Thursday, January 23, 2014

The other side of Chinar Bagh


By 1920s, Kashmir in Summers was buzzing with tourists, year after year. And with the coming of tourists and therefore money into an impoverished region. And with that came a new set of issues. The travelogues on Kashmir written during this time often allude to this problem but when coming close to it, clearly avoid going into the details. The dubious happening in the 'Bachelor' side of Chinar Bagh were only whispered with a disapproving nod. The Kashmiris on their part were to permanently cast doubt on the character of Haez bai, the women of boat people, by insulations and that too without ever directly going into the details.

Following is the only graphic description I could about the nature of the issue:

Two Kashmiri Women with their Dog on a houseboat
[late 19th century, probably by Bourne]
Leached from ebay

The rain had stopped by the time we got back, and the night sky was like a cloth of blue velvet on which had been spilled a stupendous collection of fire-filled gems. A scent of flowers filled the rain-washed air, and over the tops of the gossiping chenar-trees the full moon was rising, a huge globe of soft orange light.

For one brief moment I wondered why the boat was lighted up. My bearer had asked for leave until the next morning . . "to see my uncle, sahib."

"Garm pani lao! Khana lao!" ("A hot bath! Food!")

Entering the living-room, I might have blundered into a tale from the Arabian Nights. Sitting cross- legged under the biggest of the Chinese lanterns, on a chintz cushion set in the middle of the floor, was a young Kashmiri girl in a trousered costume of green.

Despite the wide gravity of a pair of brown eyes darkened with antimony, she was evidently little more than a child.

We stared at each other. She was trembling. Apparently moveless, the silver bracelets on her arms were chinking faintly, and a little metal 'bugle' suspended between her eyes was tremulous.

"Who are you?" I am ashamed to say the question was not politely put.

"I am called Ameena. This is my mother's sister.' With a sideways movement she indicated a sheeted crone whose wrinkled and sunken lips were ceaselessly moving. I had not noticed her.

The sheeted lady salaamed several times in rapid succession, and muttered something unintelligible. Senile decay! It would be useless to talk to her.

Again I addressed the girl. "Why have you come?" (I heard her whisper under her breath the word "Allah!")

"My father sent me. The manji said that the Presence wanted me. . . ."

The truth that rang in her voice and shone in her eyes roused a savage fury against the manji.

"I did not send him for you! I know nothing about it!" Mistaking the cause of my anger, before I could prevent her she had thrown herself at my feet.

"Do not beat me, Lord-sahib! Be pleased to let me stay! If I go before sunrise he will beat me!" The hands clasped about my ankles shook.

"Who will beat you?" ('To beat/ 'to abuse'how common those verbs are in India!)

"Your manji, sahib! . . . Shall I dance for you, sahib?"

Phaeton in the swaying chariot of the sun never wrestled more fiercely with his maddened steeds than I with runaway thoughts at that moment. ... I had heard of these things, of course.

Something had got to be done! But what? . . .
("What would the sahib like to do?" . . . "I will do anything!" ... So that was it!)

I fetched a box of chocolate-almonds from the sideboard.

Her story was pitiable enough, but I knew that every word of it was true. Her father embroidered small articles with iridescent beetles' wings. He had eye-sickness. Her mother was dead. They had no food. They owed a hundred rupees to a Marwari money- lender who had threatened to turn them out of their 'house/ So the father had agreed to sell his daughter temporarily. ("What else could he do, sahib?")

The beldame, when appealed to, moved forward on her hams, Indian-fashion, and, stroking the vic- tim's hair, expatiated on her gentleness and general desirability. I could have slapped her.

Yes, it was true. He had fetched the girl, thinking to please me. Other sahibs did such things. He hitched contemptuously the dirty padded quilt about his shoulders she was a virgin, and for three hundred rupees -

Huge as he was, I would have thrashed him not so much for the way he spoke, but because of that profit of 200 rupees. But she was staying at Kashmir and I was returning to India. Also, I might easily be asked to send in my resignation as the result of a fracas in a native state.


~ Indian Mosaic (1936) by Mark Channing, an officer of Indian Army who wrote this book about his search for a real 'Spiritual Pilgrimage' in India. The book ends with Kashmir and the section begin with a chapter titled 'The Girl I Bought'. And of course, he finds a 'Guru' in Kashmir, a man whose one of the duties is to read the dreams of Maharaja.


Although by 1936, George Orwell was already a published author but that year he didn't even have money to pay his rent. In that year, he started writing reviews of plays, films and books for various publication. His first work for The Listener magazine was an unsigned review of the book 'Indian Mosaic' (1936) by Mark Channing, for which he was paid one pound. But even back then, he writing was sharp, astute and to the point. About this book and its author he wrote:

"Mr. Channing is, or was, an officer of the Indian Army. Probably it was fortunate for him that he was in the Supply and Transport Corps and not in an ordinary regiment, for it allowed him to travel widely and to get away from the atmosphere of the barracks and the European clubs. It is interesting to watch his development from a thoughtless youngster contemptuous of 'natives' and chiefly interested in shooting, into a humble student of Persian literature and Hindu philosophy.
And then he makes an observation that shouldn't be hard to notice for a present day reader too but is seldom pointed out:
One of the paradoxes of India is that the Englishman usually get on better with the Moslem than the Hindu and yet never entirely escapes the appeal of Hinduism as a creed. But as a rule his response to it is unconscious - a mere pantheistic tinge in his thought - whereas Mr. Channing has studied Yoga at the feet of a guru and believes that we have far more to learn from India than she from us. He does not, however, believe India to be capable of self-government, and his book ends with a queerly naive mixture of mystical reverence and Kiplingesque imperialism. " [quoted from 'Orwell and Politics', Penguin Classics]

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