. At the same time we knew Aijaz Bhai was more worried than us, hence we tried to comfort him. “I HAVE to drop you back safe in Srinagar.” He declared. As we spiraled down from the deep green mountains covered with tall pine and willow trees, he suggested we pick up some carry on snacks that could help us survive till we reach Srinagar.
We halted for stocking snacks, when we spotted the convoy of ex-chief minister of Kashmir, and decided to trail them. We thought, no one would target the convoy of ex-chief minister. Also, this was exciting enough to feel as if the convoy was escorting us back safely (laughs). We did spot quite a few pieces of evidences of stone pelting on our way back, fortunately, did not encounter any ourselves. We were indeed lucky!
Reached Srinagar around sunset safely, was about to be dropped, when he exclaimed, “Arre, aap logon ne toh aaj khaana hi nehi khaaya!” (Oh you didn’t have lunch today). Yes, we forgot about lunch, partly because of the fear, and partly because of the thrill to witness a live stone-pelting incident. Crazy us!
We hesitated, it was the first day of Ramzan, and he needed to break his fast at sunset. However, Aijaz Bhai being in his full element stopped the car at a restaurant near Daal Lake. We offered him to join us, he declined it politely saying, “Main toh ghar jake hi khaunga, tabhi toh family ke saath baith ke baatein karne ka mauka milega.” (I will go home and eat. It’s my chance to bond with my family.) As we enjoyed the delicious Kashmiri Wazwan, we kept talking about him. Had we not visited the most beautiful place on earth, we would have never known how beautiful and generous the people of Kashmir are. The extra mile they go every single time, just so that their guests are a little happier is simply an experience of a lifetime. I would personally rate Kashmiri hospitality the best in the world without a single ounce of doubt.
Dropping us back to the Shikara, he reiterated, “aap yahan ekdum safe rahoge, Daal Lake mein koi problem create nehi karta, yahan ke log shanti se rehna pasand karte hain aur kisiko problem create karne nehi dete.” (You will be completely safe here, no one ever dares create trouble in Daal Lake, and people love their peace here, they won’t allow any miscreants.) Waited for us to wade away, finally left home. An invisible bond had already formed between us!
Thanks to the cancellations from the airline, we had an extra day to enjoy Srinagar, and our man called us in the morning. “Madamji, pure sehar me curfew lag gaya hain, par Daal Lake mein uska koi asar nehi hoga… aap aaj aache se Daal Lake ghum lo.” (Madam, the whole city is under curfew, but Daal Lake will be unaffected, why don’t you see the Daal Lake properly today). A life so different, serene, and peaceful that we completely fell in love with it. No one could ever guess there is so much of tension at the border when they are in Daal Lake. The slow and simple life in the Lake wraps all the madness of the outer world in its still green waters.
We met Aijaz Bhai towards the afternoon after he informed us the situation was under control and we could go out sightseeing within Srinagar. Excited, we visited the famous Shalimar Bagh… that’s another interesting story. Let me reserve it for some other day!
A day later, while dropping us at the Srinagar airport, he asked “Kya main aapko meri shaadi mein bula sakta hun?” (Can I invite you to my wedding?) “Wow! When is it?” We were visibly excited. He coyly responded, “Inshallah! Agle saal kabhi toh. Jaise hi meri family sahi ladki dhund leti hain.” (Sometime next year, once my family finds the perfect bride.) We cracked up. Apparently, he had been already compiling the guest list for an imaginary wedding that may happen sometime next year!
As we boarded the flight, we knew we are surely coming back for Aijaz Bhai’s wedding… after all, how can we miss our brother’s wedding? and of course another chance to experience the Kashmiri hospitality!