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  • Writer's pictureMichael Swamy

A Kashmiri Breakfast

I looked around blinking in amazement, wondering where I was, in India or in another land. It was winter and there was snow and piles of ice along the pavement. I thought of my days in London where I was so used to the snow and cold, but this chill was different; it bit you, freezing you to your very bones. It was amazing to see the people of Srinagar walk around in seemingly flimsy “pherans”, oblivious to the cold around. I soon discovered, though, that the pheran is actually warm, more so with the constant heat given out by the little kangris (baskets filled with charcoals) they hold under them to keep warm. It goes without saying that my first investment in Srinagar happened to be one of these little life-saving kangris.

At 5:30am, the next day, we trooped out in the dark to the edge of the Dal Lake, and waited for our boatman. We got a few odd looks and smirks from the locals who thought we were some amateur tourists who were being foolishly adventurous to go boating in the morning. And we probably cemented their thoughts by making a ritual of it and venturing out into the freezing waters every morning throughout our trip. So, nicely settled in the yellow-roofed shikara in no less than three layers of clothing and marvelling at our brave boatman who was bare-footed, we sailed out into the still blueness of the Dal.

The water is sublime, almost magical. It has this hypnotizing quality to it, that makes one want to simply stare and drink it all in through one’s eyes. It’s like sailing through a painting as one sees boats slowly emerge out of the morning mist. The only audible sounds are those of the water sliding gracefully off the paddles and the morning prayers at the far-off Shakaracharya. The gigantic houseboats dwarf one, as one is neatly ensconsed within blankets in the boat.

My continually clicking camera and the rippling waters under our boat disturbed a flock of water birds and ducks. They rushed passed us, half-swimming, half-flying, making for a truly picture-perfect moment. As we edged closer to the famous Floating Market, we passed a number of floating farms. Our boatman gravely told us of how entire farms are “stolen” here. A patch of the farm is simply hacked at – tied to the boat and floated away – it’s that easy.

The floating vegetable market happens every day for two hours in the wee hours of the morning, and is a must-visit. The different times of the year brings out its magical colours. The slate grey of winter stands out against the hues of the black or purple carrot which is only available during this season. The Nadru or lotus stems is a staple of the region. To see the Nadru growing in the lake and later, seeing it piled neatly on the boats for sale was fascinating. Turnips of white with purple bands glistened and gleamed with a freshness unlike any I have seen on my Indian travels. Another green leafy vegetable available in mounds is Haakh. This mustrady green vegetable forms a major part in the daily food intake. All the vegetables are washed clean before getting them to the market, and I didn’t hesitate for a moment before biting right into a carrot offered by a tourist-friendly boatman.

We parked our boat bang in the middle of the market, and watched vegetables being bought and sold, or bartered from boat to boat. The dexterity of these slim narrow boats with the boatmen sitting at the very tip, or sitting bunched together with their boats fanning out behind them is astounding. Daily gossip happens over simple cups of tea and a beedi.

Amidst this, is a travelling canteen; a man was selling what seemed to be breakfast. All I could see were vapours of smoke spiralling from the tiny paper plates as people gathered around buying some. As we waited for our turn to buy some, I was blown away by the bread; it’s of a colour and freshness that’s unbelievable. Expert bakers that they are, it’s surprising that the Kashmiris are not bread-eaters, but depend primarily on rice. Our boatman then treated us to some Kashmiri Kahwa, made from a special blend without milk, but has slivers of almonds in it. Along with the bread, the Kahwa tastes absolutely divine on a cold Kashmiri morning. It’s a morning breakfast of a kind that no 5-star comfort, that I am normally accustomed to, can beat

On our way back, we met other boats selling jewellery, papier mache and wooden boxes. We also struck up a bargain with a saffron vendor who sold us dried saffron flowers with a few saffron strands still intact. It’s nice to see the cherubic faces and pink cheeks of the children busy snacking as you see them going to tuition.

It’s magical to see the mountains in the background, a gorgeously clean lake, while children make their way to school on the shikaras, and houseboats to relax in which dot the landscape effortlessly blend in.

The food may not be all that exotic, but it’s simple, robust and wholesome in an atmosphere that’s clean. Despite the mistrust of the locals, and the fact that many are out to make a fast buck, the morning sojourns to the market in the centre of the lake are worth it. I am told that during the summers, the boats are a riot of colour - laden with flowers. The prospect of seeing the lake come alive in summer is something that invites me to come witness, and visit Srinagar again.

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