“So which team will you support?” Asif asks me as he rows me to his houseboat on the Dal Lake.
Is that a trick question? India is playing Pakistan. Arch rivals both. Emotions are running high. Both countries would much rather lose the World Cup final than lose a group match against the other. Of course I would support India and so too would…
“Pakistan,” Asif declares.
In another part of India this would be unheard of, but we are in Kashmir Valley – an erstwhile paradise, now lost to the three wars fought over it between India and Pakistan. The fault lines run over land, and through Kashmiri hearts, dividing their allegiance. I wonder if Asif knows that not so long ago three Kashmiri students were arrested on charges of sedition merely for cheering for Pakistan. Or maybe it is because he knows that he is…
My thoughts are interrupted by the faint thud of our shikara, a humble gondola for two, as it brushes against the wooden porch of Asif’s houseboat. This muted doorbell brings Asif’s 10-year-old sister, Gul, to the front of the houseboat. Gul smiles as if she has always known you. There are no wars on her face.
“Bhaijaan, come, we are out of lotus stems,” she says.
Once out of Asif’s sight, Gul hands me the oars. We smile our secret smile. She has taught me to row the shikara. Rows of smaller houseboats make up Dal’s floating local market. I wade through narrow water alleys, avoiding the flower seller, circumventing the vegetable seller and drifting into water weeds. Gul giggles. “What bhaijaan! You don’t practise,” she shakes her head in mock disappointment and takes over.
Soon, Gul and I are in the secret chambers of the Dal. Lotus plants abound. Gul scoops them up. When fried in batter they make for a delicious snack.
Asif hardly savours them though. India is ahead in the game. With every passing moment, Asif gets edgy. Gul and I exchange uneasy glances.
“Do you want to practise?” Gul asks, pointing to the shikara.
As we set out, the twilight sky lends its violet hue to the lake’s water. Similar yet inverted tableaus, separated by the horizon. Like India and Pakistan. Alike, but apart. The valley; their horizon. Neither the sky nor the water lay any claim over the horizon. But the twin nations fight to assert dominion over the valley.
Gul and I row deep into the lake, beyond the lotus plants. We lie flat on our backs, look at the moon sneak up on the stars, and hum Bollywood songs.
By the time we row back, the match is over. Neither of us bother to ask the result.