April was a busy month for me this year, with many promises to keep and miles to go before I slept, and before I (now running out of poetic references) reached Kashmir, to be a part of the Bookaroo Children’s Festival. Perhaps if I had thought about it I would have been prepared for all the beauty of the country of which Jehangir had said, very accurately (and here I quickly return to poetic allusions), “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”
While the Bookaroo organizers must have had a tough time managing every detail and demand that was made, and it was a truly king-size event, I enjoyed the pace of the five days that I spent in Srinagar – meeting many wonderful writers, illustrators, poets and storytellers, chatting with the red-cheeked (yes, every one of them was red-cheeked) and bright-eyed children and teachers, and telling them all about my stupendous timetelling superdog.
I expected to be housed in a dormitory in DPS Srinagar and went expecting sparseness. But the school guest house had spacious rooms. My favourite was the lovely window seat where I spent many a moment, sometimes alone but more often giggling with my fabulous flat-mate. And all of us did create a bit of hostel camaraderie by walking freely in and out of each other’s apartments (knocking seemed too urbane and polite all of a sudden). We dawdled over girda with steaming cups of kawa in the morning, and in the evenings, when our sessions were all done, we ate elaborate dinners and discussed the day.
And the flowers – the lilies and the huge roses in all kinds of impossible shades! And evening tea on the veranda overlooking sloping hills on which sheep grazed and clouds loitered. Though the feeling that I bring back with me is quiet and introspective there were all these crowded and fun moments too. Making Book Chompers with the children at the Duckbill stall – with the smaller kids needing personal attention, and, if nothing else, applause for their crafting skills! And the zest with which the kids almost knocked me over in their clamour for autographs made me feel no less than Shah Rukh, especially with the scrap books many of them had created with pages designated for each of us with our photographs and biographical details.
In both Srinagar and at the desperately beautiful and cold heights in Gulmarg, everyone we met was warm and welcoming. (One does not expect such mehmaan nawazi after years of living in Delhi!) We visited the Hamadan mosque and Jama Masjid, both architecturally splendid, the beautiful terraced gardens of Chasmashahi, and floated lazily in shikaras on Dal Lake. The children that I interacted with at the four Bookaroo sessions and at the Duckbill stall ranged from 8 to 12 years. They were quieter and shyer than their peers in some of the metropolitan cities where I have conducted similar sessions. When it came to the activities, however, drawing their own super-animals and creating a newspaper, they were as imaginative and forthcoming as children everywhere.
A big shout and thank you to the Bookaroo team for a super (not dog) experience.
Photograph: Suddhasattwa Basu