A Year of Silent Houseboats

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Photo by: Tooba Towfiq

It has been a year of longing, a year of waiting, a year of reverie and a year of silent houseboats

Muneeza Rafiq

IT has been a year since I have heard anyone speak in German or in Siamese or even in Marathi. It has been a year of longing, a year of waiting, a year of reverie and a year of silent houseboats —quiet and empty.

At my home, mornings would always be full of activity. Most mornings I would wake up to the smell of omelettes and gentle clatter of knives and forks against china. I would hear my mother talking in broken English, desperately searching for English counterparts of Kashmiri words.

One could see the excitement of heading to Gulmarg or Sonamarg in the early morning rush. Boilers at the back of houseboats would billow smoke; warming the cold water. The roaring engines of Royal Enfields were another hallmark. “Madam main flower wala, flower lega?” or “Memsahab, would you like to see some jewellery?” would say the Shikarawalas.

Tourists wearing Pherans would pose for the photographer, excited to take in as much Kashmir as they could. That’s how my mornings used to be — a showcase of foreign languages and Kashmir’s hospitality.

Evenings were filled with chats in languages I couldn’t comprehend. An occasional laughter would burst out from dining rooms. Houseboats used to be like that — lively wooden things reverberating with light, laughter and conversations with a cuppa kehwa to sip.

I haven’t had any of that for a year now.

The last time there were any tourists was in July, last year. Since then, houseboats are lying vacant. While much of business is turning around now, however, small houseboats and the people associated with them haven’t seen any change. The people associated with houseboats have been watching their boats turn into poor irrelevant things.

As a kid, I would play with children from different places — Mumbai, Pune, Australia, Kerala, and Korea to name a few. We would sneak into a houseboat (we have three boats at my home) and play hide and seek; hiding under anything — dining table, beds, chairs and couches.

I never felt any different from them and they showered me with lots of love. They looked at me in awe, surprised, at my fair complexion, long nose and certainly my red cheeks. At times, I along with Dadu, would go to Gulmarg with them or to the Mughal Gardens.

I never knew life would take a drastic turn and take away the only way of life we have ever known.

Over the years, the number of tourists that come to stay in houseboats has been nothing but dwindling. Beeline of agents and cheap hotels are among the factors responsible for the decline. Nothing can replace the exotic experience that a houseboat offers and maintaining its delicacy is not an easy task. Huge investments go into maintaining a boat. The workers skilled in repairing a houseboat are limited, demanding high wages. Additionally, since a houseboat is solely made of deodar, it becomes a very expensive and cumbersome affair to buy timbre when it is needed.

With all the expenses, the price per room of a houseboat has still stayed more or less the same during recent years making it less and less profitable to run a boat. There have been many instances in which a houseboat caught fire charring its wooden dexterity, walnut wood furniture, expensive carpets and wood carving. The losses are massive.

The funny part is there is no policy which compensates houseboat owners when their boats are reduced to ashes or when a houseboat submerges requiring investment in crores (the prices of timbre have skyrocketed). What is even worse is the fact that there’s no way of insuring houseboats.

Houseboat owners have never been offered any worthy economic stimulus whenever situation turned bad in Kashmir and the administration promotes, “Kashmir’s potential for tourism” with houseboats and shikaras printed on banners.

Sometimes due to lack of resources an owner sells his boat and prefers another venture. This is the reason why the number of houseboats in Srinagar’s water bodies has gone down from 1500 to a mere 900, as recently reported by The Tribune.

Houseboats are Kashmir’s and Kashmiris’ heritage and have been an important part of Kashmir’s tourism industry. Houseboats are an inseparable part of Kashmir’s identity and culture. There was a time when Britishers would come to stay in houseboats because of the luxurious experience that they offer.

Houseboats in the past have attracted film stars and many high-profile guests. International celebrities like the Beatles lead guitarist George Harrison too have stayed in houseboats but unfortunately no step has been taken by subsequent administrations to promote and preserve them.

It’s been more than a year now without any business. To top it off, the government recently announced the New Houseboat Policy which requires houseboat owners to re-register their boats after fulfilling certain conditions such as having a digester, a sophisticated menu and a modern kitchen. Under this policy, making of new houseboats is strictly prohibited. It encourages houseboat owners to surrender their boats for a meagre compensation. This policy comes at a time when houseboat community is most vulnerable. The policy seeks to relocate houseboats; to where? — Only God knows.

This policy aims at wiping out houseboats in the name of conservation of Dal. At a time when big businesses around the world have been shattered, this policy requires houseboat owners to make massive investments or risk losing their registration.

The haphazard manner in which the policy has been rolled out without logical consideration of rehabilitation and preservation, makes the agenda clear: to take advantage of the helplessness of the houseboat community and snatch their livelihoods by relocating their boats away from the Dal.

The houseboat community has always cooperated in the conservation of Dal. It being their source of livelihood, they will willingly make the necessary amendments to their boats. However, the way in which the policy has been framed, its timing and its aim to separate the two is regrettable.

Are only houseboats and Dal dwellers polluting the Dal?

On many occasions I have seen people tossing wrappers and plastic bottles into the lake and going about their lives as if the responsibility to conserve Dal lies solely with the Dal dwellers. But when it comes to taking aesthetic pictures with Dal and Shikaras in the background, the passion with which people do it is hypocritically unparalleled.

The time is not far away when there will be no houseboats lining the waters of Dal and no aesthetic backgrounds. I know many people who are considering selling their boats. It is too painful to see this community losing their boats — for a houseboat owner his boat is his right arm.

Houseboats creak when you walk in them, reminding you to be gentle. They smell of timbre and walnut, Lotus and Lilies, Kehwa and Kashmir. As houseboats fade into the background, abandoned, forlorn and forgotten, I may never wake up to find that gentle clatter of knives and forks against china and might never hear my mother speak in broken English — searching desperately for English counterparts of Kashmiri words.

  • Muneeza Rafiq is a student of Economics

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