The sound of the single oar slicing the placid lake was like a lullaby. All around stretched the green waters, reflecting the colour of the vegetation that grows in profusion inside. It was drowsy, peaceful and serene. On the shore in the distance, the glistening white dome of the Hazrat Bal mosque shimmered in the setting sun, while on the mountain on another side, the silhouette of the Shankaracharya temple was etched out.
The shikara moved slowly and steadily towards the small island of ‘char chinar’ in the midst of the Dal Lake in Srinagar. The tranquillity of this journey belied the flurry of activity that seemed to have Srinagar in its grip.
A probable visit to Srinagar had filled me with some trepidation. Would it be safe? This was the niggling question that remained with me throughout the flight. The overwhelming presence of security forces as one leaves the small, under-construction airport is not encouraging. They seemed to be milling around everywhere — on the sides of roads, crossings, around buildings, in trucks and on heights. However, as the eyes got used to them, it became possible to see beyond and despite them.
Srinagar is a city in the grip of an unprecedented construction boom. All along the roads that I travelled, buildings are in various stages of completion. The city was replete with tourists, mostly from other parts of the country. One could hear Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati. There was also a smattering of foreigners. Backpacks and guide books in hand, they mingled with the people that thronged the gardens the city is famous for. Many schoolchildren were also picnicking in Chasme Shahi, boys and girls in separate groups, yet together.
The houseboats, with enchanting and strange names like ‘Pandora’, ‘Queens lap’, ‘Rosemary’ and even ‘Manhattan’, were tethered on one side of the Dal Lake. They are in business and shikaras full of people were going towards them. In the evening, one can see families lounging near the banks of the lake, even exchanging words with security guards. The Dal is the heart of Srinagar and it seemed to be pulsating at an even pace.
Raees, the owner of the shikara that was ferrying me across the Dal, was the eldest son of a family of six. The sole bread winner. What did he do when it was off-season? “If the season is good, I earn enough to tide by the leaner months. I just hope it continues like this and even gets better.”
Srinagar seems to be a city that is hoping. In its alleys, streets and gardens, there is a sense and feel of a city that wants to get back on its feet and into the process of life.