On choppy waters

On choppy waters
In post-independence Kashmir, turmoil is simmering, the social fabric is changing, and this paradise on earth is threatened from various quarters. Malla Khaliq, the noble patriarch, is a houseboat owner on Dal Lake in Srinagar.

Life for him is about wishing dear ones on the first snow of the season, and waiting for musk willows to bloom, and for almond buds and mustard flowers to come to life along the road to Shalimar at the end of winter. Malla Khaliq’s three houseboats are named Gul, Gulshan and Gulfam. ‘Gul’ means flower, ‘gulshan’ means garden and ‘gulfam’ a lover of flowers. “Thus Gul, Gulshan and Gulfam together mean our entire world.” In every page, the author’s love for his beloved Kashmir and its people shines through.

Malla Khaliq’s strong yet affectionate character is multi-dimensional and powerfully portrayed. Malla Khaliq “was looked up to in his fraternity for his strength of character, his larger-than-life-presence, who could single-handedly take even the largest barge out of tempestuous tides, who was such an experienced boatman that he made other boatmen feel shy to handle their oars, seemed now like a ripe pear precariously perched on a branch, and could fall down any time.” As the world he loves crumbles around him and he loses his nearest and dearest, he realises that “The boatman who spends his life toiling in the Dal Lake will one day have to lay his oar down and make way for other boatmen to take his place.”

The novel is enriched by the dynamics of complex family ties and friendships. Malla Khaliq can be strong and tough with his wayward son Qadir. He can also be an affectionate playmate to his grandson Bilal and the little children who accompany his houseboat guests. He sheds private tears for his wife and soulmate Aziz Dyad, and is heartbroken when he has to part with his daughter Parveen when she gets married. He is impressed by Razaq’s honesty and sincerity, and treats the pauper servant boy as a member of the family.

The novel is set in more innocent times when devout Muslim Malla Khaliq’s dearest friend and support is the Hindu pandit Narayan Joo. “It is the power of this sacred land that gives spiritual solace. The whole of Kashmir is like that, it is the valley of the rishis after all,” says Narayan Joo. “What matters is that all should be united in their souls.” Violent militancy has not yet forced the mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from their homeland. “The loudspeakers at Hazratbal began to play hymns which mingled with the breeze of the Dal. The tolling bells at the Shankaracharya temple” join in harmony. At Muslim weddings, women sing folk songs about Kamai Deevo (Kama Dev, the Hindu god of love) and the bridegroom who looks like King Indra.

Malla Khailiq’a idyllic world faces multiple threats. “Kashmir had always attracted misfortune; stability never lasted for long.” World War II, India’s freedom struggle followed by Partition, have all taken their toll. “The upheaval of 1947… was the beginning of a very dark period for Kashmir. Pakistan sent hordes of savage tribesmen followed by its soldiers to capture Kashmir by force.”

The tourism business collapsed, and recovered during the next decades of peace only to be hit again by a long period of turmoil in the Punjab.

Meanwhile, greedy locals are turning Dal Lake into a “network of sewers. And if the Dal dies, how are we going to live?... Malla Khaliq tried to make them understand how their greed was turning their paradise into hell by slow poisoning. But they were so blinded by greed that such calamities did not bother them.”

Malla Khaliq continues to abide by the values of houseboat owners of yore. With unmatched affection and tender care, he makes guests from all over the world feel like members of his family. His eldest son, Noor Mohammed, loves his father and tries to help keep the traditional business afloat despite dwindling business. But his two younger sons are ambitious to make more money, and Ghulam Qadir, the youngest, gets drawn into the vortex of drug trafficking and crime.

Malla Khaliq realises that times are changing. The lure of prosperity will draw Kashmiri youth away from their homeland. Some, like Narayan Joo’s son Vijay Kumar, will never want to return. Yet the love for the homeland continues to run deep in youth like Narayan Joo’s grandson, who wants to set up a resort in Kashmir after being educated abroad. Even Ghulam Qadir repents after an unprincipled life of crime and deceit. He returns to a boat on the lake to draw his last breath.

The tearful reunions, twists of fate and revelations in the later part of the novel are often Bollywood style. Ably translated, this deeply moving novel brings to life a paradise of natural beauty, peace and a harmonious multicultural and multi religious society that now seems sadly destroyed forever.

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