For as long as he was alive, his houseboat, an old, crumbling wooden palace anchored on the banks of the Jhelum river in Rajbagh area of Srinagar, was Ghulam Mohammad Guroo’s world. Few knew him, except for the tourists who came to him for a ride on his shikara, his only other prized possession.
But when he died last week — while saving five tourists from drowning in the Jhelum — the 56-year-old ended up being the face of “Kashmiriyat”, his act winning him praise from Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. “His death symbolises the real spirit of compassion and valiance,” she had said while visiting Guroo’s houseboat to pay him her respects.
On June 9, Guroo was taking a family of five on a shikara ride when the boat capsized. He managed to rescue the tourists — a man, two women and two infants — but was pulled in by the currents when he jumped in a second time to retrieve their luggage.
“The tourists had arrived on a motor boat and wanted to take a shikara ride. So we took them on the shikara and tied it to the motor boat. We were being towed by the boat and the family was enjoying the sights of the old city,” recalls Abdul Rashid, Guroo’s cousin who had accompanied him on the day of the accident.
“We had rowed past Khankah Moula (a shrine) and were close to the Fateh Kadal footbridge in Shaher-e-Khaas. Suddenly, the river currents got stronger, and before we knew it, the shikara hit the motorboat and capsized. The family fell into the water and was struggling to stay afloat. Guroo and I helped them to the shore. But then, one of the tourists saw his luggage floating and asked Guroo to get it for him. My brother jumped into the river again. But this time, he didn’t return,” sighs Rashid.
It was only after four hours, following a search operation by the police, that Guroo’s body was retrieved from the river. Ever since he was a teenager, Guroo had taken tourists on long shikara rides on the Jhelum, during which he would talk to them incessantly about the historical monuments lined up on either banks of the river.
Rashid says Guroo even offered a stay at his houseboat to travellers on shoestring budgets. “Compared to the expensive houseboats on the Dal, this was a much cheaper option,” says Rashid, adding that Guroo earned about Rs 15,000 a month during peak tourist seasons from letting out his houseboat.
While the Dal lake is a more popular choice for shikara rides, a number of tourists, who look for a trip around the old city, opt for the Jhelum too. To encourage more people to visit the old parts of Srinagar, the J&K government had a few years ago launched a motorboat service on the Jhelum. The family on Guroo’s shikara that day had availed of the same service.
After a slow 2015, tourist numbers are picking up in the Valley. While nine lakh tourists visited Kashmir last year, more than five lakh have visited the region so far this year.
Today, six days after Guroo’s death, men and women have assembled in separate tents on the banks of the Jhelum to mourn his death. The fierce currents of the Jhelum, which claimed Guroo’s life, have have now fallen silent.
Back at the houseboat, Guroo’s nephew Mohammad Ayub, 37, is rummaging through some of his uncle’s belongings.
“I used to call him ‘father’. We were that close. Our livelihood was dependent on him. He never married. The shikara and the houseboat was all he had. He lived all his life on the river and he died in it too,” he says.