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Journey To The Vale Of Kashmir

January 06, 1985|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

SRINAGAR, India — The Vale of Kashmir is golden with the rice crop at harvest time. In the high valleys it blows yellow in fields contoured to the lay of the land. Lower, peasants bend over woven straw mats to thresh the rice, slapping the grains from the sheaths. Others trudge along the narrow roads, heads and shoulders hidden beneath massive loads of straw. Golden cones of straw dot the fields, stacked by hand to dry in the still-warm autumn sun.

The road winds between the valley's streams and gentle slopes, leading from the far mountains into the city of Srinagar, and is lined with spindly nut trees, golden maples (called chinar trees) and gnarled apple trees heavy with their red fruit. In Srinagar three apples can be bought for a rupee, about 4 cents apiece.

And on the other side of the city is what everyone comes to Srinagar to experience: the idyllic life aboard a Victorian-style houseboat on lovely Dal Lake.

The reason the houseboats are there harks back to the days the English rushed from their provincial duties in steamy India in the south to the resort area of Kashmir in the north. Finding that the maharaja barred them from purchasing land in Kashmir, the enterprising British built themselves elaborate summer homes just offshore. The style has changed little since the first boat was built in 1888.

Dawn and dusk are the special times on a houseboat at Dal Lake.

It was still dark when I first heard the chanting--a single voice, a clear tenor, a sonorous and haunting resonance that drifted from some nearby shore. After a time other voices joined in and a chorus rose into the silence, melting it just as the sun melted away the night. I've never sensed such peace.

As the day drifted by and we floated up and down the lake, reclining like royalty on the cushions of our shikara, being paddled to and fro by a cheerful servant from our houseboat, I noticed something wonderful about the people of Srinager. They sing routinely.

If three girls are sitting at tea and the conversation lulls, one or another might start humming an aimless tune. If a small boy is out alone, paddling along in a hollowed-out log boat, he is more likely than not to chant a drifting melody. It would be unheard of to comment on whether one can "carry a tune" as if it were a mere object of conveyance. A song is not for a reason or a judgment. It just is. The poorest person in India is the owner of nature's cheapest and finest instrument, the human voice. I felt like singing.

To say that there is poverty in India is to belabor the obvious, but there it is, even in lovely Srinagar--the heart-clutching, mind-numbing evidence of too many people with less than the subsistence of life and health.

Ramshackle houses, holes in the wall, hollow rooms behind open doorways, even old houseboats rotten and listing in shallow canals--are all filled to bursting with babies, thin dogs, little boys who smoke cigarettes, tired old women and young mothers. Men sit around the storefronts, dusty shelves of faded merchandise, smoking from hookahs and coughing.

Their country cousins have hookahs at the edge of every rice field--relaxation from the harvesting, a break from the weary road between field and farm. They trudge along, men and donkeys, nearly buried beneath their loads of rice straw. Cars and buses honk constantly, swerve to miss them at the last minute.

Perhaps better off, but still raggedy and poignant, are the children in the dugouts who spy a tourist in a shikara from half a lake away. They row with all their might to come alongside and throw golden water lilies into the shikara in hopes of getting rupees in return.

Across the Water

Sounds carry on the lake: the singsong of children pulling lilies, people chanting as they tend their floating gardens, the dip of an oar into the water, a distant conversation.

Our boat was the Texas. Others included the Pinafore, Switzerland, Helen of Troy, the In Door.

"How do you decide on a name?" we asked our host.

"We look in books," he replied. "I see Texas. Big country. Big boat."

Names designed to appeal to the taste of visitors: Miss America, Happy Dawn, Two Princes.

The houseboats are flat-bottomed, very stationary, and generally furnished in something that might be called English chintz. Steps from the water lead up to a little veranda--a favorite place for just sitting--and inside are a parlor, formal dining room, and two or three bedrooms, each with its own bath. Atop is a sun deck.

Amenities may include such basics as hot water and extra blankets, right on up to TV sets and chandeliers in the dining room. Meals are generally included in the price. Standards vary widely and so does the quality of the cuisine.

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