Thirty-five-year-old Muhammad Altaf Handroo said he can never forget the night of September 7. He was in his houseboat and people’s cries and shrieks had filled the air. Jhelum had been breached and floodwaters were fast filling up Srinagar’s famous Dal Lake.
His primary concern was the safety of a 27-year-old Chilean tourist named Gloria Dagorret who was staying in his houseboat. Amid increased frenzy early the next day, a Monday, when the water level rose to 10 feet in the lake, Handroo took Dagorret on a shikara and rowed for five km to drop her safely at Raj Bhavan, on the foothill of Zabarwan mountain range.
Before leaving for the airport, Dagorret wrote a note of thanks to Handroo. “I am sure we will never forget this, at least I won’t. This was our version of Noah’s ark,” the note read. It said she would come back to see Handroo again. To him the letter is now a prized possession even as his houseboat was damaged in the flood.
“We survive because of tourism and I simply ensured that I should first rescue our tourists than our family,” Handroo added. But the famed houseboats of the Valley are now without any help. Their boats are damaged and they have no drinking water or food items. Abdul Rashid Kaloo, general secretary of Houseboat Owners’ Association, said, “At present all houseboats, which were not damaged, are empty and this is peak tourism season. We are ruined.”
He said around 20 to 25 per cent houseboats in the Dal Lake have faced partial or major damage. “And our predicament is that we cannot even repair the houseboats,” he said. The cost of houseboats varies with some costing `50 lakh and some over `2 crore.
Since the devastating floods, all the houses of houseboat workers have been submerged, forcing the people to live in shikaras. “We don’t even have water to drink. No relief team has come to rescue or help us. The government has completely abandoned us,” said Muhammad Shafi Tonda, a houseboat owner. Tonda, like many others from his profession, is living in a shikara with his family.