It was the boatman’s excited suggestion, whilst on our sunset shikara ride on the Nigeen lake (Read: Kashmir #2: A golden sunset on the Nigeen). Perhaps he was used to witnessing such photography freaks frequently, those that quite literally start jumping all around at the mere mention of something as promising. For he didn’t chuckle. Not even when I started squealing out my unbridled glee. His suggestion: if photography was what I sought, it was the floating market we were looking for.
My thoughts immediately went to those geography lessons in school where I’d read about such a market in utmost fascination. The boatman mock-threatened us. He’d pick us up. Sharp at 4 in the morning!
One look at my guy – I knew we were doing it. The prospect of waking up at that early hour can be daunting. But when a shikara ride in the dark on still black waters is the reward, do you really have a choice?
An early lights-out was our only hope. My excitement ensured that I barely slept, and was up and about well before 4. After about 15 mins of anxious pacing about the deck, there was the familiar sound of a pair of oars, rowing towards us. As it approached, the sharply-cut face of our boatman shone in the halogen light of a nearby houseboat. Armed with our camera gear, we set out.
I have been on water quite a few times. Each of those experiences always stirred up something inside me. But I had till date never quite experienced something like this.
Pitch black darkness surrounded me. I felt a resistance in me – a guilt almost – about disturbing the waters. It was as if the lake was sleeping. The oars would stir it from its slumber. Fighting these thoughts, we set off. With that first strike of the oar against the waters, I felt easy. With each passing moment, as the distance between that only halogen light for kilometers and our shikara grew, and the darkness enveloped us, I felt like I became one with the lake.
I will be honest, I had wondered if I’d be scared. Out on a boat in the dark on a lake in Kashmir. I frankly did not know what to expect. Crossing over into the Dal lake from the Nigeen lake, under a bridge, I could barely locate the boatman himself, had it not been for the sound of the oars lapping against the still black waters gently. Silently. As if they were afraid to stir the darkness. Its sanctity. Mountains – vague black shapes – loomed in the distance.
We made our way through what we knew were those same lotus and lily floating farms. Eerily close to long watery stems that went down to the depths of the lake.
About 45 mins later, we seemed to be approaching a cluster of houses. Twinkling yellow lights from wooden cottages, on the waters. We moved past them, towards a low bridge.
Suddenly our boatman banked. We were there. Dark skies still.
We alighted, onto the bridge.
At the far end of the bridge, a halogen street light washed the road leading away into a lake-side village with a diffused yellow light.
Mystical was the place. As I peered over the other side of the bridge, my eyes found what they were looking for. Slender boats, at haphazard angles, floated dangerously close to other. Each loaded with long bottle gourds, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, flowers, lotuses, and so much else.
I gazed into the gathering. Two things struck me.
The sheer noiselessness. A market where no one was shouting out their wares. And yet business was on in full swing.
And the deftness with which the boatmen maneuvered their slender boats. It laid to shame the traffic snarls in the city.
They worked in ingenious ways. A wholesale floating market for vegetables, fruits and flowers, hawker-ed and bought, and loaded onto autos to be distributed in the city of Srinagar over the day. People from nearby villages and cottages too came to avail of the wholesale prices. The humility in those faces was warming.
I was exuberant. Scared I might run out of time to click.
The golden hour was almost upon us. I watched as the darkness faded and light exploded through – gently – as I stood atop the bridge.
Time for us to turn back.