I was just falling in love with Gulmarg when they announced that we were to leave for Pahalgam the very next day at four AM.
That announcement did the impossible: it made nineteen Calcuttans rush through dinner.
We barely slept for two hours, when we were packed into our buses with sandwiches, and off we glided down the road slung over the nape of our hotel like a scarf – one I spent the last evening strolling on – and into pitch darkness between dense fir, beneath a spectacular sky with stars sprinkled all over like mica in a beach.
For a while, it was just us, the whirring of the motors and retro music drifting softly from our tour mates’ phones.
When we emerged into the Srinagar highway, we lost our solitude to the frequent glares of army convoys and lone nocturnal amblers in flowing, grey phirans. As we drove on the rather slim highway, we passed various railway stations. The street lights were brighter there.
We passed Awantipura, well-known for its Hindu temples and for being the hub of the tractor industry. Sadly, since we had a long way to go, and it was pitch black, we could not stop.
At one point, the highway split, its one arm stretching on to Jammu, and the other, meandering into Bijbehara. We took the latter, and found ourselves probing dark alleys of closed shops. I was shaken out of my sleepy daze every time a mosque made the dark hours quiver into lighter shades with its jolting sighs of early morning namaz.
I realized why I did not want my eyes to surrender to the burning fatigue.
As we emerged into a road flanked by apple forests, with the river Lidder rippling beyond the shrubbery, the sky started shedding its smoky scales.
I was waiting for the metamorphosis of the night. I was waiting for the sunrise.
The sun rose, veiled by the clouds, throwing vermillion gleams on snow-capped mountains. The surroundings wore a blushing shade of grey.
As every Bengali finds Tagore in every strand of beauty in the world, Mother started quoting “Raatri eshey jethaye meshey”.
We reached Pahalgam much earlier than we had expected. After a hurried breakfast, we set out to cover insanely rough terrain on ponies, hoping for a sunny outbreak of the day and a panoramic view of snow-coated mountains at Baisaran.
When another road trip at dawn was announced on our last night at Pahalgam, there were groans and rebellion. We ultimately set out at 4:30 am from our hotel, towards Srinagar, our last stop of the trip.
The excitement of stargazing was fragmented to and ultimately devoured by shivering sleep. Once in a while, someone would play a song, and the others would mumble appreciation for R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar.
Daybreak came much faster than it did in our last road trip at dawn. It came at Pampore, on Srinagar highway, tearing the Prussian night open and spilling itself over a shop named Zamindar Kesar Mahal.
My frozenness wore away with the qahwa chai they served. Everybody busied themselves with buying spices.
Daybreak happened on the highway rapidly, one shade of collective grey and blue at a time. The sleepy highway was flanked with tremulous poplar trees.
Getting back on the bus, we rode through the wide road collared with shops specially selling kesar. The road signs told us that we were at Pampore, otherwise known as kesar country.
Chinar trees bore the brick and sawdust colours of autumn.
When the world was illuminated by a syrupy shade of bluish morning, we stopped beside a kesar field. It was not harvest time yet. The field was paved and the tiniest violet bloom of kesar sprouted here and there.
Going a little distance further, we saw another bus before us, stopping by a hill. It took a moment for us to register that said hill was a spectacular, winding kesar field, which was blooming more than the previous one with violet flowers.
Each flower had a couple of red stigmas and yellow stamens. Those are what give rise to the wide industry of saffron cultivation in Kashmir. These little subparts are collected and sold at lakhs of rupees.
With the red sun unfurling its thick cloudy blankets, we set out to cover our last stretch of road before arriving at Srinagar.
Crossing the Badami Bagh Cantonment area – one of the biggest cantonments in Jammu and Kashmir – and slipping into Pantha Chowk, strewn with fallen chinar leaves and the river Jhelum gloriously sloshing beside the road, we arrived, early again, immensely missing every bit of the last few hours.
The morning was concluded in the gathering of memories and a short Facebook status update screaming “Best. Trip. Ever.”