First Journeys

India Today Spice | February 14, 2018
The journey that changed my life was a chance visit to Srinagar, Kashmir. It was not my first time into Srinagar but it was the first journey that inspired a new avatar.

My parents had always loved Kashmir and almost every year we would take our family’s summer holidays there. We would stay at what was then called the Oberoi Palace (now the Lalit Grand Palace). Our trips always consisted of having meals on the generous lawns of the palace, endless shikhara excursions on the Dal Lake, walking through the numerous apple and cherry orchards, taking pony rides at the Polo Ground, sipping sweet water of the Chashme Shahi springs, partaking of the exquisite honey-walnut fudge at Moonlight Bakery and breaking away for a few nights to the snowy peaks of Gulmarg or Pahalgam.

I recall visiting some of the usual Srinagar tourist spots with my parents, for example Hazratbal, Shalimar Bagh and the Shankracharya temple but I cannot specifically remember having ever visited Rauza Bal, the place that would eventually inspire my first book, The Rozabal Line. That visit would happen much later, in 2003, by which time I was 34 years old and married.

My driver told me that there was a very old tomb in the heart of Srinagar that was worth a look. “How old?” I had asked. He told me that it had stood there for thousands of years. Some said that it had been around from 124 CE. Fascinated, I agreed to let him take me there. It was located in the Khanyaar neighborhood of Srinagar, a rather crowded zone of the old city. In fact, when we reached the spot, I didn’t even realize it. It looked almost like any other low-rectangular dwelling in that area with whitewashed walls, a corrugated green roof and iron fencing around the perimeter.

My driver beckoned a local who prided himself on knowing the tomb. He smiled a toothless smile as he guided me inside in anticipation of bakshish. Buried within the structure lay a Muslim pir, Mir Sayyed Naseeruddin. But below his burial lay another body, one of an earlier saint that the locals call Yuz Asaf. This one was oriented in an East-West direction according to ancient Jewish customs. Near the grave towards the right hand corner was a tombstone showing an imprint of human feet scarred by crucifixion. My grinning toothless guide told me that many believed that Yuz Asaf was none other than Jesus Christ who had escaped from Jerusalem and travelled to Kashmir.

Writers often say that we don’t go looking for stories. In fact, it is stories that seek us out. That’s precisely what happened with me. Even after I returned to my hotel that day, I could not stop thinking about the tomb and the fascinating story around it. I was obsessed.

Upon my return from Srinagar, I decided to search for materials that would answer my questions about the tomb and the person who had been originally buried there. A year later, I had read over fifty books—about the tomb, about the possibility that Jesus survived the crucifixion and about the theory that he studied under Buddhist masters in India. By this time my wife was fed up of my research. She told me that I was becoming a bore because increasingly the only item of conversation with me was the tomb. She suggested that I try to find ways to get obsession out of my system. And that’s when I realized that I would write a book.

I had been to Srinagar at least fifteen times with my family but I had never been as fascinated with it as I suddenly was. Upon my next trip, I revisited the Jyesteshwara temple that stands at the top of the Shankracharya Hill, rising 1100 feet above the rest of Srinagar town. This structure dates back to around 200 BCE but what is interesting is the fact that there are references to carvings that talk of Yuz Asaf, the very man buried at Rauza Bal. Even more interesting is the fact that the hill on which the temple sits is often called Takht-i-Sulaiman—the Throne of Solomon. This ties in tantalizingly with the idea that Kashmir was the promised land and that the lost tribes of Israel had wandered there.

It is said that the Mughal emperor, Jahangir, once remarked about Kashmir, “Agar Firdaws ba roy-i zamin ast, hamin ast-u hamin ast-u hamin ast.” Loosely translated, it means “if there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

There are many places that I have visited to research my novels but there is only one place—Kashmir—that changed the course of my life. I surrendered my life as a businessman and took to writing, struggling with the decisions that I made over several years but never regretting the infinite possibilities that my new world had to offer. I too had found my paradise.