Kashmir's houseboats evoke bygone era
Kashmir, India — ``A vision of paradise,'' says Habib, the boatman leading me through a garden of flowers toward a houseboat called Golden Flower. The pale-green papier-m^ach'e box painted with flowers that stood on my desk for years acquires a new meaning as I pass through this lakeside garden in Kashmir ablaze with the same flowers. They are roses in several tones of pink, pansies of deep purple and yellow, carnations in blue and white, and other flowers of many hues and names. Each spring these flowers bloom in Kashmir. As spring turns into summer, they fade and fall.
But they continue to live in the minds of the Kashmiris. They are reborn in the silk and wool carpets they weave, in shawls that young girls embroider in dank, damp rooms, in bowls and boxes of papier-m^ach'e, the kind that sits on my desk. The form and fragrance of each flower have naturally drifted into the psyche of every Kashmiri. It is evoked in the way he speaks, in the objects he crafts, in the names he gives to his children, his gardens -- and his houseboats.
In the lakes of Kashmir are moored more than 500 houseboats. Boatmen like Habib row guests and residents between the shore and the houseboats, whose names range from the bizarre to the commonplace: Buckingham Palace, St. James Place, Alexandra, Royal Ark, Mughal Palace, the Perfumed Garden, the Rose and the Nightingale, Floating Heaven, Maple Leaf, Mayflower, and so on. The names, often misspelled, evoke a fantasy and often have no meaning nor relevance to those who now own these houseboats. Some of th e names were given by the British who first built them when they were not allowed to buy land and build on it. Some have been renamed by the ``han-jees'' (a community that runs the houseboats and is looked down upon as subservient, rustic, and uncouth) who bought them at auctions or inherited them when the British left India in 1947.
One such boat is Saleem, tucked unpretentiously amid an array of houseboats moored on the edge of Nagin Lake, a few miles out of the city of Srinagar. ``I named it in memory of the legendary Mughal prince Saleem, who loved fountains, trees, and flowers, who named his fictional beloved Anarkali [Pomegranate Bud], and who created for his harmony the Nishat Gardens, where he dreamt he would die,'' says Abdul Rehman, a middle-aged man with kindly eyes, who bought his 64-year-old white boat from one Mrs. Coo k, a gentlewoman from England.
She had built it with love, furnished it with care, and named it The Nightingale after her favorite poem. Its interiors of walnut wood were intricately carved and it was furnished in pastels. On its roof terrace were two blue-and-white umbrellas, under which Mrs. Cook entertained her friends.
Today the interiors of carved walnut have receded against the garish colors of the new furnishings. The curtains, a cheap chintz, flap gently in the spring breeze, accentuating the stillness.
The name of the boat has been changed to Saleem, the name of the prince and also the name of Abdul Rehman's youngest son, who neither knows nor understands princely names or aspirations. A bulbul flies in and out of a window. Kingfishers streak across in flashes of green and gold. The lake, placid in spite of rowing boats, mirrors the hills, the clouds, and the trees massed on the banks.
``I'd rather sell frankfurters in the streets of New York than run the houseboat,'' says Saleem, wearing frayed blue jeans and perched nonchalantly on a bench. His graying father is seated cross-legged on the wooden floor of the balcony, dressed in the traditional ``pheran,'' a loose Kashmiri coat. On his head rests a small round white cap embroidered in silk thread. He is 55. His son is 14, and has halfheartedly reached the eighth grade.
There is little about father and son that is similar. Their faces are as different as the clothes they wear, the language they speak, the dreams they dream or do not dream. The father is conversant in Urdu and a pidgin English that he picked up from the English sahibs. He never learned to read or write. His son speaks English with a nasal American accent, the kind heard on the streets of New York. He, too, picked up the lingo from tourists who now patronize the houseboat.
``The English people who came in my time were different from those who come now,'' says the father, looking wistful. ``They were our masters, and we were their servants. Though they were kind to us and took good care of us, there was always a distance between them and us. We did not sit with them, eat, or drink the way they do now.
``There was an order and discipline in their lives. Everything went according to the clock. Lunch was served between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., drinks after sundown, and dinner between 8 and 9 p.m. I was then a boy of 10. Whilst my uncle cooked, I served at the table. We had to wear a white coat when we served, had to go out of the room if we needed to cough. I still remember how once I was reprimanded when I arrived with my coat's top button open. I learned a great deal when I took the sahibs on treks a nd rowed them in small boats down the River Jhelum.''
For the older man, memories go back to a time before World War II -- of rulers larger than life, of palaces on hills beyond reach, closed horizons, cold winters, colder poverty, gaslights, horse carriages, arduous mountain trails. And then the coming of the white men who brought with them money, leisure, and an insatiable capacity to enjoy it.
The older man looks older than his years. His face betrays strain from years of struggle. His young son has not known struggle. His face projects boredom rather than courage. His small black eyes do not glint with kindness the way his father's do. Nor is his voice fervent with gratitude that springs from an abiding faith in God.
``God has been good to me. I have seen some good seasons, eaten some good food, and known some good people in my life,'' says Abdul Rehman, raising his gray eyes toward a sky slowly losing its blue to the white of spring clouds.
Like all ``han-jees,'' all that Abdul Rehman has known is the life of the houseboat. Even the women of the family have not left the boat, where they live and work, cooking, cleaning, and serving the guests. Their home is a ``donga,'' a plain wooden boat linked to the houseboat by a wooden plank. Its interior is bare, almost primitive. The front room is an elementary kitchen, where the delicacies to be served in the other boat are cooked. The middle room is the family room, which has no chairs, no tables , no curtains; just a few family photographs pinned on the walls. On the wooden floors of the last room are the thick quilts the family sleeps on. When it gets very cold they light a ``kangdi,'' a small clay burner with coals -- the kind Kashmiris carry under their loose coats in winter.
``These floating heavens will soon sink if business continues the way it is,'' says Abdul Rehman, who has not removed the ``vacant'' sign from his boat all summer. ``We listed our name in the tourist office last August. Our turn is yet to come. If this continues, I will sell the houseboat and retire. My sons have already gone into other businesses. They are not attached to the houseboat, as I am. It has been my home and my livelihood. It has been as much a home to those who came and stayed in it. They r eceived a service and hospitality that have been a tradition of houseboats. Today outsiders with money are coming and buying them up. They know nothing of hospitality or service. No money can buy that. And no houseboat can survive without this tradition.''
A heavy blanket of mist has filled the window of the Saleem boat. Spring has suddenly turned into rain. The mountains have disappeared, taking away my perspectives. The lake has lost its blue, its moving reflections. The geese have scattered; the men selling flowers and seeds in tiny boats have also gone. Only the patter of rain; no other sounds, of men or birds. It is like being stranded on an island.
Abdul Rehman leaves me in Mrs. Cook's sitting room and withdraws to get Kahwa, the Kashmiri green tea flavored with saffron, almonds, and cardamom. On the carved walnut walls hang pictures of people as if from another age -- a bridal couple in a garden, a man in breeches riding a horse, pictures of shingle cottages, gardens with fountains, faded Japanese prints. I stare at them, re-creating tales of glory the boat must have known.