It was the quintessential Kashmir moment. On a placid lake floated a tiny boat brimming with delicate blooms in vibrant hues. It seemed like the picture postcard had just come alive. Even clichés here were refreshing. It might be an antithesis but sitting on the ornate wooden balcony of the houseboat on Nagin Lake, watching a shikara emerge out of the smoky mist, while silver-lined clouds floated past mountains throwing reflections on the dark blue water, I could not help but feel overwhelmed. I could watch this scene over again and again and replay it in my mind’s eye.
There are certain moments when you travel, when the mind is emptied of all thought and time stands still. This was one such, except that it stretched on for hours. Dawn had broken, but the sun had no intention to shine from behind the clouds. I was finally distracted by a bird, a little grebe, chasing another and rippling the water.
I had the houseboat to myself. Perhaps the lake as well. The sound of silence was music to the ear. Occasionally, Ayub the housekeeper of the boat would drop in to ask me if I wanted more tea or what I would like for breakfast. But for the rest of the time, I was just standing, or sitting for that matter, and staring deep into the water. William Henry Davies would have been proud. I was staring like cows and sheep might at the mountains beyond. The birds soon joined me. A pair of barn swallows perched on a wire close by and contemplated life. A common kingfisher flew past me in a whizz and all I could see was a flash of blue. Atop the neighbouring houseboat was a common starling with nesting material in its beak.
But the reverie was interrupted. The man with the flowers rowed to my doorstep offering me a bouquet. I could take a bit of Kashmir back with me home, he said, if I wanted some seeds as well. We chatted a bit. He told me that the tulip season had just ended but pansies were everywhere looking rather bright. He was soon joined by another boat filled with flowers. Srinagar may be filled with gardens from the Mughal era, but these men brought the blossoms to my door. They said they grew them in their backyards but then almost every house or houseboat had a little cheerful garden.
And then the visitors started pouring in. In the distant mist, I could see shikaras in vivid shades of red, yellow, blue and purple floating towards me as they brought in their wares. One had jewellery to sell, another handicrafts, while a third brought in shawls and stoles. I did not have the heart to say no to them as they could be extremely persuasive in their politeness but I eventually excused myself and prepared to get onto the lake and float around in idleness.
I boarded a myriad-hued shikara, which offered me a ride to Dal Lake. I stretched myself and felt like I was floating, literally, on the surface of the water, feeling the reflections of the mountains in them. A lily pond appeared out of nowhere and my gallant boatman jumped in to get me a water lily. A night heron posed, statuesque, while a citrine wagtail passed by. For almost an hour we floated in silence, as the boatman rowed along small canals where floating vegetable gardens grew. A boat steered by a little girl and her sister passed by us, as the mother sat behind holding a baby. The boat was a virtual nursery filled with little saplings that were going to be planted in the water. We watched the family at work as another boat interrupted us carrying more vegetables. In this vast tract of waters, we were in a little canal, jostling each other and creating a mini traffic jam. But then, this was the way of life for these people who lived by the lake.
I passed the noisy floating market on Dal Lake and went to a little home on the fringes of the lake. Their shed was like a warehouse where new shikaras were being built. Kashmiri hospitality was at its best as they welcomed us with tea and the children wanted us to take their photographs. Almost every family here needed a boat or a shikara - it was their only means of transport in this world filled with lakes.
When we stepped outside onto the lake, it was the bewitching twilight hour and the water was already reflecting the dark sky. Tall stalks of water plants shadowed us as we rowed gently on the waters. The mountains faded into a blanket of darkness and the boatman rowed effortlessly, charting his own course, forming a ripple here and there. We rocked gently as his song lulled us to sleep. It was probably about love, but the ditty had become a distant memory. When we woke up, the lights were on in our houseboat and hot Kashmiri kahwa awaited us. All I could remember then was Keats: “Was it a vision or a fading dream? Fled is that music... do I wake or sleep?”