Very Best Diwali in Kashmir
We are having breakfast in a rustic old lodge in the Himalayas, in Pahalgam, a Kashmiri hill station. One other table is occupied in the mostly empty café, by an Indian family. The patriarch, a “Dada” in my kids’ eyes, hovers over his family’s table. “This chai is terrible,” he begins in Hindi.
The waiter, an older man with a regal streak in his hair, takes it in. His eyes are politely averted, his chin raised just a tiny bit. Like football in Spain or enchiladas in Texas, in this part of the world, you just don’t insult another person’s tea. “It’s Kashmiri chai,” he replies, poker-faced.
The bottom of the ceramic cup comes crashing down onto the saucer. The family of the patriarch, two adult sons and his wife, are suddenly very interested in the dahlias blooming in the garden.
“Take it away,” the Dada shouts a little bit too energetically, “I want INDIAN chai!”
Now I prefer masala chai, (kadak), but that was rude. My kids, captivated as all kids are by adults behaving badly—especially Dadas—crane their necks. We’ve just returned from our first family trekking trip in the Himalayas, high on beauty but also deprivation, and feeling incredibly grateful for running water and heated liquids in cute little ceramic cups warming our still blue fingers.
“Do you think that Dada should go to jail?” asks our son, between sips of, what else, chai.
“He NEEDS to go to jail,” our daughter replies, stabbing an instant idly with her fork. (Unlike her brother she’s no softie).
I myself secretly, and perhaps ungenerously, hoped Dada would suffer burn wounds for the nastiness. Because really, his outburst was not about chai. It was about Kashmir. It’s been hammered into our heads over the course of the two weeks on this trip: Kashmir, which is majority Muslim, is occupied. India, majority Hindu, like the tourists who frequent the Palhagam, is the suspicious occupier.
Since arriving in India in mid-September, we’ve been told that Muslims steal all the electricity. They build illegal shantytowns. They encircle entire cities to ensnare the Hindus in the bull’s eye of terror. In the local newspapers we’ve read that Muslims want to overpopulate India to create a super-majority status. When we decided to spend Diwali, the Hindu New Year in Kashmir—a plane hop away from our home city—we couldn’t find a travel agency to book us tickets. You’ve got little kids, they said. Go visit some peaceful village in the far northeast of India: Assam, or Sikkim. And “stay out of unrest.”
Oh come on. We’re from America, where ordinary civilians can *legally* walk into the grocery store with assault rifles! While we were planning our trip, the international media coverage was mired in details about a mass killing of dozens in Las Vegas. For comparison’s sake, in Kashmir, the Indian press was overheating about stone pelters and “braid-choppers,” mysterious fellows who somehow sneak into women’s homes at nights, under their hijabs—with stylists’ scissors?—and give them bad haircuts.
In Kashmir, like everywhere else, unrest doesn’t favor any one faith. It favors an imbalance of power. The National Rifle Association has that power: It can unstitch the peacenik campaign slogans of any liberal US president. In Indian-occupied Kashmir, so does the Indian military, which pours armed soldiers into every street corner in Srinagar. Although they’re there to protect civilians, they’ve also devastated Kashmir’s tourist industry, leading to mass unemployment and poverty, and also a rise in radical imams blaring scary messages from mosque loudspeakers. Saudi-funded petro-Islam. Not so friendly to non-believers, unlike the Sufi strain native to the area.
Despite the loss of dignity and livelihood, Kashmiris are very, very nice.
Of course, landing in Srinagar’s bare-bones, but heavily fortified airport can make one just a bit nervous. Then there’s the moment you’ve driven past the shabby government sign, (“Welcome to Eden”) when driver announces that you should mind your hair, and then there’s the moment you notice everyone is staring. Will they pelt us, or will they give us crewcuts? No. They were staring because we were tourists—and they simply couldn’t believe their luck.
Though the region is very conservative, and Muslim, nobody expressed surprise over our Diwali plans. We were going to be 10000 feet above sea level, in the Himalayas, and though we wanted to be here, far from the firecracker smog and noise pollution of the big city, we did want a little festive season action.
“I will make a good Diwali for you, the best Diwali,” said Shabbanbhai, our trekking guide. He made the arrangements, the necessary supplies were loaded onto his ponies, no conversation needed, and that was that. On the third night of the trip, over a dinner of smoky chicken skewers and stir-fried vegetables, he smiled coyly at me through the flames of the bonfire. “Are you ready for fataka?”
We had a family from Mumbai with us. Like us the parents were of different religious backgrounds. Like us they had come to escape the firecracker smog and noise pollution of the Indian cities. Their kids needed convincing, because they had grown up absolutely terrified of firecrackers. Nonetheless Shabbbanbhai, who was by now upgraded to “chacha,” or uncle, managed to spread his infectious love of explosives around.
They had fun. A lot of fun. Together our four children spun the little sticks by the campfire, bright yellow sprays bursting the darkness. Isn’t this what Diwali—knowledge and warmth winning over cold ignorance—is about?
And then Shabbanbhai asked our son if he’s ready for Christmas.
I wasn’t. His version of it begins with canon-sized firecrackers (which, unlike assault rifles, are most definitely illegal in America). A few minutes later he and his ponymen, their heavy woolen phelans blowing in the wind, were shooting them over pines and the stone Gujjar encampments hunched above the river, towards the Kolahoi Glacier, and the peaks of the mighty Himalayas themselves. They even blew one up at the camp next door, belonging to college kids who’d befriended our son and taken him on a firewood collection mission across the river. They gathered around the campfire too. “Are you Hindu or are you Muslim or Christian?” one of them asked our son as we cupped our faces towards the stars.
He’s too young to understand that for adults, gods can take sides. “I’m a born in San Francisco Californian, silly,” he replied.
We arrived at the Pahalgam Hotel a few days later, on the night of Diwali. Our path through the hotel’s riverside dahlia garden was lit with simple diyas, red clay illuminated by the slow burn of ghee-wicked cotton. The diyas, the flowers: all maintained by an army of chachas. These senior uncles are all over the Pahalgam. “Thanks God,” as the locals say.
Take Shibir chacha. When he wasn’t turning down the beds in our room, he lolled on the lawn in the sunshine with the other chachas, usually between 10- 12. He’s a tall man with an Amitabh Bachan nose and a faraway look that rivals our son’s, who is daydreaming on the lawn with him, his homeschooling journal untouched. At his farm in the Gulmarg Valley, Chacha has almonds and walnuts and apricots. Dairy cows, goats, and plenty of good vegetables to eat. And he has apples. Pink, red, yellow. Oh, he is very proud of his apples. “Tell me,” Shibir chacha’s eyes narrowed. “How many varieties of apples are in your home, Rohan?”
During our three-day stay at the Pahalgam, he meticulously filed away Kashmiri words in Rohan’s notebook, followed by the address for his farm. “Next summer,” he began, “when I am retired, I hope you will come and stay with me for one month, two months” he paused—that sounded pretty ungenerous—“I hope you will stay with me, Rohan, for a very long time…”
This is the chacha way. Shabban chacha also demanded we stay in his home, possibly forever (we stayed a couple nights, and loved it). There have been several younger chachas in training too, such a dried fruit vendor who sold us two kilos of flame-hued apricots, and recorded Rohan’s desire to live in Kashmir in a Whatsapp video that was sent to hundreds of his friends.
Then there is Abdul chacha, who brought us our chai every morning. We have an extended invite to stay with him at his farm, next door to Shibir chacha. Abdul chacha introduced our kids to real Kashmiri tea, pink, milky, salty, and supposedly great for our daughter’s upset tummy.
He invited Rohan to make it in the hotel kitchen. “I’ll remember you for a long time, Rohan” he said as he ruffled our son’s hair. The hotel only keeps Indian chai around for guests, he admitted. He had been picking up Kashmiri chai just for our kids from the local canteen on the street. Now it’s up to Rohan to never forget him.
This winter, he will mail seeds from our Oakland garden to Kashmir.