From the stern, Mr. Nice spots three elderly Western women out on a day tour of Dal Lake. He promptly spins his 20’ wooden shikara in a 180º to aim in that direction, then paddles alongside. His partner and best friend, Mr. Bhat, greets the ladies, then jumps straight into the sales pitch. “Would you like some silver?” he asks, handing a necklace to one of them. The pitches continue as Nice paddles methodically alongside.
“They never stop,” one of the women sighs in a thick Danish accent. Out of politeness, the woman closest feigns interest by taking a look at the jewellery held out to her. “I can assure you that you won’t be selling anything to us,” she affirms. The sales attempts continue for a few minutes until Bhat realizes he’s wasting his time. “Thank you, have a nice evening,” he says. Then motions to Nice to pull away.
Bhat and Nice are among 150 floating salesmen who hawk their wares on Srinigar’s Dal Lake in Kashmir, India. Their brightly-painted canoe-like boats called shikaras serve as their moving sales centers. They pursue tourists being paddled around in shikara-taxis or hop right up onto their houseboats. It’s a 24-hour hustle. The flotilla sales approach offends some; low prices and quality products entice others.
Nice and Bhat (actually pronounced “butt”) are lifelong friends who grew up on Dal Lake. Both left Kashmir at a young age during the war with Pakistan—the Indian army was killing off Kashmiri youth under the suspicion of them being terrorists. They both worked at bricks-and-mortar jewelry shops across India for a few years. When tensions eased in Kashmir, they returned to their homes and converted their stationary trade into a mobile one. The choice was easy—stay confined within four walls or paddle around on the beautiful waters of Dal Lake. Like others in the community, they grew up paddling from a young age. For them it’s just back to the lake life routine.
Jewellery isn’t all that’s sold on Dal Lake. Hawkers are neatly divided into camps: jewellery, carvings, pashmina/clothing, paper mache, flowers, and food. Though they all know each other and generally get along, they stick to their groups just like on a grade school playground.
Selling season on the lake runs from May to November. Come winter the salesmen rest their weary bodies and turn to the fine movements of jewellery crafting. They make necklaces, rings, pendants, or anything they feel a tourist might want. To keep costs low, the two buy rocks in bulk sizes then cut them down to size. They sell the full range of gems from around the world, but offer the best deals on sapphires and turquoise, both stones native to Kashmir. From their warehouse home they pack their goods into several metal briefcases, allowing for perfect portability between the boat and the tourists’ houseboat docks.
Nice turns around and paddles back to the “highway”—a wide stretch of relatively weed-free water that leads to the market. In the market, paddlers can maneuver their shikaras up to paddle-through shops where they can get anything from fruit to fast food. Don’t want to get out of the boat? No problem. Shopkeepers have mastered the toss, making the floating shopping experience a quick and fluid one.
The two in the baby-blue shikara paddle past Razat, the benevolent boss of the shikara salesmen union, who flashes a smile and gives a double-thumbs up from the cabin of his shikara as they pass. All 150 salesmen on the lake are licensed with the Kashmir government. The hawking licenses help keep the trade reputable and the union provides a point of contact for tourists who get ripped off or harassed.
Their lives are intimately tied to selling on the water. The shikara salesmen paddle all day, all week, taking breaks with their groups for lunch and tea. They design the boats for their lives in them. On Nice’s shikara, shoes come off at the bow before walking into the brown, carpet-lined cabin. Two small speakers point into the cabin from the front. To complete the surround sound, two more hide neatly tucked away behind the seat along with a small amplifier and battery supply. A single CFL lights up the cabin at night. Simple, but homely for an oversized canoe designed for a lifetime on the lake.
Boat hawking is as much a lifestyle as a job. Paddling around on the lake amidst abundant bird life comes serene benefits, and connects the sellers to their environment. But aggressive competition with other hawkers for just a few sales a day gets tiring. The routine isn’t an easy one. Long days of paddling make for a real physical workout. But it’s the financial aspect of the job that causes the most stress. They have seven months to make a salary large enough to support a family for a year. Though foreign tourists can sometimes spend $100 to $200 on a purchase, the sizeable Indian tourist population rarely spends more than a few bucks.
The routine inevitably causes friction with some tourists—not everyone enjoys interruption on a romantic sunset paddle. But, the shikara salesmen don’t see their aggressive sales approach as unusual. It’s just the way it is. The way it has to be.
“Mr. Nice” was bestowed the name for his kindness. He goes out of his way to help direct lost tourists paddling around the labyrinthine waters of Dal Lake. Since the tight competition demands salesmen draw on whatever tools of economic survival they have, his niceness also serves another purpose. He’s not just another aggressive salesman; he’s a friend on the lake, with something to sell.