The room, saturated with fragrances, hot bath, herbal tea, clean sheets – this is it, catharsis. My residence for a few days… Rum is right – never ever in my life I have enjoyed these common things so much as hot water and bed with sheets. I fell into a deep sleep, and when I woke up I thought I’ve been asleep only for a moment, but my watch showed three hours. It is only a few minutes past seven, but judging by darkness in the room, it must be dark outside as well. The light penetrates through the drapes and only god knows where it comes from – in this world I don’t know anything, even the location of a light switch.
Tiredness refuses to leave me and comes in splashes, but curiosity makes me leave the room. It is easier to restrain a hungry tiger from a piece of meat, than me from the new life, which is waiting for me just outside. Leaping with anticipation, I jumped into my jeans and threw on a sweater and exited the room. The light is emitted from small round lanterns. Exactly like in Moscow Old Arbat! – this thought flashed in my mind and immediately disappeared in the water whirlpool of new impressions.
Shafi is sitting in a plastic armchair on the wooden jetty. He is talking to somebody… Aha, he sees me, jumps up from the chair and approaches me.
– Did you have a good rest, ma’am?
– Would you like anything else?
(Of course, I always want something else. This is why I am here…)
– No, thanks, I’m fine. I will tell you if I want something.
– Please, let me know if something is wrong. I’ll do everything I can in order to make you feel like in paradise here, – he says it with such a feeling that I want to ease and assure him I am not fussy and do not need much. – What would you like for your dinner? I am sorry, but tonight I cannot buy any meat, only tomorrow.
– I will be quite happy with any veges, only not hot… Please, please – not hot! – I still remember the delights of Indian cuisine in Deli, when I did not feel my own tongue for a whole hour after a meal, this is why it is vitally important to explain this Hindu that I need absolutely mild food.
It is not easy to explain to an Indian cook that your food needs to be mild. The phrase “not spicy” can be interpreted as “without spices or seasoning”, and Indian cuisine without spices is like a wedding without a bride. The phrase “not too hot” can be understood as “cooled”, and cold food will not make your stomach happy. The crown of the whole situation with explanations will be a happy face of a cook, who has finally understood you, but better do not forget that the phrase “not too hot” means for an Indian food capable of burning all your intestines.
Shafi nodded knowingly:
– I understand, mild… All foreigners ask it, this is why please do not worry – here everybody is pleased with the meals. My mother is a very good cook.
– well, and something sweet with that herbal tea that I had in the room, please.
– This tea is special – Kashmir tea. Did you like it?
– Yes, what is it made of?
He told me a number of names, meaningless to me.
– Can I buy it in a store?
– Gosh, no! What they have in a store is mass produced tea. For our tea my sisters pick up the herbs in the mountains. And only girls that have not been married can do it, otherwise the tea will not taste so good.
– Why only unmarried?
(Ahh… here if you are not married – means a virgin, I understand…)
– Because they are still innocent.
– Well, yes, of course…, – I cannot be sincere in these situations, and agree stupidly, smile, but actually I feel sick both from his silly morals and my dumb manners. But I cannot stop this conversation, I am already involved in the friendly foul chatter. – Have you got a big family?
– Yes four blood brothers and three blood sisters and lots of cousins! And also nephews! Ma’am, soon one of my cousins will have his wedding, my family would be happy to invite you.
To see an Indian wedding… well, I like this idea, though I do not imagine even close what it is to be like. Maybe, I have a vague idea from the movies, however I understand now that Indian cinema is a mirror reflection of Indian life, based on the polar opposite principal. Camera-obsqura!
– If I am still here at that time, I will definitely come.
– Does it not depend on you if you are going to be here or not?
Exactly like my mum, she has always annoyed me with questions of this nature. No way could she not understand that I had no idea what time I would be returning from yet another party – how could I know when this wish to leave would appear? Maybe, in five minutes, but maybe I will meet there a passionate boy and would want to disappear with him for a week or two? How can it be planned? I always felt sick from this approach towards life that she tried to impose on me. She wanted me to do everything the same as she did, and if I decided to be back home at nine, then I must be back at the latest by ten. On top of that if you promise somebody (especially – her) to be back at nine, then whatever happens, even if Shiva emerges in front of you in all the incarnations, – you have to comply with your promise to her… “Say sorry and do what you have promised…” That was what she wanted my life to be like, but, like hell – she won’t catch me now!
– If I am going to be here or anywhere – depends only on my wish, but how do I know what my wishes depend on?
He paused, as he did not expect to hear from me something thoughtful in reply to such a simple question. Tourists are rarely thoughtful here, maybe only when they have indigestion. For some time he is silent, apparently being polite to my deep thoughts, then he changes conversation and invites me closer to the water, where there are armchairs.
He introduced Alan as his brother… Alan does not look like a Hindu, in spite of the dark skin and dark hair. I feel like having a slight and easy-going flirtation. I look more attentively – no… a fleeting disappointment, he is not my taste. Also I do not imagine a Hindu as a possible lover…
It is pleasant, that, from the look of it, both Shafi and his brother, whom I perceive only in the corner of my mind, while mechanically shaking his hand and passing off his greeting, they realize – the less they interfere with my thoughts and whims, the longer I stay here.
I stand motionless, listening to my feelings, and a feeling of tranquil languor emerges as if from nowhere, when you are in a dreamy mood of doing and saying nothing. At the same time this is not laziness or apathy, but something completely opposite. This serenity is amazing – it is active, but the activity is from within, it expresses itself as the whirls of consistency of life experiences, like the saturation of perceptions with fragrances and harmonic sounds. It cannot be measured or worded, but I clearly feel this dense flow of serenity that is as if blending with its dark streams of the lake under my feet and capturing me and my dream with the vision of the temple and all the mixture of my first hectic impressions of India. It is amazing when all the fuss of the outside world is surfacing on an invisible sphere, and inside this sphere I live my life – there is an affectionate sun within, joy and anticipation, and the soft-blue high space is penetrated with the subtlest iridescent golden threads. If it could be always like this… If I could hold onto this feeling always… but this is impossible, it is impossible… life – is a succession of the hollow and of the deep, where can I find more of this depth? Well, definitely not chattering with Shafi and his brother…
– You are not afraid of travelling on your own? – Alan’s voice is deep and pleasant.
– No, in general I am not often afraid of anything.
– Are all European girls like that?
– I do not know… it must be no. No, usually girls are interesting in things that do not require bravery.
– And what interests you?
– I do not know. I am seeking out something I cannot give a name to so far.
– I see. Spiritual search… Are you a Buddhist? – this question made me laugh. Why do people always bring everything down to something trivial, even if you openly say that nothing simple attracts you?
– No, I am not religious. And you? – why do I ask, I know in advance the conversation with this person will not be interesting.
Due to my intensive experience of communication with people for the last year I now can often judge just by one or two phrases how interesting for me this person is that I am talking to… Or is it again my self-confidence?
– I am a Muslim. (And what should it mean by his opinion? Though, what sort of the question, same sort of the answer…)
Jammu and Kashmir is a Muslim state. A big religious holiday takes place tomorrow. There is an island on this lake, and the main Muslim mosque is there, and tomorrow there will many people. They will sing and pray from early morning, and when it becomes dark, all over the lake there will be candles, it is very beautiful. Did you arrive today? There are many adorable places in the mountains, you can hire a horse…
– Wow, great! I like it.
– Shafi will take you there when you like.
– I have no doubts… – ok, this was advertising :)
– Oh, here is my Japanese friend!
I have not even noticed a boat to approach our berth. In a second a young smiling Japanese is getting out of it – well, now I will have a chance to practice my Japanese a little, until this moment it existed for me only on the pages of the teaching guide.
– Konbanwa! – I immediately shot out.
– Wow! – the Japanese exclaimed happily and laughed – Konbanwa!
– Ikaga des ka?
– Ganki des. Anata wa?
I shrugged my shoulders. He gave me his hand:
– Boku wa hiro des.
From his fluent Japanese I manage to recognize only some words, but it is enough for me to catch what he says. My answers are primitive, of course, but it allows me to feel proud with my erudition. With a corner of my eye I scan his body, undressing him in my mind, and sure I am, he feels it!
With apparent admiration Alan watches us talking. Our conversation is constructed of the easiest phrases, like “where are you from”, “how old are you?”, “who are you travelling with?”, “do you like India?”, but for a person, who does not speak Japanese at all, it looks very impressive. Long time ago I discovered this easy technique, allowing me to take off a look of significance from a person and reveal him as a trivial hunter for being an authority and producing an impression. Just say a few phrases in different languages, preferably rare languages, and usually the eyes of the person you talking to, light up with interest and even respect. Such people immediately become of no interest to me, most often they are helpless and infantile. Of course, I can be blamed for making too many quick conclusions, but this is not a conclusion, but a signal, a peculiar piece if litmus test paper, and speaking honestly – will anybody look for interesting communication with somebody with eyes that light up at the sight of the golden sieve? More than likely not.
Cold… cold, cold, cold. It is all wrong. It is not what I wanted, and what I made this trip for. Arrived at Kashmir… idiot… beautiful… yes, it is beautiful, only this beauty has a bit of an odour. This is not what I have left my job for – to rock in this barge in the middle of this colourful puddle. The thorn stings me everywhere and at once.
Shafi calls me to have a meal, and I leave without revealing that I am not good in Japanese at all. I wiggle my backside, being sure that interested eyes are following me.
There are shiny clean pots with food on a large wooden table. Everything is so tasty… delicacies for a vegetarian. From time to time Shafi looks in to see if I finished eating. (All is OK, Shafi, don’t be a pain, I will call you when I finish chewing, don’t disturb the little ma’am)… Whew, this is all, now dessert time… Shafi ceremonially brings in a small shiny dish on a tray, which must have the dessert according to my expectations. He proudly puts it in front of me and announces that This is a special Kashmir dessert. How surprised I was when I discovered it was just simple thick semolina porridge! I turn back to Shafi, who obviously was waiting for a more emotional expression of admiration with this dish.
– But this is semolina porridge!
– Yes, ma’am, semolina porridge, Kashmir national dessert.
– In Russia this is an everyday breakfast for children, – I don’t to want to upset him and decide not to tell about the attitude of Russian children to this dessert.
– Great! This dessert will remind you of your motherland!
I absolutely do not want to eat the semolina porridge, as well as I do not want to hurt the hospitable Shafi. For some time I pause in my confusion, but still decide to tell him what I think.
– Shafi, of course I don’t want to upset you, but this dessert is not for me. I had it so often in my childhood, I have had enough of it.
– I am so sorry ma’am, if I knew before…
– Don’t be sorry, how could you know that I do not like it?
– What can I do for you?
(Hope after this question you will not turn away to the wall and fall asleep…)
– Do you have any biscuits?
– Oh yes, I do, I’ll bring it now.
Well, thank you God, the meeting of the civilizations came to a happy end.
I do not feel sleepy and decide to go and chat with Hiro and Alan. I want some more impressions. (What a flat-out lie? – I want many, lots of impressions!)
The chill from the lake and the surrounding mountains, invisible because of the darkness, became stronger. All are bundled up in the blankets, sitting on the jetty and talking about nothing… I cannot get used to the idea that tomorrow I do not have to hurry, that I can go to bed when I want, because tomorrow I can sleep as long as I like… And not only tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and in a week from now, and in a month. Uncertainty is ahead of me, I am even ready to stay in India for ever, and this uncertainty fills me with a happy anticipation, because at any moment something can happen, something that will turn all my vision of the world upside down. I am waiting for it.