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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

A taste for the simple life in cosy Kashmir

I knew I was idealising life in Naranag, but the real benefits of living there were too great and too many to ignore.

Life in Naranag generally seemed pretty good. People have chickens, goats and horses and most have some crops. There is plenty of clean water from the mountain lakes, from which many fish are caught in the summer ("Deleeecious trouts, oooff!", in the words of Nizar, my guide). Everyone in this Kashmiri village is well-fed and well-clothed. Houses are warmed during the day by fires constantly fed chopped wood, and close sleeping arrangements - up to five to a small room - and thick blankets keep people warm at night.

Boys play cricket and football on the narrow roads or outside their houses, while the girls run around playing tag. I admired the way kids are brought up in Naranag. They're constantly doted on by a large network of close relatives. And they seem to be taught from an early age an appreciation for what they have. Food, for example, though plentiful, is never taken for granted.

And the banter between the kids and adults is a lot of fun. One night one of the men was trying to tire out Naseem, my host Ashraf's nine-year-old son, to get him to go to sleep, so he gave the boy a challenge - dance vigorously for half an hour and you'll get a boiled egg (the kids there for some reason love eggs). It backfired. Naseem danced for well over the half hour and the excitement of winning the egg seemed only to give him even greater energy. He boiled up the egg, removed the shell, kneeled on the ground, splayed his arms and loudly proclaimed, "Bism'Allah ar-rahman ar-raheem", before devouring it whole. It was one of the most absurd and hilarious things I've ever seen.

Bedtime is interesting too. Thick woollen duvets are brought out and the sitting areas in each of the three downstairs rooms become sleeping spaces. There are two bedrooms upstairs as well, one for Ashraf and his wife and the other for guests and their guides.

As the days passed I began to appreciate more and more the absence of television - despite my missing two televised sporting events of great personal importance - and I wondered, perhaps with unintended arrogance, whether people here would be better off staying without it. Naranagians seemed to have everything they needed right there in their village, far away from the city, but the galaxy of alternative lives flashing out from the TV - faraway countries, city life, celebrities, excitement - would surely generate frustration and discontent, especially among the younger generation.

There was an awkward moment when Ashraf was looking through the photos on my camera. As he got past the recently taken pictures of Delhi and Naranag, he came to shots from the glitzy opening night party of the Middle East International Film Festival at the Emirates Palace, and another set of myself and my girlfriend, all dressed up at a fancy restaurant in Lebanon. There was no point trying to explain to him that this was not an accurate depiction of my life, that I'm not a jetsetter and these were rare, special occasions. The impression was made. And despite his attempt to smile, he was visibly upset.

"You have such a good life," he sighed. "Lucky man."

And there are frustrations in Naranag. There is idleness among the young men in the afternoons after the wood has been chopped for the day (though in summer they would be busy with tourists); unmarried girls of the same age seem bored some of the time as well.

Health ailments are common among the adults and the elderly. Most of the women have chesty coughs - presumably from sitting by the fireplace all day - and toothaches are a constant complaint. But there is a clinic nearby and a sizeable hospital 45 minutes down the road.

Education and jobs, education and jobs. That was the mantra Nizar and another guide, Ahmed, who dropped in at Ashraf's house on a few occasions, kept repeating as the solution to "all the problems" of Naranag and other Kashmiri villages. But it didn't seem to me that, on the whole, there were so many problems.

I also wondered whether this wasn't arrogance on the part of the two guides, both of whom were from the city.

It was clear Nizar looked down on the locals in some ways, as gypsies and as Muslims with a different way to his of practising their faith.

"Look at the adults, they don't even read," he pointed out to me several times.

But what exactly did they need to read? They had lived off their livestock and the rich soil of Kashmir for centuries, for the most part peacefully and, from what I could see, happily. A sustainable, healthy way of life, in beautiful, clean environs. I knew I was idealising - romanticising - life in Naranag, but the real benefits of living there were too great and too many to ignore.

The whole experience, in fact, was as confounding to my world view as it was enjoyable, producing in me each day a lovely sort of confusion.

As my departure approached, Nizar asked me about a tip for the family. My time with them had been so absorbing and after a while felt so natural, I had forgotten that, at the end of the day, I was indeed a tourist and a source of income to them.

The sun was strong and the snow was melting, icy water running off trees and rooftops. We went for a last walk, getting further up this time than before and claiming grand views over the valley and its newfound greenery. It was a beautiful place.

I knew then that I would return to Kashmir in the summertime. But I'm eternally glad I got to see her in winter.

 

jspollen@thenational.ae