Zoji La

Any closet novelists, short story writers, script-writers or prose poets out there?

Zoji La

Postby 1lankest » Mon Aug 06, 2018 9:55 am

Don't forget,’ the Frenchman had said. ‘It is essential you go by bus. It takes two days to Leh from Srinagar. You will be tempted to fly there. Don't. I have been down the Amazon; I have walked across the Kalahari; I once spent five weeks in the Sahara...and they are nothing to those two days going up to Srinagar to Leh…Find a patron saint and pray to him; don't look too closely at the road or you'll faint or be sick….’ From A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey.

Everything is tortured here, not just the passengers:
The mountains, whose ochres, purples and silvers have contorted grotesquely under millennia of nature’s shifting forces; predominantly snow and wind. There are faces in every promontory, drafted and redrafted in the changing light, each as expressive as the last, each as confounded. Donald Trump appeared in one. My own portrait, rather ominously, in another.
The glaciers, sun-shrunk, gently weeping under the feet and hooves of herdsmen and their flocks who traverse the ice using nothing but ropes of yarn, as if to say: you are deep, glacier, and strong, but we run just as deep here, round these parts.
The road, harassed at first through Kashmir by endless buses (ours being perhaps the most antiquated, our driver the drowsiest), military convoys that foster in their stinking diesel plumes the fumes of terror, war and oppression. Through Ladakh, after Kargil (a Shia Muslim enclave on the western border of Ladakh), the soldiers dissipate along with the tundra grasslands and the road widens, able to breathe at last the impossible air of this high, dry place, the second highest inhabited on earth.
Even the rivers labour under the weight of such tormented majesty; their viscid, chalky waters gurgle and spit through countless valleys. They surge, as if trying to outrun them.

As the landscape changes from alpine to tundra into desert so the people change, their faces as well as customs and beliefs. It follows that the pastures and wildflower meadows of Kashmir, so abundant in colour and life, should be home to a people whose faith is in one god who suffuses all with benevolence and equal fury. There is both in Kashmir:
We decided to take a day’s break from the road to stretch our legs in the hills above Sonamarg where the landscape is reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, the main differences here being the presence of nomads who summer on the high pastures, as well as checkpoints manned by heavily armed Indian soldiers who are posted here ostensibly to police the North West frontier and the militant Kashmiri separatists, some of whom had, three days earlier, killed seven Amarnath pilgrims near the bleak garrison town in the valley below us.
At one check point it became clear that Tariq, our Shia guide, had the wrong documentation (later, from what I could gather, he insisted he had the same pass as usual and the soldiers’ reaction derived from their anger and paranoia surrounding the recent attacks on fellow Hindus). As such we were forced at gunpoint to empty the contents of our day sacks onto the lush green sward, and to kneel. Tariq bore the brunt of the search: at him they barked in Hindi orders and insults until he simultaneously wet and soiled himself, then sobbed. Only when, choreographed by the soldiers and to their hearty amusement, he had walked on all fours in a large circle, panting like a dog, were they satisfied and we were allowed to continue. Other than shock Tariq’s prevailing emotion was shame; he thought he had failed in his duty of hospitality to us. I could say nothing to reassure him since his English wasn’t up to much and my Kashmiri is non existent. My quivering hand on his shoulder, however, seemed to communicate something of our sympathy and affection. It took thirty minutes of silent trudging through an airy forest of giant Himalayan cherry trees for him to lift his eyes and speak again. What he said was unintelligible.
We spent the night with Tariq and his family in their small adobe house. They gave up their beds (surprisingly comfortable nests of duvets and sheets arranged on the hard mud floor) and offered us paneer curry with roti (quite superb), all cooked in a mud oven. Tariq rose intermittently throughout the night to pray, audibly, in the adjacent room. My own nocturnal ritual, which I conducted three times on account of the gallon of delicious Kashmiri tea I had downed, was of a less auspicious kind. It was completely dark and I can only hope my aim, which targeted the spectral strip of window, was true.
I was sad to leave Tariq. After a breakfast of sweet black chai and buttered roti, and having signed his unexpected visitors book, sharing page-space with travelers from North Korea and Belgium, we hugged and I told him I had never experienced such warm hospitality, at which point he immediately broke down, possibly recalling with horror his tearful lament to me the previous day under the cherry trees.

The twelve hour drive from Sonamarg to Leh, during which time we stopped only once, was almost indescribable. I have done my best here in a short poem, drafted during the journey:

Only desert, mud-brick,
the high road hewn from batholith; goats.
The Zanskar below, exhausted by its own endlessness
weighed down by monoliths of shadow
and promontories which, around every turn
exceed themselves,
where words shrink as they're uttered
into countless grains of dust
and drift on the breeze.
If I had one thought it would be
of the wildflowers that burst
inexplicably from cracks in the road;
how they would move you.

It is perhaps no coincidence, too, that a Buddhist philosophy prevails in Ladakh, our destination, despite the subjugating influence of its powerful Muslim neighbours, in a landscape so vast and so empty it almost negates thought entirely. Even now, writing this from my guesthouse bed looking out across the mountains and upon Leh Palace, itself caparisoned in the starkest sunlight I have seen, words stumble clumsily from my fingers.
It’s as though the desert, featureless as it is, save the rocks and ravines, the purple shadows, unifies all and subsumes it; only the lush green valley in which Leh sits, its silvery poplars and golden barley fields, the prayer flags somnolently articulating breeze, serve to disrupt the homogeneity of this unfathomable world of stone, snow and light. Yes, it is true to say I am becalmed, if not enlightened, by the totalitarian emptiness of it, the isness of a place where it is impossible to select this stream or that summit, impossible to objectify the picture-perfect constituents of the whole, but to succumb to the whole itself, and to be in it, amongst it.
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