The first time I saw Mohammed Sultan, I marked him as a reticent man. That was two mornings ago. Now, as we sip pink, salty noon-chai by the lake, I reclassify him as a man of measured words and emotions. He speaks with slow deliberation in a thick Kashmiri accent, and can discuss political conflict without giving away his own opinion. His houseboat–now mine on rent–is one of hundreds moored on the Dal Lake in Srinagar, encircled by the Zabarwan hills. Built with local cedar, the houseboat seems furnished with the single-minded ambition of recreating the grandeur of erstwhile royal palaces – on a budget. The floor is swathed in handmade Kashmiri carpets, the walls panelled with intricately-carved wood, the ceiling covered in rich golden brocade, the furniture plush with embroidered covers.
Life is returning to the Valley, Sultan tells me. I believe him. Early this morning as I saw chinar trees reflected in the lake’s shimmering water, and heard the muezzin’s prayer-call rouse a sleepy capital to life, I felt a sense of serenity that belied the fact that Kashmir is one of the most militarized regions on earth. After two decades of violence that not only exacted a tragic human toll but also wreaked impoverishment upon locals, these more peaceful times are making the Valley welcome visitors gladly.
In the afternoon, I ride out to Dal Lake in a gondola-like red-canopied shikara with Umar, the younger of Sultan’s two sons. The lake is self-sustained, with everything from basic needs to indulgences available for sale on drifting shikaras. An old man, beard red with henna, floats up to us. His shikara is laden with silk rugs rolled up in a corner; silver trinkets nestled in velvet jewelry cases; dry fruits laid out in neat rows inside cardboard boxes; pinches of saffron, that most expensive of spices, in air-tight vials. He catches my eye and makes that split-second assessment at which suave traders excel: had I looked older or richer, he may have offered me his pashmina shawls; for now, I am exhorted to look at his papier-mâché collection.
On our ride back, Umar discloses he wants to “learn Facebook”, as he would any language that helps promote his business. He loves talking as much as his father likes to stop mid-sentence to pick the right words. I ask about his older brother and am told, after a pause, that he’s been missing for four years. Whether taken away by the army or the militants, whether still alive or not, his family does not know. As I grope for the right words, beneath the veneer of normalcy visible to outsiders, the extent of Kashmir’s tragedy hits home.(First published on http://journals.worldnomads.com/amis/#axzz36lykFMoO as an entry for the WorldNomads Travel Scholarship 2014)