A Knot of Convenience

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Marrying foreign women isn’t a new tradition for the people of Kashmir. But the residents of Dal Lake have seen a steep rise in the cross-cultural marriages over the last two decades of conflict in Kashmir valley, Bilal Handoo reports.

A lanscape view of Dal Lake --Photo: Bilal Bahadur

A lanscape view of Dal Lake –Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Dal Lake, one of the most exotic tourist places in Kashmir, is numb with the cold of winter season. The boats on its stagnant waters, which tirelessly gave a ride to the visitors of last year’s mega tourist season, are in a state of trance at the banks. With anxious and somewhat disappointed eyes, boatmen keep looking for tourists.

Ali Mohammad, 47, is waiting for some tourists to turn up at Ghat no. 14 of Dal Lake. Ali is an average built man with parched face and yellow eyes. He talked at length about his community and how they survived during the initial phase of arms struggle in Kashmir. He was a young man then and witnessed a period in the history of Kashmir when tourist activities were stalled almost completely and most members of his community went outside the state to flip their fortunes and hunt for better economic opportunities.

“Goa became the prime location where most members of Dal Lake community went for business purpose,” says Ali while wrapping his arms around the kangri (the traditional firepot used by people in Kashmir during winters) inside his pheran. This growing relationship with Goa gave rise to a new affair building for some members of this community, “Many locals came close to foreign women and subsequently some of them got married with them,” he says while claiming that such marriages used to happen in Kashmir before the dawn of armed militancy.

Amid theconversation, Ali’s eyes caught sight of some Indian tourists strolling on the Boulevard Road. He ran like an eager child towards them and insisted them to take a ride in his Shikara boat. His offer was however turned down by the young tourists who apparently preferred to walk along the banks of Dal Lake and he returned to his Ghat. Boatmen like him have to bear one or two hostile tourist months every year when the winter sets in Kashmir. The boat rides in Dal Lake in winter sends chills down the spine of tourist who are acclimatized to hot climates. Come April and two million tourists, as per the prediction of J&K’s tourism department, will be making their presence gradually felt in Kashmir.

While the cold has engulfed the valley, strong chill is palpable inside the house of Maqbool Mir, who married a London based woman, Cathy Smiths, some eight years ago. Mir’s house which is located within the Dal Lake harbors his aged mother and elder brother. “Soon after the marriage, his wife nagged him to move to London which he did without any protest,” his married elder brother, Zubair Mir who lives with his mother and wife, says.

While Maqbool is in London, his mother recalls her son’s meeting with Cathy in Goa where he had gone for business purpose. “My son told me over the phone then that he had fallen in love with a foreigner. He never used to keep anything hidden from me,” says Zeba with moist eyes. Maqbool soon brought her prospective bride home and married her in the traditional Kashmiri way.

Cathy, a school teacher by profession in London, insisted Maqbool to come London for a better life soon after their marriage and assured him that there were better economic opportunities for him there. “My brother had made his mind to go,” says Zubair. In London, Maqbool is a proud father of two daughters and a son. He visits Kashmir once in two years to be with his mother, besides asking them to come over to London every now and then. But the longing for her son is evident on Zeba’s face who repeatedly throughout the conversation cursed the day her son got married. “Damn that marriage that takes a son away from a mother,” she laments.

Outside Zeba’s house, the dirt and sewage floating on the waters of Dal Lake strikes a resemblance with Zeba’s plight. Both appear deserted, numb and yearning for love. A boatman took me to the residence of a youth from the community who got married to a foreign lady. The boat stopped at the residence of Imtiyaz Shangloo who married a much elder woman five years ago. He is in Finland right now with his wife, Rachel.

“Some six years ago, a group of foreign tourists visited Dal Lake that included Rachel as well,” recalls Imtiyaz’s neighbor, Showkat Hussain, adding, “Imtiyaz was their guide for the trip. He later told me that Rachel had developed some emotional attachments with him and wanted to marry him.” —

Back home, Showkat says, Imtiyaz was not earning decent money to run his family and he wasn’t sure of his career as a tourist guide. Finally he agreed to marry Rachel who, according to Showkat, was at least 12 years older than him. They both live in Finland and he seldom pays visit to his family that consists of his two elder brothers.

“But not all these marriages have a happy ending,” Ghulam Qadir, a houseboat owner says, “There are countless examples of these marriages that end up in divorces.”

A foreign toursist taking snap in Dal Lake -- Photo: Bilal Bahadur

A foreign tourist taking snap in Dal Lake — Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Mukhtar Hasan’s marriage is one such example. It was in 1998 when he married a Spanish lady, Dolorez Gracia, whom he had first met in Kashmir while she was on a tour here. “We were happily married for five years. Then one day when we were in Spain, she told me that she wanted to part her ways,” Hasan recalls the memory of that day which left him shattered. “Perhaps, the pain of a divorce would not have troubled me that much, had I not loved her so much,” he says with eyes full of sorrow.

Hasan soon came back from Spain and joined his family. He later got married to a Kashmiri woman. He now owns a grocery shop in the interior parts of Dal Lake. It has been a close to 10 years now since his divorce took place and now, he says, marrying a foreign woman was the biggest mistake of his life, “But humans are prone to commit mistakes. We learn from them.”

As Hasan was pouring his heart out, a beeline of customers on their boats outside his wooden shop forced him to halt the talk. By then, both chill and darkness had intensified and filled the empty air over Dal Lake. For Zeba, this darkness is a perpetual reminder of her departed son!

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