Can this novel turn the clichés of Kashmir upside down?

It was an overcast afternoon, the sun appearing and disappearing behind clouds. Ripples on the water caught its intermittent shine, scattering day. To their right the river swirled to laze in a marshy bank, thick with spikes of velvet bulrush. Ducks and water grebe foraged amidst the reeds. A white heron seemed transfixed by its own reflection. A kingfisher at his fishing station made a sudden dive with a turquoise flash. A lotus blossom, torn and pink, swam after them.

Rai was so enthused by the riverbank scenes gliding by that he stood up, sticking his head outside the hood of the canopy.

The gondola rocked violently, the shikara-wallah and Rashid urged him to settle down. Joya felt a fit of giggles coming on, Rashid smiled at both of them quite indulgently. Joya noticed that water seemed to have a calming effect on him. She stiffened self-consciously as a passing shikara of tourists clicked their pictures, their boatman waved cheerily at them.

Rai looked at Rashid and remarked suddenly about yesterday’s visit to the military camp, “What was that brigadier talking about? Nothing could be more peaceful than this scene. These armywallahs are all paranoid about Pakistan. I have visited Lahore and Islamabad, what hospitality and warmth! They are no different from us.”

Rashid said nothing.

“Look at this river always changing, yet the views of the sky and the water and the birds seem unchanged since Zoon. It would be a great metaphor for time, its passage dissolved in the river itself. Battles, kingdoms, dynasties, even religions taking on new avatars, yet the Jhelum flows on uncaring,” continued Rai, the beauty around him making him quite lyrical.

“Men may come and men may go but I go on forever,” Joya quoted Tennyson suddenly, but Rai was distracted at this moment by a section of the riverbank which appeared to be breaking loose. They paddled faster to catch up with the twenty- foot-long strip of garden which was being towed by a doonga. Transfixed for a while by this moving bounty of fragrant mint and giant cucumbers, Rai Sahib turned to Rashid. “This is a floating garden?”

“Yes,” Rashid pointed to the six-inch-deep layer of earth, “look, it’s a framework of water weeds slapped onto a base of wooden splints with a mixture of mud and manure. There are many advantages, the plant needs no watering and since it’s floating, it does not get submerged during flooding, and reduces the pressure on land.”

“How old is this system of gardening? I mean, it would be very intriguing to use it in a background scene.”

Joya answered before Rashid could, “It’s been mentioned in the memoirs of Gulbadan Begum, Emperor Babur’s daughter, which was written generations before Akbar.”

Good, good, we must try and incorporate it in the screenplay.”

At this point, they turned back towards Dal Gate and, for the moment, Joya too grew conscious of time’s passing; an end to this Srinagar summer. Later, when she would look back, as she often did, these days would achieve the grace of an idyll. At present, she was saddened that the phase of conception was nearly complete and that although there was much to get busy with, she did not know exactly when she would meet Rashid again.

Joya and Rashid, sat alongside very upright on the narrow seat. They were facing Rai Sahib who was sprawled across the wide-cushioned seat, practically a bed. Joya opened her notepad, balanced awkwardly on her lap.

A list began to grow on it as they thought of tasks Rashid must accomplish in Srinagar before the filming began. She struggled to ensure her writing was legible against the skiff’s gentle rocking, tensing her thighs to steady the notepad.

  • Tapes of Kashmiri Sufi music for the music composer in Bombay
  • Local musicians who play Kashmiri instruments such as the santoor and rabab (Wathora)
  • Examine Paintings of 15th century riverfront architecture for the set decorator/art director (Try museum)
  • Construction coordinator, carpenters and craftsmen to work on the set.
  • Make up a video tape of local men and women to play prominent courtiers.
  • As soon as dates are fixed block hotel and/ houseboats for crew.
  • Catering for crew/ Transportation coordinator
  • Interpreter and general dogsbody for Sheridan. Should be fluent in English and be able to arrange trout fishing trips, not too far from location.

Rashid read through it, tore out the page and put it away neatly folded in his breast pocket. “It should be no problem, inshallah.”

Joya coloured slightly at the thought of her words folded above his heart.

She was acutely conscious of his hand loosely curled on his thigh, flanking hers. She felt an instant of elation, and wished to prolong this present precious moment. She could stay here forever, feeling the tug of attraction in the pit of her stomach. Shaking her head slightly, she looked away, squinting across the sparkling water.

The clouds had dissipated on their return. The sun streaked the water with a coral hue. The Zabarwan hills above the Mughal gardens seemed to melt into shadow as evening fell. A lonely fisherman on his skiff flung his net; for an instant, it was spreadeagled against the sky, his catch the setting sun. The fading light was moist, changeable.

Rashid lived in Hasanabad behind Rainawari. On this, their last evening in Srinagar, he had invited both of them home for dinner. He had asked them a few days ago, shyly, veiling the apprehension in his eyes with lowered lids; perhaps they might refuse. Joya watched his stillness as he waited for Rai Sahib to reply and learnt to recognize another little trait of his, anticipation made him freeze.

They stopped at Amira Kadal bazaar where Rai Sahib wanted to pick up a gift for his wife. At a tiny silversmith’s where every piece was carefully crafted by hand, he picked up two silver leaves in velvet boxes. One was the outstretched hand of the chinar, veins marked strongly enough to delight a palmist, and the other a fragile lotus leaf for Rashid’s mother. Joya chose a pair of onyx and silver drop earrings for her friend Poonam.

At Jan Bakers, on the junction where three roads meet, Joya bought a honey almond cake to gift Rashid’s mother, he was smiling as she paid for it, very pleased. The blue shikara, which had waited for them as they shopped, passed now under a slender bridge.

“As children we would jump off this bridge and go swimming,” Rashid told them. Joya wondered at his childhood so different to her own, surrounded by water, the element lapping always at the edges of every day. They glided past his aunt’s house, her living room lights reflected in the lake.

A series of wide steps led down to the water’s edge, dark brown pottery urns with glazed detailing of vines and grapes were crowned with scarlet geraniums. It was a picturesque place with rambling pink roses and a row of bee-boxes. She sold lotus honey; Joya and Rai were interested to learn that honey came in different varieties governed by the flower on which the bee sucks. Her house disappeared from view and they disembarked minutes later to walk the rest of the way.

The Article First Appeared In  SCROLL.IN

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