It has been15 hours that our bus has been driving through the gorge. The bus slowly drags along the serpentine road, which is so narrow, that there is hardly enough space for the bus to pass a jeep. The left side of the bus from time to time appears to hang out over the gorge, rocks fall into the abyss from under the wheels, and if you lean out of the window and look down, you have a complete illusion that the wheels have left the road and the bus starts falling rapidly into the abyss. The Indians, sitting next to me, do not pay any attention to this danger. What is it – fearlessness or do they not care? I heard that in India the accidents of buses falling into an abyss are not so rare, and from time to time it triggers a slight scare, a rush of adrenalin, and a thought that it’s not for ME to die in such an unattractive and unimpressive way, just because of some driver’s blunder.
This thirty hour imprisonment in the bus has completely exhausted me. The body is aching due to fatigue and constrained sitting due to the lack of movement and I do not care anymore about the view of the mountains through the window. Is it the Himalayas? These aren’t that tall, grey, scarce greenery, unfriendly and looking alike. These mountains relate to the mysterious word “the Himalayas” less than an apple core to an apple, but still this is the Himalayan foothills though, covered with endless kilometers of road that uncoil from the wheels of our bus. There is a narrow cement coloured river, running over large boulders, the sun peeps through once in a while, and all the thoughts are only around this monotony of the shaking of the bus and when it is going to end.
The noisy company of foreigners that enjoyed their time the previous night, now looks weary. All of them are very tired from the long trip, they talk lazily about their impressions, plans, prices and hotels and do not even notice that their conversation circles about the same topics for the second or third time. This conversation lives its own life, it does not want to die, though it brings more boredom and tiredness, not impressions… I do not want to listen to this chatter or take part in it. It’s nice to feel as if you are hanging out somewhere in space and time and not tied to any plans.
Villages, the endless line of houses along the road, people live there… they are born there, have children there, die there – there… incredible… when I was a little girl, I used to go for an evening winter or autumn walk, looked into the illuminated windows of people’s houses: the people… they talk, eat, walk, gesticulate, …they live there… Every time, by some unknown reason, I felt very uncomfortable, as if my usual perception shifted, I stopped being myself and transformed into that person… or another… to be more exact, I impersonated somewhere “between” them and myself, as if hanging there in the middle and it terrified me, as if I was losing myself and my personality. Do they indeed live there… can there be any life which has nothing to do with me, where I do not and will not exist? There was something in common with the fear of death from an early age, when I was crying in bed, imagining that when I die, life will go on, but without me and not for me, that I will NEVER exist… I still have not agreed to this “never”, – it is impossible to put up with it, it can be sealed, thrown away, forbidden to think about it, and who knows what else is there that is forgotten intentionally, what fragments of my life are buried…
People and their houses are passed by – “Anti-Barbie” carton toy houses that are turned inside out. All their life is in front of you, like on your palm. They wash, eat, study, do the laundry, argue, cry, laugh, and it all can be seen from the window of the bus like a giant performance two thousand kilometers long, a performance which has no place for me and will never have any place for me.
Soon night falls again… Will it ever end? The bus stops and there appears somebody’s silhouette in the aisle. This silhouette was making sounds of either prayer or some sort of agitation. Is it a break for lunch? Fifteen minutes of solid ground under your feet. I am already used to people jumping in the bus every time it stops. They poke you’re your face some eatable junk they want to sell, so this time I did not even look at this character. But the man was insistent, and at last I paid attention that in his hands he had a table with a name. On closer inspection I see my name is on it, – oh, my goodness! – the sounds that I thought of as the sparkles of local culture turned out to be his attempts to pronounce what was written on his table. With a wide grin he says something… ok, his name is Rum. Okey-dokey, I do not mind. For the first time from the moment of my arrival to this land the smile of an Indian seems to be right. Good bye, this bloody rattletrap!!!… Thanks to you one can forget how to walk… Oh, my God, I see an old “Volga” car… No, it only resembles a car, still funny. It is only my third day in India, but it’s like it is day ten. Every step, every glance this or that way triggers “Gosh!”, “Unbelievable!”, “Wow!” At the edge of the world you suddenly emerge from this local colorful scene and find yourself in an old, rattling Soviet car! Something is whizzing in the car, to a certain extent it sounds like music and the driver happily sings along with it. He even moves as if dancing a little – we are on our way, good bye the dusty bus!
Soon gloomy stone huts came into sight on both side of the road.
– Is it already the town?
– Yes, ma’am – I catch the notes of subservience in his voice.
– “Ma’am?” Oh, yeah..
I remind myself, that now I am a “ma’am”, like any other white woman in India. This word “ma’am” is an officially accepted form of respect, but it borders with a servile submission so close that evokes the most secret instincts to domineer. You will not have a similar experience in a prim and proper Europe, far less in patriarchal Russia. I saw later, and not just once, that the plain-looking European women’s eyes light up from these small, but tuned with an urge of domineering signs of submissiveness.
– Is this already a town??!
– Yes, ma’am!
– Where shall I live? – I feel uncomfortable from the thought that I will be boxed up in some awful place.
– We are going to a big lake, ma’am, with boats – big house-boats.
Does he speak primitive English or is it his speech that is so primitive? I wonder – is he so stupid? Or does he think I am stupid?
– This lake is called Dal Lake – he talks to me as if with a two-year old.
Suburb!… Though, in India suburbs often do not differ from the centre of the town, especially if the town is not too large. Srinagar was the capital of Jammu and Kashmir State, and I was lucky to see that the dirt and misery are the same everywhere – both in the centre and on the outskirts.
Roads full of potholes, houses somewhat ruined and darkened from dampness, innumerable rubbish piles everywhere… this is how I would imagine a town after a nuclear blast. I cannot get used to the dirt surrounding me, even the scenery seems to be dusty and spiritless… Fifteen minutes of restlessness and fits of anxiety, and at last we approach a big lake – a wide picturesque patch between the shacks and the parks. It brings peace and freshness into the tense atmosphere from the street fuss, full of the figures of militant gunmen.
– Venice of Kashmir! Rum smiled contently, darting his eyes in the direction of the lake. He definitely tried to lift the surge of my emotions, to make me admit “his” place is very beautiful.
I finally scan this creature – more short than tall, impossible to guess his age. By local standards he is not dressed cheaply, but very untidy, like the overwhelming majority of Hindus. No wrinkles, his skin is smooth, elasticity like a teenager’s, but the glance is not of a teenager. His manners are cheerful, but in his eyes there is something evoking sadness to me, though I am too tired to be concerned and I just view the surroundings.
Along the lake the house boats form long rows that merge into the lotus haze. The names of the houses trigger emotions which are common for all the beginners of truth seekers… “The retreat of Shiva”, “Dancing Shakti”, “The Smile of Lakshmi”, “Prema Paradise”, “Sleeping Krishna”… I jump into a large colourful boat which resembles a gondola with Indian ornaments and an ornamental canopy. With pleasure I flop on a small coach with cushions, I want to lounge in this boat a long time, at last I can relax from the trip, from anxiety… it’s good here, I can live on this lake! The silent gondolier set down the oar and we moved towards lanes and alleys somewhere far in this aquatic Harlem.
The boat made a turn between the house boats, then another turn, and another… it looked like streets on the water. There were practically no people, but those that are there, stare at me, as if I am an exotic creature from another world. Somebody smiles, but most of the curious onlookers are wary and even displeased. Possibly, their discontentment is caused by the smaller and diminishing number of tourists in these places due to the recent war, and now this number is close to the nil… Tourism is their main source of income, and now they see I am not on my own, their faces reflect a bitter understanding that I am already in somebody’s net, I am already going somewhere… The permanent anticipation of the possible military conflict with Pakistan, as well as continuous terrorist acts of Kashmir separatists have turned this paradise of the1980s into a cheerless land of greedy swindlers, and tourists do not like it, and I also do not like it.
(Why the hell am I here??)
The gondolier is humming monotonously, but with feeling. I cannot relax after my long trip, maybe I will make myself comfortable on the cushions? Rum approves of it with a nod and adds in English something like “your way was very long, ma’am, but it will make your rest even sweeter…” Regular water splashes, slightly wobbling of the boat, the silence of the lake… large lotus flowers that pass us by…
My eyes close, though I still remember where I am… and also I remember… The scenes of my dream pierced reality and in the pearly reflection of the lake I see myself in a strange town, Rum is walking next to me and is telling me something. He is my guide and I follow him. We approach a very strange building, and I cannot understand what makes this building so strange to me? I turn back to Rum to ask him, but he is not around. I again look at the building – this is either a dilapidated palace, or an ancient Hindu temple, forgotten by God and by people, but definitely there is something in it that I know about… I can nearly smell the scent of hot rocks, the odour of fumigated wood… all is so familiar and so far away…
– Welcome, ma’am! – At the time these words were said, the boat bumped into the concrete piles that supported the staircase leading to a house.
With a shudder I woke up. On a small wooden platform in front of the house there is a young Hindu, dressed all in white – wide pants and a long shirt, reaching nearly to his knees.
– How was your trip?
I did’t want to tell him the whole story about the trip, how I was cheated by the tour agency, when they promised the journey would only be twenty hours long, and actually it took thirty hours, and how hard it was to sit for those thirty hours actually in one position, and how much that pose was so uncomfortable (but you know for yourself, why ask stupid questions, better let me have a warm bath and wide soft bed and fluffy towels…), so I just answered politely “OK” and got off the boat, refusing Rum’s helping hand. I still have this unclear feeling that in my dream something significant has happened, and if I could go on dreaming, I would reveal the mystery of the temple… I feel slightly irritated with the man in white… Rum exchanged a few phrases with him, accompanying his speech with active gestures, then easily jumped into the boat and gave a sign to leave. The boat started moving away from the small berth, and again I saw something inexpressibly sad in his eyes. He didn’t even look stupid any more, I even felt sorry for him, as if for a sad child…
– Good bye, ma’am! We will never know if we meet again, but if you ever need a guide, – my heart missed a beat at the moment, – ask Shafi, – he pointed at the man in white, – he will find me.
He offered me to be my guide – as if he overheard or looked into my dream! Such strange coincidences … it cannot be the act of a chance, especially now, when the air starts as if buzzing… If I cannot find a clear interpreting of such a coincidence, it still remains meaningful – at the moment when it happens, I experience a certain something that takes me outside of commonness and everyday life rules. The moment itself already has a hint that there is something else, maybe beyond my comprehension so far, but if I pay attention to it – who knows where these signs can lead me?