We are sailing on a brightly painted shikara on Nigeen lake in Srinagar in Kashmir. We have unexpectedly landed in Srinagar on the day of Eid. Our plans were to travel further north, but those have been discarded as there has been snowfall and the roads are blocked. It has been somewhat of a scramble to look for someplace to stay and something to do in this packed tourist season.
As we sail towards the floating market near Dal lake we are conscious that we are the only shikara on the lake. The rest of the world is celebrating Eid in their homes. We cross a few locals carrying goods occasionally. And then just across the corner, we spot this shikara with a astonishing array of flowers in stunning colours. “Are these artificial or real?” I murmur to Subodh. In our part of the world where temperatures rise above 40 degrees C, such colours or shapes are impossible to find.
The boatman who has just crossed us overhears me. He quickly turns his boat around, to tell me, “All these are real.” And then goes on to rattle off all their names in quick succession. He asks us where are are from. And the moment he hears Maharashtra, he sprinkles Marathi words in his chatter. “Sagale phool are real,” he says. He is trying to sell us seeds and bulbs, and I tell him that his beautiful flowers will wilt at our horrific temperatures. He pulls out an album of flowers to tell me which flowers will grow and which won’t. We aren’t keen on buying anything. But by now he has linked his shikara to ours and we are sailing together.
“You look like Madhubala,” he tells me. I mean to raise my eyebrows in mock horror at this unbelievable level of flattery. But all I manage is a fit of giggles. Before I know it, he has leaned across, and picked two most beautiful roses to match the colours of embroidery on my dress, and presented them to me. I thank him, and turn across to give Subodh the look as if to say “seekho kuch” (learn something)! Twenty five years of marriage and no one has been so effusive in complimenting me, even if I know it is all fake!
Irfan, the boatman, then tells us that he has a YouTube page called “The wonderful flower man”. Needless to add, he switches on his glib talk button to coerce us to buy seeds and bulbs as bohni on this festive day. We succumb to his charms. And the beautiful roses keep me company through the boat ride. It is another matter that when I return and look at Youtube I find that almost every other flower seller on the lake calls himself the wonderful or marvellous flower man, after some German lady labelled one man such on her video thirteen years ago. Charming selling tactics indeed!
Our first day in Srinagar has been surprisingly pleasant. The staff at the airport are dressed in festive sequinned waistcoats over their black pathanis. After all it is Eid. The roads are full of people walking back after namaaz dressed in their festive best. We don’t have a place to stay thanks to our jumbled up itinerary. But everyone from the driver, to the houseboat owner, to the shikara wala, invites us home for lunch on Eid. And it is done from the heart.
We have a few hours before we redesign our itinerary, and so we decide on this shikara ride. The shikara wala, Shaukat, stops the shikara at his sasural, and yells out for three cups of Lipton tea. He asks us to guess the price of the shikara built with strong deodar wood. While tea is getting made, he pulls out his phone and shows us pictures of his 9-month-old son Ahmed and his stunningly beautiful wife Nargis. I tell him he is lucky. And mention to Subodh that I saw Shenaz Treasurywala say on Youtube that Kashmir has the best-looking men in the country. Shaukat is quick to hear this, and says he used to look fair too, before the sun turned him dark with all the sailing. “We apply kesar (saffron) cream to keep our complexion clear,” he tells us.
Shaukat’s young brother-in-law, Nasir Hussain, brings us tea along with a box of freshly baked cookies and coconut macaroons. It tastes heavenly on a cold day. He doesn’t charge anything for this. On the ride back, it begins to drizzle and he pulls out a warm blanket for us.
Back at the houseboat, Tariq Karnai, whose family owns a number of houseboats, entertains us with the history of the houseboats. He works in the Netherlands, and is back here on vacation. He points out several water birds to me, and I have the time of my life clicking birds on the lakes. I’m most excited to see pied kingfishers swooping down to catch fish in the lake.
We are served a warm Eid lunch with homemade rista, chicken curry and matar-mushroom on his houseboat. He refuses to take a penny for the lunch. Not on Eid, he says. I tell him we never knew we would be spending Eid with him in Srinagar, and he points heaven-wards. We chat about the times and how things have changed. Language, religion, politics and the essence of Kashmiriyat.
As he walks us to the car parking pointing out Himalayan bulbuls to me, he says something casually which stays with me for long. “The world is a mirror, and it reflects what you feel. If you search for love, you will find it everywhere.”