Finding a home away from home
>> We went to Kashmir, to Srinagar, to visit the place where my mother was born. It had long been her wish to return to see her old home (now turned into a hotel), her school (The Presentation Convent) and meet old friends (like Vijay Dhar, son of the eminent late politician and diplomat DP Dhar and Dilshad Sheikh who had once been our neighbour in Juhu amongst others).
The flight from Mumbai on IndiGo (our first time) could not have been more pleasant. An airline whose hostess greets your octogenarian mother at the door with a ‘How pretty you are!’ — who can ask for more?
The aircraft was spanking new and clean, the food and beverages were excellent and there was time to sleep and listen to music and read. The bustle at Srinagar International Airport was a happy reminder that the tourists have returned to Kashmir. With its new terminal, modern facilities and helpful staff one could have been anywhere in India.
On the roads too and despite the omnipresence of the CPRF, it was a sunny Thursday morning and the sign outside the IQ shopping mall, which beamed ‘Everyone is invited’, was a welcome mat that instantly made us smile. We were back to the land of our ancestors and the sun was out!...
>> How ironic then to be ensconced and confined to our hotel the very next day. “It is advisable to stay in today as some agitation is expected,” a pretty guest relations girl informed us when we rose the next morning to learn that the anger over the offensive anti-Prophet film had spilled over from Pakistan and was threatening to disrupt the Valley.
Fortunately for us we were staying at the Taj’s newly opened Vivanta – an excellently run hotel with a stunning view of the Dal lake and the mountains. “It is Friday and so people are only advised to step out after the namaz,” she said. Nevertheless our plans to visit the famous Nishat Baugh near our hotel were given the go-ahead, which was an encouraging sign. Not so encouraging was the fact that all cell phone and Internet lines had been jammed.
Frantic family from Mumbai called on the hotel landline to ask of our safety. From what we had seen on our garden tour we could reassure them that all was well and the ‘agitation’ was vastly exaggerated.
>> That evening the exquisite Dilshad Sheikh, sister to the swashbuckling superstars of the ’60s Sanjay and Feroze was celebrating her birthday. Dilshad is easily the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.
A great beauty even in her youth in Mumbai, she was married to the late Javed Sheikh, scion of one of Kashmir’s wealthiest families. Bravely, even after his tragic early demise, Dilshad chose to stay on in Srinagar, with her three young daughters and manage the family’s vast timber interests. The evening’s celebrations had originally been planned on a doongha, a traditional Kashmiri boat that was going to be laden with white orchids and billowing muslin sails. But the perceived agitation put paid to that plan and so the party had been shifted to Dilshad’s friend Anil Nanda’s cottage at the Lalit hotel.
>> The first thing that struck us on arrival at the Lalit was the cavalcade of official cars and the security personnel standing at attention. “The Maharajah of Patiala is here along with many other VIPs, we were informed by the hotel guard. Entering the lawns of the cottage that had been bedecked with lights and fragrant with incense we indeed met the dashing former Maharajah Amarinder Singh, who had also served as Punjab’s Chief Minister until recently. In keeping with his army background (he’d served in two wars) the erstwhile member of royalty displayed impeccable breeding. Besides him were other members of Kashmir’s elite: Jyoti, the artist daughter of Dr Karan Singh, former Maharajah of Kashmir, Rameeza Hakim, the glamorous Supreme Court advocate with her husband Senior Counsel Atul Nanda, Noor Mubarak, grand niece of the Sheikh Abdullah clan, newly returned from London, ace shooter and Congress politician the handsome Rana Gurmit Sodhi and the irrepressible Sunanda Tharoor, who is a Kashmiri pandit herself. Seated on crisp white sheets and under flowering trees we partook of a traditional Kashmiri wazwan accompanied with aromatic kahva. It was one of those magical Kashmir nights the likes of which we’d dreamt about.
>> The nest day we were guests at Vijay Dhar’s stately home on Gupkar road for high tea. Like his father had been to Indira Gandhi, Vijay had been a close confidante of her son Rajiv. Seated at his garden the cerebral pandit intellectual and philanthropist regaled us with stories about India’s colorful political life. It was the day after Mamata’s ministers had submitted their resignation, and in the company of Sunanda Tharoor and Amarinder Singh both closely connected with Congress politics, naturally the talk was about politics and matters of State.
But there was also time for memories. As we took our leave, Vijay took us to a room inside the wooden mansion, which contained walls covered with black and white portraits of India’s historic moments: DP Dhar and Sheikh Abdullah and our own late father Rajbans Krishen Khanna, who had played pivotal parts in the defense of Kashmir during the raids. Naturally our mother who had been part of the women’s wing of the National Militia and a crack-shot herself was beside herself with joy at seeing all those familiar faces again. Vijay and she recounted the brave slogans that were shouted to keep up the morale of the simple Kashmiri people who they were defending before the army arrived. “Hamla-awar khabardar. Hum Kashmir hai tayar. (Beware unwanted outsiders don’t enter, the Kashmiri people are ready to take you on.).” Simple words. We wish they were heard these days too.