Day 1 – July 15
In the thick of early morning we reached Jammu station. Sleepy eyed yet high on lack of sleep (just FYI, I’m pretty sure that’s gonna be a thing on this trip) we stuffed ourselves in three cabs and started “The” road trip. Okay, I have to admit, I did feel a pang of excitement then. It was tiny but I felt it.
It was a long journey all the way to our first destination, Chatpal. 18 hours long to be precise. We reached in pitch darkness, so I didn’t yet know what the place looks like but the sound of a stream right next to our deserted cottage told me it’s going to be a sight that’ll take my breath away.
I’ve had to remember this day for the sake of writing this journal, but frankly, the one thing I remember effortlessly from the day is the half an hour after our cabs crossed the Jawahar tunnel.
My window rolled down, our cab came out the cave tunnel to the sight of lush green hills. Kashmir hills. And I, I opened my mouth so I could breathe mouthfuls of air.
We stopped the cabs and sat by the edge of the winding road to look up at those hills.
I sat there quiet, realising this IS familiar. This IS a bit like home.
Day 2 – July 16
Today was, I’ll admit it, unsettling. Mostly because when you meet so many different people you, in a way, meet that many different parts of yourself. And maybe it felt a little too much for day one of the trip.
We’re at Chatpal. This place is beautiful and I’ll tell you already that ‘beautiful’ is a grave understatement. But I’m trying to not run out of words to describe places already, because I know there are many many more places and moments yet to come in the trip where my words will fail to describe what I want to describe.
So, back to why today was unsettling. To put it simply, fear, apprehension, and the unknown got the better of me.
Over the two years of my personal sabbatical, I’ve learnt over and over that the only path to fearlessness is through fear (quite a bummer, I know). And also that the only way to learn that is the hard way. And the hard way is to keep recognizing the fears you have and find a way to breakthrough; a way to move past them.
Fears are a thing our mind makes up to deal with the unknown. The hard part is that for me, fears, apprehensions, mild paranoia, nervous breakdowns, doubts etc all are a recurring reality. Some of those are minuscule, some slightly bigger, some magnanimous. But each paralyzing in its own way.
I don’t dismiss fear. It’s important for me to break it down, turn in around to check what’s it really made of, and then find a way to not let it paralyze me.
Today, I know I wanted to step out but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I knew nothing of the place, I didn’t know the routes, I didn’t know the people, I didn’t know which direction to begin walking in, you get the picture, right? So, well, I didn’t step out. Not alone, at least.
Abhi came back from his trek sometime in the afternoon, after which he, Rashi, Sumi, and I went till the river that flows right beside the cottage. It took us barely three mins to get from the cottage to the tiny, wood-planks-stuck-one-beside-the-other-bridge at the river. We sat there while the sun shone bright and the breeze blew cool and soft. We all even lay down on that bridge for a while. I remember becoming aware of how loudly, mightily, flamboyantly the river gushed over the rocks in the riverbed. Almost as if it wanted all the attention and didn’t want us to talk to each other or be able to hear what the person sitting right next to us was speaking. I remember finding that to be a childlike quality. I remember getting amused by that. Very amused.
In the end, in the battle of the river and us, we won. We sat closer, spoke louder and I, well, I talked about and shared the fear I felt today morning.
I shared it over the loud flow of the river, I shared it over the fear of sharing the fear, and I shared it, somewhere hoping, that the river would hear me talk about my fear, and carry it with her with the same gusto as it flows. Away from me.
Day 3 – July 17
Today was the kind of day we city people are used to and probably even like. It was the day to shop. With the exception, of course, of driving alongside a stream of glacial water, through lush green hills of Kashmir.
No life-sucking traffic and no stretches of holding breath so long that I need to choose between dying from asphyxiation or foul smell.
There were stares from men though. A lot of them. And when a girl who has grown up in Delhi tells you there were A. Lot. Of. Stares. You take her seriously.
Minus that, we had a great time. So much fun.
We drove through Chittergul, Mattan and Ananthnag, with a short halt next to river Lidder.
We hopped about the market at Mattan, bought woollens and colourful socks, ate from a local bakery, and I went from one cloth shop to the next in the hope to find soft, printed cotton, the texture of which is so consistently rough it feels smooth between my fingers. I found soft cotton but not a print I liked. No worries. Still got some time here in Kashmir.
At Ananthnag, we bought pyjama kurtas for the boys for Eid the next day, and phirons for three out of five girls. Sakshi and I couldn’t find anything good enough to buy so…well…we hogged on yummy thali at a Punjabi restaurant, to feel better. Actually, we all hogged. Guri, Abhi and I, a little more than others. And we filled the restaurant with the sound, and our souls with the goodness of our collective laughter that just wouldn’t stop.
Today was the kind of day we city people are used to and probably even like. But I never imagined I would love such a day with strangers, I’m slowly beginning now to call my friends.
Maybe it was about the familiarity of stepping out to shop in a market area; maybe it was the familiarity of mountain sights, sounds and breeze; maybe it was the familiarity of the surface of roads unlike the gravel trek trails at Chatpal; or maybe it was a mix of all of the above, but whatever the reason, today turned out to be as good a day as can be when you find the familiar in all the unknown around you.
And before you begin to feel sad about Sakshi and I not having found anything to wear for the Eid lunch the next day, hold on. Turned out, Abhi’s kurta was small for him (some broad shoulders logic) and Altamash bhai had a super smart grey kurta. Perfect! Enter Tapshi and Sakshi respectively, to help take the burden off Abhi and Altamash bhai by offering to wear their kurtas.
Day 4 – July 18
We’ve all been on this trip since the 14th and even though it’s just been five days – five eventful, laughter filled days – I’ve been missing home.
Home is not just a geographical place. Usually it’s people, and certain scents, and gestures, and touches, and the taste of food you know, which is home.
It would be apt to say that today felt close to home.
Today was Eid. We were invited for lunch by Altamash bhai’s friend Firdoos bhai, who stays in a village called Aho, approximately 15 kms from Chatpal. He stays there with his immediate and extended family, most of whom we got to meet.
And it was in meeting the women of the family that I felt most at home. Each of them gave each of the girls a long, tight, warm hug. And kisses on the cheek.
I’m a hugger. I believe in hugs like I believe in only few other things. Hugs are hands down my most favourite comfort gesture. I’m very lucky to know and have friends and family who hug me and let me hug them long, swingingly and warm. I’m seldom the first one to break away from the hug. I almost always want to hug longer.
The hugs from the women of Firdoos bhai’s family were all sorts of perfect. They weren’t hurried. Not in the least. They put me at ease when I didn’t even know parts of me were tense. I felt like the hugs would last till as long as it takes for me to feel completely, wholly and absolutely at home. And they did. They lasted longer. And they were followed by unabashed kisses on the cheeks.
It’s the kind of thing I sometimes do. At other times, I assume people will feel uncomfortable and awkward so I dial down the intensity of my hug. Maybe I should stop assuming.
Because I know that every time I’ve been embraced, literally and figuratively, with so much unapologetic, unabashed love, it’s taken me by (pleasant) surprise, rendered the walls around me useless, and basically made me openly vulnerable.
Vulnerable is good. Vulnerable is very very good.
And as if the hugs and kisses weren’t enough, Firdoos bhai’s family made a deeper place in our hearts and souls by serving us food that was most definitely made with love. I highly doubt there was any other ingredient in it. Just teaspoons and bowl fulls and dollops of love.
We ate till our souls were satisfied. I, however, wanted another helping. Of it all.
Day 5 – July 19
Rashi, Sumi and I headed to Thimran; the last village of the valley where Chatpal is situated.
The rest seven had already paid a visit to that village before we three finally found the time to go there. And we’d only heard good stuff about Thimran.
Our trek to the village started with Rashi shooing off a few creeps who wanted to “help” escort us to the village. “Thanks, but no thanks”.
We reached Thimran starving, so we accepted the very first invite, from two elderly women, to have tea in their house. Best. Decision. Of. The. Day.
Within the next three minutes of sitting in their house, we were surrounded by the girls and some women of the village. Including us, there were about 15 women in that small, cozy kitchen.
That’s where I met Aabiroo, who, I’m sure I gave a piece of my heart. Aabiroo is pure sunshine. She has a killer sense of humour, a beautiful plum face, wit, wisdom, stories that never end, and an effervescence about her that makes her downright adorable.
What she also has is a best friend. Firdousa.
Firdousa is relatively quiet, takes a while to open up and smiles more than she laughs.
Together, they are a delight to be around.
As they showed us around Thimran and took us for a small trek to an open field up in the hill, I couldn’t take my mind off those two and how effortless their friendship felt, even to a total outsider like me.
They showed us around while constantly walking next to each other. They giggled in unison, they complemented each other’s questions of us, they had the same spontaneous ideas about where to take us, heck they even had similar phirons the day we met them.
Aabiroo and Firdousa made me miss my best friend. I missed her wholly and terribly.
I felt as if I was watching my best friend and I from five years ago.
Aabiroo and Firdousa will never know what they did for me today by simply being the friends they are to each other. They made me feel as if my best friend, currently sitting in Bombay, was right next to me.
They brought her in my thoughts, more concretely than mere missing her has done in the past few days.
Aabiroo and Firdousa, may you always be fortunate to have each other by your side. May you always have a best friend to miss, when you’re away.
Day 6 – July 20
Today was about loud rhyme-singing minis, and a walk I wanted to take ever since I got to Chatpal.
So, I took a workshop for students of KG, standard 1 and standard 2, at the Government High School, in Chakilpora.
What. Absolute. Fun.
It was an hour long workshop where I, for most part, got the minis to say my name right and for the rest, I taught them the rhyme (with actions) that now refuses to leave my mind alone.
“Put your left hand out,
Put your left hand in,
Put your left hand out,
And shake it all about,
Do the boogie woogie,
And turn yourself around,
And that is all there is”
(Yes, I tweaked that last line.)
I’ve always had fun teaching young kids because they are so eager to learn and so much fun to hang with. Way way cooler than adults.
There is something very in-the-moment that happens to me every time I’m in a class to teach or take a workshop. It was the same today as well.
Those 30 odd minis and me – with mostly me singing at the top of my voice, and them slowly opening up to follow suit – felt like an adrenalin rush. The much needed adrenalin rush for me.
The adrenalin rush that was pleasantly calmed by the walk Rashi, Sumi and I took once I was back from the school.
There was a slight drizzle when we stepped out but we decided to take the walk anyway so we don’t guilt trip later about not seeing Chatpal enough, the way we wanted to.
We walked the beautiful, beautiful stretch of road, found Aadil (Aabiroo’s gorgeous, sweet, wise, endearing brother) on the way, chatted with him, swooned a little over him, video taped Rashi giving an impromptu leg massage to Sumi, laughed a lo-ho-ot and basically, had one of the most memorable walks we’ve ever had.
Today, the last day in Chatpal, was a good good day.