Tales of the uninvited #2: A brush with death in Kashmir
The first time I travelled to India, I was a 24 year old, wide-eyed snip of a lad.
I’d just been made redundant (again, thank you advertising business) and my old creative partner had planted tales of the exotic vale of Kashmir in my impressionable mind.
A Passage to India meets Jewel of the Nile, meets Fear and Loathing.
I liked curry, I’d been East before (three months in Thailand back in 1987), what could possibly go wrong? Let’s find out shall we.
Oh my giddy Aunt. This wasn’t quite how I’d pictured things.
It was nighttime. Loud, hot and chaotic. And really scary.
I’m English. I like to queue. Queues are comforting and familiar; they represent order and civilisation.
Immigration was more like a scrum.
The stiff-collared military welcome put me on edge. My backpack was searched and the contents scattered.
Passport stamped, blood pressure raised, I made it through to the hot and humid outside world beyond the limbo of the airport.
I was harassed into a Hindustan Ambassador by an excitable cabbie who knew the guesthouse I’d circled in my Rough Guide. “Yes sir, I will take you to your hotel sir, very good sir.”
It started raining. Hard. As if bags of gravel were being thrown at the cab.
New Delhi is intense any time of day, but at night, in monsoon rain; everything’s dialled up to 11.
For a young India virgin who’d just come from an air-conditioned 737, it was a bit much.
The nightmare begins
Have you seen that scene in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, where Catherine Deneuve hallucinates hands coming out of the walls? It was like that, but in smelly technicolour.
Traffic was heavy and the going was slow. Every time we stopped, hands thrust through the partly opened window, begging or trying to sell snacks.
A naked child stood in the central reservation, crying, as rain upon rain was dumped on her.
Neon screamed its reflections off every sodden surface. Rivers ran down the roads. Car horns blared. Cardboard and zinc shacks heaved under the weight of the deluge.
The humidity was on a whole new scale – a garam masala, petrol and faeces steam bath; with a side order of anxiety to complete the ambience.
After some time (it could have been anywhere between half an hour and a month; who knows) we hit the Bengali Market area of the city.
“This… this isn’t my guest house.”
“Very good hotel sir.”
“No, this isn’t the guest house I want to stay at.”
“That guest house is full, this hotel is very good for you.”
“I take your bag.”
I was too tired and emotionally drained to argue. I just needed sleep, a room; some sanctuary away from the madness.
After a protracted three-way confusersation with the receptionist and the taxi man, I eventually trudged up the dark stairs to my room.
The worst little whorehouse in Delhi
Damp, hot and lit with a solitary 1,000,000 Watt bulb, my room gave stinking hovels a bad name, but it would do. I needed to get horizontal before I broke down in tears.
Sleep; shouting; sleep; car horns; sleep; more shouting. The only way I could tell reality from dream, was the fact that Indian reality is weirder than any dream my imagination could come up with.
I’d arrived at the ‘hotel’ at about 2am and by 5am the neighbourhood was in full bonkers mode.
I sat on the edge of my bed drowning in the same kind of panic I remember from being separated from my Mum in a supermarket, when I was 5 years old.
The hotel turned out to be a brothel. The only shower was a hose in the back yard. There was algae on the walls and I really didn’t want to think about what had been Jackson-Pollocked onto the sheets.
I wanted to go home.
My head was spinning. The return flight wasn’t for another six weeks. Where, what, who, how, when, why… I was running out of questions and there was only one answer.
Fumbling around inside my little backpack, I found the battery-powered beard trimmer.
15 sweaty minutes later I had a patchy, shaved scalp and enough guts to venture outside into the packed alleyway that the worst little whorehouse in Delhi squatted on.
I have no idea why, but shaving my head makes me feel a little bit taller; a little bit braver. Maybe it’s the extreme vulnerability that cancels parts of itself out a little – some kind of psychological scalp alchemy.
I felt like an alien. The only pinky-white face in an ocean of brown.
After a tentative walk around the block, I found a café and had a couple of deep fried potato chops with a violently hot green chilli pickle.
A steaming cup of chai was sweet and comforting, and the panic of facing the unknown started to lift a little.
Seven days later, I’d got my bearings. I’d stared fear in the face and had been rewarded with a newfound confidence. A travel agent in Connaught Square sold me a bus ticket and one night’s accommodation aboard a houseboat on Dal Lake. Kashmir here we come.
1,000 Km. 36 hours. Through Kurukshetra, Chandigarh, Dalhousie, Udhampur, Anantnag and on to Srinagar. Rising and falling 2000ft+ along the way. Via landslides, public defecation, dancing bears and mountain passes that would make even hardcore atheists say their prayers.
The air became cleaner, the skies bluer and even my numb backside couldn’t wobble the feeling of elation that was brewing.
Fancy meeting you here
During the journey, I got chatting to another couple of Brits, two guys of a similar age who were doing their world trip together.
It turned out they were booked into the same houseboat. Of all the buses, on all the mountain passes… it felt like fate. Little did I know how fateful it would be.
We pulled up for our last pit stop, on the edge of the vale of Kashmir, just an hour or two from our final destination.
I’d wandered away from the bus and two Indian men approached me. They were tall and thin. Cheek bones threatening to split their ruddy-brown faces. Big creamy-white teeth flashing in the dusky light. Rosy-red eyeballs stared into mine – intense, but somehow emotionless.
“Please, Mr. Jonathan. You are Mr. Jonathan?”
“Yes”, I said, a bit shocked to hear my name so far from home.
“Please, you come with us. We will take you to your houseboat. There is curfew. The bus cannot go all the way.”
I’d heard that there were curfews on Srinagar’s streets. A religio-political argument had ebbed and flowed for decades and shutting the streets at night was one way of keeping a lid on things.
“What about my friends?” I pointed at the group of people milling around by the coach.
“Yes, they will come too. Please bring them, we have to go.”
I jostled through the crowd, found my new buddies and explained the situation.
They had big backpacks, whereas I only had a tiny knapsack. I was ready to go, but their bags were stowed away under the bus.
We found the driver and asked for their luggage.
“No, this is not possible.”
“But, the curfew…”
“Yes, curfew, but these are very bad men. I cannot give the bags.”
“But they’ve been sent to…”
“No. You want bags? 1,000 Rupees each.”
I’d already come across a scam or two like this. In India, they call it baksheesh – you want to break the rules? No problem, but there’s a price.
We argued for another five minutes, but the driver wasn’t budging and 2,000 Rupees felt like a small fortune – the bus ticket was only 170.
So, confused and deflated, we apologised to the two chaperones and shuffled back onto the bus, convinced that we’d all be turned around by a police roadblock before we could make it to our destination.
Two hours later, in the pitch black, we arrived in Srinagar.
“Mr. Jonathan? I’m Moma. Please, I’m taking you to your houseboat.”
Moma (Mohamed), was a slightly portly fellow. Happy-go-lucky, gentle and very friendly.
We tumbled into a shikara, a small, flat-bottomed passenger boat, and were paddled to our home for the night, 20 minutes from the shore.
During the trip across the lake, we asked the obvious, “who were the men who’d been sent to meet us earlier?”
“What men? What did they look like?”
The thing that stuck in my memory were their red eyes.
“Red eyes. Heroin. Very bad. They cut your throat and steal everything. Or kidnap you for money. Allah is looking after you.”
He was so matter-of-fact. It was as if we were talking about our favourite pizza topping or the pros and cons of cotton underpants.
I’d been in Kashmir two hours and I’d already been a couple of greasy handshakes away from meeting my maker. And it wouldn’t be the last time on this little adventure. But that really is another story.
What the moral of this particular little tale actually is, I’m not quite sure. Probably something to do with the law of Karma and being a lucky little bugger.
Whatever it is, I’m just very, very thankful to still be alive to tell it.