We were an hour into a sixteen-hour shared taxi ride from Leh to Srinagar in the upper reaches of India. Whenever the driver swung the vehicle to the right, he popped his head out of his window. If any of the cars ahead were slow to get out of the way, he slammed the horn and cursed. And if he had something to say to his teenaged friend sitting beside him, he would watch his friend, not the road, as he spoke.
“It’s less scary if you look out the side window,” I told Rita.She appeared tense, her arms sticking to her sides.
“He’s fucking crazy,” Alec, sitting on the other side of Rita, muttered. Through the rear-view mirror, I noticed the driver glance at Alec. He sped up and overtook a car just as a truck screamed past us from the other side, and smiled, satisfied.He hadn’t spoken a word to us since we hit the road, preferring to talk to his friend in Kashmiri, a language I didn’t understand. I wondered if he’d be more sensitive about our fear if I made conversation with him.
“Are you from Srinagar?” I asked him in Hindi when we made eye contact through the mirror.
“Yes. Where are you from?”
“Chennai,” I said, leaning in.He seemed to be in his early thirties, a few years older than Rita, Alec and I. We were all strangers to each other.
“All the way from Chennai, huh? Have you been to Srinagar before?”
He nodded, and scratched his stubble.I scratched my beard as well, as if that would establish kinship.
“Where are you staying in Srinagar?” he asked.
“I need to look for a guesthouse once we get there.”
“You should come stay with me and my family then,” he said.
“I’m serious. You haven’t booked a room, right?”
I felt an immediate discomfort. His gaze didn’t waver as he waited for my response. I leaned back.“No, I’ll look for a room when we get there…”I let my response trail and focused on the Himalayan setting outside lit by the evening sun.
“As you wish,” he said, and overtook another vehicle that he deemed too slow.
Alec’s sigh filled the car.
I felt Rita’s shoulder brush against mine. “Do you know sign language?” she whispered.I figured she wanted to tell me something, but didn’t want the driver and his friend to overhear.
“I don’t,” I whispered back to her. “But…”
I took my phone out, and typed You can write a message here.
He is staring at me she typed and passed the phone back to me.
I looked at the rear-view mirror and saw him watching her. He looked away occasionally when he had to make a turn, but that offered only a brief respite. He made no attempt to disguise his intention.He ogled and inspected her, undeterred by Rita’s angry looks back at him.How long had he been staring at her, and why hadn’t I spotted it?
Would it help if we switched seats? I typed.
I’m going to sit in the back she typed.
There were two bench seats in the back facing each other, but they were taken over by our backpacks, and bags of vegetables that our driver had bought from a family of vegetable sellers on the way.
Will make it happen when we stop next I typed.
She covered her long, blonde hair with her scarf,and kept her eyes trained on the seat upholstery in front of us. I leaned in to try and block his view of her, and my sudden exaggerated movement threw him off.The chatter between him and his friend had tapered out a while ago, and we were all aware of the tense silence in the car. He turned on the stereo, and raised the volume till the music was painfully loud. His eyes then rested on her again.
“What are you doing?” the driver yelled, as he walked back to the taxi with a cup of chai in his hand. We had stopped near a tea stall, and as soon as the driver and his friend had left the taxi, I started to move around the stuff in the back.
“Oy, they’ll get crushed!” he said as I threw a backpack on top of his vegetables.He made me move to the side and inspected them. “We can tie the bags up top when we need to sleep,” he said, referring to the break that overnight drivers were expected to take.“There is no room here.”
“We will make room,” I said, looking him in the eye. He held my stare as if challenging me to prove my statement. I picked up another bag and threw it on the vegetables.He downed his chai and, fearful for his vegetables, began to assist. Once we had made room for Rita, he walked away shouting something in Kashmiri to his friend.
“Are you okay?” I asked Rita as she got in.
“Sometimes I wish I was a guy,”she said, her eyes watering.She closed the door as I tried to find the right response.
Right before the sun fell, the sky turned an incredible pink, framed by mountains and a small stream. This would have been my cue to reach for my camera, but I wanted to maintain the status quo in the car: the driver could see only the scarf covering Rita’s hair, Rita couldn’t see the driver, and we were closer to our destination every second we were in motion.
“Stop the car,” Alec said. “I want to take a photo.”
The car ground to a halt on a gravely path off the main road. “I got some good shots,”Alec said as he got back in, and we continued on our way.It didn’t make sense that an act so normal had just occurred. Was Alec clueless to what was going on? Would I have been just as clueless had Rita not told me?
I turned to look at her. She had a book in her hand, but she wasn’t reading. Her eyes were closed.
“Turn down the music,” Alec told the driver’s friend. It was late, and he wanted to sleep. The boy’s hand moved towards the volume knob, but he quickly withdrew when the driver muttered something to him.
“I said, turn it down!”
The boy pretended like he didn’t hear. So Alec leaned over and turned it down himself. The driver waited for him to settle back in his seat and raised the volume back up. I turned towards Alec to offer support, but he had slumped the other way, defeated, his head against the window.
A few minutes past midnight, the driver pulled the car over to the side of the road. “Time to sleep!” he yelled, waking up Alec. The driver threw open the trunk door. Rita hung back in her seat as he picked up our backpacks and yelled at his friend to put them on the luggage carrier on top. He then directed his friend to sleep in the front, and took the now vacant seat across from Rita.His attempts to get close to her continued to shock me; at a checkpoint where the foreigners were asked to get out and show their documents, he had stood right behind her, breathing down the back of her neck.
“Shit.Take my seat, Rita,” I said. She moved wordlessly to the middle row, and I stretched my legs beside the driver who had curled up like a ball.We were all in the strange position of hoping that he’d get a couple of hours of sleep; in our present situation, a well-rested creep was favorable to a drowsy one.The path ahead was through the snowy Zoji La, a road pass that our driver had claimed was “most dangerous”.
I put my nose against the back window and felt the chill of the night.It was pitch dark outside, with not even the moon to shine a light. I looked at the starry sky, a sight that reminded me of the going away party my friends had thrown for me at a campsite in Big Sur. That night, long after everyone else was asleep, I had stared at the stars, jobless by choice, excited to head back to India, to travel, write and photograph in the country that I grew up in.
I turned to see if Alec or Rita were looking at the sky as well. Alec was slouched in his seat, probably asleep. Rita was sitting upright, her face hidden from me. At the taxi stand, she had told me that she was looking forward to Srinagar. Her travel book had compared Srinagar’s natural beauty to Germany’s Black Forest, the region that she lived in.I wondered what was going through her mind now. Was she scared? I hoped she wasn’t. I hoped she felt okay. But if I felt nervous—and the driver wasn’t even leering at me—how would she feel okay?
I looked at the man curled up beside me. For a moment, nothing about him felt dangerous, but then he began to stir. “I can’t sleep!” he shouted, and we were hit by a blast of cold air as he opened the trunk door.
His friend moved to the back to continue sleeping, and in a daze I moved to the seat beside Rita.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“He wants to continue driving.”
He smoked one cigarette after another with the windows closed, and drove fast with the music blaring, through roads lit solely by the car’s headlamps. To my right was a snow-covered mountainside, and to my left were the distant lights of a town below, a reminder of the deadly drop that a mistake would cause. I told myself to stay up; maybe I could shake him awake if I noticed him falling asleep.
He changed songs often, not waiting for them to finish. At one point, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s soaring vocals emerged from the speakers. It was a song that a friend of mine had introduced me to in college, a memory that now felt like it belonged to a different life.
Duma dum mast qalandar sang Nusrat, and I nodded off to sleep.
We were a few kilometers from Srinagar when I woke up.Our driver was on the phone,talking in Hindi with a joyous smile on his face.
“So I hear it’s someone’s birthday today,” he said in a sweet voice, and laughed at the response. “It’s your birthday? Well, I must get you a gift, no?” He laughed again. “Ask me anything. I’ll get it for you… Oh, you want the gift to be a surprise. Hmmm, okay, it will be a surprise!”
Soon after he hung up, he received another call. This time he spoke in Kashmiri. I turned to Rita. Strands of her hair peeked out from beneath her scarf. Her face was pale, and her eyes were puffy.
“Did you get some sleep?” I asked.
“A little,” she said.
Alec was in good spirits. “We’re almost there,” he said with a smile.
A motorbike pulled up alongside our taxi, and our driver rolled down his window to talk to the biker.I figured the biker was asking for directions, but a couple of minutes later the taxi came to a stop, and the biker parked in front.He walked up to our car, and stuck his head in.
“Welcome to beautiful Kashmir,” he said with a smile and a put-on accent. “Want a room?”
“No, we don’t,” I said, and asked Rita and Alec to get out of the car. An auto-rickshaw was waiting by our taxi as well; our driver must have notified a network of people looking to make money off tourists.
“Would you like a room?” the man asked Rita.“Guesthouse, hotel, houseboat, anything you want.” She shook her head, and walked away from him.
“What does the white lady want?” he asked me in Hindi, his tone instantly switching from welcoming to menacing.
“I don’t know,” I replied.I asked Rita and Alec to take their backpacks. The driver was on top of the vehicle, struggling to loosen the knots he had tied. He finally gave up and burned through the ropes with his cigarette lighter.
“Don’t lie,” the man said, standing right in front of me.He wore a red cap, a fake Nike t-shirt, and track pants.He looked like an athlete in training. I made eye contact with him, and then looked away, disgusted. “Do you know the white lady?” he asked.
The driver tossed down my backpack, and I bent to pick it up. “Why do you keep going behind her, huh?” The man was in my ear again.“You know what will happen if you mess around with a white lady? Seven years in jail. Leave her and get lost. If you don’t, things will get really bad for you.”
I heard his threat loud and clear, but I was too focused on getting us to safety for fear to overwhelm me. The man went back to Rita, and I got hold of Alec.
“These men are dangerous. I need you to do as I tell you, please,” I said.
“Do you have a Lonely Planet guide?”
“Look up a hotel. And get your backpack into that auto. We don’t leave this place without Rita.”
I walked in between the man and Rita, and she followed Alec into the auto.“We don’t need a room,” I said, as he stared angrily at me. Another taxi drove by then and parked in front of ours. The man smelled fresh blood, and looked towards the tourists descending from the other car. I immediately asked the auto driver to share his seat with me, and to start driving.
“Which hotel?” he asked.
I looked at Alec. “Hotel Swiss,” he said, reading from an enormous book he had pulled out of his bag.
I was sick with fear that the biker might follow us. I kept looking back.The Dal Lake, Srinagar’s major attraction, glimmered to my left as the auto drove down Boulevard Road. Boatmen were setting up their shikaras to take visitors on rides around the lake. A row of houseboats sat moored on the other end. An array of green mountains was visible in the distance. On another day, these sights may have impressed me.
At the hotel, we got rooms next to each other. Alec dropped his bag and left immediately to register for a religious pilgrimage.“Get some sleep and meet up in the afternoon?” I asked Rita.Her hand shook as she unlocked her room. She nodded with a weak smile, and shut the door.
I walked in to my room and broke down in tears.
I spent the morning in bed, munching on a leftover yak cheese sandwich I found in my bag. I tried to nap, but I wasn’t able to; images from the taxi ride kept popping up in my head. I turned on the TV and watched music videos to calm my nerves. I walked over to the window a couple of times to see if the man on the bike had followed us to our hotel. What if the auto driver had ratted out our location? Think rationally, I told myself. They don’t care about us anymore.
I left my room eventually, and knocked on Rita’s door.
“Hey, I’m going out for some chai. Want to join?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling. She looked well rested, and upbeat even. “I actually need to pick up some food to take-away. I’ve decided to head back to Leh tomorrow.”
“I met another German woman, Susanne, at the hotel. She’s been here for a few days, and is taking a taxi to Leh tomorrow morning.”
“So you’re traveling back with her?”
“Yeah. It’s because… well, last night… this morning—”
We walked out of the hotel and down Old Gagribal Road. We came across a group of men talking by a storefront.They grew quiet when they saw us. I stiffened, extremely aware of every glance they threw in the direction of Rita. Some of them didn’t take their eyes off her, others looked at me with a curious smile.I walked quicker, and Rita kept pace.We came to an intersection and immediately took a right. There were more stores here, and more men. I was hypersensitive to their presence, their every action.A middle-aged man sitting outside a store selling Kashmiri rugs scratched at his chin as he looked at us. Another narrowed his eyes. One young man leaned against a pillar and calmly watched us walk past him.
“Grab food here?” I asked Rita at the sight of the first restaurant. I didn’t even wait for her response before walking right in. As she ordered food, I looked around to see if the other patrons were looking at us.
“What are your plans for the rest of the day?” she asked, tracing a pattern with a droplet of water on the table.
“I might just rest, you know?”
“What about you?” I asked.
“No plans this afternoon, but Susanne and I are meeting for dinner tonight. Would you like to join us?”
“Sure,” I said, even though I wished she hadn’t invited me. I did not want to witness any more leering. I did not want to feel worried about our safety.
We left the restaurant with her packed up food, and took the Boulevard Road route back to the hotel.
“Hey, we forgot your chai,” Rita said. “Let’s stop somewhere for that?”
“No, no, it’s fine.”
“Sure?” I heard a voice behind me say. It belonged to an old man. He touched his scraggly white beard as he looked at Rita. “Good, good,” he said. She walked faster, and he walked just as quickly after her. “Get away,” I said, and got in between him and her. We were in full view of other men and women on the street, but that didn’t bother him. None of the men and women on the street called him out on his frightening behavior either. “Where you from? England? France? Germany? Looking nice!”
After a minute of pursuit, he gave up.We got back to the hotel without another word between us.
It was evening in Srinagar, the sky a brownish hue. Boulevard Road was noisy and crowded. Earlier in the day, there weren’t many people out, but the weather had cooled and it showed on the streets. Many Indian families strolled in groups, some pausing for photos with the lake as the backdrop.A few people were on their brisk evening walks. Boatmen waved and called out to tourists to ride on their shikaras. Rita, Susanne and I evaded the oncoming pedestrian traffic as we made our way towards a restaurant Susanne recommended.
“Oh, I love Chennai,” Susanne said, when I told her where I was from in India.
“Yes, a few times. My work brings me to India often. This,” she said pointing to her outfit, “was actually gifted to me by my business partner in Delhi.”
She wore a white kurta and draped an embroidered red dupatta around her neck. Her short blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail.
“Have you been to Srinagar before?” I asked Susanne.
She shook her head.
“How do you like it here?” I asked.
A man walking across from us stopped in his tracks and whistled at Rita and Susanne.I immediately walked faster, getting a few steps ahead of Susanne who hadn’t noticed the man or the sound he made. Ritalooked down as she walked beside her.
“Srinagar’s okay,” Susanne said, catching up to me. “Went to the Shankaracharya temple this morning and that was nice. You get a great view of the city from there, and the chance to see this tiny cave that Shankaracharya meditated in. The energy in there is just incredible.”
A boatman started to walk with us then. “Miss!A ride on the lake?”
“No, thanks,” Susanne said with a polite smile and we continued walking. The boatman persisted. “Miss!Lovely Dal Lake, lovely boat!”
“But sir, I have these feet that I really want to use right now,” she said with a laugh.Every time a stranger came close, said anything, or looked at us, my heart beat faster. But Susanne seemed unperturbed.
“What have the two of you been up to?”Susanne asked, ignoring the boatman who continued to pitch his ride. He soon gave up and walked away.
“Not much, I guess,” I said, looking at Rita.
“We walked around a little,” Rita said.
“Well, Rita and I are heading to Leh tomorrow, but what are your plans in Srinagar?” Susanne asked. “Rita told me that you’re working on a photo project.”
“Yeah, I am,” I said, and left it at that.
The sun had set by the time we finished dinner. It was a nice restaurant and the food was good. Rita was smiling again, and I found welcome distraction as the three of us took turns sharing anecdotes from our travels. As we stepped out into the night, I wondered if I had been overly sensitive earlier.Had I misread the looks on the street? I couldn’t have; Rita seemed uncomfortable too. Maybe I needed to develop a thicker skin to ignore the creeps. But what good would that do? On the other hand, my form of protest—an angry frown—didn’t change anything either.
We took Old Gagribal Road on the way back. I hadn’t realized how far we had walked because of our conversation on the way there. We fell silent after we crossed an initial row of shops, and the only sounds were that of footsteps and dogs barking. Street lamps were few and far apart, and there were stretches of darkness. We were half a kilometer from our hotel when Susanne asked if we had seen an ATM nearby.
“There’s one on Boulevard Road. We can take this left and get there,” I said.
“Ah, great. I need to withdraw some cash.”
“We’ll walk with you,” I said.
“No, no, I’ll manage.”
“Are you sure? We don’t mind,” Rita said.
“No, I insist.”
“It’s just right here,” I said, taking a few steps towards Boulevard Road.
“Great. I’ll meet you two back at the hotel then.”
It felt as if our guardian angel had left us. The pace so far had been leisurely, but we upped the speed as we continued our walk back to the hotel. A motorbike passed usand I glanced to see if the man had a red cap on.
“It’s really dark,” Rita said as we hit another stretch of road with no street lamp.
“Do you think we should have gone with her?”
“She wanted to go by herself.”
We were so focused on speed that we overshot our hotel by a few meters, and then hurriedly course-corrected to minimize the time we spent on the dark road.We then waited outside the hotel reception for Susanne to arrive. Fifteen minutes later, we saw her walk in through the gates.
“Well, it was great meeting you,” Susanne said, when I wished her good night. “I’ll let you know if I visit Chennai sometime.”
Rita and I walked up to our floor. “Now that I’m heading back tomorrow morning,” she said,“You can explore Srinagar.”
Yet again, I was stumped for words.She hugged me goodbye, and closed the door behind her. I walked into my room and turned on the TV.
The next day, armed with a list of places to visit, I left the hotel eager to clear my mind with some sightseeing.I took an auto to the Shri Pratap Singh Museum only to find out that it was closed.
“Why is it closed?” I asked the security guard.
“Always closed on Mondays,” he said.“So, where are you visiting from?” He was quick to spot, probably from my Hindi accent, that I was not from the north.
“All the way from Chennai! By yourself?”
“No, I’m with friends,” I said.“But they’re not interested in museums, so I came here by myself.”
I found a coffee shop down the road and walked in. I decided to get something to drink,wait for the weather to cool down, and then head to one of Srinagar’s famed gardens. There was only one other customer in the café. “Why don’t you join me?” he asked, when he saw me with a cup of chai in my hand.
I only had to say that I was there to read a book. That simple excuse, however, didn’t strike me.
“On vacation here?” he asked, as I took the seat across from him.
I nodded. He appeared to be in his mid-to-late 30s, a line or two of gray visible in his hair.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’m here looking for a job.”
“Oh, so you’re not from Srinagar?”
“I did grow up in Srinagar, but I moved around for work, and now I’m back. What do you do? Are you a student?”
I nodded. I wanted to cast as little attention as possible on myself. A student was a non-controversial identity.“In my third year.”
“What do you study?”
“I studied engineering too. I’m a certified civil engineer,” he said. “I actually wanted to study more. But my father was against it. ‘Go find work,’ he said and so I went. What do you plan to do after college?”
“I haven’t thought about it yet.”
“You’re graduating next year, right?”
“So you must think about your next steps. Back in my day, there were very few jobs in my field. Our family had some money, but my father wasn’t willing to invest any more in me. So I had to take whatever job I could get. Many people refused to take me in because they felt I was overqualified, so I lied about not having a degree and got a job in a glass factory in Jammu. It was very hard work. I was not built for manual labor. I would return home every night with cuts on my fingers. You can still see some of the scars,” he said, tracing a thin line across the palm of his right hand. “Do you see it?”
I nodded.His meal—a thin crust pizza—arrived then. “Do have some,” he said.
“No, I’m good. Thanks.”
He took a bite and leaned back in his chair. “I was feeling very low in Jammu. But by God’s grace, a friend in Delhi contacted me one day and told me about a job opening in his company. It was a secretary type job, unrelated to my degree, but at least it would get me away from glass and put me behind a desk.One thing I’ve learnt is that man is never happy. Within a month in Delhi, I was bored. I worked hard but without passion, but that was enough to climb up the ladder. I then switched to a different job in Chandigarh, again thanks to a friend, and ever since I’ve been moving from job to job for the past ten years. My last job was my longest. I did ultra-sonic testing of railway lines. But one day, when I was inspecting the track I didn’t realize that the Rajdhani Express was rushing towards me.”
“Didn’t you hear it?”
“No. Maybe my mind was elsewhere. If you do the same thing every day, your body takes over and your mind goes on a vacation.”
“So what happened with the train?”
“Luckily, my assistant was a few steps behind me and saw that I was seconds away from death. He caught me by the collar and flung me away from the tracks. He brought me back to this world. I still remember the sensation of the hot, burning sand that I lay on as I watched a train hurtle past. I quit my job that day.”
The part of my brain on the lookout for stories was whirring. This was my cue to ask the man for his picture. He would be perfect for my photo project.But what if he asked me what an engineering student was doing taking photos of people in Srinagar? What if he asked me what other plans I had here? Would he want to know where I stayed, and how long I was in town for?
“I’m sorry… I’m keeping you from your food,” I said.
“No, no, don’t worry about it.”
“I actually have to head out now. I’m meeting some friends.”
“Oh, okay. Well, it was nice talking to you. Good luck with college. I hope you find a job you love.”
I walked out and flagged the first auto I saw.
“Where?” the driver askedcurtly, grimacing as the sun hit his eyes. I was quiet long enough for him to sense my indecision, and his tone changed. “Mughal gardens, sir?Best for sight seeing,” he said, smiling.“We’ll first go to Nishat Bagh. Very close from here, and very beautiful. You can look around there, and then I’ll take you to Shalimar Bagh. Superb garden!These two places you have to see in Srinagar.”
I got in to the auto, silent.
“If you don’t like gardens… have you seen the Dal Lake? We can go there.”
I bit my lip, still silent. I was disgusted by my cowardice. I knew I was giving up, and I hated myself for it.The driver looked at me in the rear-view mirror and I could see that he was getting annoyed.
“So, we’ll go to the gardens?” he asked, one final attempt at politeness.
“No,” I said.
Niyantha Shekar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as Himal Southasian, The Cricket Monthly, The Hindu, Asian Review of Books, The Madras Mag and The Aerogram. His work can be seen at www.niyantha.com.