| Tear gas canisters explode in Srinagar on Friday as mourners protest the alleged custody death of two persons. (AFP picture)
July 3, 1933.
Razaka Khitmatgar worked with us for about three weeks. He is pleasant and cheerful and quite efficient. He only left us to go on a trek with a former mistress. We always found him willing and anxious to please.
(Signed) Major Trescott
(2nd Sikhs), M.A, Rajputana.
Razaka’s grandson, Habibullah, draws out the handwritten letter from a sheaf of yellowed paper.
“We have been in this business since my grandfather’s time.” Habibullah owns the Billoo Palace houseboat on the Dal Lake. The Ruby, which used to be the family’s other property, was sold in distress.
The Billoo Palace is a three-bedroom houseboat. The furniture is walnut; the glass Belgian. The carpets Kashmiri. The bedcover and the curtains creole.
It is moored on the Dal, a seven-minute shikara ride from the Shankaracharya stand. Officially, the tariff for this ‘deluxe’ houseboat is Rs 1,500 per day for a couple, inclusive of food. Habibullah will be very lucky indeed to find custom for Rs 500. His last guests were from Mumbai — on July 5. They checked out after two days.
The Billoo Palace faces the Shankaracharya Hill. To its north, at the base of the Zabarwan Range, are the Nishat and Shalimar Gardens. From the west, in the evening, the strains of the azaan from Hazratbal waft across the Lake. Tall Poplars and Chinars ring the rippling waters that mirror the hills at sunset.
Habibullah has a son and a daughter. The son works in Delhi for a travel agency. “We built this boat in 1973 for Rs 2.5 lakh,” he says. “I can’t find buyers for it now”.
There are 1,800 houseboats registered with the Houseboat Owners’ Association. It is in the office of the association that Habibullah bides his time. He is better off than most.
This afternoon, there are 22 owners in the office. There is the agitated Ghulam Ahmed Chapri of the Chapri Palace; there is Salim, owner of the New Happy Day, there is Ibrahim, owner of the Golden Rose.
Some 50 houseboats have been getting business so far this year. Intermittently. Mostly during the season of the Amarnath yatra. Of these 50, 35 are in the ‘deluxe’ category. There are five categories of houseboats: ‘deluxe’, A, B, C and D.
“It takes about Rs 20,000 a year just for repairs. Electricity and telephone additional. Once every three years, we must get the bottom of the boat overhauled and reinforce the joints,” says Habibullah. Deodar cost Rs 800 to Rs 900 per cubic foot. A three-bedroom houseboat would be about 125 ft to 130 ft in length and would require at least 4,000 cubic feet of timber.
“Go to Chinar Bagh and the Dal Lake; see how our families survive,” says the voluble Chapri.
Militancy and the military have taken such a toll on tourism in Kashmir that it is quite immeasurable. Tourism, of all the businesses, thrives in peace. The once prosperous houseboat owners of Srinagar are now all but pauperised. It is an old story.
If anyone should have a “vested” interest in peace, it is them. The ancillary industry that is attached to the houseboat business is the shikara.
At the Shankaracharya stand, there are 21 registered shikaras. Among them, the New Dharamveer, the Baghwan Palace, the Arjun Pandit, the Love Heaven, the Indra Flavour. The shikaras are the ferry service to the houseboats.
Rashid Khan, who offers a discount on his, says every evening, the rowers pool in the day’s collections and divide them equitably. If lucky, each will carry home Rs 100.
Sitting in the balcony of the Billoo Palace, Habibullah says no one reports the rising number of suicides. “Peace, let us please have it.”
Will he vote'
“Why should I' What good is the vote' Three years back Farooq Abdullah’s government gave us a loan. The bank has now taken back more as interest and the principal is yet to be repaid.”
But will his vote not count in efforts to bring peace'
“I have seen enough of it. We are tired”.
Srinagar’s 1,800 houseboats are owned by about 1,200 families. Habibullah cannot claim to speak for all of them. In the office of the Houseboat Owners’ Association, all 22 present this afternoon nod in agreement.