One of the reasons behind the decay and downfall of Kashmir’s heritage houseboat legacy is the chronic slandering of the Hanji community.
Floating over the smooth rippling, Mascot Houseboat anchored at the calm corner of Srinagar’s Nigeen Lake is the biggest water-house of Yaseen Tuman.
The genial man with a glib assertiveness has been trying to keep his vessel as well as his identity afloat amid the situational and stereotypical onslaught for decades now.
“I might’ve four hotels but I’m still considered as a houseboat owner,” Tuman says inside his shimmering floating house.
“Houseboat is our identity.”
The sixth-generation Tuman terms these floating shelters as the tourism starters in Kashmir.
“As the most organic structures, houseboats don’t pollute environment,” he says.
“They’re the symposium of Kashmir art and the ensemble of the beauty of Kashmir artisan.”
Making of houseboats requires a local hand, like Wanichan who makes the hull bottom and the ironsmiths from downtown Srinagar who make unique types of nails and staples.
All these specifics provide a livelihood to hundreds of artisans.
“To build or repair a houseboat, I cannot use Chinese nails, neither can I order things from an MNC,” Tuman says.
This community involvement makes Tuman believe that a houseboat doesn’t only belong to the Hanji community but Kashmir.
“Even every inch of it represents Kashmir — from its curtains, wood carving, Khatimband canopy, Papermachie, walnut furniture, carpet and to the ceilings.”
But despite this collective endeavor and effort, the Hanji community accounts that they’ve been downgraded as the lesser citizens in Kashmir society since ages.
In 1905, thoughtful Tuman veers into history to convey a point, the so-called ruling class in Kashmir sent a letter to the Maharaja Pratap Singh urging him that the education of Hanji kids should be stopped.
“You can read about this telling event in Languages of Belonging by Chitralekha Zutshi,” Tuman curtly attributes the source to his statement.
“Zutshi may have written about it, but we live with it. I was in Class 7, when I faced casteism for the first time, while my father faced it all his life, despite working with an American Educational Foundation for most of his life.”
When the “ruling class Kashmiri Pandits” left the valley during 1990, Tuman says, they passed the ‘being superior’ legacy to the ‘noble Muslim caste’ clans of Kashmir.
“And this way the prejudice against us never stopped,” he rues.
“Many of these men who preach Islam on every walk of life tend to forget the teachings of the Religion of Peace prohibiting casteism.”
In the backdrop of serene setting, the talk touches various aspects of the “normalized otherising” in the society and its impact on the community living in the lake.
“There’s an old saying that exhibits the depths of casteism in the Kashmiri society,” Tuman continues.
“It’s said that when a girl would born in Hanji community, they would name her ‘Fati’. But she would be named Fatima, if born in a non-Hanji family.”
Sociologist Dr. Peerzada Amin admits that casteism exists in Kashmir but with another context.
“While the Hindu casteism is based on purity and impurity, Kashmiri casteism is based on compatibility,” Dr. Amin says.
“Casteism differs on the structural and functional level in the valley,” the sociologist explains.
“Structurally, Hanjis are wealthier than others. And functionally, they’ve improved their educational importance. And yet, they still face discrimination in the society.”
And the roots for it lie within the context of Hindu mythology as the Kashmir population is reverted, Dr. Amin says.
“Over the centuries the ancestral faith has influenced Muslim institutions in the valley and it’s vice versa. For example, despite being the upper caste Hindus, we know Kashmiri Pandits eat Halal meat. You won’t find any Brahmin doing that.”
Tuman steps on his houseboat’s sunlit deck to glimpse the serenity of the lake. While some boatmen are rowing around, a few tourists are taking joyrides in Shikaras. The scene makes the houseboat owner to come out of his silent stance.
“See this beautiful life here,” he resumes by pointing the lake activity, “and then try to understand the perceptive smear it faces for the heck of it!”
For centuries, Tuman says, casteism against the Hanji Community has been institutionalized.
“The historians who wrote about us were foreigners. For example, Walter Lawrence has written few sentences about our community in his work ‘The Valley of Kashmir’ and just because he had written that the Hanjis were abusive, the same legacy was carried out by other writers,” the houseboat owner says.
“Back then, we were a large tribe moving on waters all the time and that’s why education was difficult for us but as a community today we have achieved wealth, exposure, a significant and a civilized lifestyle.”
But even before fixing their fixtures, Tuman says, Hanji community was generating economy without relying on government jobs.
“And yet we faced forced dislocation,” he says.
“Dumping and shifting Hanjis in different parts of Srinagar was done to deny us a collective voice. Why don’t they remove shops, cafes, hotels on the adjacent areas of Dal Lake whose sewage also goes to the lake? Why do they always blame and target the Hanjis?”
The recent enterprising move to revive the centuries-old mode of water transport through a bus boat makes Tuman believe that it’s an attempt to take away the right to live and earn from the aboriginal dwellers.
“There has not been a single conservation plan where Hanjis were considered mandatory,” he says.
“That’s why I fear that in another 50 years, the long-drawn plan will take over Dal Lake too and then you will see yards in the lake owned by classists and not by our community.”