The pull of India for Scots!

I was recently interviewed by the writer, Vujica Ognjenović, for a magazine in Montenegro and thought I would share his insightful questions.

1. Your parents are Scots. You were born, raised and finished your studies in Scotland, so I will ask you, at the beginning of this conversation: are Scots really too stingy, or are they just reasonable savers? I hope you are not angry that I am asking you this because in many countries of the world, there are anecdotes about Scots as misers?

Ha! I won’t take offence at the question but I have no idea how Scots got such an unfair label. My family come from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the Gaelic-Celtic culture of that region is famed for its hospitality and generosity. The Highland code demanded that strangers and travellers – even from rival clans – must be given shelter and food. Stories of clan feasting were legendary! I can only assume the prejudice against Scots grew from the fact that in bygone days Scotland was a relatively poor country and so had to be careful with its resources. But close-knit communities would look after each other and help each other out in the bad times. There is an old Scottish saying, ‘mean as a key’. This meant that no one should lock their doors and that all were welcome into each other’s homes.

2. At the age of 18, you traveled to the “end of the world”, to the wonderful land of Nepal. Why? What did you expect from that trip?

Shikara on Dal Lake, Kashmir, 1976

My overland trip was inspired by my maternal grandparents who had lived and worked in India from the 1920s until retirement back to Scotland in the 1950s. My mother had lived there as a girl and I was brought up on stories about tigers and trekking in the Himalayas. I wanted to travel East before I went to university and see some of the amazing countries on the way. But I also wanted to experience some of the places in India (and now Pakistan) where my family had lived. When they were there, it was very difficult to get into Nepal but with my grandfather being a forester, they did some very remote treks into the Himalayas as far as Tibet. My mother as a baby was taken on these treks and carried in her pram on poles!

I have always had a fascination for other cultures, and I hoped to learn more about the countries and people along the overland route. I was also inspired by a book that I’d studied at school: Passage to India by E.M. Forster. It made me think about the diversity of cultures within India itself. When I returned from my trip, I went to Edinburgh University to study Social Anthropology.

3. Kathmandu, the capital of that distant land, located at the confluence of the Baghmati River and the Bishanmati River, is a famous cultural and Buddhist pilgrimage center. How did you experience that city where many traditional rituals are preserved?

Author (second from left) with fellow passengers by the dusty bus!

You have to remember that this was the 1970s and, in those days, Kathamandu was the end of the hippy trail! It was a fascinating place, full of beautiful temples and stupas – with monkeys running across their rooftops – and medieval buildings with intricately carved windows and doors, and narrow streets which we explored by bicycle. But it was also a haven for overland travellers from the West, living cheaply in backpacker hostels, enjoying the food and the laid-back lifestyle. To cater for the European travellers, there were small cafes selling pancakes, apple pies and huge delicious cakes!

Our bus arrived there at Christmas time and so most of the group stayed together for the celebrations, even though it was the end of the trip. On Christmas Day, I remember vividly, going out at dusk in the crisp mountain air, when all the lights were coming on in the open-fronted wayside stalls, the moon and evening star were rising and mist was settling on the hills around. Then suddenly, in the crowded street, a small band went past playing drums, pipes and bells. They looked like shepherds in their homespun blankets and they disappeared into the half-dark and their lovely rhythmic music faded away. I felt as if I’d seen the Biblical shepherds from the Christmas story!

4. How inspiring was that city for you? Was your mysterious novel, “Vanishing of Ruth” the result of that journey?

The author at a temple in Kathmandu, 1976

I adored Kathmandu and the surrounding countryside. It may be a cliché to say how friendly people were, but it’s true. It was the people as well as the fascinating city and the breath-taking mountain views that made it so special. It saddens me that so much of it has apparently been destroyed by earthquakes in more recent times.

‘The Vanishing of Ruth’ was definitely inspired by my journey overland, though it was over thirty years later when I finally decided how I would turn it into fiction.  I thought that the themes of travel, escape and self-discovery lent themselves to a mystery novel. So the novel has flashbacks to the same year (1976) that I travelled overland and much of the background is true to my own journey – though no one disappeared on my bus as they do in the novel! Kathmandu features in the novel too, and some of the pivotal scenes take place in Nepal.

I was also lucky enough to travel through your beautiful country of Montenegro during my bus trip. We camped by the Kotor Fjord and swam under the stars, visited Kotor, drove up the hairpin bends and through some spectacular wooded gorges. In those days, the towns we passed through were called Titograd and Ivangrad.

5. In the book “In the Far Pashmina Mountains” you told an epic tale of a woman’s bravery and endurance in nineteenth century British tropical India, and remote Afghanistan. What was the reason for writing this interesting and very unusual story?

Again, there is a family story at the heart of why I looked at this early stage of Britain’s connections with India! One of my MacLeod ancestors signed up as a soldier of the East India Company army in the 18th century, because of the lack of opportunities for young men in the Scottish Highlands. Life was tough and brutal but fortunes could be made. Donald, my ancestor, was wounded in battle and put on a ship home but he died before reaching Scotland again. ‘In the Far Pashmina Mountains’ (although set a few years later) depicts this crucial time in British and Indian history when the commercial interests of the British East India Company were turning into the political ambitions of Empire.

There was also a growing rivalry with Russia and so the independent country of Afghanistan became a political ‘football’ between the two imperial powers. There were those who thought that the Afghans should be treated as allies and friends and the more aggressive imperialists who wanted to invade the country and extend British power. What interested me was the women and civilians who were caught up in the struggle and how they coped in what became a notorious retreat from Kabul. That is why I wrote about a brave, independent woman as my central character.

6. Is there any particular reason why you have placed the plot of this book, for the most part, in the steep mountains of Far Pashmina?

Discovering the house in Simla where my grandparents and mother had lived in 1928

My hero, John Sinclair, is a Scottish Highlander and adapts well to the rigours of life in the Himalayas and mountains of Afghanistan where a lot of the book is set. I wanted to draw parallels between his life in Scotland and that of the Afghans and their warrior culture – the common hardships, prowess in battle, generous hospitality and pride in their clans. This is set against the arrogance of imperialism which seeks to dominate rather than understand people. I was also interested in portraying civilian life in the early Indian hill resort of Simla in the foothills of the Himalayas. It began as a place for the British soldiers to recuperate from the heat and disease of the plains in summer and grew into the most desirable hill town where government departments would go for the summer months and the Europeans enjoyed riding, sports, picnics and entertainment. In the 1920s my grandfather was stationed there as a forester and it was from Simla that he and my grandmother would set out for treks into the mountains and go ‘into’ camp for months at a time, to organise planting and harvesting of the trees. I visited Simla (now called Shimla) a few years ago and discovered one of the boarding houses where my grandparents and my mother had stayed – a thrilling moment as it still looked much the same as it would have in the 1920s. After that, I researched Simla’s history and that led to it being a part of the novel, ‘In The Far Pashmina Mountains’.

This is part one of the interview – I’ll post the second half later this week.

DELHI CAMPSITE – no money for the bright lights but happy with corned beef and salad

[Money – or lack of it – was beginning to curb my tourist choices, and reduced me to hanging out at the campsite.  But at 18 I was easily pleased – an ice-cream, a lift on a Harley Davidson and a camp supper of corned beef seemed to be all it took to keep me happy!]

Inscription in Buddhist temple, Delhi

TUESDAY 7TH DECEMBER, 1976 – Part Two

” They [Chris and Nicki] went off to embassy and we [Aussie Jan and me] went round emporiums of different states – nicely done up shops with regional handicrafts.  Got choker from Maharashtra and sandalwood letter opener/pen from Kerala.

Felt really shattered, so hunted down an ice-cream shop (best ice-cream ever – strawberry flavour) then piled into a Harley Davidson to the campsite.

Had a shower, hair wash – felt much better!
Sat in campsite cafe (on raised terrace) drinking coffee and chatting with Jan, Sue, Fred.  Lovely camp supper of salad and corned beef (no money to eat out or go to Son et Lumiere.  Caberet was on!  But too far out of town! sob sob)  There was a circus in town too.

Spent evening at cafe – big reminiscence of Durham, and Sunderland at Wembley with Di (owe her a coffee at House of Andrews!)

Others came back from Son et Lumiere – good music and lighting – and British Empire bashing in last 15 minutes!  Picked up Mike – mad Irishman working in Ceylon (VSO)”

NEW DELHI – RED FORT AND RED-HOT SCOOTER RICKSHAW RIDE

[It was chill-out time in India’s capital city and then a meander through the bazaar area, Chandni Chauk, and a hot-bottom ride into Connaught Circus in central New Delhi.]

TUESDAY 7TH DECEMBER, 1976 – Part One

Had a lazy half a morning – coffee and actually cleaned my shoes!
Went into Delhi with Jan, Chris and Nicki by foot.  Walked up to Red Fort – I acted as official guide much to annoyance of real one who kept insisting he knew more than I did!  Had a coffee in the arcade.  (Red Ford built in 1600s by Shahjahan – put in prison by his third son who also bumped off his brothers to become Moghul)

Walked up to Chandi Chauk – very busy; amazing characters, people selling flowers of bright orange and yellow.  Women with baskets of mud on heads.  Great amount of drapers – cheap looking garments and loads of bright clothes.  Bazaar looked a bit too dingy.  Got scooter rickshaws to Connaught Circus – me and Jan got into a real heap – there was smoke coming up behind the seat and by me; my seat was red-hot!

Chris and Nicky took us to the Indian coffee-house up a lift – a real grotty cafe, but with waiters dressed in white with green cummerbunds and hats with parrot crest-type top.  Had 6 chips and a coffee!”

DELIGHTFUL DELHI – Mohguls, monkeys, levitation and a Harley Davidson!

[In a letter home I wrote that ‘Delhi’s a super place – drove around the new part – lovely broad steets and parkland.  Had a really good guided tour of the Red Fort’.  Little did I know that I was going to see a lot more of Delhi than I bargained for once the bus trip was over – and not as a tourist.  But luckily that 18 year old was oblivious to anything beyond the next amazing marble building or crowded bazaar.]

MONDAY 6TH DECEMBER, 1976

“I cooked porridge!

Took bus into New Delhi for a tour of town.  Really lovely broad streets and parks with big meadows and trees.  Drove up main parade road (crash barriers because used for processions on Republic Day etc)  Viceroy’s palace in front (hazy but impressive) and then past Parliament buildings and up Parliament Street to post office – 6 letters.

Very moving letter from Mum describing Chief’s [Dame Flora] funeral and cuttings showing Dad, Don, Rory, Tom and other familiar faces.  Felt I’d really experienced it.  All of them had carried coffin.  Felt upset – Di cheered me up by letting me talk about it.

Went to Nepalese Embassy for some people to get visas.  Saw round modern Hindu Temple – fascinating, mass of colour, almost garish.  Made me happy and want to laugh all the time.  Many statues of gods and goddesses.  Next door was a Buddhist shrine.  Elephant statues in the garden.

Drove to Connaught Circus and stopped for lunch.  Went and found a milk bar with Heidi and Di – dim lights, posh enterior and expensive prices – so had half a sandwich and a coffee for lunch!  Dodged back among bicyclists and richshaws.

Taken to “Ivory Palace” where we saw men stitching gold and silver thread on black velvet and carving intricate ivory pieces.  Lovely showroom of gems, evening bags, metalwork and ivory chess sets, jewellery, elephants etc – ivory sofa, chairs and screens that took 25 years to make by 2 men.  (This was near big Mosque).

Went to Red Fort (Di, Sally and Fran).  Got a guide who was very interesting about fort – Lahore Gate, “umbrella” bazaar, barracks, gardens, drum house and parade to audience house where Moghul Emperor sat on huge marble throne and listened to petitions etc. (used to be a marble way covered with canvas, lined with people).  Tiles behind throne of attractive birds taken by British but returned by Lord Curzon.  Lots of little chipmunks running about in the gardens.  Lovely marble buildings – delicate archways, inlaid jewels in shape of flowers etc.  Peacock throne base was in one of them – but throne now in Tehran.  Used to be a silver ceiling, channel of running water and big fountain in shape of lotus leaf.

Balcony looking over parks where Emperor used to say good morning to people.  Looked over this side of wall and saw a boy beating time while monkeys danced and jumped – threw him some “baksheesh”.  Then two boys doing levitation trick – one beating while other rises up under big white sheet.

Saw women’s winter and summer baths and a private mosque of the family’s.  On the way back were taken into a jewellers and I bought a little jade elephant (student’s price!).  Got a Harley Davidson back to campsite (motor bike had big carriage behind and above – very open).

Went shopping for dinner with Chris, Nicki and Di.  Couldn’t find any veg or rice (dark by now).  Man kept trying to sell us sandalwood necklaces in French!  Tried to get through to him and friends that wanted vegetables – they thought we wanted sandalwood tables!  Finally got through to him, so he took us off down dark narrow lanes, crowded out with kids and people and animals eating in the road.  Got to veg shop (men ironing in the back and veg in the front!)

Cooked for 20 – only about 13 around.”

EMERALD PUNJAB – palms, crocodiles, milk bars, bright green parrots!

[Now back in the Punjab after Kashmir, I was excited by everything I saw and aware that my grandfather Bob Gorrie could have been responsible for some of the trees planted 50 years previously.  One of his areas of expertise was the problem of soil erosion.  Trees were crucial in stopping this erosion from hillsides and from silting up fields and river courses.

His photo shows where ‘a big dam of earth and sand has been built by 14 villages each doing their share of the digging and carrying.  It is to keep a river in its proper place and stop it cutting away villages and fields.  It has since been planted up with a lot of trees which I had to arrange for.’]

SUNDAY 5TH DECEMBER, 1976

“Geoff on the rampage because us cooks had slept in!  Lovely sunrise and ball of fire through the trees.  Locals watching but at a discrete distance.  Puffer train went by.

Interesting day’s drive – oxen pulling ploughs in greeny-brown fields – some green quite emerald in colour.  Palm-like trees among the others.  Big hay stacks and smaller cone-like grey ones.  Bright green parrots flew across road.  Plenty of horn blowing at slow oxen and carts and public buses.  Stopped to shop in village.  Medicine man sitting with bottles and baby crocodiles!

Next stop at a milk bar by a very pleasant garden – lawn and lots of flowers, 2 coloured umbrellas – part of a new dairy complex (project mostly in Punjab and nearby state).  Really nice cold milk drink – supposedly pineapple but tasted like the last one which was chocolate!

Stopped for lunch at cay shop – great little fellow collecting cups – big smiles, great concentration for job!  Builders nearby – wooden rough logs as scaffolding.  Very dark skinned workers.  Bill got left behind – Shirley only realised quarter of an hour after we left!  She suddenly shrieked “Where’s Willy?”!  Bill drove up in a truck a few minutes later!

Interesting countryside – little mud huts.  Great crowd by the road and going along parallel railway – great collection of trucks by side of the road – probably a local village fair – people streaming in on the area.

Reached Delhi after dark – through old city – great bright lights everywhere – big circus and old bazaar lit up.  Cooked on compound of campsite in middle of town.  Great meal!”
[My cooking team was Chrispin, Nicky and myself]

India Gate, New Delhi

BACK TO JUNGLE INDIA & ROUGH CAMPING – "Drive slowly your family needs you."

[My letters home had been full of ‘the great hospitality aboard the Golden Bell’ and the ‘superb meals’ cooked by Noor’s father, but now it was back to reality – the bus and camping rough and watching out for reptiles in the long grass!  I obviously wasn’t adapting well, as that night I went to bed without supper – I assume it was my choice and I wasn’t banished for inferior cooking]

SATURDAY 4TH DECEMBER, 1976

“Left houseboats early – given pack lunches – father came through for tip.  Noor saw us off.  Nice morning – sunny when leaving of course.  Felt like beginning of term to get onto empty bus again!

Valley looked nicer in sunlight.  Snow quite low down – fallen since we’d come.  Passed huge army convoy all having a pee at side of the road!  Climbed up to pass again.   Lovely gorge on other side – trees again on steep sided mountains.

Signs on roads like, “Drive slowly your family needs you”!  Made good time – reached Kud again where ate picnic lunch at cay shop on terrace.

cay shop at Kud

Hills smaller, trees more dense.  Hydro-electric station.  Lovely purple hedgerows.

Drove quite late and camped on bit of old road – tents all in a row (Charge of the Light Brigade style!)  Geoff said keep out of long grass – snakes!!  Went to bed early without supper – so tired.”

Monitor lizard found in my grandparents’
 garden in Indian foothills, 1930s

FREEZING SHIKARA TRIP – "ARTIFICIAL" OVERLANDERS SAVED BY CHOCOLATE

[Me and Noor on his shikara]

[Life on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Kashmir might have been an echo of the Raj but we were seeing it in the bone-chilling winter.  I recall wistfully in a letter home that ‘it must be idyllic in the spring or summer drifting around the lake in a shikara …!’  As it was, the monotonous brown of bare trees and dead vegetation was relieved only by snow covered peaks and the blue flash of a kingfisher.  After an hour of sitting freezing in an open boat, we aborted a trip to the Moghul Gardens across the Lake, and asked to be taken home.  Noor, our host, abviously thought us a bunch of wimps and declared us ‘artificial’.  Only the familiar and welcome cry of ‘chocolates! macaroons!’ and the sudden appearance of the chocolate seller’s shikara, lifted morale.
I observed in a letter home: ‘you can get everything off these passing shikaras from shawls to vegetables.  I think some of them are telepathic, because you just had to murmur that you’d fancy a chocolate and they’d be there outside the window!’

This experience was used as a setting for a tense moment in my mystery novel, THE VANISHING OF RUTH]

FRIDAY 3RD DECEMBER, 1976

Porridge! Omelette!

Taken by shikara to woodwork factory deep in middle of the Lake past slummy looking houses – very quiet up narrow canals – lots of vegetables growing.  No carving being done because still a holiday – very ornate carvings of dragons etc. 

Loads of us in little shikara on way back – one fella carrying bits of mutton – cut them the first day, give them as presents the next.  [This was still the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha] Taken to bank, then me and Neva had a short walk up to bridge – most of shops closed.  Lovely lunch of fish, tomatoes, chips, carrots followed by apple in pastry (very smoky taste).

Very cold trip in shikara to see Moghul gardens  Stopped at post office on a houseboat on the way.  Really freezing, so asked them to stop at small floating restaurant (government owned) and had cup of tea.  (Saw Maharajah’s house in distance, old king’s dwelling on mountainside and fort away in opposite direction.  Snow on hills in front.  Got them to turn back.  Had a go at paddling!  Stopped the chocolate man and had macaroon!  Noor said we were “artificial” for not wanting to go on (but would have been caught in the dark if had gone all the way).  Saw 2 blue kingfishers on fence by water.

Thawed out by stove.  Hot shower and good meal – felt better.  Noor pestered me to sell him my shorts for 5 rupees, so finally agreed.

[Neva and Julie in shikara]

Women wear great head gear – veil pinned at back of head and hanging quite long.”

EID AL-ADHA THE KASHMIRI WAY – CURRY, CUSTARD and FIRECRACKERS, 1976

[Our Overland stay in Kashmir coincided with the three day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) that marks the end of the Hajj to Mecca.  It commemorates the trials of the Prophet Abraham who was asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Sheep are killed and the mutton shared out with family, friends and the poor.  There is much visiting and we called on our houseboat hosts and shared macaroons.  In a rather Scoto-centric way, I likened this to First Footing at New Year.]

THURSDAY 2ND DECEMBER, 1976

Moslem festival – killing of sheep for each family; like their Xmas.  They have a three day holiday.  Had lie in till 9, then as well as the usual 3 course breakfast, we were presented with cake and macaroons by Gulam’s little girl – very solemn kid with lovely brown eyes.  Today they’d been made up and she was in a wide green dress with a hanky pinned to the front and little red shoes. [a letter home reports that ‘she was a big friend by the time we left!’]

Had a really lazy day sitting around writing letters and postcards.  Outside heard them all singing in the mosques – place deserted until 11.30; all go to mosque (only Noor left).  Saw the father going off in shikara.  Watched them all streaming back from mosque – festive air, fire-works (bangers) going off all the time.

Lovely Kashmiri meal cooked by father – 2 different cooked dishes of mutton in lovely masala sauces, cauliflower and rice.  Followed by banana and custard.  Had cold beer when Geoff and Fred popped in.

Went to see Noor’s father and Gulam’s wife and son in houseboat behind ours – really cold and bare – each room exposed to the outside – big open windows.  Rocked a lot.  Proudly shown each room (4 of them) then a fire at the far end and kitchen area at the other.  Pointed out Koran and photos. (Noor showed photos of his wedding – him in turban with a necklace of rupees.  Loads of family.  He had painted nails which showed he was married recently).  Apparently family visit each other during this festival (like New Year First Footing).  In kitchen, dangerous looking contraption – electrical wires in a bucket of water.

Later on we went and called at Geoff’s boat and had tea with Ian – the only one in.  He’d been ill and not out at all.  His news was that fares going up at home.  Went to “Pandora” – Chris, Nicki, Shirl, Bill, Janice and Ann.  Saw Nicki’s lovely rug.  Big argument about how much to tip the houseboys – Shirl believes part of their job to receive a tip.

Had another jeweller in that night – no business.  Hot shower.”

OLD SRINAGAR – FLOATING SHOPS AND ROAST DUCK, KASHMIR, 1976

[Between hearty houseboat meals, we Overlanders got down to some serious shopping in old Srinagar as we were lured by shikara to view the beautiful handicrafts of Kashmir: carpets, shawls, papier mâché, jewellery, woodwork, knives …]

WEDNESDAY 1ST DECEMBER, 1976

“Porridge and omelette, toast and tea for breakfast!

Noor arranged a shikara to take us round the back of the boats and up canals to old Srinagar to see papier mâché work.  Swamp-like appearance – brown banks, bare trees, tall brick houses with wooden shutters, all rather run down.  Women beating washing by side of lake, kids playing around on shikaras; met men selling vegetables, chocolates, drinks, detergents etc all on shikaras. (Saw one man with bicycle being rowed across on shikara!)  Dead cow floating in lake.

Came in past dilapidated houseboats and got out by bridge.  Boss of papier mâché factory took us up to a small workroom where a man and two little apprentices were painting the papier mâché.  One tiny fellow was rubbing papier mâché smooth with pumice stone.  Then we were led further into town, down little backstreets, past a school (looked like a warehouse) went up some wooden steps and along past classrooms.  Room at the end was another workshop where apprentice boys were moulding papier mâché onto moulds.  Then we were taken to see a 78 year old man (in the business since age of 10) who was doing intricate work with gold filter on top of varnished paintwork.

Had 2 little boys by him, practising flower designs in their books – really good.  Boss showed us ancient Kashmir vase (lovely figures and elephants on) which was on loan from America because the base needed re-doing – old man was mending it.  Then we were taken to his showroom, also up some obscure stairway.  Really fabulous goods on show – vases, boxes, egg cups, bangles, candle holders etc.  Lovely colours, flower patterns and little eastern figures.

Having bought a few presents (!) we were taken back to the shikara and made our way back past the houseboat to the main landing, where we were taken to the jewellers.  Had been round with his rings the night before – all very big with massive stones.  Went along to funny dark bank, through a mattress-type door.  Like a gambling den inside with bright light at cash desk and man behind it wearing a cap.

Back for nice lunch – meat and veg and apples.  Afternoon were taken to carpet factory by taxi to the old town.  Shown silk carpets – gorgeous green and blue carpets (thought ordinary ones not as nice as Persian – rather dull).  Smaller white hairy ones with nice coloured embroidery  – Neva got one with alphabet on.  Saw woodwork showroom – very cluttered so not the best effect; but stuff too ornately carved for me.  Also went to fur shop – wolf, fox coats and hats etc.

Taken to funny old post office to get stamps.  Hair-raising journey back in taxi – got into traffic jam – bicyclists everywhere, cars coming from all directions.  Driver had his hand permanently on horn!  Sent women scattering; was like the dodgems.

Superb meal – soup, duck and roast potatoes followed by stewed pears.  Tea served in sittingroom round the stove.  That evening, a man (friend of Noor’s) came to show his gorgeous Kashmir shawls.  Kept telling us to relax in our home and view his shawls.  Lights were not working, so oil lamps lit the room.  Also had lovely tablecloths and dressing-gowns to sell.  Tried on a red dressing-gown and a green cape – must come back with money some day!  (Shawl man said I should come back for my honeymoon!)

Then man with knives came – really hideous looking carving sets in shape of fish, and other things like nut crackers.  Later on, man with jewel stones came – most of our money spent so not much trade from us.  I bought a garnet for 11 rupees (70!) – my big purchase of the evening.”

HOUSEBOATS ON DAL LAKE – chocolate, hot showers and Zorro! KASHMIR, 1976

[Into Happy Valley and houseboats on Dal Lake by Srinagar in Kashmir – this was the stuff of Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown.  Our Housebout, the Golden Bell, had been run by the same Kashmiri family for generations and they were generous and entertaining hosts.  The boiler was antiquated, the furnishings Edwardian, the meals of meat and two veg and stewed puddings were the menus of the Raj.  Noor and his family lived and cooked on another boat moored behind ours – and a lot less comfortable.
In the 1920s, when my mother was a baby and my grandparents were trekking through the Himalayas on forestry work, she was slung on a makeshift carriage and carried through the jungle.  The world of houseboats in Kashmir in the 1970s probably hadn’t changed much since those days.  I often wonder what has become of those families and businesses as civil war has raged in Kashmir ever since.]

TUESDAY 30TH NOVEMBER, 1976

“Walked up hill to small village (Kud) and had coffee at cay shop looking over mountains and valley below.  Row of cay shops on raised terrace.

Lovely journey through mountains – great wooded slopes of fur trees – kept thinking of Grandad working in similar places.  Beautiful views up narrow deep gullies – eagles flying around.  Had to stop where army were pulling up a truck that had gone over the edge, quite far down.

Had really tasty samovas in small village (spicy filling in batter).  Fairly poor villages – drab clothing again.  They all go around with big coats on and fire baskets underneath – pots with charcoal in basket.  (Noor, our houseboat owner goes to sleep with his sometimes – once the bed went on fire!)

Before lunch we climbed to a pass and went through new tunnel to Happy Valley on the other side (Vale of Kashmir).  Here the mountain sides are bare.  Stopped for lunch – had super view over valley – wide and stretching into mist in the distance.  Looked over small hamlets – taller 2-3 storied houses.  Noise of meuzzin from mosques came drifting up to us.

Met by a boy from the houseboats.  Travelled down valley and arrived at Srinagar.  Trees all bare and everything very brown and dull at this time of year.  At the edge of Dal Lake, all piled out and into shikaras and taken to various houseboats.  Passed chocolate seller in his shikara – looked delicious and tasted it!  Luggage came on, on another boat.

Me, Neva, Paul, Julie, Pam and Mark were all in The Golden Bell.  Older smaller houseboat than some of the others – run by really friendly people – Noor Mohamed and Gulam – houseboat a family concern for several generations.

Lovely hot stove in little living-room – burnt wood in it (fairly expensive).  Had hot showers!!  Stood in old tin bath – tiny bathroom.  Rooms really cold, but each given a hotty at night!  Noor put on stiff white waiter’s jacket to serve on us at supper!  Had delicious lamb, potatoes and carrots, soup and stewed golden apples.  Great to sit down at a table again.  Lovely old-fashioned furnishings and pictures (Edwardian) on the walls.

That evening we piled into a shikara and went over to Maid of the Mountain (Rob, Maree, Diane, Mary, Pam and Sue’s boat) big central room.  Chris, Nicki, Geoff, Jan, Fred, Chris, Hans and Adrian all there too.  Had gin and limes, rum, brandy; then Rob organised a game of charades!  All chose a film title (2 different teams) and gave one to member of the other team to act out  in front of their group – time limit too.  Their group gave us the most obscure titles to act (must have made them up!) eg Robin Hood Maid Marion, Lust in the Dust!  I got the worst one – “The Erotic Adventures of Zorro” What acting!  I was exhausted!  Still they managed to guess it (just over time limit) but Geoff felt I deserved extra for effort!

Really cold that night.  Me and Neva had a long chat about homes, the bus etc (and how cold we were!)”