On Dal Lake

On Dal Lake

In memory of Sarah Groves, a British tourist, who was murdered in Kashmir in 2013.

 

At first, I didn’t remember you. Not when I first saw those great severe mountains. Hima’alaya—dwelling of snow, but, to me, more gravel than glacier, visibly igneous and churning. As if in a photograph suddenly drained of colour, those hills are surprisingly monochrome, their peaks swelling upward through a pall of thick cloud. I didn’t think of you, even though the black and white elements of the rock-face seemed to battle for territory; the white snow twisting in veins across the dark surface like straining animal hide.

Photo credit: Panoramas via Flickr
Photo credit: Panoramas via Flickr

I suppose I had forgotten you, or where you might be resting, whereas the hills stood, atavistic and close by and had witnessed it all. Guardians of Shambhala, you spent more than three months here; you rested a while at the gateway, but I didn’t think of you crossing over into that eternal valley. You were not a spirit; nor were you in the world of forms. You were nowhere near a conscious memory.

I didn’t see your reflection in the lake, only these mountains, deferentially recreated in its blue surface. Exactly as the pictures show it. This spectacle is why I came. In an old panegyric Khusro said of Kashmir ‘If there is paradise on earth/ It is here, it is here, it is here’. The truth of this, so many years on, is why others, like you, had journeyed northwards too.

And it  wasn’t guilt I felt, though I lay, warm-bodied on the sloping lawn, hardly believing the high ace which had been dealt me. Nor did I sense any of your pain when I idly nursed my nipple while I read. Instead, I took tea with the other guests and patronized the local handicrafts. When prompted, I cooed over the guest book, where the ink glittered with praise from rock stars and the diplomatic agents of Clintonia. I watched the scenery and was unworried. I slapped at water gnats and gaped at the ebbing gondoliers; then, merely to summon laughs, I suggested a swim.

It was that night, technically the next day but only moments into it when the bluebottle disturbed my sleep, knocking its clumsy wings and sets of eyes against my window. Then, the memories of your ordeal descended like a landslide shored up against my own distractions.

Your struggle resounded in the bluebottle’s low buzz of despair, the growing frustration, then silence. Your thwarted escape was transmitted in the limp tap against the glass; in its persistence, its gradual weakening.

Across the ceiling of my bedroom, everything reconfigures. The filigree pattern of the wood-carved wall above my head is lit-through from outside; its shadow creating kaleidoscopic horrors above my head. I stare down into the kaleidoscope’s tube; it swivels by scant degrees, and I am transported into your terror chamber.

My room was not yours exactly but seen one seen ‘em all.  Each houseboat on the lake offers the same: rectangular boxes carved in local walnut. They are baroque structures long and plushly-lined.  A lot like a coffin, only capacious and afloat. Decked out in colonial garb—chandeliers, ashtrays, books written in English— they were once a civilized retreat for the intruding nation which defamed then divided the civilizations it encountered. A place to cool off.

It was a room I would have shown off to my father, as you did, when your World Wide Web connection was strong and your screens merged and you spoke to him—surely delighted— in your waning hours. It was your last exchange, before the knock at your door and he sprung at you with all of his force. He was a stranger to you. A Flying Dutchman. ‘Are you spying on me?’ His paranoia was meted out in stab wounds all over you.

Lying alone, I think of him after the event, crossing the lake at dawn wearing your blood, and probably his own too (the reports say you fought back bravely). He is rowing himself in the boat onto which you, with all your verve, had painted, ‘NO WOMAN NO CRY’. His oars move in neat, syncopated time. Like the soldiers at the nearby borders he is capable, but he is also shoeless and short of breath. The Charon of Dal Lake –he steered and conveyed you, next he fled.

 

As he sluices through the water the mountains remain faithfully reflected. Their edges and contours are absurdly intact, spread across the surface in a horrifying, gently rippling rictus. He darts across the reflection and then he is gone. The mountains remain implacable and watchful. In overseeing what happened, they have somehow permitted it.

 

I throw back my bedcovers and make towards the lakeside window in dazed recrimination. The sudden recrudescence of your fate has set the world against itself; and the kaleidoscope tube swivels once more to bury me in your trauma. A car horn becomes an announcement of battle; the sound of barking dogs signals cosmic dissent. I imagine, like Macbeth’s horses, that the animals eat each other. Old prejudices prop up my mind as I spool backwards and rank the guests with whom I just dined in order of maniacal tendencies. Their smiling faces all sing with homicidal potential, like the merry cast of Cluedo. When I reach the glass, accompanied only by my heart’s jumpy errata, the wardrobe door suddenly closes and my self-same image in a long white nightie appalls me. I utter a long, low sound, a pathetic baritone of protest, some attempt at ‘I exist’ but it seems to make no incision on the scene. It only hangs, meek and immaterial, outside of your ordeal.

The lake under the stars is astonishing and treacherous in its beauty. And you were right to feel betrayed. I look across at the light from Hazratbal Mosque and I wonder what you saw or heard when you were lying prostrate, or supine, exhausted and beginning to let go. Was it dark in your room like mine? Or did he leave the lights on? Did you hear the call to prayer for an interventionist God who failed to save you? Could you perceive the lights of a car winding its way down the hillside, then forgetting to collect you? Higher up, losing blood now, perhaps you mistook the distant pepper of artillery for fireworks. But it was just the familiar refrain of a war that had divided the valley and left 60,000 dead.  And the old trappings: the barbed wire and sandbags, those soldiers lining the streets— were mere accessories and never guarantors of your safety. The curfews, the borders are shown to be meaningless when they’re so coldly transgressed.

You were found with your hand in your mouth. This sordid detail occurs to me so suddenly that I’m unable to stifle a bleated cry. Then, the kaleidoscope shifts backwards and our worlds realign, I weep; I am ashamed at fearing my life and not mourning yours. I move towards my bed where I watch the shaft of light beneath my curtains gradually brighten. I take hold of a pen to write it down, to settle my fears in a story. But I didn’t know you and you are nearly two years dead. The tale is mine and can never be yours.

Nor could the sun quite emerge the following day. The skies hung low and dismayingly grey, the air sweetly-damp and familiar, like Scotland. So, with all the stoicism of a tourist on the Western Isles I sat out on the lawn  and forked myself a limp omelette breakfast with the other visitors; my houseboat neighbours: last night’s abominable crue who I suspended and scrutinized for designs on my life. They left me their business cards, dangled dinner dates in Delhi, thinly intended job offers. More signatures in the book, more photographs, ‘one last click’, and then drivers were called, bags carried, doors slammed.

I continue breakfasting with the owner’s son—a historian, a grandfather, a botanist, a pale-eyed enthusiast in a sleeveless jumper. He is my favourite kind, and it is my favourite kind of breakfast. Unending, languid—more honey, another egg, pots of tea—and candid too, charged with that unique emotional intensity which chimes in around elevenses; from the shared indulgence of a long-running feast, from grasping the day, then willfully delaying it.

We speak about the recent floods in Srinagar and the years of fighting. I hear of miraculous rescues and violently quashed protests; of curfews and liquor bans and who-armed-who. We discuss Urdu, the BBC, democracy, hypocrisy and broken promises. I don’t mention you, your murder or the ongoing trial, it feels improper to mention more tragedy. Eventually, my clothes tighten, the meal ends. I continue staring at the lake.

Those mountains, once splendid and derisive are now hidden by hoods of white cloud, like heads stuffed under pillows. The air seems burdened with responsibility for the dead and, with seeds of new understanding, I begin to pity every living thing. I think again of the verse: It is here. It is here. It is here.

It choked at first, and it spluttered, but September’s monsoon rained down on your calamity. A whole city was submerged in grief for you; riverbanks swelled and doorways brimmed over with sadness. I picture fields of drenched red tulips, bowing their heads in the shuddering downpour. I see the blown about trees, older than Akbar, raising their branches in outcry.

Then, swooping in great circles, the eagles over the lake continue the lament, redoubling, then undoing the valley’s fury. Countless in number, spectacular, I hear them calling at my back, screeching and beating their wings like widowed women with unmade hair.

For the first time in my life I am interested in birds.

Philly Malicka

Philly Malicka

Philly Malicka is a freelance writer and publishing consultant currently wafting around New Delhi, India.

Philly Malicka is a freelance writer and publishing consultant currently wafting around New Delhi, India.

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