“Hi, mom, we’re in Gulmarg.”
“Gulmarg? But that’s in Kashmir! Weren’t you both going to Calcutta?” My mum’s puzzled voice came over the phone.
In 2011 it seemed like a good time to visit Kashmir. There was a lull in the militancy that had roiled these parts through the nineties. But we still didn’t want to take any chances. So, to the family, we were going to Calcutta.
“We’re in Kashmir, mom.” I looked across at my wife, waiting for the outburst at the other end. But there was none.
“Why, you rascals, no wonder I couldn’t reach you,” she said. “Have a lovely time.” And we did.
A Quiet Corner
Though we had driven straight from the airport in Srinagar to our first destination, Gulmarg, we would also visit Pahalgam and Sonmarg. But this article is more concerned with the time we spent on Mr Butt’s houseboats moored in a quiet corner of the Dal Lake in Srinagar.
Around the time of India’s independence, an Englishman from Clermont Hall, Norfolk, who had fallen in love with Kashmir, decided to sell the houseboats he had constructed for himself and return to England, that is if his close friend, Mr Haji Butt, didn’t want them. Mr Butt Senior momentously took them on, and in 1947 Butts Clermont Houseboats was born.
Ghulam Nabi Butt, who was probably in his eighties when we met him, had taken over the business from his father. In the decades following its inception, Butts Clermont Houseboats received notable guests such as Lord Mountbatten, Nelson Rockefeller, Adlai Stevenson, Joan Fontaine, Pandit Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, Michael Palin, James Natchtwey and others. Now we could add our names to the list of distinguished guests with just a slight difference — Michael Palin stayed in the houseboat with three bedrooms; ours had two.
At one time, the Dal Lake prided itself on hosting over three thousand houseboats. Today there are maybe fewer than a thousand. In an attempt to save the lake from the polluting nature of houseboats that pump sewage directly into the water, the government first put a ban on new houseboat construction.
Next on its heels came a ban on repairs to existing houseboats. In the beginning, Mr Butt had eight houseboats. Over the decades, four met the same watery grave as did hundreds of others on the lake in need of urgent repair and maintenance that was not forthcoming. Houseboat owners have since witnessed their livelihoods sink before their eyes. Despite all this, Mr Butt was a cheerful and gracious host.
I remember him in his light grey safari suit, sitting in one of the armchairs in the drawing room of our (two-room) houseboat, the light and the chirrups of birds on the lake coming in through the open window behind him, recounting a story of a time in the eighties when militancy was at its peak in the Valley. Tourists were few and far between, but those who ventured to come were mainly journalists covering the violence. They would clamber up, notebooks in hand, and lie flat on the roof of the houseboats listening to the crack of gunfire across the lake.
Stranger in Paradise
Over the course of the few days we spent with Mr Butt on his houseboat, we got to know the staff well — Ramzan, Sultan, Shafi — and grew very fond of them. By all accounts, they had worked and grown up under Mr Butt’s tutelage.
Then one day, we were introduced to Lassa as the boatman of the in-house shikara, Stranger in Paradise, a traditional wooden flat-bottomed boat. He must have been in his late sixties or early seventies, his fair complexion tanned from long hours in the sun. He, too, had been with Mr Butt for the better part of his life. We also learned that, though unschooled, he spoke with a proper British accent and in impeccable English, a by-product of the years of escorting foreign guests around the sights and sounds of the lake in his shikara.
An Early Morning Appointment
We were ready and waiting at 4 am. Lassa and his son helped us climb into the waiting shikara, minding our heads as we ducked under the low canopy. Then, to the sound of gently lapping oars, we slipped out into the still dark water for the floating market on the lake.
We glide past the lit dome and minaret of Hazratbal mosque. Softly we pass between two other boats. Then under a wooden bridge. As dawn breaks, we breakfast on kahwah and Kashmiri bread. We bump into Mr Marvellous, who, after hitching his boat to ours, convinces us that the saffron he sells is 100% genuine.
We float past marshes, where the vegetables and flowers grow. Past the floating houses where farmers live with their families and tend to their crops. Finally, we come upon the mass of bobbing shikaras laden with produce. Father and son navigate their way through the tangle of boats.
Another gentleman hitches himself to our boat and, opening his tin boxes, proceeds to convince us that the saffron he sells is 100% genuine. It is 6 am, and we watch as the farmers go about conducting their business. They come here every morning, in good times and bad, to sell at wholesale prices or to barter with other producers. In half an hour, the crowd had thinned. Shikaras with unsold produce head towards canals that would take them to waiting neighbourhoods along the banks.
Towards the end of our stay, Ramzan carried in a thick, hardbound book and placed it on the table. On the cover, in faded gold lettering, were inscribed the words “Guestbook No. 15”. The pages were filled with promises — some kept, some broken.
Photographs in the article were taken on a Panasonic GF1 with the Panasonic LUMIX G 20mm f/1.7 ASPH lens.