Monday, 14 November 2016

The View From Without — Kashmir

Its nothing short of tragic when someone used to Delhi smog finds breathing in Ladakh difficult.

Cricket at 3,000m above the sea level

But this tragedy befalls the bikers on Leh's roads frequently — when the aging diesel Boleros and built to last (instead of being environmentally frugal) army trucks, in their struggle to mount the inclines of the hill roads, fire plumes of tarry smoke right at the bikers already struggling for breath in the rarified air. Thus, the last leg of ride to the historic Alchi Gompa felt doubly refreshing as I left behind the truck-riddled NH-1 which continued to meander along the Indus river towards Kargil on its way to Srinagar, and turned left to cross the iron bridge that connected the highway to the ancient village of Alchi.

The Indus as seen from the bridge. NH-1 visible on the right.

The mountains on either sides of the bridge on the Indus funneled the wind into gushes as strong as the violent river underneath. The helmet's straps struggled against my chin with each gust that swayed the bike away from the imagined straight-line in the middle of bridge on which I was trying to steady the bike. As soon as I crossed the bridge, I got down to take in the view of the river that had lent its name to an ocean, at least a couple of nations, and countless sub-cultures. The flutter of prayer flags on the bridge's railings matched the roar of the mighty river, as I stood at the inflexion in the middle of bridge — my surroundings making me feel small instantly.  As the only thing (if we ignore the iron of the bridge and bitumen of road) standing between the blue sky above and the muddy river below, I felt a reverence that I seldom feel for a river (except, perhaps the Ganges). I closed my eyes. The sounds went silent too. I wondered if I would have felt so small and insignificant in front Indus' twin - Saraswati - as well. I felt a pang of remorse for having lost this river to partition; to a culture that will never understand why we revere, fear and pray to the forces of nature. I reined in my thoughts and I opened my eyes. I could hear the deafening flutter again. I wasn't going to let the setting overwhelm me again, because...

....I realised I had made a mistake by stopping the bike with no kick-start and a faulty battery on the plane of the bridge. I cursed myself for being entranced by a river into stopping a bike with no way of starting it. Thankfully, I had chosen a Bajaj Avenger instead of the much heavier Royal Enfields. I pulled it up the slope, put it in gear and got the engine started by letting it roll against the slope on to the road towards the Gompa. With the engine purring again, my thoughts also sprang back to life as I crossed what looked like a cricket ground well over 3,000 metres above the sea level. Only this time, I was thinking about men instead of rivers — two men to be exact, whom I had met within the last hour. Two men from very different backgrounds and in very different stages of their lives, and with very different prejudices against their common punchball — Kashmir.