The flight time from New Delhi to Srinagar was merely ninety minutes, almost negligible when compared to the ones before, and Khushi, dressed in blue jeans and a modest, kaftan style silk top, could hardly contain her excitement, feeling it thrumming through her heart like live electricity. The events of the endless night of travel, encounters with enigmatic, handsome strangers included, took a back seat as she gazed at the green and brown mosaic of the land below, her sweeping eyelashes glittering in sunlight slanting in from the window.
As beautiful visions of Srinagar, conceived from travel channel and assorted travel blogs flashed before her, she looked down at a small notebook she always carried in handbag. In it was a hastily jotted down bucket list of things she hoped to do or achieve, while in the city, hopefully before her MSF job started in a week’s time.
‘Spend a night in a house boat’
‘Walnut wood and papier mache souvenirs’
‘Visit the old city’
The plane landed in Srinagar just after noon, and very soon, Khushi stood outside the Domestic Arrivals Terminal, greeted by an explosion of sounds, scents and colors that was India, her eyes slightly squinted against the brilliance of the sun.
As Khushi rummaged in her handbag for sunglasses, she was approached by a short woman in her fifties. She wore her hair shoulder length and her cotton sari elegantly draped around her plump body.
“Khushi? Khushi Gupta?, the lady enquired in a pleasant voice.
“Yes”, Khushi smiled back at her, “And you must be Astha Aunty, Madhu Bua’s friend?”.
After the usual and customary pleasantries were exchanged, Khushi was led towards a white Range Rover Evoque, which was waiting at curbside, a uniformed chauffeur at wheel.
With luggage stowed in trunk and the two ladies settled in it’s spacious leather backseat, the car had soon maneuvered it’s way through the milling airport traffic to breeze along a divided highway enroute to her host’s home.
Khushi’s heart picked up pace as she discerned the imposing, bluish gray silhouettes of the Himalayas in the distant background and before she knew it, it was encompassed by an indescribable, inexplicable sense of peace.
“I wonder why?, she mused gazing at them, “Maybe it’s their sheer vastness, their stoic presence, their unchanging face that shows us our place in the grand scheme of things. Maybe at a subconscious level, it allows us to view our everyday troubles and concerns with a sense of perspective”.
Her musings were interrupted by her companion’s cheerful voice pointing out a gigantic chinar tree to her. She had read that the beauty of these trees had to be seen to be believed and today she realized why.
As Khushi expressed her admiration for their unusual allure, Astha said, “Kashmir wouldn’t be Kashmir without these wonderful trees. Some of them are more than 400 years old. In fall, with their golden, crimson and russet foliage, they present a sight people are never able to forget”.
Khushi took her iPhone out and opened a window. She held it up to take a picture for Anita.
With her hair whipping helter-skelter in the breeze, she asked, “Will we pass the Dal lake on our way? Her unselfconscious, childlike excitement caused Astha’s lips to curve up in an amused smile.
“Not only will we pass it, we’ll cross it too”, replied Astha and added for good measure, “And we have a fantastic view of the lake from our house too”.
Her smile widened upon hearing Khushi’s impressed, “That is so Awesome”.
“You’re exactly as Madhu described you”.
“Well”, said Khushi with a chuckle, “Considering I’m her favorite niece, I’m sure her account was highly biased”.
It was Astha’s turn to chuckle and their eyes connected and flickered with mutual appreciation.
“How long have you known Bua?
“When we first moved to US, she was the my very first friend. We lived in the same apartment complex in New Jersey and would meet everyday for chatting sessions over endless cups of tea. These early bonds, initiated in the throes of homesickness and forged over the commonality of the immigrant experience, are really strong and lasting. Even when she moved to Arizona, we stayed in touch to keep our friendship alive”.
“I am so lucky you are Bua’s friend. If you weren’t here, I doubt my parents would have allowed me to accept this MSF opportunity”, Khushi said.
“I don’t blame them”, replied Astha, “But children these days. They always find a way to get what they want. By hook or crook”.
With her lips curving into a smile at her tone, Khushi asked, “How many children do you have, Aunty?
“I have only one. Arnie. I would’ve liked to have more children but couldn’t because my uterus was removed right after Arnie was born due to unstoppable bleeding. Not that Arnie ever gave me a chance to miss having other children in the house. He was always such a handful, kept me on my toes all the time”, said Astha, her caramel eyes softening with memories.
“See all these gray hairs, I always tell him”, said Astha with a fond chuckle, “they’re all because of you”.
Khushi’s smile was indulgent as she imagined a small boy with scraped knees, naughty eyes and an unruly mop for hair.
“Which grade is he in?, she asked.
“Oh, he’s all grown up now”, Astha said, looking slightly taken aback, “he’s a doctor too, an ophthalmologist”.
With that cute little boy’s image disintegrating in thin air, she showed tepid interest which spiked a little on learning he was faculty at Cleveland Clinic.
The obvious pride in her voice became tinged with something else as Astha talked about her son, her warm brown eyes reflecting a veiled darkness for a moment. Khushi attention was however captured wholly by the scene outside. While they were immersed in conversation, the car had swerved around a corner bringing into view the placid blue waters of the famed Dal Lake.
In all it’s summer early afternoon glory.
She had both heard and read a lot about the beauty of Kashmir, but nothing had prepared her for this extraordinary, almost unearthly picture in front of her, where each person, object, tree in the frame seemed to have an ethereal quality, contributing to the beauty of the scenery as a whole.
The serenely floating, brightly colored shikaras with farmers, fishermen, reedcutters or tourists in the foreground.
The ancient cantilevered bridges, the waterways, the quayside with an array of firmly anchored houseboats and grassy banks with poplar and willow trees in the middle distance.
And crowning it all, jagged snow peaks of the great Himalaya looming steadfastly in the background.
The skies were deep blue and a breeze laden with the fragrance of high meadows rushed in from time to time, ruffling the tree leaves and rippling the lake’s surface, making it shimmer with bounced sun rays in the process.
“Beautiful”, Khushi said softly and never before had the word beautiful seemed so utterly inadequate to her.
“It isn’t called ‘Paradise on earth’ without a reason”, her companion supplied with the unmistakeable pride of a local.
“When you first moved to US, I can imagine how much you must’ve missed this place”.
“Yes, I did. I wasn’t so keen on moving and my in-laws were dead against it, but Arjun, my late husband, who wanted to pursue higher studies there was adamant. My father in law was very disappointed by his decision, understandably so, because my husband was an only child, and after he left,there was no one to help him with the running of Saffron Fields”.
“It’s the name of our saffron plantation in Pampore. It has been in the family for three generation now”.
The white SUV was now determinedly endeavoring to cross an ancient cantilivered, brick bridge, a task that appeared impossible to Khushi because the narrow bridge was milling with not only vehicles, four, three and two wheeled, but also an assortment of animals and pedestrians.
The car came to a standstill and the driver thrust his head out of the window, urging people to make way; Khushi heard the distant cries of birds of prey that circled the skies above and wondered what blooming saffron fields looked like.
“I’ve heard saffron flowers bloom only for a short period in fall, I hope I’m able to see a blooming saffron field before I leave”, she said, watching a young maiden paddle a shikara, loaded with freshly cut flowers, with effortless expertise.
Khushi’s eyes followed as it slowly emerged from under the bridge and floated towards weeping willow fringed lakeshore. The malleable, hanging branches of these beautiful trees cascaded onto the lake, rippling it’s tranquil surface with every gust of wind.
“What’s that verse, Aunty? On Kashmir being compared to paradise”.
“If ever, there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here. Jahangir, the Mughal emperor, said it’.
Soon after crossing the bridge, they entered a quiet, gated residential compound with bungalows on either side of a broad, tree lined boulevard. Some of them were large enough to qualify as mansions.
Guarded, wrought iron double gates swung open to let the car in. Khushi had her first glimpse of ‘Shantivan’.
It had an imposing double storied, brick and wood facade, a welcoming portico filled with potted ferns and other ornamental plants and a double driveway meandering through sprawling, immaculately manicured lawn.
Under the brilliant sunshine, the front lawn, resplendent with an array of seasonal flowers, was a shimmering riot of colors and scents.
With the driver hauling Khushi’s luggage from the trunk, Astha had soon led her up three steps from the portico to a quintessentially Kashmiri, carved walnut wood front door.
Entering a large hall, Astha pushed open a door to the left to allow her to enter the drawing room. The interiors were charming with an air of having lived in for years. Furnished in the traditional way, ample use was made of the local handicrafts. Carved wood furniture, hard wood floors scattered with finely woven carpets in muted shades, traditionally embroidered cushions, painted laiquered ceilings…papier mache and carved wood ornaments on the mantle above the fireplace .
A pair of french windows, flanked by heavy curtains faced the back of the house, where aesthetically landscaped, turfed grounds gently sloped down to the tree fringed banks of the lake, ever present jagged snow peaks in the background.
Khushi was speechless as she gazed at the awe-inspiring magnificence of the vista, noting a large, gleaming concrete quay that extended into the lake.
Hearing the clatter of a tea trolley behind her, she turned around to see a maid wheeling it in, closely followed by Astha.
Settling in a sofa, with a cup of tea in hand, Khushi complimented Astha on her house.
“My son thinks it’s too old fashioned. He wants to get it renovated, make it more modern and comfortable. Did I mention, he’ll be joining us here in a couple of days. He’s in Delhi right now”.
“I think it’s charming like this”, said Khushi slowly, looking around her, “This traditional, old world decor gives a certain warmth, a certain character to this place”.
“Do you live here, permanently, now?, she asked after a sip.
“Oh no, I have a house in New Jersey, but ever since Arjun passed away three years ago, I’ve been spending all my summers here”, she replied, her voice laced with a tinge of wistfulness, “But now, things are different again. My mother-in-law’s died two months ago, in June, and even this house is not the same anymore”.
As Khushi murmured her regret, Astha took a deep breath and smiled at her, “I seem to have regaled you with my entire family history today, haven’t I? And you must be so tired too, let me show you your room. Freshen up and then come down for lunch”.
Getting up to follow her, Khushi protested in vain that she was too tired for lunch and that all she wanted to do was to hit the bed and sleep to her heart’s content.
After a long, warm shower and a delicious lunch, which despite her claims of not having an appetite, she actually ended up eating a lot of, she changed into her night clothes and slid under the down comforter, drifting off to sleep in no time at all.
Oblivious to the loud rustling of wind in the stately chinar outside her window.
Oblivious also to it’s lenghthening shadow on the grass, as the sun continued on it’s daily voyage across the sky.
And oblivious as the sun reached it’s destination at the end of the day. Sinking in the lake waters amidst an explosion of colors.
The next few days breezed past, with Khushi having a wondeful time exploring Srinagar, under Astha’s expert guidance. Intimately acquainted with every nook and cranny of the city, she enjoyed showing her young guest around too. Besides whole day expeditions to famous attractions, Astha also took her shopping, looking on with an indulgent eye when Khushi spent inordinate amount of time making the simplest of decisions.
A trait that was the reason behind her family treating going shopping with her like Bubonic Plague.
Khushi, who had been handed a long shopping list by her mother, and wanted to take care of atleast half of it before her job started in a few days was extremely grateful for Astha Aunty’s patience.
“Thanks for your patience, Aunty”, she said, emerging from a store, one cloudy afternoon, her arms weighed down by shopping bags, “I didn’t mean to take so much time…
“It’s alright”, said Astha, with an amused grin, “I don’t mind”.
“Looks like it’s going to rain soon”, said Khushi, gazing up at the swirling gray clouds, a fat raindrop splattering on her upturned face.
“We might have to spend a quiet evening at home today”, said Astha, as they carefully crossed the crowded road together to reach their car.
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind a quiet evening at all”, said Khushi, who hadn’t really given herself a chance to properly recover from jet-lag.
Listening to the sound of the rain and the wind outside, Khushi stood in front of an antique carved wood mirror looking at her recently bought sea green Anarkari with critical eyes. At her mother’s long distant bidding, she was trying on new clothes to see if any needed to be altered.
It was too snug for comfort and it’s neck line a little too wide for her liking. She decided to go downstairs to seek Astha Aunty’s opinion.
A hand on the gleaming wood rail of the curved stairs, she sped down with light steps, her unruly chestnut hair gleaming under the hall chandelier.
A song wafted out from the drawing room, where Astha was watching TV. It was one of her current favorites, a Rahat Fateh Ali Khan song, and she hummed it absentmindedly under her breath.
The door bell rang when she reached the bottom step. Assuming it to be the maid who came around that time everyday, she crossed the hall to open the door.
Swinging the door open, she froze, her heart missing a beat, her incredulous eyes focussed on person looming in the doorway. In all his bespectacled, six feet something glory.
A million confused thoughts ran berserk in her head.
“I’m still jet-lagged, I am hallucinating”.
“My subconscious desire has taken a physical form”.
“God is shamelessly plagiarizing from a soap scriptwriter”
Wearing a thin navy sweater over blue and white checked shirt, he stood with his hands shoved in denim pockets and returned her look with a myriad of expressions flickering in his slightly narrowed eyes. Surprise at finding a stranger open the door, puzzlemnt at finding her face familiar, irritation at unable to place her. And buried underneath it all, a fleeting tinge of pure male appreciation.
“So this is Astha Aunty’s Arnie…”, Khushi thought bemusedly not realizing she’d said his moniker out loud.
An eyebrow shot up in perplexity.
Astha Aunty’s excited voice made Khushi recover her composure and step aside from the doorway.
“You were supposed to come in the morning. You should have called me if there was a change in plan “, cried Astha walking over to her son and drawing him in an embrace he didn’t seem too enthusiastic about.
“I left a message on your phone”, her son replied after extricating himself from her arms and making way for their driver who was hauling his luggage inside.
“Oh, I forgot to check my messages today”, said Astha, ruefully.
“Why am I not surprised?, Arnav replied with an affectionate smile.
Khushi, still standing near them, felt awkward and was just about to head upstairs when Astha noticed her.
“Arnie, this is Khushi, remember I’d told you about that MSF doctor who was staying with me. Khushi, this is my son Ar..”.
“Arnav”, interrupted Arnav firmly, meeting her eyes and extending an arm for a handshake.
His eyes were quizzical as they shook hands.”Have we met somewhere before? You look so familiar?
Her vanity hurt just a tad bit Khushi faked ignorance with aplomb, “Really? You think so?
“You are both doctors from Cleveland, so it’s very possible”, supplied Astha.
“Sure”, Arnav murmured. Reining in potentially tumultuous thoughts with an iron fist, Khushi went upstairs to change.