At the Floating Post Office
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
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
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
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
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.
'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
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
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”.
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.
'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
'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
'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
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
'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
“I ran this through my head: all the other religions to choose from.
Christian, Jain, Parsi, animist, Jew (were there any left - perhaps in
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
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
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
© John Gimblett 2009