Taxing Paradise

Toronto Star rowing correspondent Gordon Sinclair entered Kashmir through the Lahore-Jammu route in 1935 summer. While his narration indicates he mistook the boatmen as the sole Srinagar residents, his travelogue, however, offers interesting anecdotes about how getting into Kashmir was inhumanly different from living in Kashmir, even years after the 1931 uprising

A boundary post of Jammu and Kashmir where Maharaja troops were taking taxes and duties. Pic Gordon Sinclair

I had to fill out nine sets of papers about myself and family, another batch for Baboo and Narayan and a third for the Chevrolet.

Entering Kashmir

Then the gimme boys measured my gas, soaked me 18 cents a gallon duty in spite of the fact I’d already paid twenty-three cents a gallon tax, charged me on my rifle, some food I had along in case of mountain siege and on a lone tin of cigarettes. A woman in a bus behind me had to pay one cent duty on a cucumber, and did she put up a howl! These formalities ended, we were waved through but soon came to more toll barriers one after another. Keepers here asked if we were going to Srinagar, the Kashmir capital, and when we said we were they abandoned the toll charge. That was just a come-on gag which I learned about later….

…We proceeded perhaps fifty feet and were stopped by the army, backed up by six clerks who looked the car over and commanded: “There is a twenty rupee toll to pay.” I expected this and had the coins in my hand.

I don’t speak much Hindustani but at this time I noticed my own servants grow apprehensive; they were telling each other that the sahib was going to get very mad about something. A man dressed in yellow came over and explained, “You will have to pay the possession tax.”

“Possession tax? What’s a possession tax?”

“On the car. You possess a car. You take the car to Kashmir; the possession tax is thirty dollars.”

“But I’ve been in Kashmir for days. I paid duty on my gas and oil, on my rifle, my food, my cigarettes when I came in at Jammu.”

“That was duty. This is a tax. A possession tax.”

“Well, I don’t know what a possession tax is, but it’s unfair. You spend fortunes inviting tourists to Kashmir, then set bandits and brigands and thieves at passes in the hills and rob us. You plunder and loot us. You…”

The Hotel

We came at last to the capital and stopped by a canal bank for directions. Like hungry chickens running for grain, men came racing and shrieking toward us. A hundred men; then two hundred more. They clamoured and shrieked, “Houseboat . . . buy my houseboat . .. I got the best houseboat.” Hundreds more came on the run waving their arms and howling like Burma’s barking baboons. They surrounded the car twenty deep. They opened doors and fairly tore the clothes off me trying to get me out to inspect houseboats.

After Christian missionaries started the basic health facilities in Srinagar soon after the British sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, the people would ferry the sick in houseboats. This photograph is from 1872.

These by the hundred were spread down the canal as far as I could see. They looked like basking crocodiles. A burly man with boiled rice caught up in his red beard shooed most of the touts away with some effective commands; climbed in the car with me and soothingly said, “Now, sir; I will make all the arrangements for your houseboat.”

“But I don’t want a houseboat. I can’t use a houseboat. I want to know where the hotel is.”

“But just have a look. It costs you nothing; I got a nice houseboat.”

“I don’t want to look and I don’t want a houseboat. All I want is the hotel.”

“Yes; I will take you to the hotel, but first I show you my houseboat.”

“No, you will not take me to the hotel and you will not show me a houseboat.” I had no chance to say more because the shriek went up: “He wants the hotel! This way, sahib. I show you.”

Fifty men streaked away waving their arms. They hoped somehow to get money from me for guiding or from the hotel for bringing a cash customer. With all this help we found the one and only hotel in this most ballyhooed summer resort.

Its gloomy exterior bore predictions of disappointment, but I went in and signed up, then sent the car around to the back.

The whole greedy clamour of the houseboat men was repeated. Coolies leaped at the baggage and tore it off the machine. Men clutched me pleading to cut my hair, shine my shoes, sell me a postcard or a Kashmir shawl. One idiot argued I buy a bicycle seat. A bicycle seat!

But help arrived in the form of two Gurkhas. These wiry guardians walloped about them with clubs. They whacked coolies over the head, knocked the razors and scissors from the hands of barbers and managed to drive the shawl salesmen away. Then the two of them, full of grins and pride, came over and saluted.

I sauntered in to survey the room. It held a bed, but no bedding; a table and a bureau, an electric light, some cocoa matting, a granite basin, a tin tub and that type of portable plumbing tolerated in only one country on earth—India.

Four dollars a day for this!

Soon a stealthy parade of men came slinking up to the windows or whispering through the back door. ‘Would the sahib like a nice houseboat? . .. I can arrange for a nice trip for you… . Sahib, you want nice dancing girl? … Sahib, I am washing man; your clothes I make clean. . . am hairdresser, sahib; you will need a nice massage. . . . I bring girls for you. You want nice girl your room tonight?”

The Gurkhas came to the rescue again and I could hear the bonk-bonk of clubs on hard skulls.

The Jhelum Highway

The main lane of the main town in Kashmir is the fast-flowing Jhelum River, snow-fed from the mighty Himalayas, lined by the most rickety, yet picturesque houses, schools, shops and mosques in Central Asia and peopled by velvety-eyed women and predatory salesmen who defeat their own ends by whining over and over like a cracked record: “No need to buy, your honour just geef a look.”

A 1913 photograph by Henri R Ferger showing the Srinagar on the two banks of Jhelum.

Houses are dilapidated even for India-none ever saw paint or a plumb rule. The bathtub is the river with par two baths a year for women, six for men, and privacy a rich man’s luxury. Cooking is done in family boats made of timber and mud with vegetable gardens on the roof and neither doors nor windows. The houses are built as high as they’ll stand so that veiled women may take an airing among rooftop cabbages without men looking down on them. To reach these rooftops you risk drowning in icy floods, suffocation in the smells, which grow to a crescendo as you reach the outer bridges, and broken necks if the stairs give way, which is always an active possibility.

Flanking the main canals are the streams of the Rug Washers; Canal of the Fur Merchants; Klong of the Carvers, and other slimy yet fascinating waterways through a city of 1 75,000 people of which only one-the raja-owns the home he lives in.

You travel these canals in anything from a rough cattle or grain barge, which brings harvests from the Tibetan frontier, to fancy speedsters called shikarees which are pushed along by a five-man crew wielding heart-shaped paddles and grunting encouragements. Competition is so keen between these shikaree chaps that some have their boats all hung about with camel-hair curtains, some supply cakes and tea, and some slip in Kashmiri courtesans at thirty cents an hour extra.

Biscoe’s Kashmir 1935

The Suffering Moses

Kashmir’s original Suffering Moses has been dead these many years without a son. When his successor tacked a less picturesque label on the shop business skidded 80 per cent.

So, being a wise man of the East, the suffering merchant, who was not suffering by name, went to court, paid $125, and had his name made Suffering Moses.

He had a neighbour whose sign proudly boats: “Everyone else says theirs is the best shop in Kashmir. Ours is the worst. You can’t afford to miss the worst; come in and look around. That much is free.”

The Caravans

Still farther along that fast-running canal is one of the truly romantic spots of Kashmir … the caravan compound. Here to a great stone square come the traders of distant empires. Pale-faced men of Turkestan, smiling Mongolians, stoics who have followed the golden road from Samarkand.

A 1913 photograph by Henri R Ferger showing a central Asian Caravan in the alpine Himalayas on way to Kashmir

This, being May, sees the warehouses denuded of their treasures because upland passes have been closed with snow these seven months and will not open for another six weeks. But in the rest-houses hard by this journey’s end for pilgrims and caravans were youths who had never seen a white man or a car or an electric light before pushing off from their distant hills a year or more earlier.

Practically no caravan coming in from Turkestan-where it’s a crime to be a bachelor-gets back the same year. Like wandering gypsy bands in a prehistoric world, they start through the high valleys and plateaux on yaks and bring their own women. As the Himalayas grow steeper, the country wilder and the going tougher, they drop their women behind, with the hope and expectation that sometime, a year or more later, they will pick them up again as they return to their golden plains with salt and fish and lamp oil.

Family living on the Marqual, the erstwhile canal passing through the old city, by bridging the banks. This photograph is part of the Macnabb Collection, and taken by Samuel Bourne in 1865, according to British Library that owns the picture.

Then as they come to the perilous descent into Kashmir and Tibet the yaks are left also. The yak, being more sacred in Tibet than the cow is in India, must never leave that holy country. The men finish their long and perilous trek on ponies, generally reaching Kashmir by midsummer.

In Srinagar, they are met by troops who march the caravans into the smelly compound, post armed guards at the gates and let no one out until he pays duty on the goods he has been carrying from six to nine months. If the boys sell out and collect their salt and oil early enough they start back for their homes the same summer. But to be caught in the highest peaks when winter howls its message of death is to be lost forever; so few get back the same year. The men I saw were sewing their goods into huge packsacks for the start homeward. They were a slant-eyed, cheery and self-respecting lot, frightened into hysterics when I pointed a camera at them. They shrieked and ran pell-mell for the protection of one old Kashgar who was calmly washing his drawers in a rice pot. He had made the trek to Kashmir several times before and to prove his bravery let me take his picture; then stood his son before the lens and watched the panic of that lad’s face change to grins of delight when the shutter clicked without blowing his head off.

Enforced Food Habits

I’ve mentioned that the Maharaja of Kashmir and Jammu owns everything within sight or smell of his metropolis, and that’s why white folks live on boats-they can’t get land.

Durbar Arrives: Maharaja Partap Singh being taken to his palace in Srinagar in a huge boat. Photo Ottoo Hanigmann

Within certain broad restrictions, His Highness also makes the problem of food a bit worrisome. The raja is a Hindu. Over 80 per cent of his people are Mohammedans. Hindus hold cattle-all cattle, dead or alive-to be holy and sacred. His Highness, therefore, makes it an offence punishable with six months in the bastille without the option of a fine if anybody kills, possesses, eats, buys, sells or gives away any part of a cow. So you see what chance you have to buy a beefsteak. The Mohammedans hold that pigs are filthy, irreligious, contaminated and a general nuisance. They won’t allow pork in any shape or form to be sold in the bazaars although a little bacon is bootlegged.

But the streams swarm with fish-tasty, sporting fish. If you go to free streams to catch them they charge you heavy road toll; if you try to catch them near town you have to pay a license of $12 a week, a fee of $3 a day to rent a slice of the raja‘s water and $1 a day for a guide. If you don’t want to be bothered with all this you can visit the hatchery and buy them at prices ranging from $1.20 a pound upwards.

But as you wander along flower-banked roads you see huge herds of cattle. Old cattle and young cattle. Thousands of them. At night 234 of them feed on the golf course. These, you are told, are kept for milk alone. That’s all very well, but a casual glance shows you half the wandering beasts are bulls and the market for bull’s milk is about equal to the market for czarist rubles.

That’s true, the herdsmen agree, but if a male calf is born in Kashmir it has to be carried along as a dead loss. What is more,  young bullock is insured and pensioned. When the beasts get too old and feeble to totter about and find their own food they are gently carted away to a state farm for aged cattle and kept in luxury until death comes by old age. The taxpayers foot the bill for the cow infirmary.

You might think all this is just a grandstand play so that the maharaja can show what a devout cow worshipper he is without really meaning to jail people who eat a steak. Wrong. During my visit, three men were in the lockup for having eaten a part of one of their own beasts which were either killed by accident or died of old age.

A Puzzling Place

This makes Kashmir a puzzling place for anyone, most of all the Britisher. He sees the Union Jack flying from the customhouse or the club or the post office and feels that he’s at home. He mails his letters with Indian stamps and pays his bills-his numerous bills-with Indian coin. Then he sees the soldiers and they are certainly not British. Not even the officers. And he has to pay duty to come into the country; toll to get out. If he gets into trouble with the gendarmes he faces an Indian judge with Indian laws and never quite gets to understand what these laws are.

The erstwhile Nalla Mar, a canal that crisscrossed the old Srinagar. It was filled up recently to pave way for a road.

Then he discovers that Kashmir itself is an empire of five states separating China, Russia and India.

In keeping this place free of murder and invasion the British government acts as an adviser. For this they are paid six Kashmir shawls a year; the shawls being duly valued and entered in the British budget. But if Kashmir is not British, why is her raja a personal aide-de-camp to the King-Emperor? If she is British, why don’t they use British laws?

Gordon Sinclair: An Introduction

Gordon Sinclair in his Toronto Star office

Legendary Canadian journalist and commentator, Allan Gordon Sinclair (June 3, 1900 – May 17, 1984) was a high school drop-out who was sacked twice by different companies before hired by Toronto Star in 1922. He worked for seven years and then got his first by-line. He had the honour of being one of the rare authors whose 1932 book Foot-loose in India, a travelogue, was completely sold on the first day of its publication.  Now a celebrated author when he announced his next trip to South East Asia, a crowd of 6500 people came to see him off. This trip was key to his books Cannibal Quest and Loose Among The Devils. This followed his sacking by The Star for his failure for missing a story. This was despite the fact that he had travelled 340000 miles to report from 73 countries. Post sacking, he started working on his book Khyber Caravan for which he visited Kashmir in summer of 1935. The anecdotes of his book were so controversial in Canada and America that The Star sent another reporter to crosscheck the facts.    Soon, Sinclair returned to Star and was sacked again. By 1938, he left sports reportage for general reporting. Before his death in 1984, he had done a lot in radio and TV medium. By 1949, he was back to The Star, this time as a columnist. Sinclair’s 1966 autobiography, Will the Real Gordon Sinclair Please Stand Up was followed by a sequel in 1975, Will Gordon Sinclair Please Sit Down. “As a reporter, who never was, never can and never wants to be either editor or publisher he’s probably Canada’s richest but he seldom lends or gives money to anybody,” an obituary on him mentions. “In many ways he’s a man without sympathy, feeling, or religious belief, but he’s a good reporter.”

Classic Coolies

Another thing we discovered was that a Kashmiri coolie is beyond tiring. Two of these gaunt scarecrows dogged our footsteps up and down the mountains. We wore warm clothes including overcoats. They were wrapped in rough homemade blankets without shoes or socks; on their feet, they wore chunks of rope. We put up in shacks and huts. They curled up in the snow. We carried nothing. They lugged our cameras, food baskets, thermos flasks, pickaxes and other gear. We ate mutton and bread and cheese and chicken. We had jams and beans and soups and fruit. They ate dry rice. We were all in at the end of a day. They went trooping down the mountain to yodel through the night with some pals.

The two Kashmir coolies who impressed the Toronto Star journalist in 1935

Their pay? Two bits a day and we buy the rice. Even with that two bits, they spent some of it betting on bear fights.

(Disjointed excerpts from Khyber Caravan: Through Kashmir, Waziristan, Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Northern India by Gordon Sinclair FRGS)


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