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Kashmir : Journey on a Shikara

<i> Brownback is a free-lance writer living in Inverness, Calif. </i>

Even with the sliding lattice-work screens opened on both sides of the narrow room, it was an airless night in the Vale of Kashmir. My floating neighbors on one side were arguing; on the other, they were celebrating.

Restless, I finally dozed off, only to awaken in a sweat, my father’s furious voice in my ear.

“You must be crazy!” he bellowed. “Going off with three unknown Muslim men.”

My father had been dead 12 years, but I wasn’t arguing. How did I get into such a situation?

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The problem was that a week of paradise was all I could take. That’s how long I’d been living aboard the houseboat Argonaut. The indolent days had become too sweetly contrived, a surfeit of honey.

In the mornings Farouk, a commercial boat guide, would paddle me to the vegetable market in his wooden shikara , a long, gondolalike craft he’d named the King of Diamonds.

From underneath its gold-tasseled canopy I peered out at a traffic jam of market boats piled high with lime-green beans and purple cabbage.

One day we visited Farouk’s cousin’s papier-mache shop, and on another the Shalimar Gardens. After supper he would take me out again, perhaps to watch the pink light fade behind the white mosque, Hazratbal. Musk floated in the air, cardamom seeds in the tea and flattery was on the lips of every trader.

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Everything in Srinagar, a city of 450,000 and the hub of Kashmir’s tourist business, is for the pleasure of the summer visitors. The tourists’ open purse is what keeps the economy going through the frozen winter months when Kashmir has its beauty all to itself.

On the Argonaut I sank into carpets, leaned into velour cushions and was waited on by six men who glided through the rooms as soundlessly as boats through the water. Each man mulled over the possibilities for exchange--and profit--just like Abdul Kalich, one of the Argonaut’s staff who sat barefoot in the corner of the porch, watching as I studied a map.

Abdul wanted to take me up the Jhelum River to see village life, “the real Kashmir.” He spread his own map out on the table while I listened.

But I couldn’t go alone, I insisted. Others would have to be found. To make it a party, I mean.

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“No problem,” he told me. “I will find someone.”

The next day he was all smiles: “Allah is with us. They will come at 7 tonight, to talk.”

“A couple?”

“No. Two men.”

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That evening, several local men appeared on our dock and immediately huddled. After a bit, Abdul came over and told me that we could leave the “next day.”

“I want to meet the others,” I said. “Where are they?”

Two Kashmiri youths emerged from the group.

“I am called Nazaramid,” the tall one said. “Marajhen,” said the younger, shy one.

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“They are strong paddlers,” announced Abdul. “I am guide and cook.”

“But where are the other . . . Westerners?” I asked weakly.

“No more room in the boat,” said Abdul. “For you, not comfortable.”

In slow motion, I began to understand.

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In the conversation I had later with my father, just before I went back to sleep, I told him not to worry. I was too old for a harem and, besides, I liked their faces.

“Go with the flow,” my daughters had been telling me for years.

Our excursion would take three nights and proceed up the Jhelum River north from Srinagar to Lake Manasbal, Lake Wular, the town of Gandarbal, Lake Anchar and home by Lake Nagin and Lake Dal.

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Day 1: On the Jhelum River. We embarked the next afternoon with fierce swiftness, the boys sitting in the rear, pulling hard, in unison, on their heart-shaped paddles.

Abdul Kalich sat in the middle of the 20-foot boat, where he and I were separated by a board that served as his serving table and my backrest. A crude awning was our roof and yellow curtains were pulled around me, for privacy.

Abdul was in charge. He showed me his kerosene stove, his lantern, the bottle water and toilet paper he knew I would ask for. The “facilities” were au naturel .

Abdul was 31 years old and the father of two. The place we were headed was his home.

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In the first hour we passed through Dal Gate and followed the Jehlum west, then north. The river was fast. We practically flew downstream under the nine bridges of the city, curtains flapping, our necks craning to catch sight of the mosques and three-storied brick and wooden houses of the old city.

The houseboats we passed were not for tourists, but were barges called doongas. Looking through their open windows, we caught glimpses of bronze pots on the wall, quilts piled high and scenes of Kashmiri domesticity.

Call to Prayers

From that point on we marked the day by the Muslim Call to Prayers. At 4:30 p.m. a man on the left bank turned to the east and threw himself forward onto the ground. The sun was low and hot on the river, which smelled putrid.

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By 6:30 dusk moved in and Abdul was cooking. The paddlers slowed down, and we all drank beer and listened to a tape of Indian music. From a mosque hidden in the trees nearby the 7:30 call interrupted and put our day to rest.

Abdul lit our lantern and, across the board between us, passed a white napkin and silverware, a plate of curried mutton stew, rice, tiny cubed carrots with a touch of chili and one perfect banana for desert. In the stern the crew ate a spicier version and talked in their own language.

Afterward I chose to sleep in the boat rather than on shore. Abdul asked if he could put his bag down in front with me so that the boys could have more room in the back.

Feet to head, each wrapped in our own thoughts, we faced a noisy night on the river: the whimpers of the baby next door settling down, then, from the woods, the “Late Show” dog chorus.

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In the deepest part of the night I parted the curtains to look out at a new moon and bright stars.

Day 2: Much too soon, a fervent 4:30 a.m. song to the new day rose over the water. It was light when we moved out on a snaky path through a shaded canal, across a garden of water lilies into cool, clear, deep Lake Manasbal, where I put on my tank suit and dived over the side.

This seemed to embarrass my male guides; too much show of skin, I suspected. Kashmiri women bathe fully dressed.

Paddling Furiously

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Over breakfast of fresh fish I admired Abdul’s cool cotton drawstring pants and floppy shirt. In no time the boys were paddling again furiously, this time to the dressmaker.

Five men sat in a closet high off the dirt lane selling soap, sugar and fabric. Abdul, the interpreter and tastemaker, suggested a conservative gray and white print. With this material under my arm, we moved on to the shop with the sewing machine.

In another closet I was measured, while many eyes watched. My Kashmiri dress would be ready the next day. Would I take a picture for them? A rush of men crowded upstairs to carry the bedridden patriarch down to sit for a portrait with his sons and grandchildren.

In the afternoon we visited Abdul’s village of Hajhen. At a place that looked like all the others we moored on the river and walked through the woods, emerging on a dirt main street. I met the schoolteacher, who greeted me, jubilantly, in phrase-book English: “I hope you enjoy your visit to Hajhen.”

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I took dozens of pictures of men grinning insanely before the interiors where they worked. It was a boisterous hour, the first one in Kashmir where no one asked for anything.

“We are not a poor village,” Abdul said. “We have some brick houses.” Nevertheless, during the tourist season, Abdul must leave his family and travel to Srinagar to work on the houseboats. It had been two months since he’d seen Nura and their children.

Abdul lives in his mother-in-law’s house across the lane from the river, behind a willow fence, through a gate and into a mud courtyard he shares with a cow, a goat and some chickens.

When we arrived it was twilight, and a clap of hands sent someone to spread out a carpet in front of the house. A quilt was laid over the carpet, and on top of the quilt was a pillow. I was motioned toward it, and Abdul came to sit beside me. Another hand clap brought his 7-year-old son with the hookah water pipe for his father.

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Served Spicy Tea

After a while the boy’s mother-in-law came to sit beside me. From the outdoor kitchen we were served spicy tea and nan bread.

Then, one by one, the women of the house took turns coming to sit with me. Nura could be Abdul’s sister; it was the same face. She was five months pregnant and carrying a feverish 2-year-old on her hip.

I met many cousins, some of the 13 people who sleep in the four rooms of the house. To cover what I took as awkward silences, I attempted small talk--praising Abdul’s omelets and asking questions.

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But my hosts had no such compulsions. Mostly, we sat in what Kipling called the “uncounted Eastern minutes,” watching night fall on the river.

Snatches of conversation echoed through the courtyard and interrupted the wheeze of the hookah . Abdul inhaled deeply, anxiously cradling his pale daughter as we settled into the muggy darkness together, whacking away at the first mosquitoes.

Day 3: When I awoke in the boat the next morning, some senses told me that I was not alone. Pulling back the curtains, I found a dozen children waiting for me to get up. On stage, brushing my teeth over the side, I tried to keep white drips off my chin. Indians at their morning toilets discreetly rubbed twigs between their teeth.

We made a quick backtrack to the boutique to collect my pantsuit. After I emerged from my dressing space, many cheered, and I sat lighter in the boat, with my wide, soft trousers as flimsy and yielding as the summer breezes.

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By then it was clear that we wouldn’t be camping out in tents. The shikara-- cleaner, cooler, drier than the earth and supplying us with rations and protection from the creatures of the night--became our refuge from the struggle for survival.

Surrounded by Struggle

We saw the struggle all around us. In the morning mist, men crowded into their shikaras, dredging the silt, which they used as a building material, from the river bottom.

One man stood, poling; another, with a long-handled shovel, dug, while a third, who held a strong cord attached to the shovel, was the human pulley who lifted the shovel toward the mountain of mud rising in the center of the boat.

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We saw young women fishing with their feet on the shallow bottom for twigs brought in by the current; they would dry these and use them for kindling. We watched a stream of young girls race along the river banks, heading for home with baskets of grass on their heads, some weighing as much as 15 pounds.

On our last night on the river, not quite in the dark, I asked Abdul about his arranged marriage. He was 20 and his father was dead, he said, when his older brother told him he had found the perfect wife for him.

Unconvinced, he got her name and village, took the next day off from work and went to her village. “Who is this Nura?” he asked. When she was pointed out, he approached her and managed a casual conversation. Suddenly suspicious, she wanted to know, “Who are you anyway, taking my time?”

“I am your husband.”

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Her face went red and she ran away in a rage, screaming back at him, “No you’re not!”

“I liked her too much,” was the way he put it.

A Sound Sleep

Afterward, before the ceremony, they saw each other for a year, but never alone.

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“It is not like in America,” Abdul said. “She must stay home and not let other men see her.”

I slept soundly that night. After three days up the Jhelum looking for the real Kashmir I had become conditioned--to the dogs, the mosquitoes, the rocking of the shikara, even to the kick in Abdul’s nocturnal nightmare, which I responded to with an automatic, wifely kick back.

Even in sleep the consummate trader grinned. He knew he had delivered his promises.

It hadn’t been so much a linear journey as a step through the curtains to backstage, where I had been introduced to the players without their makeup.

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Abdul’s kinsmen had not charmed one single cobra for their visitor. They had simply offered themselves . . . with the assurance that that would be enough.

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Srinagar is 555 miles from Delhi, or about an hour and 10 minutes via Indian Air Lines, which has several flights daily. Round-trip price is $154 U.S.

For less money but a lot less comfort, you can cross the Punjab on the overnight Jammu Tavi Express from New Delhi ($31.50 for a first-class ticket), then continue by bus ($10) the next morning to Srinagar. It’s a rugged 183-mile, 9- to 12-hour journey.

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Warning: The Department of State suggests that “because of sporadic incidents of political and criminal violence in the Punjab area” travelers should check with the American Embassy in New Delhi before traveling through this area. Air travel is thus recommended. A regular Indian visa is all that’s needed.

Best time to visit the Srinagar area is mid-May through September. April and October can be nice, too, but it can also be quite rainy.

Many tour operators and travel agencies can arrange Srinagar houseboat stays in advance. I paid about $20 a day. Planning a shikara trip up the Jhelum River into the Sindh Valley is best undertaken after arrival in Srinagar.

Ask your houseboat owner or inquire at the Tourist Reception Centre. Look for a guide who really knows the villages; you don’t want to just paddle by.

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The Spartan voyage I took was arranged solely between Abdul Kalich and me. Like many houseboat employees he operates such trips on the side. Abdul arranged for the boat, hired the paddlers and bought and cooked the food. I paid about the same as I did on the houseboat, $20 a day.

If you make arrangements this way, be sure to define precisely what is included and what is not. Make no assumptions. Pay only a small advance. Ask for references and compare services with reputable agencies. Bargaining is expected, except with Western suppliers.

Abercrombie & Kent, which has a representative in Srinagar and its head office in Delhi, can arrange a deluxe version of the shikara trip--four days and three nights, all-inclusive, for $816 per person, based on double occupancy. You’ll be in glorious comfort. Contact Abercrombie & Kent in the United States at 1420 Kensington Road, Oak Brook, Ill. 60521, toll-free (800) 323-7308 or (312) 954-2944.

Sita World Travel is another established agency with a representative in Srinagar. U.S. address: 767 Fifth Ave., New York 10153, (800) 262-1297 (in California) or (212) 759-8979.

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What to take on your trip: a black umbrella for sun or rain; insect repellent; bottled water or a water bottle with iodine tablets or other purification system; dependable flashlight with extra batteries; toilet paper; soap and a sleeping bag liner of light cotton flannel. Wear what the Kashmiri wear: loose cottons, thongs, lightweight wool in the cool evenings.

For general information on travel to India, contact the Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 380-8855.


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