Written in 1999 for National Geographic Traveler magazine
As our century draws to a close there seem fewer and fewer places that, mythologized by the past, have survived intact through our era of over-tourism. At the same time, other remote places that a resourceful traveller could happily rummage around in twenty years ago have, due to political upheavals, become areas to avoid—and may remain off-limits for our lifetimes. Iran, Afghanistan, parts of Central America and of Africa come quickly to mind. But none of those were ever among the world’s popular tourist spots. They were 19th century myths associated with derring-do and explorers, not with a vision of pure, eternal beauty accessible to anyone—like Kashmir.
In 1984, at the end of an Indian journalism assignment and just before the summer monsoon, I left an overheated Delhi and flew north to Srinagar, in the Vale of Kashmir, to relax for a week among the ethereal lakes and mountains. Who then could’ve predicted that one of the most beautiful places on earth, the Kashmir of transcendental serenity and the enchanted name, would soon close down even to Indian tourists and become utterly off-limits for foreigners, with a reputation for kidnappings and unleashed political violence?
When I recall that time—having since written a travel memoir about the subcontinent—I see how much of the best of India, and how many of its difficulties, were made eloquent to me in that week in Kashmir. The technicolor natural beauty; the daily humor and annoyances; the constant theater of the people; even the legacy of British imperial rule, in the paradox of comfortable houseboats where you could escape the torpor of the Ganges plain and be pampered by proud Muslim tribesmen, living here since ancient times, now (with colonial irony) trained to be hoteliers.
Most of all, there was a particular mystical charm unique to Kashmir, which anyone who visited it then remembers with a flood of nostalgia and disbelief. To be in the Vale is to be becalmed, and to leave the world, and the concerns of the world, really far behind. This is partly geographical, for until airplanes came to India, the valley—a hundred miles by twenty—was reachable only by camel, elephant, horseback, and sore feet.
Remoteness is partly why people visit tropical islands, of course, but much of Kashmir’s profound allure is philosophical, too. There is something unfathomably unreal about the place, in which the laws of time and motion do not apply and are quickly forgotten. A day there can feel like a week, and a week feels like a month; every element haunts the memory as in a vaporous dream. To speak of Kashmir in such extreme terms is traditional, since it has always had this effect on everyone.
Kashmir had flourished most under Mogul rule, especially in the 17th century, when the emperor Jahangir built the Shalimar Gardens for his wife. The Vale then contained seven hundred such gardens, though only a few of those Mogul masterpieces remain. Jahangir’s dying wish was that Paradise resemble Kashmir.
When the new countries of India and Pakistan were carved out of British India in 1947, the princely state of Kashmir was the odd man out. Largely Muslim, yet owned by a Hindu maharajah, it became part of India and has been a flashpoint with Pakistan ever since. Three wars have erupted over its potential independence; separatist violence closed its hotels from 1989 until recently. Last year the situation was quieter, but there is no telling if Kashmir may settle down enough to reenter the guidebooks.
When I visited there were few such fears, and despite the fact it was midsummer, when most foreigners avoid India’s heat, there were plenty of tourists. Srinagar, ringed by the rough, slate-gray mountains of the lower Himalayas, is the Venice of India; all life occurs around water. The capital looks medieval, built from stone or wood and peopled by canny-faced tribesmen from all over the East, with smoky alleys, trundling horse-carts, cluttered bazaars, sooty utensil-shops and creaking bridges. I wandered among exiled Tibetans lugging huge, hairy carpets past merchants’ rickety houseboats and fabric shops of blazing color. After the parched heat of Delhi I found the hypnotic relief of magnificent blossoming trees and a cool, watery breeze. Except for the tourists, none of that has changed.
Shikharas—narrow, flat-bottom skiffs that ply the Vale’s lakes and their complex tributary systems—are Kashmir’s taxis, gondolas, trucks, buses, stores, and bicycles. Some shikharas are utilitarian and worn; others, with mildly racy names, have sofas in yellows, reds, and purples, and matching canopies.
There is only one way to fully enter Kashmir’s state of mind. I crossed Dal Lake in Lolita to the houseboat I’d reserved. It was about 120 feet by 20, intricately carved, with a roof deck and a shaded stern veranda facing the lake. Her bow was moored to the shore of a great island. Houseboats stretched away on both sides, mere meters apart; about five hundred cluster near Srinagar.
Next to us were the Prince of Vale, the Rolex, the Floating Heaven, the Pinafore, and the Free Love. Some looked a century old, with a comic air from being so immobilized. All had stern staircases to the water, a low-slung curve, an attached kitchen-boat and servants. My luxurious Tehran cost only twenty bucks a day with meals—this was also part of Kashmir’s perennial charm.
The Tehran’s manager was a wiry man named Ghulam. When I told him I was American, he seemed surprised.
I said, “Don’t you get many Americans on the Tehran?”
This was at the height of U.S.-Iran tension.
He said with real sorrow, “It is an unfortunate name, sir, but what can I do? It is not my houseboat.”
“How do Americans react?”
“They worry,” he said incredulously. “They worry.”
Here along the shore the freshwater lake was less than ten feet deep, and filled with wavering, submerged ferns. Out where the lake was deeper, and possibly hygienic, floated four grand white houseboats, for diving. I swam from them daily—the water warm and clear, with chiseled mountains fanned out all around.
My houseboat’s salon, with sofas and Kashmiri carpets, was flooded by sunlight off the lake. Beyond was a Victorian dining room, complete with mahogany table, lace tablecloths, polished silver. The two large suites had embroidered drapes, ornate woven blankets, and a cigar-box coziness belied by their up-to-date bathrooms. Over my suite’s desk hung a busty, Indianized reproduction of the Mona Lisa.
As a journalist and an enthusiastic traveller I am used to arriving somewhere with a long list of things to do, either for work or self-improvement. It felt strange to arrive in this exotic place and realize I was there only to let it lull me—that to nod off and dream while reading was in fact the point.
No wonder that during World War II the Dal Lake, with its Red Cross hospital, was a favorite convalescence spot. Soldiers got well there quickly, for it was easy to rent a houseboat and a willing Kashmiri girl. And what could be more soothing than to fall asleep to the groan of houseboats and the gulp of paddles as shikharas murmured past, going home for the night?
The tradition is to take breakfast on the stern veranda and window-shop from shikharas, a maritime Macy’s that pesters you ceaselessly with silver and jade jewelry, a shave, apples, nuts, carpets, a sip from a hookah, saffron, treasures from Tibet, flowers, papier-maché boxes, and shawls. These shawls were, since ancient times, important in the Vale’s trade, for Kashmir lies on a silk route. Thus the shawls reached Egypt; and once Napoleon’s soldiers brought them back to Paris, they became fashionable. The Empress Josephine owned hundreds, as Napoleon’s method of baring her shoulders was to fling her shawl into the fire—an allegory for what separatist violence has done to Kashmir.
Near the houseboat a small boy, by an island scarcely bigger than his shikhara, was digging up weeds and mud and loading them on board. To him it was all moveable real estate which he could sell. The boy pushed off with his heart-shaped paddle and set off down a tributary into town with his valuable muck, followed by a fleet of ducks and a shikhara of Japanese tourists clicking away.
Just three houseboats down stood a gabled hotel, white with red trim, on the larger island to which we were moored. In front was a modest lawn. Large letters on one wing read: HOTEL LEEWARD. Since arriving, the name had nagged at me. It seemed familiar, though I couldn’t fathom why. Then it came to me.
V. S. Naipaul, in his 1964 masterpiece on India, An Area of Darkness, devotes the happiest chapter of the book (“A Doll’s House on the Dal Lake”) to his three months in Srinagar. Naipaul, only thirty, had already published four novels, including A House for Mr. Biswas, and his non-fiction examination of the Caribbean, The Middle Passage. Naipaul and his British wife Pat, seeking calm and privacy, stayed not on a houseboat but in the lake’s only hotel, just getting started.
There were numerous discrepancies. The tiny hotel claimed they had a flush-system; they had none. They agreed that before Naipaul moved in, a desk would appear. None did. Both these defects Naipaul got set right in a couple of days. When the light in his reading lamp burned out, he had to replace it himself. Other guests could be troublesome; one kept switching off the news on the radio. And Naipaul was continually being called upon by the hotel’s owner to intercede with the Srinagar Tourist Authority, to write recommendations of the premises, to invite important people over for tea.
Such a vocation was something of an ordeal. Yet Naipaul managed to produce in a single month (August, 1962) a masterly short novel of modern London, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. And his relations with the hotel staff are among the most memorable in An Area of Darkness.
“In those early days the hotel. . . had a rough-and-ready air. . . we were in the middle of the lake. Beyond the alert kingfishers, the fantastic hoopoes pecking in the garden, beyond the reeds and willows and poplars, our view unbroken by houseboats, there were the snow-capped mountains. Before me a nightcapped man, hopping about restlessly, and at the end of the garden a new wooden shed, his home, unpainted and warm against the gloom of low-hanging willows. . . .”
In those days it was appropriately misspelled Hotel Liward. Was it still run by Mr. Bhat (spelled by Naipaul Butt, as it’s pronounced—“smiling shyly behind his spectacles. . . abstracted”)? Was Aziz, his principal servant (“one of Snow White’s own men in a woolen nightcap”) still there, too? Aziz had accompanied Naipaul on a long pilgrimage, 20,000 strong, to the Cave of Amarnath in the mountains.
“Yes, of course, it is Mr. Bhat’s hotel. Where else, sir, would they be?”
I got paddled the short distance over to the hotel. Mr. Bhat was indeed at home, seated in shade among his roses and smoking abstractly from a great gurgling hookah. His hair was thin and white, as was his beard, he had an Ahab face, he nodded at the name Naipaul. He didn’t speak, his attention directed to the hookah.
Aziz came waddling downstairs, looking similarly unchanged, his shape hugely indefinite in slack gray robes. He wore the requisite white Muslim skull-cap, and I decided—to finish Naipaul’s simile—his name might be Bashful. Or had there been a Sly?
Lying, I said I was a friend of Naipaul’s, and Aziz went into a side office and came out with a photograph of the hotel as it’d been. I asked to see the suite where the Naipauls had stayed.
“Only one room left, sahib,” said Aziz. “Others—” He made a magical gesture that suggested infinite expansion, remodelling, expense. As he led me upstairs, he said, “And how is Mrs. Naipaul?”
“I think she’s fine.”
Aziz grinned apologetically, his moon-face tugging his whole body forward. “His book banned in India.” He looked sheepish, as if his own presence in its pages might be the cause.
“It’s not banned any more. I saw it in the Srinagar bazaar. Have you read it?”
He said, “We had a copy, but a German three months past take our copy.”
There was something endearing about waiting twenty years to still not read about yourself. I wondered what people had told him. Or had he read it, after all?
The room was square, nondescript, with two beds. It was almost wholly without character, except for the sounds of the lake, and hence not a bad room to write in. I suggested Aziz put up a small plaque.
He said, “That is a fine idea, sahib,” but I felt he was just being polite.
Back in the garden Aziz brought me tea and Mr. Bhat ceased gurgling at his hookah long enough to ask how Mr. Naipaul’s career had gone.
I said, “Since he stayed here, it has gone very well.”
Both nodded. They were still imagining that young man and his wife who’d resided many years ago; they knew nothing of what he’d achieved. I asked if many people recognized the association.
Mr. Bhat’s face lit up. “Every so often someone who stays here asks.” He handed me a business card with a very blurred photo of the expanded hotel (The Biggest Of It’s Kind In Dal Lake, serving you since 1959). He said, “Give him our very best. Ask him to come back again.”
“Ask him to come back with Mrs. Naipaul,” said Aziz.
Leaving, it struck me that they were relieved to go back to their hookah or their chores and not be involved in the past. At first I thought it was that they did not like being reminded of their fame; but perhaps it was the thought of many strangers knowing so much, all of it still unknown to them, that was so unnerving.
Unlike most of India, Kashmir’s appeal lies in granting the easy, unearned wisdom of nothing active to do; ever since the Moguls the place has been described as more a fluid alternate dimension than a destination. I wanted to experience the Vale’s lakes and waterways, which on a map resemble a snake that has gorged itself repeatedly. I set off one morning in a daffodil-yellow shikhara with three paddlers. I sat under a forward canopy, on a sofa that kept swallowing me.
A narrow channel led us through a marketplace of huts on stilts and shikharas laden with fruit. We came on a small lake that was entirely a floating garden of blooming lilies. In a bigger lake were row upon row of vegetables, tilled fields growing right from the water. The method is ingenious. A long, wide plank of wood is fastened to the shallow lake bottom with reeds. Then muck is piled on the plank until it reaches the surface. (One paddler demonstrated by clambering out and bouncing on the floating garden like a diving board.) Some floating fields were fenced by barbed wire, since a whole livelihood could be stolen by simply towing it off.
The day unwound down silent waterways opening to endless lakes. In the heat it was as if life was only a universe of still water beneath a glazed sky, and all that was required was a slow-motion glide. Occasionally there’d be a small island with a tiny gazebo or temple, a shikhara pulled up, and picnicking schoolgirls unwrapping their sandwiches.
Once it was British picnics on these tree-shaded islands. Kashmir has mostly been ruled by non-Muslims; in 1846 the British had placed the local maharajah in power. By 1890 many British were summering in the Vale to escape the heat of the plains. The maharajah decreed it illegal for any non-Kashmiri to own land, so the houseboats were an astute loophole. British residents built them in droves, dreaming of “Pale Hands I Loved, Beside the Shalimar.” Today even the Srinagar post office is on a houseboat.
We drifted down one narrow passage, beneath circling hawks, past a village of huts in the forest—the men cutting planks from poplar trees to be made into cricket bats for export, the girls slapping tattered clothes against stone stairs to the water, the boys splashing like seals. Then the lake we were crossing became fragrant, and swans appeared around our shikhara; we were at the Shalimar Gardens.
Conceived on a grand scale, the Shalimar’s episodes each still retain the modest intimacy of a gift offered to a lover. With many groves divided by small canals you can actually step across, they form a sympathetic descending carpet between the mountains and the lake. These receding levels, with ever-taller trees as you look back to the Himalayas, emanate a vast languor.
We stayed in the Shalimar a long time. Afterward we drifted under a tiny stone bridge; we kept drifting. Going back, the paddles’ heartbeat was slow, knowing a rest was coming. I fell asleep until the rain came pelting.
We reached the houseboat just as the sun came out again. Afternoon tea—British, with milk, not the salty green Kashmiri tea—was waiting on the veranda. Dark thunderheads, clouds of battle, were coming over the scarred mountains. But they were not here yet, and a rainbow was arcing down out of heaven. It filled the sky and came down into the lake. Around it the shikharas darted and dallied, skimming the water like dragonflies.
I might’ve stayed longer, but I was sure I could always go back. Because I am a novelist first, and a journalist second, for me the ultimate test of a new place is whether I imagine myself staying there to write—taking a room, establishing a daily routine, and getting a novel underway. Man needs time to dream as he needs his daily bread; a novelist puts that time onto paper. The pressures of the world conspire constantly against this kind of reflection, which makes the dream of Kashmir more valuable for all of us. For travellers the lesson is that it’s often the state of mind we achieve in a new place that we remember most deeply, beyond what we saw or did, for it shows us another vision of ourselves. Anyway, in the end all places exist only in memory.
Then the idyll was broken. My last two days in Kashmir were under a strict 24-hour curfew when separatist protests broke out near the city. Several died, and the army clamped down. No one was allowed in or out of a rumor-gripped Srinagar. To be unable to move in that splendor, to essentially be under house arrest on my houseboat, felt peculiar, like being stuck waiting for a war.
I escaped by getting paddled over at dawn to a grand hotel, formerly the maharajah’s palace, where a crew of Air India pilots were waiting to fly back to New Delhi. I checked in and made friends by watching pornographic videos with the pilots for an interminable afternoon and evening. When their jet took off the next morning, virtually empty, from an airport full of desperate tourists pleading to be allowed out, I was on it.
Fifteen years have passed. Those houseboats, lakes, and mountains are still there, but the tourists aren’t. A place of sumptuous beauty has all but vanished to an amnesiac outside world, and become instead simply another newspaper dateline of turmoil. Kashmir is once again inaccessible, a Shangri-La waiting for the world to discover it. We should never take such places for granted, because the dream they offer is more vulnerable now than in any other century.