I had taken an overnight bus from Kargil to Srinagar. It rattled and shook, and the window kept inching open as soon as you shut it. It was October and quite cold at night. Keeping me company was an apricot farmer from Drass, who told me a lot about apricots and how to grow them. I don’t remember much of it. Zojila Pass was snowed under and the road was a narrow stretch wide enough to accommodate the bus, from the window you could see the death you’d fall to if the smallest thing went wrong.
I arrived in Srinagar at about 4 am.
I was staying in a guesthouse in the Dal Gate area, recommended by a European friend. The guesthouse owner’s father told me, “don’t be offended but we only have white tourists generally.” It was covid time. The best of times, the worst of times.
In the evening, I decided to take a small walk, nothing too strenuous. A soulful excursion along the Dal, soak the place in, give my brain space to zigzag from thought to thought, and then arrive at the less noble but essential pursuit of finding a good dinner. So I set out.
There are some 21 gates on Dal Lake from where boats take tourists out. At each gate there was a group of men — boatmen promising to show you floating gardens, lotus gardens, floating market, anything else interesting afloat; houseboat owners offering cheap rooms, some just offering cheap 200 rupees a night hotels, some looking to be friends, offering you hash, and alcohol, and other assorted pleasures. They start walking with you, sometimes in pairs, both your ears buzzing with irresistible offers.
Each gate is only a few metres apart, so as you’re moving away from one, the men collected at the next one have already spotted you. I kept going hoping at some point the men would disappear, but it was relentless, an unceasing time loop.
I got on a shikara at gate no. 10, because I am weak and optimistic.
After a terrible dinner at an expensive restaurant, I was walking back feeling sad about all my decisions. A man started walking next to me, offering me his houseboat, shikara, mummy ke haath ka kahwa (tea made by his mum). I walked faster and he said, "Why are you going faster? I just want to talk to you.”
He nearly walked me to my hotel. When I stopped at a shop to buy things, indicating this would be goodbye, he took a piece of paper from the shopkeeper and gave me his number, telling me to call him the next day. The insistence was disturbing.
I didn’t dare to venture to boulevard road for many days after, but you know how you forget pain, that's why they say women willingly keep having babies.
I can't remember why I was there again. An auto wala I had seen in the morning, and who had refused to take me to my destination, was passing by and turned around to say hi, as they do; the shikara-kahwa man found me again, and said hurtfully that I didn’t contact him and that I must. A young man offered me drugs, cheap room, alcohol, everything a girl wants from a strange man in a foreign city.
Two weeks of being in Srinagar, I was lucky to be invited to a wedding near my guesthouse. One of the celebration days, the dancing goes on all night. At around 5 am I took a break from the wedding and took a walk along the Dal, on that horrific road.
It was peaceful but creepy.