Roads Less Traveled

Approaching Jammu

Aren’t books just marvellous? Terrific companions that kick start dreams. Inspire. I put down ‘The Savage Hills’ to be assailed by a savage urge – to dash off to Bhaderwah/Kishtwar (J&K).

“It’s the wrong time of year” said everyone. “In November it’s neither green nor white”

So be it. Brown is beautiful. And, it’s doable.

In no time was I flying across snow capped mountains into Jammu, an ordinary but prosperous town with neat, low roofed houses and a lot of cars. A taxi mafia unfortunately holds it in its grip. Life could be that much easier.

The hotel overlooks a historic gurudwara that is said to have given shelter to Rani Jindan, the last queen of Punjab. The effect is soothing. Pleasing too the sight of young girls on the move, a sizeable number having joined the work force. Food – tastes also look to be changing. While pasta may not as yet have replaced ‘rajma’ it is slowly making a dent. Never mind if it looks & tastes nothing like the original.

Under the shadow of Covid, shopping either for jhumkas, panjiri or saffron (regular Jammu staples) is completely out of the question. I therefore hit the road, the Jammu – Srinagar highway to Bhaderwah 190 kms away. It’s a 4-5 hour drive, network connectivity is poor, there isn’t a toilet on the way.

Into the Pir Panjals & beyond, past Gujar huts, grassy meadows and valleys. The Chenab giving company upto Pul Doda where one takes the turn for Bhaderwah. It’s a smooth ride on a good road, the Niru flowing alongside. We make brief halts at soldier homes, the first in Udhampur & another later in the day. Necessary breaks that uplift and stir for these are martyr homes. Each having sacrificed a loved one for the country.

Arriving in freezing cold to the warmth & welcome of a village home we are seated around a crackling bukhari, sipping salted tea, chatting. Inexhaustible travel tales that continue around the dining table and into the night. Dinner’s a simple, homely spread of rajma beans, rice, Karam saag & rotis. Rounded off with a saffron rich rice pudding. Never before have I had either salt tea or Karam, a green leafy vegetable and local delicacy. And never has rajma-chawal tasted better. Something to do with the air, water or cooking perhaps.

It’s time to hit the sack. I’m handed a hot water bottle that my host insists I use, along with the quilt & blanket. “Temperatures drop you see”

This is a landed family, educated and well – to – do. It is also a ‘joint’ family. Soon to be a thing of the past. A much loved matriarch rules the roost sharing space with three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren – a well knit, harmonious whole who chat, eat, pray together.

I get talking to the youngest daughter in law. Madhu is pretty and shy. She is 22 and has been married two years.

How was it growing up in these environs? Was she allowed to follow her dreams or coerced into matrimony? Does she get time to herself or does she feel cabined and cribbed within these confines?

“No, No” she replies laughing.

She had aspired to be a nurse & married only after becoming one, rejecting several suitors in the meantime. Happy & contented she did not feel restricted in any way.

“I have ample time for myself…….After a girl marries the husband’s family and home become hers.”

A young widow at a J&K policeman’s home
Local tawa – upturned at the edges
Temple Bhaderwah
River Chenab

The next day we are on the road again. To Kishtwar, a 2-3 hour drive. Without a place to stay, I had considered giving it the go by but Providence willed otherwise, the army as always, coming to the rescue.

Resting on a plateau Kishtwar is surrounded by stark, barren, humps of mountain. Dark & foreboding the mountains loom large, the Chenab flows quietly by and in the valley beyond lies Kashmir.

The military post located some distance away from town is a nice little perch. Literally at the back of beyond it has everything from piped water to solar heating. I have always wondered at the soldiers ability, not only to adapt and make-do but create and transform. Not to speak of hospitality that is legendary.

It was heartening to see them live that way, jungle mein mangal – a far cry from the not so distant past when basics like water and electricity were hard to come by.

“Absolutely,” concurred the Captain. “My father was a JCO. I remember filling buckets of water before leaving for school. We were without electricity for an entire week once. This in Agra mind you, not some far flung place, God forsaken place.”

Cheers! Here come drinks and snacks.

Kishtwar is known for its 2 S’s – Namely sapphire & saffron. Did I buy some? Not a chance. Curiosity alone brought me here together with the opportunity and urge to connect with real people.

The little pleasures of life. The wonder of it all. Travel ultimately is about people and places. It can touch you in strange ways

Here comes the bride