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The Hotel Leeward on Dal Lake in Indian-controlled Kashmir where author V.S. Naipaul stayed twice, but which was taken over by Indian security forces in 1997. Photo: Shoaib Shafi

When author V.S. Naipaul stayed on Kashmir’s Dal Lake, and the unfortunate fate of his beloved Hotel Leeward

  • When author VS Naipaul travelled to India in 1962 to write An Area of Darkness, he spent four months at the tiny Hotel Liward on Kashmir’s Dal Lake
  • He returned to the hotel in 1989, as the son of its owner recalls wistfully – eight years later Indian soldiers asked to stay a night, and have never left
Asia travel
Shoaib Shafi

In the early spring of 1962, British writer V.S Naipaul travelled to Kashmir from New Delhi. He had travelled to India to write An Area of Darkness (1964), the first book in what would become his Indian travelogue trilogy.

In Kashmir, he stayed on the first floor of a small hotel in the middle of Dal Lake. The Hotel Leeward at that time spelled Liward was the inspiration for the chapter “The Doll’s House on the Dal Lake” in An Area of Darkness.

For Naipaul, Kashmir was a rest stop on his exhausting travels through India, the land of his ancestors. “I had uprooted myself from London and invested all the money I had in this Indian journey,” he writes.

When Naipaul discovered the Leeward, the hotel was “a rough two-storeyed structure” with just seven rooms. It was Naipaul who, during his stay of four months and 15 days, wrote to tourism officials in Srinagar to request a hotel permit for the property.

Dal Lake in Srinagar, 1961 – the year before author V.S. Naipaul’s first visit. Photo: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

“The Liward was new; it was neither a houseboat nor hotel. It needed some sort of recognition from the tourist office.” The permit was granted.

Naipaul’s host at the Leeward was Abdul Aziz Butt, and the writer was fascinated by the prodigious memory of the man he dubbed “one of Snow White’s own men in a woollen nightcap”. Aziz treated Naipaul affectionately, repeating in his broken English, “You will eat first. You will eat by yourself. We give you special. This is not Mr Butt Hotel. This is your hotel.”

There was the Leeward, in that corrected spelling. According to its big signboard
V.S. Naipaul, writing about his return to the hotel in 1989

Aziz “knocked up a table” and a lamp for his visitor. And on that table Naipaul, who would go on to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote the little-known novel Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, published in 1973.

For Naipaul, who died in London in 2018, “that piece of work, that point of rest” was important; if it were not for his Lake Dal sojourn, An Area of Darkness would never have been written. In fact, he “would not have been able to last in India [and] might even have had to go back to England”.

Naipaul’s description of the Leeward and its surroundings rings true even today: “The hotel stood on one of the main boat lanes, the silent highways of the lake. In the morning the flotilla of grass-laden boats passed, paddled by women sitting cross-legged at the stern, almost level with the water.”

V.S. Naipaul in 1986. Photo: Getty Images

The author became acquainted with everyone who had business at the hotel: the “cheese-man . . . the milk lady . . . ‘the Bread Bun & Butter’ man”; all of them would deliver to Naipaul each morning.

In 1989, when Naipaul returned to the Leeward, he stayed for 12 days. He was accompanied by his Anglo-Argentinian girlfriend, Margaret Murray Gooding, and her daughter. By then the anti-India armed militant insurgency had taken root in Kashmir and bombs had exploded in the main city, Srinagar.

The hotel, however, had expanded and flourished, and had 45 rooms to let. Its name had changed, as well: “There was the Leeward, in that corrected spelling. According to its big signboard,” Naipaul wrote.

Sun sets on Kashmir’s traditional houseboats as tourism, and Dal Lake, dry up

Aziz’s “handsome” son, Nazir Ahmad Butt, took it upon himself to host Naipaul upon the writer’s return. Born 11 years after Naipaul’s first visit, Nazir was a teenager whose hormones were boiling for “an English girl who had stayed at Leeward”, the author wrote.

With Nazir as guide, Naipaul explored Dal Lake and travelled to tourist hotspots such as Sonmarg and Gulmarg, hill stations where he skied and rode horses. These experiences are recounted in the final chapter of his 1990 book India: A Million Mutinies Now, the last in the travelogue trilogy.

A few years later, the fate of the Leeward changed for the worse. Nazir, who became owner of the hotel when his father died in 2012 but who now runs a floating chemist shop on Dal Lake, turns melancholic when he is asked about what happened.

The area of Dal Lake around the Hotel Leeward (centre). Soldiers came in 1997 asking to stay for one night, but never left and gradually took over the hotel. Photo: Shoaib Shafi.

“It was a sheer betrayal. One night in 1997, a few soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force came and asked for a hotel room. At that time, many hotels on the lake were already taken over by the CRPF and thus my father was reluctant to give them space. But that night they tricked us and said that the soldiers are on election duty and they just need to stay here for one night.

“That’s it. That was the beginning of an occupation,” says Nazir. “After that day, they refused to leave and slowly took over the entire building.”

Nazir now has only memories of the hotel – which remains occupied by soldiers – and among the most indelible are those of the time he spent with Naipaul.

Nazir Ahmad Butt, to whom ownership of the Hotel Leeward passed when his father died in 2012 but who now runs a floating pharmacy on Dal Lake. Photo: Shoaib Shafi.

“He was a great person. His thinking was extraordinary,” says Nazir. “He would observe things around him very keenly and always insisted that I accompany him on excursions. On the way, when he would see children, he would generously take a 100 rupee note and make them happy.”