20 odd years ago I was sitting at home, chaffing; the Doctors had stopped me driving whilst they tried to sort out my eye, and long days free of work is a tough billet for a dyed in the wool workaholic.
I temporarily came over all domesticated and took the train to go shopping for curtain material. As one does. Or rather as I imagined ‘proper’ housewives did.
We were renovating a magnificent Elizabethan timbered pile at the time, and I wanted something suitably ‘homespun’ that wouldn’t jar the atmosphere. Nothing glitzy, or too ‘footballer’s wife’.
Passing one of those salubrious dens of interior design, I spotted just the thing. A rough linen embroidered with woollen flowers, it looked as though it might have been conjured up by William Morris himself. I was assured that it was hand embroidered – as well it might be, £150 a yard – and this remember was 20 years ago. I needed 20 yards. £3,000? They were joking!
Further conversation with the silkily spoken ‘interior designer’ elicited the information that it originated from a family firm in Kashmir – not a place I had really heard of. Somewhere vaguely in India. Certainly not the sort of place where anyone was paid £150 a yard to sew a few flowers on.
The Internet was in its infancy. Tapping ‘Kashmir’ into the fledgling Google returned just one page. No information about the countries products, but a picture – that showed the exact fabric – and a telephone number in Birmingham for someone promising cheap flights to Delhi. Ten minutes on the phone and I had a ticket to Delhi…
Mr G used to have an eyebrow that he could raise quizzically whenever his wife had a mad idea too far, but it had long since worn out. He just ‘harrumphed’ and drove me to the airport two days later.
From Delhi I took a plane to Amritsar, and after a detour round the Golden Temple, took what was deceptively described as a ‘taxi’ to Srinagar. It was the only way to get there at the time, without returning to Delhi. The taxi was a Bedford Rascal van with a rough wooden board across the back of the van to let the three passengers and their various chickens sit down. My companions were, er, interesting. Toothless. Voluble. That was just the chickens.
Stopping in a small town for food just before the border, they insisted I buy a burqa. It was unthinkable that I wander the streets of Srinagar with my head uncovered. In Srinagar the taxi driver insisted on taking me to his cousin. Everybody has a cousin in India, invariably in just the business you are looking for.
Iqbal and his wife Karim were the ‘cousins’. They owned a magnificent house boat out on the Dal lake, which I rented from them for the princely sum of £10 a week. Including three meals a day. Oh, and someone to cook them too.
The houseboat was a relic of the days of the Raj, when European colonials were prohibited from buying land to build houses in the cooler climate of Kashmir. They built them on water instead. Magnificent carved wooden palaces, with stained glass windows, and walls, ceiling and furniture of hand carved walnut.
It was an extraordinary time, floating peacefully on the Dal lake, but no sign of my fabric. Iqbal had another ‘cousin’. Up river, on the Wahal lake, and he did produce just such fabric. It was decided, by Iqbal and his cousins, that they would take me there in a Shikara, one of the small boats that the fishermen live and work on. Around 12’ long, there is just, just, room for three adults to sleep side by side. Pretty chummy adults. A lot chummier than I am habitually with two total strangers in a foreign land. I was becoming use to the excessive deference that Kashmiri men show towards any woman. It mattered not that I was not related to them; they considered me their responsibility to look after. I was given a rough woollen Pheran for the cold nights ahead.
Taking turns to paddle the Shikara, it took three days to reach the isolated village on the Wahal lake; a place of such extraordinary wild beauty that I was to return several times. When they saw cows on the riverbank, the men would stop and buy fresh milk, in early evening they would fish for our evening meal, and at sunset the blinds on the side of the small craft would be lowered and the gas lamp lit. I did have a treasured photograph taken by Iqbal of the three of us playing Gin Rummy – I had taught them during the long nights, the pack of cards I habitually carry proved to be one of the best forms of communication between us – for they spoke no English and I spoke no Kashmiri.
One of the women in the village was about to give birth, an excuse for a particularly festive all female affair. Some 50 women were crowded into the room, and my European ancestry was not considered sufficient reason for me to be excluded. They sang, they danced, they laughed and joked, they exchanged gifts, they ate sweetbreads, the girls Mother mopped her daughter’s brow, and some 20 hours of labour passed in the blink of an eye – at 7 in the morning she gave birth to a fine son, and the men were finally admitted to a day of jubilation. It was as far removed from the sanitised western maternity unit with its infamous stirrups as you could imagine.
Soldiers turned up in the village – too close for comfort to the Afghan border for their liking – and proceeded to search for weapons. There were no female soldiers, so when it came to my turn to be searched, they held up a blanket in front of me and invited me to search myself…….total respect for women carried to farcical lengths, but faced with a lorry load of village policemen toting machine guns, it was no time to giggle.
One of the women spoke English, and she negotiated with the fabric producers. The women tend the fields, and grow the cotton. They card it, wind it, and weave the fabric. Then they hand it to the men – who do all the embroidery. Sitting ten aside over 20 yard lengths, they each embroider the half square yard in front of them with coloured wool in patterns so traditional and historic that they no longer need any reminder of which flower goes where. If one goes slightly astray, his neighbour will arrange that the stem from his flower joins up.
I bought some 100 yards that they had available, and arranged to buy another 2000 yards. They were extremely happy to accept £3 a yard, a far better price than they were used to. A good excuse to return, for one of the reasons that it is so difficult to obtain is that there was then no banking industry in Kashmir – no letters of credit, no bankers draft, no way of transferring payment from England other than to return the way I had come, with a bag full of cash.
When my flight landed in the wee small hours at Heathrow a month later, Mr G happily informed me that he had sold the Elizabethan house in my absence, and he had a scant five hours to get me to an appointment to see the house he wanted to buy – no time for me to get home and change into western clothes! I was propelled up the M6, after travelling for 25 hours, still clad in salwar kameez, with the back seat of the car loaded with 100 yards of fabric sewn into gunny sacks, to make it ever so slightly easier to negotiate the many changes of transport I had needed to make. Ever so slightly, not just plain ‘easier’…..
I returned many times to Kashmir, and established a sizeable business selling their fabric, for a more reasonable £20 a yard. Always on trust, both in credit, and in the large amounts of cash I had to carry.
I learnt a great deal, of the Muslim way of life in those isolated villages. The women I met were in complete control of their lives, and I began to understand just how powerful the propaganda is that we read and listen to in the West. They couldn’t understand why we would want to walk alongside our men and be jostled by the crowds. Their men walk in front of them and clear a path for them. Not that they are bothered by the likes of shopping. The market places are for the men, their job is to prepare the food, and produce the children. When I told them that women in the west habitually take two or three children in pushchairs in order to get the food home, they fell about laughing. Poor us. They had heard of our need to dress in a way that is attractive to all men, not just our husbands, in order to reinforce our husband’s status as the owner of a ‘trophy wife’, and asked why we put up with it? Were we just prize cattle? They had heard too, that we can be divorced and left looking after the children in a small apartment. Why didn’t our Father’s and brothers take care of us if our husband was useless?
There is propaganda on both sides, and I had never realised that before. It is why I started taking an intense interest in what is said to us by the media, and how I came to write this blog.
You wanted politics? Well tough. This is what I woke up thinking about today, and those trips to Kashmir were a damn sight more interesting than parting with oodles of cash in Shrewbury.