Riding a Shikara by Swatilekha Roy
“Oh no! This scares the hell out of me”, my younger brother Kanchan kept brooding, while we carefully balanced ourselves on the religiously cozy bobbing vessels.
“I better wait it out here. You guys go on”, Kanchan babbled uncertainly. “Or maybe a walk around the lake...”
“Stop acting a sissy, Kanchan! Come on in, for God’s sake”, Rani chided him gently.
“There are worse ways of dying than drowning”, Aman teased him. Kanchan glared at him but didn’t budge. So, I pulled out the last arrow in our quiver. “I’ll tell Maya that you came all the way to Kashmir, and wetted your pants even before your starting a Dal Lake tour.” I couldn’t hear what Kanchan replied under his breath with his eyes screaming murder, and I guess I didn’t want to know.
A couple of minutes later, Kanchan was sweating it out on the couch beside me, while our shikara started its journey. “Woah! Woah! Look at that mountain! Where is the camera? Give me the camera!” My forever hyperventilating friend, Neil was throwing instructions at his cousin Rashi. True enough, beyond the maze of the Mughal gardens surrounding Dal Lake, rose the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Zabarwan range looking down on us like guardian angels.
While our shikaras were sailing towards the south end of the lake, we called a portable water kulfiwala. Despite being wrapped in endless warm clothes, already feeling the tinge of chill in the Srinagar air, kulfi made us feel like little kids all over again. We couldn’t help giggling when the melting malai dripped down our hands. Even Kanchan started relaxing.
The mirror water of Dal Lake runs several feet deep and is home to myriads of colorful fish that occasionally bob their golden heads above the surface, fighting for their fair share of planktons. Then, there are the aquatic vegetable gardens- acres of cabbage, cauliflower and spinach floating on the surface of the lake, all waiting to be harvested. We stopped in front of one of these aquaculture slots. There, the turnips and plump onions were being freed from waterlogging by a couple of farmers. Neil was busy capturing everything in his camera, including beautiful water lilies and florist shikaras.
Our shikaras made their next stop in front of the water bazaar- a series of houseboats selling commodities, ranging from petty stationery to specialties of Kashmir and embroidery. We entered ‘Pashmina Bazaar’ and marveled at their collection of shawls and blankets. Sitting warm and cozy on an embroidered carpet, we bargained and took pictures. Half an hour later, we were carrying paper bags full of ethnic beauties we couldn’t resist bringing home while boarding our shikaras.
We were bobbing softly up and down in the northern side of the lake while watching the orange tinted sky of dusk when a makeover shikara pulled up in front of us. “Rupees fifty for the ‘Kashmiri’ feel”, its keel read. One look at it, and we were all having the same thought. “Let’s spoil ourselves a bit further”, I announced and everyone nodded enthusiastically. Rashi climbed over to the next shikara and then back, this time with six costumes on her person. We wrapped Kashmiri attires around ourselves, fussing with the silver coins dangling from the female headdresses and ornamental swords for the boys. Smiling with the sun and teasing each other- we had the candid shot of our life! “I am so glad I didn’t bloody stay up there”, Kanchan said, smiling sheepishly. I had an inkling that he hadn’t finished yet.
“And?” I asked.
“Please don’t tell Maya, sis!”
I burst out laughing.
The wonderful day came to an almost fitting end when our shikaras moored in front of a houseboat called ‘Gemini Palace’. Our residence for the night, these timber water hotels are probably the number one tourist attractions in Kashmir. The lavish interior, including intricate woodwork reminding us of the glorious Mughal heritage and the scenic short balcony in the front- it was such a unique experience! Till late into the night, we chatted away on the wooden stairs, brewing instant coffee and remarkable memories.