In Freeze Frames: Life Inside Lake

Life inside frozen Dal Lake. KO Pics by Mir Yasir Mukhtar.

Away from the shoreline decorated with Mughal Gardens and a front lined with houseboats, the Dal Lake houses hundreds of families, most of whom make their living from fishing and farming. The arrival of the winter like always means an increase in the hardships for them.

By Mir Yasir Mukhtar

IN the arctic ambiance of Kashmir’s iconic Dal Lake, fisherman Ghulam Hassan is fighting a ‘cold war’ these days.

He equates the ongoing winter with the classic cold — when the frozen waters of the lake would turn stony surface for some memorable expeditions, like the fabled jeep ride of the erstwhile Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad.

While kings and their courtiers would gallop across its length and breadth, children would play on the icy surface of the lake.

But that faded romance with the frozen waters apart, fifty-year-old lake-man Hassan is currently fighting a battle with his shivering nerves.

Winter, the tough time of the year, is even tougher in the lake.

“Not that we’re complaining about it,” Hassan standing near his abode says, “but life inside the lake is far from mesmerizing during winters.”

Born in houseboat and brought up by fishing, Hassan has seen the lake evolution—from poet’s musings to commoner’s dirges—quite closely.

When landmasses started emerging as some votebank incentive from the lake in his youthful days, his family also crawled out of their watery abode and built a house.

Many moons later, one fine day, the house would rise up in flames and bring “immense hardships” for his family.

Later the fisherman would rebuild a four-room single-storey house for his family with a bank loan.

But beyond this struggling story, Hassan’s daily trysts with the frozen lake are tough and tolling.

Fishing in sub-zero temperature cannot be a vocation of the faint-hearted around this period. One has to wake-up before the break of the day, chart a course deep into the frozen lake and return late in the evening or spent the night out, in case there is not a sufficient catch in the nets — sufficient still being meager, since winter sees a reduction of fishes in the lake.

“This life is a gift by God, so we manage and live with what was handed down to us by fate,” Hassan continues.

“Fishing in winter is an art, because you need to work under harsh climatic conditions. It doesn’t fulfill our needs but we manage and take this work as worship.”

Fishing in winter can cause severe health implications, like chilblains, raptures, and frostbites. Hassan himself suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that always worsens in winter.

“The body petrifies like a statue,” Hassan describes the frozen time in the lake.

“Any sort of work is very hard in the winter. I feel fatigued, my hands start to shiver and body gets jitters, yet nevertheless, I’m always successful in dealing with it. The thought of hunger pushes me to work. I would do any other work in winter if there was the availability of it, but alas!”

Hassan’s views are reflected by his water-borne community.

His next-door neighbour, Ali Mohammad Dar, a 65-year-old fisherman, comments upon the winter with a shiver. “What do you know about winter, kid!” he smiles, as wrinkles trace across his forehead.

“These hands are the witness of some of the harshest winters in the valley. When I used to do fishing, I had to cross the iced lake. Before casting net, I would break the white sheet of ice covering the surface of the lake. Now fishing and bearing the cold has become a habit for us. We bear the cold water, the snow, rain and the changes of atmosphere because we see it every coming winter. Hurdles make you strong, so does the winter. We have learned to live in such hard conditions.”

To display the cruelty of the lake, Dar puts out his rough and chapped hands that hold a firepot and says, “This Kanger and Phiran have been my sole friends in this journey. The blazing embers in Kanger are the witness of this weather, too. Fishing in winter is not an easy job.”

For the lake women, the trails of the daily life are no less.

From doing the dishes and washing the clothes with cold water of the lake, to peddle the catch of fishes in the city marketplaces and countryside towns, their life is riddled with hardships.

Active participation ensures a great deal of woman emancipation inside the lake, as well as spares the men from two-fold hardship.

“It has forever been so,” Hassan continues. “Men catch the fish, and the women sell them.”

The community reserves the rainy and snowy days to knit the throwing nets.

A crafty hand would take around nine months to weave a throwing net, called ‘Gurun-Zaal’ or ‘Nuk-Patte Zaal’ in Kashmiri.

The weight of the net can be approximately of 9 kilograms due to the metal ‘naag’ stitched on the bottom which helps catch the little fish.

With changing times, the lake has also witnessed a shift. The millennial is reluctant to follow in the footsteps of their forefathers.

Most of them think that their ancestral vocation is not their line of living owing to hardships and lack of returns in it.

“My children are not willing to continue the family work,” Hassan says. “They’d rather hawk clothes or do some other stuff than bear the trouble of doing the fishing in the lake.”

Apart from fishing, farming also takes a backseat in winters.

Even as the floating vegetable market runs without any hiccups, the vegetable gardening is totally excused through the frosty season.

Tourism, as another alternate source to supplement the income, is unreliable, because it’s always the first and foremost calamity of the wavering political weather of Kashmir.

In preparation of the winter, these lake dwellers dehydrate vegetables, because that way the eatables last longer during the cold season.

The lake-men also collect logs and branches and burn them to have charcoal to fuel their Kangers during winter.

Because the erratic power-cuts are a norm, the candles, kerosene lanterns and other forms of traditional sources of light are put in use.

The updates about the weather are heard keenly by the old from the young, who regularly check the tweets from Meteorological Department of Jammu and Kashmir, and then, when the snow comes, the men climb the roofs of their houseboats with spades in their hands and clear the rooftops.

“We sometimes need to wake up at 3 in the morning to clear rooftops of our houseboats, so that the weight of the snow won’t capsize it,” Mohammad Shaban Zargar, a houseboat owner in his eighties, comments.

“Every year we maintain our boats. If a boat wrecks, it’s a huge loss to the family and the owner.”

While elders remain on their toes, the children of the lake relish the winter for more reasons.

The snowball tournaments take place in-between the different groups formed at the whim of a coin-toss. The season of tales also begins, where the heroes from the fables and folklore revisit the lake yet again.

Cricket is another recreational activity which unlike summer cannot be disturbed by the attendance at the schools.

But despite the current cold proving to be the classic winter in Kashmir, Abdul Gafar Tuman, a sexagenarian shikarawala, says the lake has seen the worst.

“In my childhood,” Tuman says, “icicles would hang on the rooftop of our houseboat and we would always be eager to eat them. We used to sing Kashmiri hymns like ‘Sheena paito paito, mama yeto yeto’ [Come, oh snow, come! Be a dear, and come]. And when snow would fall, we would have snowball fights on the lake that’d be frozen like the brass. That eagerness and enthusiasm has forever gone now.”

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