In Depth

The last Kashmiri guide of VS Naipaul: ‘The writer was brutally honest, generous’

When English singer-songwriters Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull were spotted holidaying in Kashmir in the early sixties, Hotel Leeward in Dal Lake was hosting celebrated writer VS Naipaul, who breathed his last on August 11, 2018 at the age of 85. Today, Naipaul’s ‘Doll House’ might have turned into a barrack, but his last Kashmiri host and guide still remembers his interactions and impressions in the ‘fairyland’.

As a Shikara rows past the famous floating vegetable market in Dal Lake, a watchful sentry pops up from a narrow-wired window of a high-walled sand bunker. Around him, some half a dozen paramilitary motor boats stand anchored at a meditative lakeshore, opening into a hotel turned barrack of CRPF’s 144 battalion. With a weathered appearance, wiry barriers and captive paramilitary men, the imposing structure appears some occupied island, enforcing its military writ on the famed lake.

“Who’s this person with you, uncle?” a sun-tanned paramilitary guard asks the owner at the gate.

“He’s a reporter, and has come to see the room where the famous writer VS Naipaul used to stay. I’m told the great man is no more.”

The guard turns to his officer, sunning in the courtyard. They seem to be in a fix; turning heads around and exchanging blank looks. Unable to make sense of the visitor and the writer whose lasting signs were long buried under the enforced militarisation, they appear jittery.

“Alright,” the officer nods, seemingly indecisive—whether he should act friendly or live by the military suspect-inspect motto. “He can take a look around, but not beyond the line.”

The pathway leading to the bunkered rooms is laden with red bricks, defying the pervasive greenery of the lake. But it wasn’t always the case, Nazir, 45, the owner of the place says. He points towards the lobby where Naipaul during his Kashmir trips would often turn up with a book in his hand. The corner has now become anything but a reading room.

Nazir standing outside his hotel turned CRPF camp. (FPK Photo/Bilal Handoo)

“This used to be his preferred corner,” Nazir points towards the direction. “And this is where Naipaul would chat with my late father for hours about the politics of the place and its nuances. He was a damn good observer and a listener.”

But now, it’s the total unbecoming of the place. It reeks of burnt hot Indian masalas, reminding one of the typical vegetable eateries of north India. Unlike the hipsters of the yore, travel aficionados or world-weary souls seeking nirvana in mountains, the place now houses the worn out war-wardens. One of them is applying a fresh paint coat at the right side of the courtyard where Naipaul would often turn up for sightseeing.

“He would sit there and watch the view at length,” Nazir says. “The writer would be drawn into the nature.” Once done with his observations, Naipaul would silently retreat to his room and write.

At that point, Nazir’s unrelenting briefing in Kashmiri leaves the officer and his men uneasy. But he continues talking about how Hotel Leeward became the writer’s ‘second home’ where he had left some glaring footprints and impressions.

“But alas,” he says, “2014 floods wiped out all of those precious memories and moments.” Among the heap of wasted photographs were the writer’s pictures with Nazir’s father Abdul Aziz Bhat, whom Naipaul described as “one of Snow White’s own men in a woolen nightcap” in his book.

The hotel was then owned by Mohammad Sidiq Butt, described by Naipaul as the man “smiling shyly behind his spectacles”. Aziz was Butt’s nephew, besides his ‘clever helper’. After his demise, Aziz owned the hotel till his death some six years ago.

Hotel Leeward. (File Picture)

“My father would often talk about those days when the writer had first visited us,” Nazir says, as we make our way out of his militarised hotel. “Then he had stayed with us for about four and a half month. My father would take him around on his Shikara. And during those leisurely outings, Naipaul would take notes, and later write in his room.”

But writing in a room devoid of a bulb and a writing table, and where the tourist commotion and sonorous radio would trouble one’s peace of mind became a challenging task. Within days, however, the Trinidad-born Indian-origin writer managed to create the right ambiance, even replacing a bulb himself, for writing.

And this is how, Nazir says, Naipaul wrote his book An Area of Darkness, which was published in 1964 and became a masterpiece on India.

Naipaul sent his signed copy to the Butt’s, which was later taken by a German tourist for reading, who never returned it.

In his thirties, then, Naipaul had already published four novels, including A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), the author’s first major shot to  global fame. In backdrop of his success, he had turned up at what he wrote as Hotel Liward.

In the book that followed his Srinagar sojourn, Naipaul devoted the happiest chapter “A Doll’s House on the Dal Lake” to his Leeward days.

*

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.

The hotel stood on one of the main Boat lanes, the silent Highways of the lake. In the morning the flotilla of grass laden boats passed, paddled by women sitting cross legged at the stern, almost level with the water.

The clouds fell low over the mountains, sometimes in a level bank and sometimes shredding far into the valleys. The temple at the top of the Shankarcharya hill, one thousand feet above us, was hidden. We would think of the lonely Brahmin up there, with his woollen cap and small charcoal Brazier (Kangri) below his pinky brown blanket.

The lake was rich. It provided for all. It provided weeds and mud for the vegetable plots. A boy twirled his bent pole in the water, lifted and he had a bundle of rich dripping weed. It provided fodder for animals. It provided reeds for thatching. It provided fish, so numerous in the clear water that these could be seen just below the steps of the busy Ghat. On some days the lake was dotted with fishermen who seemed to be walking on water: They stood erect and still on the edge of their barely moving boats, their Tridents raised, their eyes as sharp as those of the kingfishers on the willows.

*

As the roofless Shikara leaves Leeward with its somewhat freaked islanders—oblivious of its history and glory, one can see the helpless facial expressions gripping Nazir’s face.

Ever since the hotel has been overtaken by armed forces, he’s unable to make new and lasting memories by entertaining new guests who like Naipaul keep coming to the Dal Lake in search of some quietest corners in the world to write. His helplessness is killing him, he says.

“While everyone around makes moolah out of the tourist season, our prime property remains occupied and fetches us some peanuts in the name of monthly rent,” he rues.

FPK Photo/Bilal Handoo

They first came in his hotel in loose numbers—seeking shelter in the middle of the lake—in 1996 for some three days. 22 years later, the paramilitary is still reluctant to go.

In that coup, Butt’s lost their biggest asset in Dal Lake, which was serving tourists since 1959.

“They wanted to occupy it for sometime. But when my father resisted their advances, they brazenly took it over one night,” Nazir says, as the Shikara makes next halt at a floating chemist shop.

*

I was asked by Mr Butt to write a petition to the Director Transport for more frequent Bus services to Dal Lake area. I drafted it and typed it … Both Aziz and Mr Butt would ask me to speak to tourists who were brought from Tourist Reception centre to the Hotel by Ali Mohd. I was jealous. I wanted the Hotel to myself. Aziz understood, and he was like a parent comforting a child.

“You will eat first. You will eat by yourself. We give you special. This is not Mr Butt Hotel. This your Hotel.” Sometimes Aziz would raise one hand and say, “God send customer.”

With summer season, flies too entered the Hotel rooms. These settled on my hands even while I worked and for several mornings in succession I was awakened before six by the buzzing of a single FLIT surviving fly. To this Aziz promised Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes would rout the flies. To him fly was an act of God.

One afternoon I saw him happily asleep in the kitchen, his cap on his face, black with contended flies. I had asked for Flit and more Flit but for Aziz Mosquitoes were the solution. Then one day I asked for Ice. And Aziz said, “Anybody do not like ice. Ice is heating.”

And this reply led to one of our silences.

*

The billboard at the chemist shop reads, Bhat Medicate. It’s run by Nazir, who wanted to become an engineer and was described as a ‘handsome boy’ by Naipaul.

“Not everything in life goes according to our plans,” Nazir says, as he steps inside his medicine shop. “Before it would turn into a barrack, father wanted me to take care of the hotel. The enforced change in our lives forced me to sell medicines for a living.”

FPK Photo/Bilal Handoo

Nazir was born eleven years after the writer’s first visit to Leeward. He had grown into a dreamy teenager who was into machines and buildings when Naipaul returned in the late eighties and chose him as his guide.

“Then Naipaul stayed with us for about 12 days,” Nazir says, as his customers come rowing at his shop to get medicines. “I became his guide and would accompany him to all the beautiful places in Kashmir.”

*

One day Aziz brought a college student to the Hotel and introduced him as Bashir. Bashir was nineteen. Bashir introduced himself saying, “I am best sports person. I am best swimmer. I know all chemistry and all physics. I am inter-dined.” Bashir brought another friend to the hotel who introduced himself as kadir. kadir had small eyes and a square gentle face. He was studying engineering and wanted to be a writer. Bashir added, “He is best Poet.” The best poet’s shirt was, open at the neck, was dirty. There was hole in the top of his pullover.

Bashir added, “He is great drinker. Too much of whiskey.” And this was a proof of his talent.

In India poets and Musicians are required to live the part: It is necessary to be sad and alcoholic.

I said to kadir, “Do you really drink?”

“Yes,” he said.

Bashir ordered him to recite his poem.

Kadir said, “But he will not understand urdu.”

Bashir said, “I translate.”

And kadir recited.

Bashir added, “He talk about poor Boatman’s daughter in the poem. She give colour to the rose. You get it Mister. Another man would say that the rose gives her colour. He say she give colour to rose.”

“That is beautiful,” I said.

The discussion switched over to Sheikh Mohd Abdullah. Kadir said, “I will give you one example of the greatness of sheikh Mohd Abdullah. One year, you know, the crops failed and people were starving. They went to sheikh Abdullah and said. “Sheikh Abdullah, we have no rice. We are starving. Give us rice.”

To this sheikh Abdullah said, “Eat Potatoes.”

Humour was not intended. The advice was sound.

*

By the time Naipaul revisited Leeward, Kashmir was on the cusp of erupting into a massive armed uprising against the Indian state. That time, he had arrived to write his second nonfiction, India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990).

In that book, Naipaul describes his time in Kashmir as a point of rest, enabling him to go through with his Indian venture. “I had uprooted myself from London,” he writes, “and invested all the money I had in this Indian journey; it would have been hard if it hadn’t worked, and I hadn’t been able to last.”

As his guide then, Nazir saw Naipaul regularly mounting on horsebacks and ride like a pro during his Gulmarg trips.

“There was something very childish about him,” Nazir recalls. “At times, he just wanted your company for good. But then, he would often excuse himself and leave for solitary strolls and horse trips to meadows and hills, especially in Gulmarg.” That was his way of interacting with nature.

But as a person, Nazir continues, “Naipaul was brutally honest and a generous person. He wouldn’t think twice to take out big notes from his pocket to give it to children and make their day. He was very calm and mature while dealing with people.”

Perhaps Naipaul’s bittersweet bonhomie with Butt’s had made him one of their own. Although he went on to describe some of them as “dirty”, in a letter to his two sisters during his 1962 Kashmir visit, Naipaul also talked about the charm in Kashmiris.

But the author who couldn’t please anyone and invited the raging flak from the literary giants like Derek Walcott and Edward Said was quite grateful to Aziz who had thrown Leeward open for him when the writer faced financial woes during his first visit to Kashmir.

“My father always made him feel home,” Nazir says. “He gave him a tearful send-off at the end of his first visit.”

*

On my departure day, Mr Butt assembled the servants for the tipping ceremony. Ali Mohd, Aziz, The Gardener and the cook. The tonga roof sloped low. We had to lean forward to see the lake and the mountains. The town was awakening from minute to minute and the Tourist Reception Centre, when we got to it, was infernally alive.

“Three Rupees,” The Tongawala said.

I paid two. The Tongawala refused to touch the notes. I offered no more. He threatened me with his whip. I seized him by the throat.

Aziz intervened.

“He not Tourist.”

“Oh,” said the Tongawala. He dropped his whip and I released him. Our own seats had now been secured and out bags placed below the Tarpaulin on the roof of the Bus. We shook hands with Aziz and Ali Mohd and went inside.

“You do not worry about Tongawala sir. I settle,” said Aziz.

There were tears in his eyes. The engine started.

“You do not worry sahib. Correct fare three rupees. I pay,” said Aziz.

The driver was blowing the horn.

“Correct fare. Morning fare sahib. Two rupees three rupees, What difference? Good bye. Good Bye.”

I dug into my pockets.

“Do not worry sahib. Good Bye. ”

Through the window I pushed out some notes. He took them. Tears were running down his cheeks. Even at that moment, I could not be sure that he had ever been mine.

*

After Naipaul’s books detailed his Kashmir experience, Nazir says, many writers arrived in Leeward to recreate the aura of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, a British writer who won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.

As someone who has carefully read An Area of Darkness, Nazir believes that it was the writer’s knack of producing acclaimed short novel, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion during his stay in Leeward which motivated many writers.

“But hardly anyone could match the genius,” he says.

Much of that unmatched difference perhaps had to do with a different Kashmir, which Naipaul experienced and described as a “fairyland”.

FPK Photo/Bilal Handoo

Recalling all this makes Nazir nostalgic about the glorious past. As he steps outside his chemist shop standing in the backdrop of Leeward, he terms Naipaul as no ordinary foreigner being ferried on Dal waters. “He was part of us,” he says, “whose departure once made my father cry. And now, his demise is making me restless.”


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