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On our very first evening in Srinagar, we decide to get acquainted with the water lilies and bashful moorhens. After some halfhearted haggling, a boatman agrees to ferry us from our hotel on the placid fringes of Nigeen Lake to the heart of the tourist action at the southern tip of Dal Lake, and point out the famous floating gardens and floating markets on the way. All this, while we loll on 'full spring seats'.
Gingerly we climb onto the shikara, our strident city voices scratching the smooth, shimmery silence.
"Have you got the camera?"
"Don't fall off. "
Finally we settle ourselves and our clutter on seats lovingly upholstered in an eye-popping magenta adorned with pudgy orange roses. Then with the faintest splish the shikara pushes away from the grassy bank and glides through the tranquil lake.
In the evening light, Nigeen Lake is a tapestry of silver, pewter and coral. A black moorhen with a vermillion beak ducks into the water. A breeze ruffles the surface of the lake, and the lily pads nod in cheery greeting. As the shikara glides through the hushed waterscape, it's easy to believe that we are quite alone in this peaceful paradise.
Which we are not, of course. The moment our shikara passes beneath a bridge, three boats swiftly paddle towards us. As the first draws abreast, a middle-aged man starts an eager patter about "best quality saffron". In another boat, two men dangle earrings and pendants, and persuade us to buy the "beautiful village items". The third boat is piled high with walnut wood curios, including a wooden lotus that opens and shuts with a click.
Firmly - before my three daughters become too attached to the clackety flower - we turn down the offers. The floating tourist traps retreat. But although the salesmen give us sporting waves, we can see the disappointment in their eyes.
After all, for the lakhs of Kashmiris whose livelihood depends on tourism, the last two decades have been disastrous. Many hotels were forced into prolonged hibernation. Houseboats succumbed to the lapping waters and silently rotted away. Jobs evaporated and futures disintegrated. Even today, the tangles of barbed wire and CRPF jawans on every street corner are disquieting reminders of recent history.
With peace, however, the saffron-buying, shawl-shopping tourists have returned - irresistibly drawn by the roses the size of soup bowls, the stately chinars and the apple-cheeked toddlers. This year, an estimated six lakh tourists have descended on Kashmir - most of whom seemed to be scuttling around Srinagar airport when we landed. Clearly, nobody's exaggerating when they say that the hotels and houseboats are "purapura pack".
Here in the northern reaches of Nigeen Lake and Dal Lake, however, we've managed to lose the hordes of Mummyjis, Buntys and honeymooners. Instead, we find the blue flash of a kingfisher's wings and an Indian Pond Paddy perched on a lily pad. We drift past Golden Lake and Silver Lake where, standing in the middle of a deserted stretch of water, with only bulrushes for company, is a sign pointing to an invisible Quranic school.
Occasionally, we spot schoolboys swimming in the lake or a still-as-a-statue fisherman holding out his rod. A woman sits in a small dinghy and carefully plucks lotus leaves to be used as cattle fodder. Five young girls in bright shalwar kameezes zip past us in a narrow boat. An old couple, their boat piled high with bundles of grass, rows slowly homewards. Occasionally, we pass an island village - complete with a grocer, a tailor and a barber all plying their trade from small boats or stalls on stilts.
The next morning, from the beautiful wooden balcony of Hotel Dar Es Salaam, my husband Vivek spots a pink vessel hurrying across the glassy surface of Nigeen Lake. It's packed tight with flowers and drifts out of sight like the figment from a dream. And late one evening, Farooq, the shikarawala, rows us past the ghostly bridges and dark mansions where once Kashmiri Pandits lived. Later he shows us his own house perched on an island. "Every family here has at least two boats, " he explains. "That's the only way we can get to school, meet our friends or go to the shops. The lake is our highway. "
Indeed, it is soon apparent that the chain of lakes that extend from Srinagar to the mountains - Dal, Nigeen, Manasbal and Wular - are much more than subjects for picture postcards. They are busy waterways where people live and work - much as they did a hundred years ago.
Although the lakes sprawl across almost half of Srinagar, however, most tourists are shoehorned into the southern bump of Dal Lake along the busy Boulevard. Here they stay in houseboats with jaunty names like Buckingham Palace, Nightbird, Golden Apple, Miss England and Young Mona Lisa. They wear spangly Kashmiri robes and pose with baskets of plastic flowers in shikaras, drink kahwa from floating chaiwalas and snack on greasy chicken tikkas served up on melamine plates by floating cooks equipped with miniature stoves.
They pop into the Floating Post Office - housed in an atmospheric houseboat complete with carved ceiling and red velvet curtains. And no doubt they shop at the Floating Market with its many embroidery and trinket shops.
But just a 15-minute paddle away is another world entirely. Here there are no shikara traffic jams, no squeals of "sunno darling" and certainly no fluorescent orange plastic flowers. For shikaras like 'New Flying Mail Deluxe' and 'Seven Heaven Super Deluxe' see few reasons to venture so far from tourist land.
Instead, the lake is lined with willows and embroidered with narrow canals. Clusters of houses huddle on islands the size of a tennis court. While smaller islands, some no bigger than a dwarf's double bed, serve as vegetable gardens fertile with squiggly runner beans, luxuriant spinach, and ridiculously fat melons.
Rows and rows of Floating Gardens crisscross these far reaches of Dal Lake. The farmers make little mounds of bulrushes that they place carefully on the fields of floating grass. Tomato, cucumber and spinach seeds are planted in those little mounds - and thrive in their watery home. Farooq describes these as "chaltifirti kheti" and says that occasionally unscrupulous individuals have tied an entire floating garden to their boats and towed it to a distant lake. Sadly, we don't see any such instance of dramatic thievery - only lone women in small boats proudly harvesting their cucumbers and pumpkins.
After three serene days in this blue-green corner of Srinagar we catch up with the Mummyjis and honeymooners once more: in the queues for the Gulmarg cable car - the highest in the world;on the snowy slopes of Khilan Marg where the girls try their hands at sledging and building malformed snowmen;amongst the aromatic pine forests of Pahalgam, scattered with pretty white, pink and yellow rind-posh blooms.
We meet touts, horsemen and curious passersby and sense both hope and frustration. There are constant complaints about corruption and unemployment. On the other hand, there is immense relief that the tourists have returned and during long drives we spot Reborn Fashion, Kashmir Rising Computer Institute and Peace English Academy.
On our last two days in Kashmir, we are again tourists in a floating world. We are staying at Butt's Clermont Houseboats, which are moored near a flower-filled Mughal garden in a quiet corner of the Dal Lake. Here George Harrison once jammed with Ravi Shankar and violinist Yehudi Mehunin enjoyed the birdcalls. And now, my three daughters play an imaginary game involving princesses and pirates.
In the hazy distance, we watch the Mihrbari people - who dwell on the islands and along the mysterious canals - farm the lake. Lassa, the weather-beaten shikarawala who has rowed so many celebrities, explains that every inch of the lake is accounted for. Only the rightful owner can harvest a patch of bulrushes when they become 10 feet tall and weave them into chatais;or set up a floating garden on a promising expanse of floating grass;or collect the lily pads and lotus stems from a particular khet. Even an island the size of a footstool belongs to someone - and only he or she can pluck the rambling roses, calendula and purple lupins that grow there.
As our trip draws to an end, my daughters talk about the snow and the horses. But it is to this watery world with its rigid rules that I plan to return. To perhaps one day undertake a week-long shikara trip from Dal Lake to Wular along willow-fringed canals. And to know that this time, the lily pads nod only for us.
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