The old man rowed effortlessly and I wondered how hard it actually was for him. The water was murky and the weeds grew almost till the surface. It was a forty minute ride and we had been on the boat for just over five minutes until then.
“That’s where the Chief Minister lives,” spoke the old man, breaking our silence, and then continued with a chuckle, “It used to be a prison.”
“Is that true?” smiled my wife.
“Oh yes,” he replied with satisfaction. “That’s how it is.”
I looked over to where he had been pointing and spotted the green roofed house that stood on the hill to our far left. It looked nothing like a prison. My eyes soon wandered away from it and drifted from one Shikara to another. There were many that evening on the lake.
“This is the busiest time of the year,” said the old man. “A month later, it will all be empty.”
“What do you do then?” she asked.
“I make handicrafts. My son does it now. My eyes are not sharp anymore.”
I leaned back until my head hit the soft red cushions but then got up immediately as, in that position, the sun shone directly on my face. It didn’t seem to bother my wife though who, with the sunlight bright across her face, lay comfortably on my right.
“Have you been here before?” asked the old man.
“No,” answered my wife. “We are here with our friends. They are in another Shikhara.”
Another boat, much smaller than ours, appeared on my wife’s right and then kept pace with us. In it sat just one man, much younger than our oarsman. He let go of his oars for a bit and spread a thin cloth in front of us in which he started to place many little trinkets. The old man slowed down until both the boats were almost at a standstill.
My wife picked up a few rings, examined them and then put them back on the cloth. The seller didn’t say anything and seemed to wait for my wife to give him some sort of indication. She didn’t, so he packed his items, wrapped the cloth and quietly rowed away.
“This is the floating market,” explained the old man. “You can get jewelry, clothes and even food here. It is all very good.”
We had taken a right turn and entered into a narrow section of the lake with a line of houseboats forming a border towards our left. There were many people on the houseboats, most of them either sitting on the decks or leaning against the balustrades. They were mostly foreigners, though I could see a few Indians as well.
“They have such interesting names,” remarked my wife.
It was true. Each houseboat had a board attached to its front, on which were written some names like “Monalisa”, “Queen Victory”, “Lake Castle” and others. At the end of the line, just before the lake turned further right and back towards the direction from where we had come, there was one houseboat that caught my eye. It was called “The Rose Gate”. It was about the same size as the rest of them, but still rested on a larger area. It seemed unoccupied except for one man, most probably its owner, who sat on a stool near its entrance, leaning against a large semi circular gate on which huge red roses hung amidst a thick green bush.
“They only look good,” said the old man, noticing our gaze. “Those roses attract everyone. But they have no fragrance. It is such a waste.”
We were now well inside the market. Apart from the little boats, which glided around us, there were many little shops standing on stilts. The old man directed our boat towards many of them, and their shopkeepers smiled at us and displayed what they had to offer. However, my wife shook her head on every occasion. The old man looked at me a few times but didn’t say anything.
There were many Shikharas in this region and, for a little while, the old man forgot about us and focused on making his way through the crowd and back towards where we had started from.
“I am the oldest rower here,” he said as he brought the boat to a halt. “For everyone else, there is a queue. But none for me. I taught most of the boys here.”
I smiled at him as he handed me a rope that I used to get off. He asked me to pull it well to stabilize the boat while he helped my wife. I handed him his money and we walked away towards the stairs that led to the road. He pocketed it and sat down near his boat, looking a bit glum.
We had to wait a while for our friends to come back, so we sat on those stairs. They waved at us cheerfully as their boat came near and then quickly walked towards us. She was wearing one of those earrings that the young man had shown.
“That was fun!” he said as we started to walk towards our taxi.
“Yes,” replied my wife. “It is such a scenic place.”
“But the water’s too dirty,” she said.
“Too many weeds,” I replied.
“Yes,” he said. “Our boatman told us about that. He said that until a few years ago everything was clean and beautiful. But the weeds have been neglected and now they have spread and grown too strong. He said that it wouldn’t last.”