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Many times in this past year, when I have looked out the window at my new home of Whistler, my thoughts wandered to my Indo-Aryan ancestors. I moved from Toronto to this resort town in the summer of 2020 with my husband and two daughters, primarily to enroll at the enchanting Whistler Waldorf School after a year of world-schooling them.
From the first time I walked in Whistler’s mystical forests, they have seemed otherworldly. I have felt a sense of belonging in their foreign soil. When I hike into these mountains, a sense of hiraeth, which means a longing for a home that never was, descends upon me. Is this how alpine forests in Kashmir must have seemed to my forefathers many centuries prior? Am I feeling what they felt?
Several thousand years ago, my ancestors migrated to India from somewhere near the Caucasus region. Crossing into the subcontinent across treacherous terrain, harsh conditions and insurmountable Himalayan peaks, much of the clan rode on toward the Ganges plains. But a small group, to which my family traces its roots, settled down at the foothills of the invincible ranges they had just crossed. They thrived for many centuries in the Kashmir Valley, eventually migrating family-by-family to present-day India.
When Amir Khusrau, the famous 13th-century Persian poet, visited Kashmir he wrote in his native Farsi, “Gar firdaus bar roo-e-zamin ast, haminasto, haminasto, haminasto.” In English, “if there is paradise on Earth, here it is, here it is, here it is.”
As a child growing up in Mumbai, I often wondered if I would ever be able to visit this so-called paradise that my ancestors called home. I wasn’t so driven to find my roots as all of that seemed so long ago. Instead, I was motivated by the desire to witness that fabled alpine beauty. The valleys filled with flowers, the lakes with wooden houseboats and Venetian-style shikaras, chinar trees and snow-capped peaks. Kashmir had been the location of choice for honeymooners and Bollywood film crews until the 1970s, but all of that changed in the decades soon after that.
The natives of the lower foothills of the Indian Himalayas are called the pahadi people, literally meaning mountain folk. They have traditionally believed that you don’t decide to visit the Himalayas – they must invite you. And I wasn’t sure when the Kashmiri Himalayas were going to invite me because several decades of war, political instability and military conflict have rendered Kashmir volatile and inaccessible. A forbidden territory.
Instead, on the other side of the planet, I have discovered Whistler and her wonders. The variety of sublime experiences I’ve had here astonishes me.
In the summer, on my runs along the Valley Trail, I’ve watched cool breezes flow over Green Lake, making the reflection appear like a Monet painting for a few seconds. In the fall, my mountain, Rainbow Mountain where my neighbourhood sits, appears to have just returned from a hair salon with blond highlights. On wet days, I’ve noticed bustling life waiting to be discovered under each rock and on every stump along rain-drenched trails.
This past winter, with freezing fingers in my mittens, numb toes in my boots and frozen wisps of breath escaping my mouth, I witnessed an astronomical phenomenon – the Grand Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sky. In the frozen Green lake below, they were mirrored perfectly. I had to blink my eyes many times just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
During one cold, crisp night, I watched a full moon rise over the valley between Wedge mountain and Blackcomb mountain. Just after midnight, when the temperature drops adequately, a large cloud forms over that valley and the lake. The moon lights up that cloud with an ethereal, milky glow. My eyes took in that view, and out flowed an entire poem about the moon being oblivious to its own beauty.
On grey, snowy days, flocks of little native birds make patterns across the sky, as if to compensate for the absence of colour with the freedom of their flight. After snow flurries, it seems as though there is a dusting of icing sugar on every tree, branch and needle. When I ascend above this veil of white in the Peak2Peak Gondola, the carefully dusted world below seems to vanish under a meandering river of clouds. The veil now looks like a never-ending cape. Glowing under the sun that is preparing to set, the mountain range turns a pale orange. If BigFoot lived here, I wouldn’t blame him for never bothering to wonder if anyone existed below
I may or may not be able to visit Kashmir in this lifetime, who knows? But halfway across the world, I’m putting down roots in this quaint ski town in the Coast Mountains of Canada.
Recently, I discovered, to my surprise, that the exotic chinar trees that the Kashmir valley is well known for are part of the maple family. I’ll take it as a sign. Perhaps, my long-held dream is coming true. Or that life has come full circle through a subtle but potent flow through many generations.
I am falling in love with this paradise that has invited me in the same way, as my forefathers did with the one that they discovered in Kashmir, many millennia ago.
I’m sure Amir Khusrau would agree – if there is paradise on Earth, haminasto haminasto haminasto. Here it is, here it is, here it is.
Prajakta Kharkar Nigam lives in Whistler.