Beyond The Winter Wonderland
Winter is a different story for local Kashmiris
The sun is glowing like a pale-bulb on the gloomy grey skyline of Srinagar’s Dal Lake. The scene almost looks like it belongs to a Harry Potter movie.
The hazy and haunting twilight is smoke-screening the swarm of migratory birds in the middle of the lake. At the Ghats of the iconic Boulevard Road, a troupe of tourists from the mainland are making merry. The jamboree is capturing their celebratory recreational moments in the backdrop of misty mountains and the lackluster lake.
But beyond these festive scenes, the native floating population is fighting intense cold. And there’s nothing romantic about their winter ordeal. Among those struggling is Masrat. Her name means happiness, but in reality she’s a pensive person.
When it snowed in the Valley recently, this 25-year-old woman re-lived her nightmare from last winter. She recalled how she was screaming at the chilly lake bund when she saw her aunt’s snow-laden houseboat sinking in the frozen waters of Dal Lake.
This year, this young woman has done some extra-preparation to avoid any winter induced disaster. “It’s all about survival here,” said Masrat, “this lake may be heaven for tourists, but for us natives it’s a frozen test.”
As she rows her boat through the icy waters, Masrat talks about the prevalent notion about the celebrated lake and its ethnic community. “My tribe called Hanjis are the victims of some prejudiced perceptions,” says Masrat, a civil servant aspirant. “We are seen as the sole beneficiary of urban tourism, but we go through a lot of tests and trials to sustain the Valley’s vacation industry.”
She feels that everyone, from government to private players, uses the lake as an example of serenity and solace, but none of that benefits those who live around it. “The seasons change and so do the living conditions here,” she continues while creating a path with a wooden oar for her Shikara to skim on the frozen lake.
“My family stays awake during snowstorms because we must monitor the amount of snow collecting on the roofs of our houseboats every hour,” she said, adding that “people living on land crave for snow, so that everything looks lovely, and they have enough time to relax, but those of us who live on houseboats snow is considered as a misfortune. We have to dump snow from our homes every few hours or our houseboats will sink.”
According to Seerat, a young girl who frequents the frosty waters daily to attend her workplace, life on lake seemed a little daring and playful to her when she was a child. “But as I grew up, I was unable to get a good night’s sleep during snowfall. The hazard of sinking would always haunt us,” she said.
At times, when the snowfall would start in the dead of the night, Seerat’s family would be alerted by their vigilant neighbours. “My father and brother would go up on our houseboat’s roof during snowfall and clear the frosty cover with shovels,” said Seerat.
“Once done with the snow-clearing process, we feel frozen due to subzero temperature outside. Although having a houseboat on a lake has always been enjoyable and a dream come true for me, having to deal with such harsh realities and cold is unfortunate,” she added.
But the winter woes don’t end with this, the season becomes a tightrope walk due to the icy, slippery slopes and paths. As an inhabitant of the floating abode, Nargis fears the slippery paths during winters when she leaves home for office.
“One slip and you are down in the icy water,” said Nargis standing on the doorsteps of her hut, gazing at the panoramic view of the lake where tourists make merry. She is in her late twenties and said that “there’s nothing romantic about this shivering and slippery life.”
Nargis travels a great distance by boat to work and back. She lives in the middle of the lake and enjoys the voyage in the summer months. But the bitter winter makes her shiver. Apart from biting cold, she’s terrified of the sudden rain, wind and snow. The inclement weather in the lake means a long haul to work and back.
“It’s quite challenging to cross the frozen lake. I feel like a hostage held by the extreme weather. During those trying times, we need to use water to thaw the frosty lake despite the fact that it’s already chilly outside. It takes a lot of time and is risky. If someone falls into the frozen water, it will make them sick,” said Nargis.
These weather related issues make life on the lake quite ‘medieval’ as many of the modern gadgets installed in the houseboats and huts are rendered ineffective.
“There’s a notion about us that we live a nomadic life on the lake,” said Rifat, who lives on the Dal Lake, “My friend from Downtown Srinagar once wondered if we have a refrigerator, TV, washing machine or other gadgets at home. I laughed and told him to visit my home and clear his doubts. But the harsh reality of winters hits us hard. We’ve to step outside for work and day-to-day activities.”
For students, the outings for tuition remain a daunting task. Most of them have to report to their study centers early in the morning when the temperature is brutally low.
“Our parents remain apprehensive of our safety, as doctors term the severe cold a major factor behind the growing heart attacks in Kashmir,” added Rifat, “but we’ve no choice than to step out. During snowfall, most of us aren’t able to attend tuition regularly. This seasonal disruption hampers our education and impacts our academic performance.”
Younger children are barred from venturing out due to the risk of falling into water and the slick wooden bridges in the winter. Most of them play with frozen chunks on the lake and compete with each other to see whose ice piece can be flung the farthest.
“I feel sad when I hear the noise of snow and rain. Everydrop is audible, and the wind rattles the houseboat. We’re unable to visit our friends and neighbours for weeks. These factors also have an impact on our personality and behaviour because we find it difficult to socialise easily,” said Rifat.
Since most of the Dal Lake dwellers remain confined indoors during the cold weather season, it adversely impacts their health. It primarily affects young children, elderly and pregnant women.
According to Nargis many individuals prefer to leave the area in winter, “all of a sudden, you will experience some form of desolation. In summer everyone visits our home and enjoys spending time with us. But in winter, they say it is too cold and they don’t want to risk getting sick.”
However, Aqib, a young houseboat owner, has been arranging additional heating for his family and visitors. He wants to make the most of winter tourism.
“Our Houseboats and shikaras need regular checks, especially during snowfall. Snow makes them heavier, making maintenance a challenging task. We repair any damage to the houseboat, and keep the boat dry and clean.
“As it’s considerably colder close to the lake, we wrap our houses in white transparent sheets and fix them with nails and wooden planks in order to survive on the lake. We light a bukhari — heating stove — in our boats to provide us with warmth,” he said.
On the decks, some of these boatmen are also lifeguards. Last winter they lost one of their colleagues in the frosty waters when he slipped and fell in.
“We keep a hawk’s eye on the houseboats and the lake. We need to break the ice on our houseboat’s boundary areas as it may damage our dwellings. To withstand the hard winters, we have to keep numerous things in mind,” said Aqib.
Many people like Shakeel earn their living selling warm merchandise to tourists in his Shikara. “It is really different during this frosty season. The frozen lake makes rowing an arduous process and poses a huge risk to the boat. Frozen ice is hard and constant rowing in it scratches and damages our boat. Snowfall hurts our business,” he said.
Not just Shakeel, but many others who live on the lake and sell a range of goods to earn a living, experience difficulties in their businesses and health. “It takes a lot of effort and energy to catch fish in the winter since the lake is frozen,” said GhulamQadir, a fisherman, “we have to go early in the morning to get our catch. However, this is our way of life, and we must struggle to survive. As the winter approaches, we prefer to go alone. In the summer, we typically travel in a boat with our families.”
These lake regulars prefer not to leave their homes during snowfall or cold weather. According to Misra, a 65-year-old homemaker, “winter is a nightmare for homemakers of Dal Lake. I recall the times when I would assist my husband in breaking the ice before going to buy food for my family. All of the food and dry veggies that we regularly consumed were kept on hand at home.”
As an aged housewife, Misra’s fears still fears for her family’s safety during harsh winters. “We’re currently passing through the 40-day-long chilai kalan when all the pipes and lake freeze. We remain on our toes and need to be more vigilant. The most challenging task is nurturing and raising children during this period. We must keep a watch on them,” she said.
Inside his lake hut,Mohammad Aziz, 90, folds his hands inside his pheran. He terms health problems as the biggest challenge his community encounters during the winter. “I’m an old man who worries about his health. I only wish that I don’t become sick during the tough winter when it’s hard to cross the lake due to the snow and frozen water. If we can’t immediately get to a doctor or hospital, the situation can occasionally get worse,” he said.
Tourists enjoy the winter in Kashmir and make memories, but beyond the snow-carpeted mountains and the misty lake, the harsh life of the natives remains a frozen secret now many know of.