Diwali was celebrated the other day with lavish purchases but muted celebratory fireworks. The subdued celebrt Prangations were due to the terrible atmospheric pollution that prevails in Delhi. The air there has become virtually un-breathable, visibility reduced to a few hundred metres with the sun making a disappearing act.
My mind, more agile than my body, swiftly travelled down the broad memory lane, latching on promptly to this thread of Diwali and traversed half a century to 1968 when I was posted in Srinagar. It was a pleasant Diwali morning and surprisingly very cold. It was I think 20th October but it was very cold rather prematurely. It was a holiday and I had no worries of dressing formally for office. It was going to be my first winter in Kashmir anyway. Like a good child I donned my woollen socks and a woollen pullover and, after breakfast, went straight under the quilts. The glazed windows of my bed room on two sides were tightly shut yet the cold breeze seemed to penetrate them without any let or hindrance. Lying on the bed I could see the canopies of the trees in the yard swaying in a rather strong breeze. I was looking out at them through the glazed windows as random thoughts flitted through my mind.
I was lost in my thoughts so completely that sounds of steps on the wooden staircase outside the tightly shut door shook me and out of my reverie. The door opened and in walked Hindal Tyyabji (IAS 1965), a very good friend who was with the J&K Government. He was four batches junior to me. He wanted me to get up and get dressed as he wanted to picnic with some of our common friends at Prang a few miles away. I pleaded with him that it was too cold and, besides I was short of cash. He would have none of it and said whatever cash I had could be used for buying gas for my vehicle - a 1962 Standard Herald. Knowing that he had legged it all the way from his house in Jawahar Nagar about 3 or 4 miles away I didn’t have the heart to say a stern “no” to him.
Hindal used to be a great organizer. He had everything mapped up in his mind and shot off to buy provisions. In those days Srinagar was different and far more tolerant than it is today. Everything used to be available then without any reservation – from pork sausages to other non-vegetarian tinned stuff and liquor. Hindal went and bought a handful of things and by the time he came back two other friends, Udipto Ghosh, again of the J&K Government, an IAS probationer (now unfortunately no more) and Jyoti Mathur, Dy. Accountant General with the Accountant General of J&K, had also turned up. Apparently it was a well conceived plan and Hindal seemed to have planned the entire outing in his mind and had informed them before he came to me.
I suppose, by !! AM we were on our way to Prang which was around 30 Kms. away in the district of Ganderbal. Being a holiday, there was not much of traffic. We made it well under an hour. Hindal had already decided on the place where we would halt by the side of the River Sindh. We stopped next to a grassy plot and Hindal quickly moved towards the boot, took the beer bottles out and went across the road to the river bank to submerge them in the deliciously cold water taking care that they did not literally go down the river with its flow. Others got busy in making arrangements for all of us to relax.
Fifty years ago Kashmir used to be virtually a paradise and the landscape, whichever direction one happened to look, used to be captivating. Population was low and vehicular traffic used to be scarce, more so, on the highways. A stray omnibus or two, seemingly losing their way, would occasionally appear on the scene messing up the view. Every turn on the road would offer a new vista, more beautiful than the one that just went by. Greenery and, flowing streams by the sides of the roads shrouded under the canopy of weeping willows took the breath away.
I remember when once I was going to Anantnag I came across, after Pampore, an astonishing scene. The fields were yellow with the mustard crop, above them were the green trees at an elevation and still further up were the blue hills capped by the snow-clad white mountains. That was not all; all these were stacked up one over the other as if arranged mindfully, as if knowing that the firmament above was azure blue. It was such a dramatic and amazing sight that I stopped my vehicle and parked it on the roadside to take in the incredible view. I think I remember the scene so well even after half a century because I stopped and took it all in to carry it with me for the years that have gone by and perhaps I will carry it during the years that are yet to come.
Kashmir was different then on another count. There was no militancy although 1968 was only three years after the 1965 Pakistan choreographed war. There were, however, some elements who were against the presence of Indians and the Indian Army. Their opposition was mostly manifested by writings on the walls. There was no violence. I recall having once walked back past a winter midnight from Mathur’s house in Jawahar Nagar without any mishap. Only some stray dogs kept barking at me.
Prang was supposed to be a remarkably beautiful place on the way to Sonmarg. It was said that it was a nature-lovers’ delight. I have always held that hills with water bodies, together, make nature exceedingly beautiful. Only we, humans, should know how to maintain them in their pristine state. The place Hindal had chosen offered a delightful view of the river and the fields beyond with the mountains seemingly brooding over them. One couldn’t really take one’s eyes off the sight as it was so enchanting and fascinating. In those unmatched surroundings we gossiped, snacked on what Hindal had bought over bottles of ice-cold beer, thanks to the River Sindh,
After lounging around for a few hours we made our way back to Srinagar. It was a day well spent, out in the lap of nature at a place where nature could be ravishingly beautiful. Thanks to Hindal, it was a terrific Diwali – and that too in Kashmir.