I was 12 years old.
For a girl like me, who had grown up in the flat black soil of the Vidarbha, who hadn’t even seen an ocean or a mountain yet, Junglee opened up a vista; a dreamland where Saira Bano skied on the snow-covered slopes, her silk scarf blowing in the wind; where the changing colors of the chinar trees beckoned you to stroll under them to the ends of the earth; where the purple saffron fields nestling against the backdrop of the glaciers made your mouth water for Mughlai cuisine; where shikaras floating on Dal Lake held couples entranced in an eternal embrace of love.
As a girl I loved the outdoors, wandering in the fields picking and eating the palm berries from which villagers made toddy, wading in the river on the annual school picnic collecting rocks, which alas never looked as colorful once they dried up, going on walks every evening inhaling the fragrance of night jasmine and water sprinkled on hot earth.
The landscape of the Vidarbha, with its lush, rounded trees, its rice paddies and corn fields, groves of mangoes and oranges, hay-covered huts, and winding canals, is exceedingly beautiful, particularly to my Americanized eyes today. But back then, it lacked the drama of Kashmir.
Kashmir soon became a staple of Hindi cinema. And could you blame the filmmakers? After all, most people in India could not afford to travel to the mountains and throw snowballs at each other, let alone vacation in a wooden cabin lit by a fire, so they experienced it vicariously.
I saw Kashmir Ki Kali, and other forgettable movies with Kashmir in them. Sometimes, the plot made allowances for the hero and the heroine to be in Kashmir; other times, the actors magically appeared on mountain slopes, without any explanation as to how they got there from the streets of Bombay.
I dreamed of Kashmir all the time. I don’t know who I had a bigger crush on—Shammi Kapoor or Kashmir—but my adolescent fantasies of love, which in real life I didn’t even want, wishing instead to go to MIT or Princeton, had Kashmir as a backdrop.
I couldn’t believe my luck therefore, when in my final year of B.Sc., a friend persuaded me to go to Kashmir with a tour arranged by the Ladies’ College. Years later, I would regret the trip, scheduled just before the finals, causing me to lose my merit rank, but then I couldn’t wait for adventure.
We traveled on winding switchbacks in a rickety bus seeming to plunge down cliffs at every turn, singing “Suhana safar (Beautiful journey),” that eternal travel song of Hindi cinema.
It was winter, for which most of us were ill-equipped. But we did frolic in the snow; we did climb glaciers on horsebacks and walk on ice; we did see foreign trees like chinars and poplars and walnuts; we did row shikaras on Dal Lake.
I learned an important lesson; things look different in real life than on film. Albeit changed, Kashmir was breathtaking, perhaps even more than I had imagined.
Along the way, I wrote letters to my father, describing the vistas, the magic of discovery, in Marathi; these were my first sojourns into literary writing.
On the way back, we stopped in exotic places like Shimla, where we sat on swings on the edges of cliffs and shrieked wildly, looking down at infinity; we bathed in the Ganga at Rishikesh, marveling at its freezing waters. But for me the magical moment was sitting in the stone pavilion of the Shalimar Gardens, listening to water cascading down terraces on to ponds surrounded by flowers. At night, we attended the sound-and-light show, recreating the life of Nur Jahan, for whom Shah Jahan had planted the Mughal Gardens.
Years later, I would visit Kashmir again, this time in summer, with an American pen pal older than my father. I would stay on a houseboat on the still waters of Dal Lake, where a picture of me taken while swimming would later win my friend an award.
Compelled by an inexplicable bravado, I would water ski behind a boat, ignoring my friend’s protestations.
It was my moment of sublimation. I was Saira Bano, the film star, splashing in water, as the mountains whirled around me.
Since then, I have woken up to the magic of the Half Dome in Yosemite, walked the sand dunes of Death Valley, sailed the Milford Sound of New Zealand past majestic glaciers rising out of the ocean, frolicked in the black sands of Tahiti, but for me, paradise still resides in the Kashmir Valley.
Alas, a whole generation of Indians have missed out on the valley, torn by ethnic violence.
I was happy therefore at the news of the opening of the bridge between India and Pakistan in that ancient place where the East has met the West since the time of Alexander the Greek.
I am looking forward to a day, not in the too distant future, when I will be able to show my children that last paradise on earth.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.