It was a home call that I could not set aside and it appeared repeatedly in my mind despite my best efforts to distance myself from it. It was some 25 years now that I had not seen my home which I left in anguish on a winter morning in 1990. I just wanted to visit the unforgettable moments that I lived until a quarter century ago, something that my children, now grown up and proud parents to my grandkids, always reminded me about and I set out to track the beaten path that included visits to all the places known to me and in particular visit my home and my family deity Maa Raginya at Tullamulla, the Ganesha and Sharika at Hari Parbat and also take a shikara ride to Nishat Bagh from my home shores at Naidyaar that I often enjoyed. I knew I had no place to live there now but I ventured out nevertheless and decided to stay with my old friend and colleague living in Indira Nagar from where I could access all my favourite haunts. My friend had returned home despite repeated threats to his life and he never gave up hope that all would be well. Even as nobody accompanied me from my new home at Mumbai for the reason that they did not tell, I trusted the eagerness of my friend and returned to my roots without having to go and live where I always lived after having taken birth in the house that is now occupied by some strangers who were never a part of my family. I do not know why - but I had to do it just one more time before I closed my eyes for-ever.
So on a bright summer day when the summer heat at Mumbai was unbearable I took the direct flight to Srinagar which was uneventful to say the least.
A bright sunny morning in Srinagar and a Sunday was a perfect getaway time for a scenic visit to Nishat Bagh. We lived at Rainawari and getting there by boat was the obvious choice. We did have an alternate route which was a trek on foot following the centuries old track road that divides the Dal Lake into two segments called the “Bod Dal” and the “Lokut Dal”. It originates at Rainawari just adjacent to Chowdury Bagh. This is a perfect walk-way with no motorized vehicle plying on the track. The road is narrow and has seven bridges across that are not level with the road and carries a 24 inch diameter steel water pipe all through its length that takes water from the Harvan Reservoir to the city. This reservoir sits cradled within the cusp of the mountain gorge at whose base Nishat Bagh is located. We had little children in the group who would not like to foot the distance all the way for about four kilometers and still feel energetic to frolic around upon reaching the garden. We had to carry our food basket as well and could not trek on foot, so taking the boat was the only choice. It would be difficult to imagine not to enjoy the trip on a perfect warm sunny day as this was.
We had no advance bookings for a boat but could easily pick one that was available at the base of the Naidyaar Bridge. There would be scores of these to choose from. The boat ride would take us into the “Lokut Dal” route direct to Nishat Bagh in just about an hour if the boat was rowed by one man and a little less if we had two rowers which was the case most of the time. We would have the Bod Dal on our right as we progressed towards Nishat Bagh. And finally the Shikara boat we selected was indeed having two rowers and we rented it for the whole day asking the boatmen to bring us back in the evening. So we set out on the waters at about 11 am. This part of Dal Lake is less frequented as the main attractions are on the side of Bod Dal with Nehru Park and Char Chinar as the focus of attention and a scenic Pari Mahal nestled in the hills above in the background. And you have a view of the Boulevard Road all the time wherever you are in the Dal Lake. Well our aim was the Nishat Bagh and we had no way to wish for the other view or focus our attention there. But the ones who give extra attention to this part of the Dal Lake are the duck-hunters who in winter select this as part of their gaming ground. Their strategy is simple, lie low on an open boat with a gun pointing out and row with their open palms approaching the fowl without a sound, fire at them killing several in one shot. The poor birds are migratory and fly in all the way from beyond the Himalayan range in the North and as far away as Siberia to find a nesting and feeding place in harsh winters outside their freezing locale to which they belong. They usually prefer the Lokut Dal as it is not crowded during winter and has ample island like patches on the sides that they prefer for nesting.
What he said was his story that I was not familiar with as he never told me about it earlier. Like all other folks he and his family had moved out to Jammu in March of 1990 after having received life threats to vacate his house and leave the valley for good. He had spent all his money to build a beautiful house and had no heart to just leave it alone and uncared for. For 12-long years he stayed in rented accommodation at Jammu and had given up on making a return to his abode that he had unwillingly let out to the BSF who established a camp for its officers there. He did this to ensure that no miscreants burn down his home and get away with his belongings. All that he did was to retain two small attics on the second floor and shift all his belongings into a confined space. After 12 years when things started looking better he returned alone to his house and attempted to start all afresh. Only that his plans were being frustrated by BSF who seemed unwilling to part with the possession of his home. He ran from pillar to post to obtain his living rights in his own house and a struggle that ensued for months finally saw results when he was able to repossess the property. It took him nearly six months to set things right in his home and finally ask his wife to join him. His kids were not able to return as they had taken up jobs elsewhere and were unwilling to get into any fresh trouble.
And we are equally at fault to enjoy eating the “pacchin” with a relish even though we found it taboo to cook a chicken in our very households.
As the Shikara slid into deeper waters we heard the rhythmic slap-clap of the oars as it hit the water repeatedly giving that familiar sound of “shrain-shrain”. Kids put their hands in water and splashed some over each other. For them the fun had just begun. If they saw another boat trying to overtake us they raised their voice in unison and both our boatmen responded enthusiastically to outrun the others in no time. This was getting to be exciting and the kids loved the ride so very much. Cries of glee could be heard when the kids tracked some fish in the water. We eagerly awaited to savor the full blooming flowers and lots of Daisies and Daffodils, Carnation and Chrysanthemums, Anemone and Aster, Pansy and Petunia, the blooming Roses of various hues and the Lilies. And God knows how many more varieties that I could not even name. To top it all is the mini-flower that grows along with the turf grass giving it the shape of a decorated carpet. The Almighty must have been very generous when he created the colored landscape to enliven our spirits and must have something more on his mind when he did so. May be we have yet to discover the healing power of these flowers that we may later call as the flower-therapy.
Within a short time we looked out in the distance at the famous “Oont-Kadal”, a bridge that is the entry archway to Nishat. This bridge has an eerie resemblance to a camel’s hump and thus named so. As we passed under, the kids started to sing a song and continued with it till we reached the Nishat Bagh Ghat within a few minutes. We were of course readying to scan the crowd once we entered the garden, amongst whom we could easily trace our friends and relatives who would have come there for the same reason and they would have come in bus loads from the city beyond. As we were in the process of alighting, the kids who had all got up at the same time and were standing, the boat was hit on the side by another trying to rush in and it destabilized them and they all fell in the water. There was a huge commotion and everyone rushed in to save them from drowning. Even the boatmen and passengers of the other boat rushed in. The water at this point was not deep and we got them all out in time. But we soon found out that the youngest of the kids, a girl, had swallowed enough water in panic and she needed to be attended to as her breathing became shallow. There was no time to look out for a home remedy and I volunteered to take her immediately to the hospital for treatment. I found out a taxi cab and requested the driver to take us to the hospital pronto and asked the rest of the team to stay and enjoy the day as it would have been unwise to disturb their plan for the day.
I relived this incident in my mind as I prepared to go there once again as the last attempt to be at Nishat had failed and I wanted to do it exactly the way I had tried to do the last time, only that this time I would do it alone. My friend and kind host asked me to take a rental and visit the Nishat if I must and also visit some other places nearby like the Ishbar Ashram and the temple at Zeethyaar. I refused the offer only because I wanted to route through my past and see the familiar ground once again and the alleys that I roamed and played in as a child. So I took an Auto and went to Rainawari from where I meandered through the lanes and reached my home at Naidyaar. I looked at it lovingly at a distance but did not feel courage enough to go any near that would, perhaps, give me a heart-break. Instead I sauntered towards the river bank looking out for a boat ride to take me to Nishat just like the old times. A boat I finally found but not the one that I was accustomed to as a young man. There was no finery in the furnishings and there was just the one oarsman who looked so glum himself that I got frightened. And to my disbelief the water in the canal was just knee deep and the original Naidyaar Bridge was in a state of collapse as a new one was under way in the making. I decided not step on board and retraced my steps and hurried towards the taxi-stand for a cab back to Indra Nagar where I narrated my story to my friend who had a hearty laugh at my misfortune. No one recognized me during my sordid venture, and who would, it was a long time anyway. I did not see any familiar face with whom I could strike a conversation with. Thank God for that.
I thought my visit to my ancestral home was a disaster and I did confide in my friend and told him I would return to Mumbai post-haste without facing any more troubles or being a trouble for him for that matter. He looked at me and searched my face for any tell-tale signs of my being over the blink. What followed was a narrative I had not heard from him till this time and I felt more saddened.
Now that he was living all by himself in his own home with a now ailing wife, he still feels better that he does not have anyone to lord over him while staying in a home just the way he suffered in rented accommodation at Jammu. His front lawn looks glorious with roses growing all over and his kitchen garden at the rear of the house gives him ample greens that he has with dinner every day in summer. I was happy for him and even if I could not visit the Nishat this time I made up my mind to come again and try my luck just that one more time.
This story is being republished on popular demand from Shehjar August 2015 issue