I trudged up the rickety wooden steps; half wary of the angst-ridden cry, half relieved to be out of the icy gale that had locked my jaw together.
A local trekking group was due to pick me up for a drive to Ladakh – the farthest point of India. But our plans were washed clean when a heavy downpour hit the valley.
The group, currently scaling a nearby peak, had no intention of tempting fate and decided to stay put at their camp tonight.
I spotted my host and the source of the voice in the backyard. A scrawny Kashmiri boy was hunched over a small television box balanced on a gnarled log of wood.
Peeping out from under his frayed woolen robe was a burning Kanger – a traditional earthen pot simmering with red-hot coal and woven with wicker – a personal, portable heater of sorts.
Behind him, like a watchful big brother, rose the mighty Himalayan range, covered in pine forests and powdered with specks of snow, solemnly guarding our cottage.
Around us, stretching as far as the eye could see, were meadows gleaming under the rays of the setting sun. Sonamarg stayed true to its name – India’s Meadow of Gold.
Cricket commentary from the little television set echoed through the woods. Tonight, India was playing against its archenemy, Pakistan.
The boy shot up suddenly, arms flailing and whooping in the air. “Take that, you Indians!” he screamed excitedly in Hindi. A shepherd looked up languidly from the distance, as he guided his flock back home.
I was indignant. This Kashmiri boy was condemning his own countrymen? It was as offensive as the Americans rooting for the Russians in a slick Hollywood potboiler.
In Kashmir, I realized, cricket wasn’t just a game. It was a show of rebellion. An outlet for pent-up emotions and an anecdote for disillusionment.
Not one to back down, I sat beside him and cheered on the Indian captain with vengeful fervor. “Go Virat, Go!” I hollered.
We sat there for a while, trying to outdo one another - an invisible curtain of hostility drawn between us, as we openly brandished our patriotism.
Finally, after an insistent rumble in my stomach, I swallowed my pride and spoke to him, “Will I get some Vegetarian food? Parathas?”
He looked at me and sneered, “Only Kashmiri Rogan Gosh”, he said, referring to the local lamb delicacy.
“Tonight, no Indian food!”
All of a sudden, the bleating and stamping of hooves came from the distance. Birds scurried away into a thicket of Sycamore trees. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself spread-eagle on the grass, with the boy sprawled beside me.
I looked around to see a dislodged power line sputtering exactly where I was sitting moments ago – before the boy had deftly cast me out of harm’s way.
It was an earthquake.
Stunned and relieved in equal measure, I weakly mumbled, “Good fielding.” “Just like Muhammad Rizwan,” I added, half grudgingly, likening him to a prominent Pakistani player. I caught a glimpse of his smile, just as the lights flickered out.
He slowly walked towards the brick-lined stove in the backyard, lit the firewood and began rolling the dough for what looked like… a paratha!
I shone my torchlight as he kneaded the dough, and even as the temperature plummeted, the ice between us melted.
He finally introduced himself to me, 16-year-old Altaf.
In that moment, tearing a bite of the paratha and looking at the moon peeping out from behind the mountaintop - I realized that it didn’t take much to dissolve the imaginary boundaries in our mind.
Altaf, I found out, wasn’t really Indian. Or Pakistani. Or Kashmiri. He wasn’t a culture, a religion, or a media-fuelled stereotype. Tonight, he was simply a friend – with a story to tell and some food to share.
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