A houseboat holiday
As the setting sun turned the sky first golden and then rose, the waters of the Dal reflected the multitude of tints. Other shikaras were darkly silhouetted against the sun’s rays, and I supposed my own shikara was too. My shikarawallah sang a mournful ditty that made up in gloom what it lacked in tunefulness. “Kashmir is not only about clichés,” well-travelled friends had repeatedly told me, before my trip. Yet, if gliding on the Dal in a shikara at that bewitching hour is not a tourist cliché, what is?
During my week-long holiday in Srinagar, I never needed to step ashore, even for one moment. I lived on a houseboat, visited villages that had been built, more or less, out of thin air on the surface of the lake, took shikara rides for pleasure or was rowed in a skiff to the nearest STD booth, also on the lake. I visited friends who lived in houseboats that were moored in more upmarket areas of the lake than mine was, visited a wholesale vegetable market that is held for all the market gardeners whose vegetables are grown on the lake. If I’ve brought home a turquoise ring that I bought from a shop on the lake, I’ve also spent hours spotting birds of paradise flitting about near quiet waterways. Exotic? Certainly. Cliched? Emphatically not.
My houseboat, Star of Kashmir, had fallen on bad times. Gul Muhammad, the owner, did not appear to care about his boat, the way other boatmen did. Perhaps life had been too hard for this man who could not have been over forty, but whose stooped shoulders and dull eyes aged him by twenty years. His sister’s husband had been killed in a cross-fire between the army and militants a few years ago, and her sister had returned with her two sons to live off Gul Muhammad indefinitely. His younger daughter had a vertebral disorder that required prolonged and expensive treatment. Outside the state, naturally. What propelled me to Star of Kashmir was its location. For miles and miles in every direction, all you saw were bulrushes, lotus gardens and water. And, after the first few hours on the lake, I realized that water was at a premium in this lake! There was pretty much everything else – real estate, merchandise, you name it – but little water, and even less clean water.
If the Star was surrounded by pin-drop silence, there were other areas that occupied the other end of the spectrum. A friend from Los Angeles – let’s call her Victoria – had made her twelfth visit to Kashmir, partly to buy inexpensive handicrafts to sell back home, and partly because she had fallen in love with a shikara puller and returned, compulsively, to Kashmir over and over again. Victoria was staying in a houseboat that faced the main road. Her houseboat owner was as prosperous as Gul Muhammad was poor; not only did the floorboards in her well-carpeted boat not creak at all, but the sitting room was covered with a multitude of tapestries and posters of Mecca. In the politically charged atmosphere of the Valley that is beginning to normalize only now, whether the tapestries were a badge of political correctness or because the owner thought them genuinely attractive was something Victoria and I tried hard to fathom, but without success.
As it happened, the pair of us were adopted by a third houseboat owner, Akbar. Sleek, prosperous and palpably upwardly mobile, he couldn’t believe his good luck making friends with an American woman and an Indian journalist, in one fell swoop. The adoption was fortunate for us as well, for Akbar took us to places whose existence we would never have suspected. The first stop was his house, though house is something of a misnomer. He lived on a finger of land that had been carefully built up from the bottom of the lake with weeds and mud. The wooden house on stilts looked ramshackle from the outside, and was spartan from within. Bare wooden floorboards, too weathered to creak, a picture or three of Mecca and a pile of bedding that had been folded and put away during the day – that was all we saw in the house.
Even the doonga next door was bereft of all décor, save for the kitchen. Completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen elsewhere, there were shelves laden with bowls, glasses and cooking vessels. Doongas are the forerunners of houseboats. “The British were inspired by doongas. They just gave them a fancy name,” said Akbar, showing us a picture of his grandfather with a British couple. The procession of brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts who came to stare at us was no different from Victoria’s shikarawallah’s brood of relatives, but Akbar insisted that they came from two different communities. “We are the top of the heap,” he announced proudly. “Lower down the line come the shikarawallahs, market gardeners, fishermen and those who live in boats in the River Jehlum in the Old City, that are not doongas, but a different category of boat – the bahach.”
It was in Akbar’s living quarters that I had my only memorable meal of that holiday. Dish after dish of superbly cooked food was sent out by an army of female cousins. Every one of them was the perfect foil for the previous dish: duck in a gravy made tart with dried plums was followed by lamb in a mild almond and milk sauce. As accompaniment, Akbar kept up a monologue throughout. “Madame,” he addressed me, “write in your newspaper that the government’s scheme to make the Dal fully wired to the internet will become a failure if they don’t give us funds.”
That night, as I was being rowed back to the fading Star, there was silence all around, save for the blare of an occasional television from a village house. As my shikara was gliding through the darkness, I said a silent prayer: for Victoria and her shikarawallah who’d be a fish out of water in Los Angeles, for Akbar and his ideas of the journalistic world, and most of all, for tourist clichés.