I grew up on the banks of the Jehlum but spent most evenings in and around the Dal Lake with my cousins. My maternal grandmother's family occupied an estate on the Boulevard Road that encompassed a colonial bungalow with walnut, apple and quince-apple orchards. The orchards were interspersed with reed-beds and marshes that had once been connected with the lake.
My childhood memories of the Dal Lake echo crystal clear waters, weeds that were visible only underwater and house-boats so far away from the Boulevard Road that one had to strain to make out a familiar face. I remember my cousin Irfan – aka Hero, sadly no longer with us – warning younger kids that these unseen underwater weeds would entangle and drown the careless. The ubiquitous red-green algae that today seems to cover the entire lake was confined to the marshes and confounded our efforts to retrieve the wooden "birra" or unwieldy "cork" balls that we used to play cricket with.
Angling and boat-rides on "borrowed" Dakotas – our term for larger, uncovered shikaras – were favourite pastimes. The irate owner of the commandeered dakota would be immediately pacified by a mention of my grandmothers name. Begum Jalaluddin, or Barkat Begum as she was affectionately known, was a legend in her lifetime.
If the wind was favourable, kites flown from the pier below Almond Villa would consume multiple spools of expensive thread and soar way beyond Kotar Khana towards the Hazratbal shrine.
It was truly the age of innocence.
The orchards and marshes are long gone, sacrificed at the altar of crass commercialism. The estate was was acquired by the government to build an ugly concrete monolith which towers above my grandmother's house.
Shikara's still ply the waves though the mirror of the Dal Lake is scarred and rust-tarnished. The number of anglers has increased but they cast their lines between floating piles of filth. The corruption of the Dal Lake into a cesspool seems to mirror the degradation of the Kashmir Valley and of us, its people.