Monday, 28 July 2014

The Road to Happy Valley 2

The second day of the bus trip back to Srinagar was more tedious. I remember the stars and river roar over the barely lit chai stalls beside the bus in Kargil at 4:30 am. The light rose behind us, as Robyn’s head bobbed on my shoulder and over the bumps. The ratio of acha, ‘alright’, to chalo, ‘let’s go’, became unity.
Seven hours later we pushed a path through the desert shepherds herding their Nubian goat hordes, up and over the spectacular twelve thousand foot Zoji-La, crossing into the pine-coated peaks and grassy meadows and alpine chalets of Sonamarg Vale. The glacier-fed cascading streams and pony corrals felt like British Colombia, except for the Himalayan hawks riding thermals above our curried dhal and snowtrout. The clouds that accompanied our descent, obscured an endless procession of Indian army TATA trucks, winding around narrow precipices, back into Kashmir.
When we finally reached the relative din of Srinagar in the late afternoon, the driver received a standing ovation. A painfully slow rickshaw transported us to Best Spring Seats, who paddled us across the narrow expanse of water to Rashid and Jimmy, waiting on the New Cherrystone verandah. The three-quarter moon rose over three half-awake travelers, falling onto lunar-lit lake fish, and potato and turnip stew. We were asleep before Rashid could bring out his pudding.
The only thing we accomplished the next day was the purchase of a watermelon. Rashid served it to us for dinner, actually, as dinner. For desert, we helped him plan his culinary renaissance, in our next, and final, evening.
Jimmy wrapped our parcels next morning, while Robyn and Julie and I ventured back into town. Our taxi broke down on the way, and his replacement drove us far too far from where we thought we wanted to go. We emerged on the Bund along the river, outside an old Kashmiri house with a gabled tin roof, two chimneys, and a protruding second story enclosed balcony, half-banked with shuttered windows and a sign. Suffering Moses.
Inside was beautiful and magical and filled with wonderful things. Moses had earned his adjective from the fine detailed work he brought to his objets d’art, papier mâché, and walnut woodcarvings. What he didn’t suffer were louts, one of which he was ejecting as we ascended his staircase.
“You obviously don’t know anything about art.” He said. “I will not sell my work to Philistines.”
We smiled and tried to look knowledgeable. I fell in love with a walnut box and was eventually allowed to buy it. He initially did not want to part with it, until his Bostonian wife intervened. She told me that Moses had a pet deer that he had rescued from a butcher shop. Obviously a man of wise principle and congenial character, he recommended hummus and sweet lassis in the shade of the four hundred year old chinars, on the garden lawn of the Tao café. Later, we found out it belonged to his grandson.
Back on the New Cherrystone, Rashid had rehabilitated himself. He returned the harmonica I had lost, and served a wonderful last supper of fried liver and onions, roast potatoes, green beans and stewed apples. The night was broken by thunder, lightning, and Jimmy, yelling orders to batten down the houseboat against the sudden monsoon.
The cloudburst’s confusion continued into a dawn downpour. Jimmy and Rashid accompanied us, under the canopy of Best Spring Seats across the lotus and lilies, and into a motor rickshaw to the bus stand. We ploughed through the deep potholes until, just near the traffic circle across from the bus stand, we pitched forward into one that didn’t seem to have a bottom, until we met the submerged concrete island.
Jimmy was hurled against a sharp ragged metal bar, gashing open his forehead. He couldn’t see through the blood. Rashid applied pressure. The driver received a similar slash across the bridge of his nose, but walked through another knee-deep puddle to find out our bus number. We insisted on taking Jimmy to the hospital ourselves, but he and Rashid waved us off towards the waiting bus. We made sure he was securely on his way to treatment in another lawnmower, paid off our own rickshaw-wallah, put our packs in the cockpit, and settled into seats near the front. The young pharmacist sitting next to me was so talkative, I wondered if he wasn’t sampling his wares.
It was downhill from Kashmir, in ether and inclination. We waited two hours for a landslide, and then took our place in the string of trucks winding through the hills and subtropical gorges. Time dragged on mercilessly. The bone jarring was punctuated only by potato and onion fritters at a chai stop.
We finally arrived in Jammu past the floodlit castle in the late evening, to an unexpected change of buses. Our tickets were for a ‘double D’ direct and deluxe coach to Pathankot, where we hoped to catch another to the Dalai Lama’s exile home in MacLeod Ganj, the next day. Our conveyance had been devoid of deluxe. The realization that we had also been deprived of direct was not sitting well.
The driver had motioned for us to retrieve our packs and leave to find our new ‘double D,’ somewhere in the labyrinth of the makeshift multitude. When Julie told him that we had too much luggage to move, he barreled through the crowd, inspiring terror and scattering rickshaws and pedestrians like tenpins.
Our new bus was an old bluebird, but not the one of happiness. It had been waiting for us for over two hours. The anger of the passengers was palpable, most of it was directed to the owner of the company, who had pulled up in his white Hindustan Ambassador to inquire as to our progress. The man accompanying him boarded the bus, and indicated with a wrist wave that I was to surrender my seat. He became indignant when I refused, and turned to the besieged owner for reinforcement.
“My dear...” Was the opening gambit.
“Did you just call me ‘my dear’?” I asked.
“Oh yes, my dear. You see...” Was about as far as he got.
 My response was more direct than our tickets had been. The other passengers laughed in approval. We headed out.
The hundred kilometers took four hours. We slowed to an idle, under a mango tree adorned with cotton ball egrets. The driver motioned for us to get off. It was in the middle of nowhere.
“Come on. Come on.” He told us that we were on the ‘outskirts’ of Pathankot. I told him I wanted to be inside the skirt, which tickled the salacious sensibilities of the other passengers. The standoff was resolved when I mentioned the Tourist Police in Delhi. We drove into the dark empty streets of sleeping Pathankot. The other passengers also disembarked, to ensure their own luggage did not depart with us. They waved as the bus drove off into the night, carrying the sky on its back.
A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town. But this town’s fauna got our interest in a hurry. Wild dogs. Packs of them, snarling, circling and hungry. And we were all out of Vegemite. I reached down for stones every few yards along the dusty street, fortunate that the main economy was based on stone crushing. It was just enough to keep them at bay until we turned the corner to find the sign for the Green Hotel.
“Welcome to the Fort of Pathans.” Bobbled the desk clerk, as he unlocked the door. “How many nights are you seeking?”
“One.” Was the cry of unity in unison.
“It is the loneliest number, is it not?” He said. The feral dogs sat watch outside, so we couldn’t escape.
“It should be enough.” I said.
In other places, at other times, the traveler’s imagination does the howling. But not outside the Green Hotel, in the powdered streets of Pathankot, at the Devils hour.

No comments:

Post a Comment