From the stern, Mr. Nice spots three elderly Western women out on a day tour of Dal Lake. He promptly spins his 20-foot wooden shikara 180 degrees, 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 jewelry 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 salesmen who have created a mobile, floating market that sprung up to serve the burgeoning houseboat tourism on Srinigar’s Dal Lake in Kashmir, India. Their brightly painted canoe-like shikaras serve as their mobile sales centers. They pursue tourists 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 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 being terrorists. They both worked at brick-and-mortar jewelry shops across India for a few years. When tensions eased in Kashmir, they returned and converted their stationary trade into a mobile one. The choice was easy: stay confined within four walls or paddle the beautiful waters of Dal Lake. Like others in the community, they grew up paddling from a young age; it’s the routine of life on the lake. As the market grew, they saw an opportunity floating around them, and entered the creative industry.
Jewelry isn’t all that’s sold on Dal Lake. Hawkers are neatly divided into camps: jewelry, carvings, textiles, paper-mache, flowers, and food. Though they all know each other and generally get along, they stick to their cliques 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 finer movements of jewelry crafting. They make necklaces, rings, pendants, or anything they feel a tourist might want. To keep costs low, the two purchase rocks in bulk sizes, then chisel 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 quick and fluid.
Their lives are intimately tied to selling on the water. The shikara salesmen paddle all day, every day, taking breaks with their groups for lunch and tea. A local industry of boatmakers shapes the shikaras themselves, made specially for the lake. Sellers then design the interiors to suit their needs and take great pride 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 amp and battery supply. A single CFL illuminates the cabin at night. Simple but homey 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 comes with serene benefits and connects the sellers to their environment. But the routine isn’t an easy one. Long days of paddling make for a real physical workout, and the financial competition of the job causes more stress. They have seven months to make a salary large enough to support a family for a year. Though foreign tourists can sometimes spend USD 100 to 200 on a purchase, the more common local customers rarely spend 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 that salesmen draw on whatever tools of economic survival they have, his niceness also serves another purpose. He’s not just another aggressive hawker, floating from purchase to purchase; he’s a friend on the lake, with something for sale.