Kashmir: The sting in the mountains

In Srinagar, people seem to move about freely provided they do not step out of the invisible cage. A traveller may find himself in much the same situation.

Political analysts say the BJP is trying to gain an upper hand in the region by splitting Muslim votes in Kashmir and consolidating Hindu votes in Jammu. Representative photo: iStock

I took a boat from Gate 14, close to the floating post-office, on the Boulevard, a road skirting the Dal, Srinagar, and passed through narrow water-lanes, either side of which run-down shops sold grocery and shawls, and trinkets that people always buy when they are away from their lands. A tourist will add to his baggage; a traveller will shed his, the boatman said.

In the distance, the blue Zabarwan range of hills rose like jagged forts, and where the weeds were not in control of the water, you could see the hills reflected. You could carry neither the hills nor the lake with you back in your bag, but those are the things that stayed with you when you were back where you started from.

We passed the white Hotel Leeward on the lake to my left and I remembered Naipaul mentioning it in A Million Mutinies Now when he visited India for the second time at the fag end of the ’80s. He had said a few good things about the hotel — so I recall — and its proprietors in a rare show of generosity; but Leeward was no longer a hotel. It was fully taken over by the Army to keep a watch on the Dal.

We docked at the Queen, a houseboat with a sit-out, a hall, a dining room, and two bedrooms. There was a kind of a tiny pantry in between. The bathroom was at the back. The bedroom carpet was green with white jasmine spots. The carpets in the front rooms were a dusty russet. They were worn thin. You could feel the wood creaking with age beneath them. But they were friends clearly, the carpet protecting the bumpy, aged wood; the wood supporting the weight of the well-trodden carpet as best as it could.

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The owner of the boat was Shakeel. He appeared suddenly in the bathroom while I was checking the flush. On all the days I stayed on the boat, he would appear from out of nowhere, and you could never catch him enter through the front door. He was short, fair, young, and very muscular. He looked like a very earnest version of the great Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena (who fought Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier — and bravely lost), and his great liquid eyes always met yours as he talked, and you thought he would anytime breakdown.

Shakeel produced a big crumbling register. He said his family had been running the House Boat since the 1840s. The first entry on the register though was from 1960, of a Dutch family with a Janakpuri (Delhi) address.

Could I have some tea, I asked?

I will try, Shakeel said. He looked uncertain. Are you going to use the bathroom?

Shouldn’t I?

Well, please don’t pour water on the floor.

How then, I asked him.

He guided me to the bathroom. The bath had curtains pulled into the tub, so water would be kept in. A sign with a skull on the wall said: SPILLAGE WILL LEAD TO UNNECESSARY ELECTROCUTION.

I will be careful, I said.

I will see about the tea, Shakeel said.

I checked the flush.

When I turned, Shakeel had disappeared.

I sat on the bed and looked out through the wire-gauze windows at the lake and the mountains. A woman sang from somewhere, and then the green stern of her boat came past the window, followed by the green thwart. She wore a green hijab, and her paddle was green, too.

I went out to the sit-out. All the time, there was a hum about me. Right in front, on the water was a large patch of lotus cultivation. They do a lot with lotus in Kashmir, including cooking it with meat. Everything except putting it up on a flag.

Shakeel appeared with tea.

Better go back in, he said.

The hum had got stronger.

There are wasps about, he said, they will do nothing, this is the season for wasps.

There were a lot of wasps. They came in from the open air and went under a wooden bench on the sit-out.

You could have your tea inside, Shakeel said. He looked as if he was about to cry. His handsome face sweated a lot.

I went inside.

Shakeel closed the doors covered with wire gauze and poured out the tea.

Best to stay inside, he said. You could watch movies, he pointed at the TV.

Is that a good idea to watch TV on the Dal?

I have a great collection, Shakeel, said. Have you watched The Big Lebowski? It is a crazy movie.

I don’t know if I want to watch The Big Lebowski on the waters, I said.

I have other movies, Shakeel said.

Do you download and keep movies?

Yes, I am also a web designer.

A web designer, I repeated.

Yes, we lost a lot of money taking care of my late father in his sick days, Shakeel said. If he had survived cancer, this boat would have had to be sold. I have two sisters going to school. I have to take care of them and my mother. So I learned web designing.

Not enough tourists?

No, Shakeel said, and tourists are unreliable. In winter we will die if we rely on tourists. No one cares, Shakeel said. A lady had promised to come this evening and she had not. I have to have a fall-back, Shakeel said.

Shakeel asked my name. It turned out that I was the wrong guest, too. He was expecting someone else.

How did you book, Shakeel asked.

Agoda.

You should book by bookmytrip.com. Agoda overcharges guests, Shakeel’s eyes welled up.

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So they had. It was all quite confusing. My name, his boat, someone else’s boat. A mist seemed to have descended on us.

Shakeel traced my Agoda account and had the booking cancelled. He said he would get me refunded. Then he took the teacup and disappeared. But this time, I ran after him toward the pantry, and was just in time to catch him slide the wire-gauze window and step out on the platform. I checked all the rooms. All windows could be opened with force, including the one in the bathroom. The doors on the boat had no meaning.

I had a very careful shower and emerged alive. When I stepped out of the curtains, my sandals were missing.

I went out onto the front room. It smelled of Hit, the awful smelling insect spray. Shakeel had sprayed Hit through the wire gauze at the wasps jetting around the sit-out. A few lay dead on the planks. I looked at the mountains through the mesh over the dead wasps.

I opened the door. The breeze coming in from the mountains was cool. During the day, the near hills all around were a touch of turquoise blue except where the naked rocky juts running deep and sheer were grey with a hint of red fire from inside. But by evening the near hills were deep blue and fell from the air, a smooth soft blue blanket, and the far hills a pale blue, though not as pale blue as the sky.

I sat on the creaking platform and watched until I heard the unmistakable hum, but it was too late. Three wasps had recouped. They sortied around me. One distracted me while the other two stung my hand. I ran in and closed the door, and found myself face to face with Shakeel.

He had my sandals in his hand.

Please don’t use the sandals, he said, I keep the carpets very clean.

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The wasps stung me, I said. My left hand was swelling up.

It’s nothing, Shakeel said, the pain will go away.

He sat me down on the sofa-facing window. The sofa sank under our weight. The wooden platform outside creaked.

Shakeel placed the sandals down and took a file from his pocket. He held my hand and began shaving the spot where the wasp broke its sting. The water clucked against the boat. It was very comforting, and I felt sleepy.

I will take the sting out, and you will be all right, Shakeel said, the wasp dies when it breaks its sting.

I looked out through the wire mesh. I could hear a song. Then the green woman went past the window, returning home. Outside, the mountains turned softer and bluer. You could wear your sandals, it’s all right, I heard Shakeel say.

(CP Surendran is the author of One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B, published by Niyogi Books)

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