At the Floating Post Office


1


I met Ghulam outside the floating post office, which was a doonga
boat moored at the eastern edge of Dal Lake, on the Boulevard near Nehru Park.

This part of Srinagar was quiet, except for the incessant barracking of tourists by Kashmiri carpet sellers. To say these people were annoying is to say that Dal Lake is polluted.

Which of course it is; though not so it matters enough to stop thousands of houseboat owners and staff (not to mention many of their guests) brushing their teeth in it each morning.

Ghulam told me he had a story to tell, or rather, to sell. I initially waved him away with a dismissive, all-too-rude, Queen's wave of my hand. I expected to spend the rest of the morning now doing this (Kashmiris are persistent salesmen).

However, he simply smiled at me, gave a wry shrug of his shoulders and said 'Jullay' before walking away, pre-occupied. Now, this greeting is a Ladakhi one, and it was very unusual for local people to use it; in fact there was no reason to.

I stopped a moment, thinking.

Perhaps Ghulam (he'd introduced himself almost formally to me, with a shake of the hand - another rare practise here, come to think of it) was from out of town. Some place on the road to Leh?

Maybe from Kargil, or some other God-forsaken bed bug-ridden hole which serves as an overnight stop or staging post on the Beacon Highway? I'd been to Kargil. Twice
. Let me tell you, once is by far enough. Actually, it's one time too many. If not two. It's worse than Jammu, for Christ's sake!

Let me give you an idea of the place. The first thing I noticed, at the entrance to the town, was a large advertising hoarding. The sort that anywhere else in the world would be extolling the virtues of a particular brand of fizzy drink or Japanese car.

This one said (in English!):


“Go out and kill and Israeli child today!”

Just in case this message wasn't clear enough, it was accompanied by a picture of a couple of smiling, happy children. (I couldn't tell if they were Israeli - though they weren't from Kargil, for sure.)

I considered that Ghulam's actions were deliberately deceptive; that he knew tourists would think a Ladakhi greeting to be “exotic” or worthy of fleeting interest.

Which of course I did.

I turned back around; he was buying some stamps, chatting with the clerk, a pale, serious young man with wire-framed glasses perched on the end of his nose; somewhat Dickensian.

I walked on a little. Stopped, facing the floating post office. Ghulam was leaving the post office, stepping carefully across the small wooden walkway between the boat and terra firma
.

He walked past me, smiling again pleasantly (if slightly enigmatically - or was I imagining things now?) though he said nothing as he walked on in the direction of Dal Gate.

I followed at a short distance, believing that he almost certainly knew I was there.

he turned off the Boulevard into a mass of small but airy and bright streets and alleyways. There were tourists about so I wasn't too worried. He stopped at a café I myself frequented most mornings, the Glocken Bakery, found a table (my table!) and sat down (I was watching from across the street).

I waited a while longer. Long enough to see him take delivery at the table of a slice of apple and walnut pie, with Kashmiri tea.

My breakfast of choice.

Of course, I went in. Sat next to him.

'O.K.' I said, matter-of-factly.

'O.K. what?' he replied. This threw me.

'O.K. I'm interested.'

'In what? The story
?'

'I suppose so, yes.'

His mood brightened considerably, like a switch had been operated. 'Good!'.

We sat saying nothing for a few minutes. I ordered breakfast, which arrived quickly, and we ate, drank in silence. Our own relative silence, I mean. Although there were few diners there with us, the noise was tremendous. You'd imagine you were at the horse racing, or the cricket.

'How much?' I asked him. He laughed, stopped, and very seriously said:

'Whatever you like!'

It was then I knew for sure he was Kashmiri, and adjusted my expectations - and my guard - accordingly. I finished up my tea, and the last few crumbs of my pie; made ready to get up and leave.

'Acha!' the man said. Now he was a Hindu! What was
going on here? 'I do not mean to deceive you. I am not “on the make”. When you hear the story you will realise why I cannot put a price on it. I will tell you the story: if you want to buy it, then we will negotiate the price. This might not be money; yet again, it might be one rupee. if that is so, I will not remonstrate with you at all - we will leave with a handshake and I will be happy at that.' He paused briefly, to let what he'd said sink in. 'Do you agree?'

'Must I decide now?' I asked him.

'What's there to think about?' he replied. 'You don't know what the story is. The price is negligible, and what else do you have to keep you busy today?' He had me there.

Ghulam said all this slowly, calculatingly, like an old Maths. teacher I'd had in school.

I decided to opt in, and buy.

With reservations, and a strong guard.


2

'If you want to, you may ask me three questions. These you can save until later, when the story begins, or you can ask now. Alternatively, you can spread them out; however, there can only be three, so think carefully before you say anything.'

We were at the bicycle hire shop near Dal Gate. Ghulam had negotiated a price for two boneshakers, for one day. The price was far lower than I could ever have achieved, and I offered to pay. Ghulam would have none of it; he said we would share the cost, which is what happened.

He told me the rules as we were waiting for the bikes to be prepared. The tyres needed re-inflating, and he wasn't at all happy with the state of the brakes. The small grubby shop owner was forced to put new brake blocks on both bikes, effectively wiping out the hire fee in an instant.

Ghulam certainly had a way with words.

As we wheeled the bikes onto the road, the shopkeeper uttered something under his breath. Ghulam said, without turning back and in a mock-jolly tone, 'Allah-u-akbar!” God is great.


He set off and I followed. We headed back towards the lake, along the Boulevard past the floating post office. There was little other traffic and the day was just beginning to heat up. In the far distance, north towards the Himalaya, a frosting of white snow capped the ragged edge of dark mountains.

I knew what was up there: places like Kargil, before sanity took over at Mulbekh.

I'd also cycled this clockwise, circuitous route around Dal Lake before. It was a beautiful rise, passing Moghul gardens where people strolled, ate, married and died.

We cycled side by side, at a steady 15 mph or so, not talking. I wondered when Ghulam was going to begin the story, and thought about asking him. But I didn't want him to interpret this as one of my three questions (what was
that all about?). Though I did believe that two could play this game, and vowed to put him under the same rule.

We arrived at Nishat Gardens, but cycled past. A little later we took a short diversion and headed into the almost 400 year old Shalimar Bagh
. These gardens were lush and the canal leading to them from the lake was carpeted with lotus flowers which moved languidly in the wake of a determined shikara which was being rowed by a very old man wearing a dirty white skullcap.

Ghulam put down his bicycle next to a tea stall and beckoned me to join him. 'Chai?' he asked. I nodded, and he ordered. He spoke to the stall keeper, who seemed to know him, and duly two cups of milky tea arrived - though I noticed that no money changed hands.

We drank quickly, again without talking, and before I knew it he was back on his bike again, riding off slowly back towards the road. I finished the dusty dregs of my tea, have the man a few rupees, and cycled after Ghulam.

'You didn't need to give him any money,' he said. I wasn't sure how on Earth he knew I'd done so, and didn't answer him.

We cycled on until we were at the very end of Dal Lake, where the road passed through an avenue - a series of avenues - of walnut trees.

As we cycled on, I could hear only the fire-cracker popping of bicycle tyres on green walnuts which had fallen from the trees. I at first tried to swerve to miss them, then decided there was no point, and began to aim for them.

Women wearing headscarves had set up makeshift stalls under the trees beside the road, and were attempting to sell the walnuts. They covered their faces when we passed by, though they still waved us towards the baskets or piles of nuts.

We didn't stop. I noticed that the price was higher here beneath the actual tree the nuts had fallen from than it was back home in the supermarkets. What strange economics, I said to myself.

The day was passing by in a blur; I had absolutely no idea why I was there, on a bicycle, riding an apparent circuit of Dal Lake with a man I'd met just that morning and who had persuaded me (or had he?) to buy from him “a story”.

How absurd!


Lunchtime had now passed and the apple pie I'd eaten that morning was by now a distant memory. The chai
was swishing around my empty stomach, and I wanted to eat.

'Shall we eat?' Ghulam called back from his bike. Uncanny
, I thought. I cycled on towards him, looking around; there was nowhere to eat here, surely? From what I could remember, we weren't too far from Nasim Gardens - maybe just a couple of miles further on.

'Yes,' I shouted, even though now I was practically right behind him. Nasim Gardens is in a state of disrepair, as I recalled, and there wouldn't be any place there to eat lunch.

We didn't get that far. Ghulam suddenly stopped by the side of the road, looked about, then cycled on down a small path leading to the lake. After no more than 20 yards he stopped again next to a small hut which was totally covered with flowering bougainvillea.


An hour later we had already arrived at Nasim. Lunch had been a hurried, reticent affair. Again, no money changed hands. Again, I'd thrust a bundle of small denomination notes into the hand of the man who appeared to be the head of this busy and enterprising household. And again, I'd been “discovered” by Ghulam despite him not seeing the monetary transaction take place.

We arrived at Hazrat Bal mosque, beside the lake, mid-afternoon. Not a single word of any story had yet been spoken and I began to wonder if this
was the story.

A story of cycling, of walnuts and of silence. A story of floating post offices and of pie.

We sat down on the scorching, etiolate marble of the mosque's forecourt
. (I was yet to discover the name for this open space.) Ghulam sat opposite me and began to speak.


3

'I was born in a village called Pahalgam with its beautiful rivers - I expect you know it. Many tourists go there to walk through the woods; to see the meadow - Baisaran
.

Even as a young boy I didn't go along with all the talk of religion and of how we were not to mix with our Hindu or even Buddhist neighbours. In fact, I sought out these neighbours and we used to play together often, upstream, buying bottles of fizzy pop when we had money - we'd always share. We'd sit by the river, watching the cold water bubble over the bottles until the hottest part of the afternoon, when we'd pull the bottles out on the end of pieces of string, and drink the cooling liquid inside.

We'd befriend tourists as they alighted from the buses, and would escort or porter for them. There were a handful of hotels which would pay us a small commission for any customer we'd bring them. If they booked a room, we'd be paid a few rupees - which was of course added to their bills.

When I was 14 I left Pahalgam and went to live with an uncle in Kargil. I stayed there with him for only a few days…'

'Why?' I interrupted.

'He was a bad man. He was filled with hate, and he drank.' Ghulam paused a moment, lost in thought.

'I walked to the first Buddhist village that would take me in - this was Mulbekh. Again, you might have been there.

'Which is where I lived for more than ten years, leaving only a few days ago - for good - to travel down to Srinagar.'

I couldn't imagine where this was going. It wasn't the story I'd expected to hear, and if it was a subtle demand for sympathy and money then it wasn't going to work. I'd heard nothing so far to make me part with so much as a single paise
.

'My first night in Srinagar was spent discussing religion with a Sikh holy man. I'd never met a Sikh before - holy or otherwise.

'The second night the two of us joined up with an Imam from Africa, and last night the three of us spent all night talking with a saddhu
and his travelling companion, a buddhist lama from - of all places - Mulbekh.

'This morning, at first light, this motley bunch of representatives of four Indian religions told me that by sunset - today - I would be dead.'

'What do you mean?' I asked him, incredulously. 'Was it a threat?' He laughed.

'I'll take that as a single question, seeing as how you've already wasted one of your three.' He paused, non-plussed. 'So you've only one more left. Use it wisely!'

He's not asked me anything yet - so much for reciprocity. Ghulam continued:

'I left them, shocked. Normally this kind of thing would go right over my head, but today, for some reason, it didn't. I believed every word.

'I stood outside, not knowing what to do; where to go. The Sikh man came out and put a piece of paper into my hand. Then he scurried away, back to his little gang of doom-mongers.'

I had to stop myself asking him what was on the paper. He'd tell me in his own time.

'The writing on the paper said I could change my destiny by finding someone from any other Indian religion
to buy my story “without prejudice”.

Here we go
, I thought.


“I ran this through my head: all the other religions to choose from. Christian, Jain, Parsi, animist, Jew (were there any left - perhaps in Cochin?).

I could find none of them and then I saw you. A Christian! I was saved!

And that's perhaps where I should have spoken up, while there was still time. Only I didn't. I decided to keep schtum
and play along with Ghulam's little act.

'Well,' I said, forcing a smile, 'you've found me! You need me to save your life.'

He nodded, morosely.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a 1 rupee coin. I gave it to him, and he took it with such gratitude I was genuinely unprepared. The man was positively ecstatic; he'd obviously believed every word this band of brigands had told him!

We went into the mosque and Ghulam showed me the casket in which was kept a hair of the Prophet, brought to India in 1634. I'd begun to feel guilty about deceiving my new friend, and slipped into a meditative, almost depressed mood. It pained me to tell a lie: it was against everything I stood for. Everything I believed in.

Is a sin which saves a life still a sin?

We set off to return the bikes to the hire shop, Ghulam in the most terrifically happy mood, me under a black cloud.

Perhaps neither of us was concentrating as we should have done, but at a road junction near the Gate, an army truck thundered through a traffic light. Its front wheels knocked Ghulam off the bicycle and its rear wheels split his body in two.

I didn't have time to comprehend what had happened; didn't even have time to panic.

As he lay there, in the road with his legs mangled up with the bicycle, blood pouring from a flattened thigh, I watched his life disappear and death ebb towards him taking its place.

'Are you OK?' I asked, foolishly. He didn't answer.

I thought about how I had only a few days ago also arrived in Srinagar, after spending months in Rizong gompa as a lay monk. I held the medallion I wore around my neck. Om mani padme hum
, I whispered across Ghulam's body. There is no death.

              © John Gimblett 2009