Kashmir has strange and not all together pleasant memories for me: of rain and weeping cheenars and children with noses running and a lake filled with dead lotus leaves and men and women wrapped in miles of patched woollens.
The memories go back many years, to a time when a permit was required to enter Kashmir. I had got mine from Mantralaya, then known as Sachivalaya, stating that I was an Indian national and that I was permitted to visit Kashmir.
It was my first and last visit to Kashmir. I did the journey in instalments, spending one night in Jallandhar, the next in Jammu, the next in Undhampur and finally in Srinagar. I was there all of three days, and, as you may have gathered from my impression, I was raining all the time. Once I got into the valley, the pass over the Banihal got closed to traffic because of snow and I felt trapped.
I have this thing about me. When I got a strange place, the first thing I have to get out of it. And the only way I know is by train. So I always go to the railway station and check on the train connections to Bombay, Srinagar has no railway station, so I felt all the more trapped.
I stayed in a hotel near what was known as the first bridge. It was empty, all Srinagar was empty. Though it was late May, the tourist season had not started, probably because of the weather, probably because of the permit requirements and other restrictions. The houseboats were empty, the wood of the boats rotting in the lake. The shops were without customers, looking lost in their funny holiday names. And hawkers with their Kashmir crafts floowed me about, since there was nobody else they cloud follow.
I took a public bus and went to the two gardens set up by the Moghul emperors or their gardens. I believe they are a grand sight in their season, but this was the wrong season. They are almost barren and only things visible were stone outhouses or garderners' sheds.
Most of my time I spent in a small restaurant near the hotel, eating rice and spinach and drinking tea, and waiting for the weather to clear up and the road to open, so that I could get out.
Finally, the road did open. I was told to be at the bus terminus at seven in the morning, otherwise the bus would go without me.
I had no watch, so I did not sleep most of the night, got up early, picked my luggage and came out. A public clock showed the time as 3 a.m. There was no question of going back, I stayed out for the rest of the morning. Once I crossed Jammu, I felt more easy, though there was no railway station in Jammu at that time.