t was in the autumn of the year 1927 when Salma got married. Salma was a beautiful girl who hailed from the village of Badgam, a few miles away from Srinagar, and at age 17 was mature enough to get married. Her father had considered her alliance with a local boy who was a good son of a farmer and close to the family by relation and location. Salma had other plans however and wanted to marry any boy stationed at Srinagar, the city of her dreams. She had heard stories of the place and was desperate for magical moments of looking at “gora” mem’s and sahibs who frequented the place year around and exhibited power and wealth beyond her imagination. She had heard many tales about them and wanted to be close to them at some time or the other. Her maternal uncle, who often visited Srinagar, brought a proposal from one of his acquaintances for a boy doing well in his own way. She ultimately married Subhana, the boatman, from Srinagar for whom the proposal was agreed to by her father. Subhana lived in a houseboat that was permanently moored outside the Dal Lake on the stretch of the canal just close to the southern boundary of the golf course. He was in the business of ferrying tourists in his shikara boat to any place they desired and generally operated in and around the famous Dal Lake. He was a rugged man of 28, much older than Salma. He had a proportioned muscular body with pox marks on his face that sometimes looked evil. Subhana had a steady income and was financially capable to look after a mate. Though Salma was illiterate she was not as dumb and docile as Subhana would have desired, but at that time he did not know her that well. That Salma would also be bold and ambitious, being born in a village, did not at all occur to him. He would learn about it much later as the days progressed. He was, however, happy that she was good looking and had a fair skin and a flawless complexion that blended well with the company he normally kept.
There were nine chinar trees strategically located around the place where the houseboat was moored along with six other boats and the trees shed red and gold color leaves in autumn, setting the atmosphere around on fire with its color and beauty. That is what Salma witnessed during her first impressive days upon arrival from her village after she married Subhana and was totally mesmerized by this sight. Though she had seen a chinar tree in her home village, she had not witnessed a cluster of these beauties and was overawed with the sight. She felt she had taken the right decision about her marriage and considered herself lucky to have finally reached destination Srinagar. She felt capable to handle anything in her life on her own terms. But she had not known enough about Subhana and his temper and would probably experience it first hand sometime or the other. There was the old mother of Subhana who needed looking after while he was out at work. She was a tuberculosis patient as was the father who died of the disease a couple of years ago. A fakir, who frequented the place near the chinar trees almost every day, told her that she was destined to be a very well known and talked about woman of the town. He cautioned her, though, that the nine chinar trees represented the nine planets of the cosmos and that any change in this composition would put the entire place in turmoil. He advised her to look after the trees in his absence and protect these as best as she can.
Having absorbed the sights and sounds of the place in the following months Salma got friendly with Bashir whom she met during shopping for her daily morning bread. Bashir was a baker and had his bakery (Amir Bakery) on the main road opposite the canal where her houseboat was moored. She just happened to like him and talked with him for hours on end and there was nothing intimate about their friendship. But she did not reveal anything about this to Subhana. In fact she did not like to think about the friendship going awry as she secretly nourished the idea of having a mate as charming and good mannered as Bashir. The thought itself frightened her and she suddenly felt insecure and knowingly reduced her visits to the bakery thinking she may otherwise give a vent to her pent up feelings. When Bashir asked her about her whereabouts one day she told him that the wind chill prevented her to move out of her boat very often. Every morning she got up she would sit by the boat and pensively look at the naked branches of the chinar trees. The nights were spent with Subhana in bed and once in a while the wooden floorboard of the boat would creak for a while until she got fed up of this exercise with him. She needed some change and she realized that only Bashir could provide the fuel to her burning desire. It was a bit difficult for her to open her mind to him, but when Bashir told her that they would together go to the Nedou’s Hotel nearby for a change one day, she got alerted and asked for details. What Bashir told her was such a bold idea that she laughed at his ingenuity and courage to entertain such a program out of the blue. She only had to devise a foolproof method to hide facts from Subhana and keep him out of these wild plans. The Dal Lake having frozen, Subhana was out of work in the harsh winter and his shikara was grounded in the frozen river by the side of the houseboat. He kept himself busy doing odd chores for the “gora” sahibs to keep the body and soul together. He did not, in fact, like to waste time in mindless gossip. But he made sure he took his wife out to look at the frozen Dal Lake and they even had a walk over its surface wearing the dried weed slippers that prevented slipping. He wanted to give her a feel of the place and make her see the beauty of a frozen lake as against the one she had seen earlier when he had taken her out on his shikara around the lake fronted Moghul Gardens.
Maharaja Hari Singh had ascended the throne of Jammu & Kashmir in 1925 and there were signs of prosperity all over with abundance of food and fruit. The Europeans were at the helm of affairs with the East India Company firmly rooted in the country despite the calls of freedom by the Indian masses guided by Mahatma Gandhi and others. Engagement with trade was by far the best alternative for any state to add those extra British pounds to the treasury. The state of Jammu & Kashmir was famous for providing the best hand crafted carpets, both silk and wool and papier-mâché goods that were directly exported to Europe. The trade in fur and shawls was another money-spinner for the state and most residents were directly involved in the production of traditional handicraft as a home industry. By far the people of the state were a peace loving people with no crimes ever known to take place in a society that was closely knit socially and economically. This had encouraged tourism in a big way and the Europeans took great pleasure in the flora and fauna available in the state. Some of the Europeans enjoyed living in houseboats and these were adequately bedecked to cater to their needs. Nedou’s Hotel was the only star hotel that offered the best price for average tourists and was the sought after destination for the majority East India Company officials visiting the city.
Harrison Bates was one such frequent visitor and a guest at Nedou's who also liked to play golf. He was also very fond of charming girls for company when not accompanied by his wife Laura Bates, who was a strict disciplinarian and a mother of two children, both boys. At 38 years of age, Harrison (called Harry by his friends) was an employee with Her Majesty’s service at the British High Commission at New Delhi and resided within the High Commission premises. He was an influential man and had roots in the royal family by being a distant cousin of an Earl. His passion for playing golf was well known among his friends and he would spend an entire summer in Kashmir just for the love of the game. As far as his other interests were concerned he had developed his own technique in befriending local people to supply him the local beauties, at a price of course, and one such contact was Bashir, the baker whom he had befriended while he supplied bread to the hotel on a daily basis. He had already rewarded him for his special pickings on numerous occasions in the past. This winter when Harry visited the valley it was not for golf, but for the other sport since his wife was away in London along with the kids visiting her parents who were keeping indifferent health. Harry did not like staying alone in Delhi and although he had girl friends there who would remain incognito for his passionate ordeals, he always preferred the natives.
Salma dressed for the occasion as directed by Bashir and she wore some of her best clothes to make an impact with her good looks. What Bashir told her was that she would have her lunch with a famous Englishman who would also reward her for the company and treat her royally every afternoon for all days of his stay at the hotel. What he did not tell her was that she would have the lunch all alone in his room and then stay over for his love games. Salma was amused with the possible attention she would get even though she would hardly be able to make any conversation with the man. She fell for the bait and at the end of it did not feel any remorse or any need to make a complaint to anyone for the simple reason that she liked the game itself. She in fact liked Harry, felt his pulsating body smelling so good that she wanted to wrap herself around him and not let him get away. She enjoyed his manhood and the small talk he made through the entire process of love making which lasted one full week on a day-to-day basis. Harry gave her a lot of attention and also a few one rupee silver coins with George V engravings every time she visited him, not that she did all this for the reason of money. She did not even know how and where to spend it and decided to keep it safe someplace. When it was time to say good-bye to their week long intimacy Harry gave her some British pounds this time. Salma, however, wanted to keep a memory of the person whom she had begun to adore. Since she could not communicate her wish, she found it amusing to take something from him without his knowing. What she laid her hands on in his absence was his passport, but she did not think she liked all the pages except the one carrying his picture and tore it off from the booklet and hid it in her dress and later in a recess of the boat. She hoped she would see the man again sometime later when he returned.
The spring of 1928 brought new hopes for Salma as the days looked bright and sunny and many Europeans started to habitat the valley on vacation. Salma also felt a new life growing within her and thought very little of the seed that was germinating. She had not broken up with Bashir for his having made her go through a relationship with a man alien to her culture but was still good friends with him and entertained the same tender feelings towards him. She still cherished his company and kept Subhana wanting for her attention. Subhana did not know what was brewing in her mind and remained unaware of her dissatisfaction. He continued with his trade as efficiently as he could, having learnt that he was going to be a father very soon and needed a lot of money. It was the onset of the summer season again when Salma finally delivered a baby boy. Much to the delight of the father the boy was very fair, but as the days progressed and the baby opened its eyes did anyone realize that he carried deep blue eyes just like the gora sahib’s in town. No serious doubts were raised by anyone, but Salma recognized the man who was responsible for fathering the child. The child had as deep blue eyes as Harry and soon started to grow golden curly locks, a sure giveaway. As the days passed by, Bilal showed signs of good growing and was unmistakably European in his looks. Subhana started making discreet enquiries about this phenomenon from his friends and his doubts about the faithlessness of his wife became more apparent. He started misbehaving with her and often beat her up on one pretext or the other. Hot tempers got exchanged and foul language was often used to settle scores that left no one any wiser. With no consideration to whatever was going around him Bilal kept growing up as a normal baby.
At the end of the winter season when the ensuing spring of 1929 looked promisingly attractive with flowers sprouting everywhere a ray of hope flickered across Salma’s face thinking she may yet see Harry again. She wanted to take his child to him and ask him to take the boy in his arms and love him as a father. But things don’t always happen the way one wants. Towards the middle of May things turned quite stormy with the weather gods playing truant and heavy rains lashed the valley. The rains kept pounding day after day for ten days when the water level in the river began to rise alarmingly. There was an enormous amount of water getting discharged from the Dal Lake that it could not be contained and the floodgates at Dalgate had to be opened. What it did was to raise the water levels further in the adjacent canals destabilizing the moored boats. Subhana was concerned about the safety of his houseboat and his ailing mother and tried all methods to keep the boat stable at its mooring. By the end of the tenth day of incessant rains the embankment gave out and the houseboat drifted downstream threatening capsize. Subhana could not handle the houseboat all by himself and feared for the life of his ailing mother. He hurriedly shifted her onto the shikara wishing to safely row her out of harms way, leaving his wife and the 8-month old infant onboard for whom he did not feel so concerned. But the fate had other details in store for him as the shikara got into a whirlpool of the waters close to Dalgate and the strong downdraft sunk the boat taking both occupants along. Subhana fought valiantly for his life but got tired in the process of saving his mother and lost his own life as well. No amount of shouting by him got any attention from anyone as no one was around and no one would hear him in the raging storm. After the tenth day the storm abated and although the water levels kept rising the people could take stock of their situation. Salma watched with concern as the houseboat drifted from one bank to the other and she had no idea what happened to Subhana and his mother and if at all they were safe. It was only after three days when the two bodies drifted ashore about five miles downstream. The burial took place coming Friday when the water levels lowered considerably and the burial ground was clear of water. Salma had now to think up of a strategy so that she could live her life and take care of her baby.
The initial grooming up of Bilal was a process predictably unrelated to him, as he was too young to understand anything. But as he grew up in a family where he recognized his father as Bashir and mother Salma and two younger siblings, a brother and a sister, he failed to understand why he looked different from the rest of the family. The family had a bakery business and the renovated houseboat of Subhana that they rented out during the tourist season and the earnings were good enough to take care of the family needs. Bilal got a bit of schooling but quit early as he did not like the company of his classmates who used to tease him for his deep blue eyes, golden hair and a white face. His IQ was higher than his classmates nonetheless and he thought it unwise to sit with kids not as intelligent as he considered himself to be. After having grown in age and understanding to ask some probing questions he pestered his mother about his parentage and why he at all lived with them. Salma kept assuring him that she was in fact the real mother and under duress had to reveal to him the story about his biological father, now that he was wise enough to know the truth. She showed him his father’s picture,a page torn from Harry's passport, and Bilal could see the startling resemblance clearly. He vowed to find his father and pined to go and live with him as he felt like an alien in his mother’s home.
It was the summer of 1947, when Bilal turned 19 that India got freedom from European occupation and all Europeans started leaving the country. There were a few stationed in Srinagar who also moved out towards Delhi from where they planned to board the train to Bombay and take the sea route back to England. Bilal managed to be one such person traveling with the group and most of the time he kept silent and avoided any conversation for fear of being detected. In all other ways he just looked like any of them. Many in the group thought he was probably deaf and dumb. Bilal carried with him the passport page of his father and seriously looked forward to meet the man and start his life afresh. His mother had understood the restlessness in him and knew she could imprison him no more. To help him a bit she gave him the British currency that she got from Harry. He received temporary travel documents at the ship’s landing at Bombay from the British immigration officials considering his having lost the document like many others. He looked so much like them that none suspected his credentials and he was even looked after by an elderly British lady (Lillian) who met him on the train and took pity on his condition. She called him Steve after her son who had died in India and he was registered as such in his travel documents with Bates as his surname. It was early October when Steve set foot on the English soil after a week long journey on the boat. In England Steve launched a manhunt for his father with the details he had on the passport page and Lillian helped him in his mission. It was in Kent, England where he traced Harrison, his biological father and his stepmother Laura and his siblings with whom he lived after Laura considered his case logically without a need to make an issue out of the whole situation. He looked so much like his father that no arguments were necessary. He got his education and upbringing like any of the Bates kids and his rights as a son.
At age 30, when Steve Bates married a beautiful English girl he went back to India for his honeymoon and traveled to Srinagar where he wanted to learn about his mother. Bashir, his stepfather told him that she had mysteriously drowned in the river one day upon the departure of Bilal whose absence tormented her. The river revere took its toll after all. There are now only eight Chinar trees standing where Sultana’s boat used to be moored.
B. L. Dhar was born and educated at Srinagar. Did Master's degree in Mathematics. Took up appointment with the Civil Aviation Sector of the G.O.I. as a gazzetted officer and later joined the PSU, Airports Authority of India (AAI) from where he retired as General Manager in 2000.
At present residing at Delhi with frequent visits to the US and Europe where his kith and kin reside. Has interest in writing.
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