It all happened in the summer of 2011 on a rather spontaneously planned trip with friends to the valley of Kashmir. The plains were simmering under the fierce summer heat of June and the promise of some relief in mother natures lap tempted all of us to hit the deck. Raja, Dabbu and I, had a ‘Dil Chahata Hai’ type trip in mind. Inspired by beautiful descriptions of this paradise on Earth heard over the years, we decided to explore Kashmir in right earnest . We wanted to enjoy everything Kashmir offered particularly its great landscape and the authentic Kashmiri food. Our first halt was at a military base in Udhampur that offered some fine hospitality topped with free flowing scotch. Next morning we left for Srinagar and reached ‘Peera’ by lunch time. It’s a small town on Jammu- Srinagar highway and was suggested to us by our hosts last night to relish mouth watering Razama- Chawal. Laced with dollops of desi ghee, this was really a treat to have. In fact realising that we would not be doing the return journey on this route, we over ate and happily too. The entry into the Kashmir valley after passing through Khooni Darra, was an amazing experience. The Kashmir valley is one of the biggest valley I have seen and one can speed more than 100 Kmph for a considerable stretch before you reach Srinagar ! With paddy green fields on both sides of NH 1A, I can vouch that Jahangir was a true connoisseur of beauty ! Kashmir is unbelievably beautiful. It’s bliss. I can also say that the entire world populace can be broadly classified into two categories, first those who have seen the Kashmir and second, those who have not! Reaching Srinagar by evening, we were now in the first lucky lot.
The real action started here in the valley. One of our friends, Raja, is really fond of non-vegetarian food. He had been on many trips with me and was apparently physically fitter than the most. He loves to play, see places, enjoy life and if time still is there, to teach his students. A ‘Raja’ in true sense of terms. Right from the start of journey, he had fixed his priorities and had stock full of booze as well. The previous night ably led by Raja, we had enjoyed drinks and food at the officers’ mess and now as soon as we checked into our hotel at Srinagar, Raja started to enjoy the evening in right spirit(read high spirits, pun intended). Though none of us is a saint, he perhaps had a little too much of the sparkling liquids. Once full, Raja decided to lead us from front and we moved out on to Dal facing main road in Srinagar in search for authentic Kashmiri food. Nestled in the arms of Himalayas, Kashmir is heaven especially during summers and many tourists, besides us, knew this and when Indian tourists decide to see a place en mass, it’s a scene to watch ! At 10:00 pm at night, in insurgency hit Kashmir, there was a queue at a famous restaurant and a mandatory waiting period of more than 30 minutes ! We could not believe this actually. After waiting for some time we decided to get our Kashmiri food packed. Raja agreed to this offer as he could have some more scotch in the room with Gushtaba and Rogan Josh with Kashmiri pulao. We came back to our rooms. The food was soul stirringly delicious, Gustava in particular. We still can’t forget the fragrance of spices used in the food. Raja too had it all and then we retired to bed.
Next morning our dear friend Raja was little uncomfortable. He had a little too many visits to the lavatory. Then he emptied few sachets of time tested Eno to tide over this mini crisis linked perhaps to over eating and somewhat over drinking. We still got readied ourselves for our trip to Gulmarg and for the first time on our food-fueled journey, had a ‘light’ breakfast. The 52 kms trip to Gulmarg was characterized by great views along the way. This popular skiing resort at an elevation of around 9000 feet was a favorite of Jahangir too. But Raja, fatigued by the road journey, had started to feel nausea. The gain in heights was also creating problems for him. We reached at the base of snow covered hills and though there was again a huge queue, we decided to go on board the second highest Gondola rope way in the world. We reached at the top and were mesmerized by the breathtaking views of snow covered hills. It was more beautiful and alluring than shown in recently released movie, Haider. Here while Dabbu, realizing the steep snowy ascent decided not to move up the snowed hills, I moved on to take some pictures. It was a tough trek. Drawing upon all the available oxygen in air, I over pushed myself to reach the top and behold the surreal majesty of the Great Himalayan Range. To my utter surprise I found Raja trailing behind me, as he too wanted to take some pictures with snow in the backdrop. Raja was panting though. We took some pictures. But Raja could not pull it off for long and decided to beat an early retreat. I got some pictures clicked and walked down carefully. When I reached down to the base, Raja was having some bad nausea and an upset stomach. We waited for him to recover a bit and started moving back to Srinagar. We were a little worried by now as we had spent just two nights in J&K and as per original plan had almost a week more for Kashmir and Leh.
On reaching back to our hotel in Srinagar, Raja immediately dashed to his medicine bag and, in true Indian self medication style, popped in as many medicines as he could. He flung himself into the bed and pulled over a blanket, covering himself up to his head with just a little peep in window to get fresh breath. Dabbu and I too retired for some rest after tea. By late evening, I was ready to roll again and so was Dabbu. He had probably started catching a cold but was still fit enough to see the markets and go out for dinner. Raja however was still asleep. We nudged him. He moved a bit and said he wasn’t feeling well enough take food let alone a walk beside the Dal Lake. We felt a little worried but did not want to miss the evening stroll or the dinner. Raja too had not eaten anything since morning. We knew that his stomach was upset and the rarity of oxygen at these heights was taking a toll on him.
As a middle path, we asked him what he’d like to have for diner, which could then be brought to the room. He just murmured to us that may be, we could get him some “light food” as he was not feeling well. The next question from us was” which light dishes will you like to have?” The options possible were like Daal- Chawal type or may be some fruits. We also suggested out of our sincerity that he could have some bread so that his stomach may get some rest. Raja listened to us patiently with his blanket still on up to his face. He repeated his suggestion of some “light food” again. He did not disclose any cuisine or specific preferences still. We were little perplexed. Dabbu and I were putting up some conjectures, but none clicked. Now much exasperated, we just asked him to specify. He now murmured something which we could not believe. Shocked, we pushed him to repeat. He repeated, “kuch light sa non veg!”. What ? Light sa non veg for dinner for on the bed Raja? We were shocked. It was the most unexpected request from a person lying in the bed and who had had more visits to the loo by now than to the panoramic views of the Dal lake ! This man was down and out for a considerable period of time and was having fever since morning and had gulped sachets altogether of all flavors of Eno and a dozen different medicines with lightning frequency and now “light sa non veg?” Can Non Vegetarian food be light? We had known our friend for no less than 22 years. But my God, kuch light sa non veg in these conditions and for him! Phew! After few seconds we all started laughing but my friend in bed was not in a position to even laugh freely lest he might get spasms and the resultant visit to the lavatory again. He just smiled faintly and closed his eyes. Dabbu and I were aghast and left the room with a sense of piquant bemusement.
We strolled in the market and kept on discussing his choices for “light sa non veg!”. After strolling besides Dal Lake for a while, we reached a decent looking restaurant. We asked the man at the counter, to suggest some ‘light’ non veg options they had at the restaurant ?” He saw us top to down and with a smile. He said, “Are you serious?” We realized pretty quickly that we were looking funny with our demands. Now I took charge and decided to call a spade a spade. I asked him to pack up whatever best non veg he had. In no time he packed Gushtaba and Rogan josh and murg mussallam. We paid the bill and came back to the room. Raja was still there in bed. We announced our arrival and asked him to join at the table for dinner. He nodded but asked if he could be given his light non veg at bed itself. We complied. He checked the recipes and without uttering a word, polished off a decent amount of non veg food but not before washing it all down with a patiala peg of scotch. Dabbu and I were shocked even more. We looked at the whole sequence of affairs with bewilderment and having no clues about what was happening, retired to bed.
Next morning, we had to proceed to Kargil en route to Leh. Raja was in some trouble but he seemed to amble along with slight effort. That was a little unexpected but something that gave us significant relief and a sense of puzzled wonder. Either the medicines or last nights dishes were working some incomprehensible magic. Our wonderment however lasted only so long. As the journey progressed, we realised that Raja had bitten more than he could chew! Our next few days therefore were spent in clinics and hospitals in the remotest Himalyan reaches including the war famous Kargil ! He was treated by all including some very beautiful Kashmiri lady doctors. Their treatment perhaps alleviated his agony. Though he never complained, in that short period of acute ailing, his bum-injection-count rose exponentially enough to beat his life time tally. He even got hospitalized for high altitude sickness, first in Kargil and then in the tourist ward of Sonum Norbu Memorial Hospital at Leh! We eventually had to plan and execute an entire rescue operation to get Raja’s health back on track but that is a story for another time. This was an unique experience altogether but was certainly enjoyable in the hindsight! Raja’s die hard love for “kuch light sa non vegetarian food” eventually made our visit more memorable than we could have ever planned ! I would like to know, if you have ever encountered a similar uncontrollable urge to satisfy your palate against all odds and if yes, how has that really turned out for you?