When Baiti suggested we go to Kashmir in 2019, one of the things I particularly wanted to do was to visit the cashmere weaving women co-operatives that Sumi had told me about. When we established an online store for her father’s cashmere business, it was one of the key stories that describes the ethical elements of traditional cashmere production in the Himalayas. Although it is more of a family affair in Nepal, in its original home of Kashmir, cashmere weaving is often done by women, and I wanted to see it for myself. But then the lockdown happened, and instead of discovering a female activity in Kashmir, I ended up observing interesting and surprising forms of masculinity instead.
It began at the houseboat, with our host’s three sons. It was then reinforced during our stay in a mountain village, with the sons of our homestay family. By the time we ended our stay in Mr. Ghulam’s house in Srinagar, it was a decided pattern. The consistent trait of masculinity in the culture of Kashmir, is generosity and care, from the little men, to the old men, and most especially the eldest boy of the family.
Caregiving boys in Kashmir
There are other cultures where the men are gallant and the boys respectful. But Kashmir was the first culture I came across where even the very youngest boys are affectionate, and instinctively care for others, particularly women. Apples would be gathered immediately and brought to you, piles of blankets at a moment’s notice if you’re cold. Even a child barely more than a toddler attempted to inform Mr. Ghulam’s wife that he had decided to give us chai.
Even the naughtiest, most impish boy surprises you with a spontaneous generosity. At the houseboat, the middle child constantly fed me portions of vegetables he pinches for himself from the kitchen, and conspired with his littlest brother to assemble a collection of their prized possessions as a gift to Baiti, who had given them keychains. They consisted of a barrette and coins, but such are a child’s treasures. And it was he who dug out the electric heater which they only used in the cold winter, because their tropical guests were cold in the summer.
Masculinity in Kashmir involves loving gardens
Srinagar is proud of her gardens. Had we come in spring (and without a lockdown), the gardens and even the lakes would be blooming. And how not? For its gardens are ancient, at least three date back from legendary Mughal times, and older.
But it’s not really the women who obsess over the gardens and the flowers. In Kashmir, it’s the men.
And the men are not into flowers because they’re trying to please the women. They genuinely enjoy the flower gardens themselves. The flower-sellers on their shikara selling seeds on the lake. Gardeners toiling to maintain their beloved gardens. Fathers taking little daughters to look upon the flowers.
Young men hang out in flower gardens to enjoy the fresh air together, or play carom on the lawn, without a lady in sight.
An appreciation for gardens, and flower gardens in particular, did not seem to be considered ‘feminine’. In Kashmir, it’s ungendered, and a perfectly normal part of masculinity.
It is human to seek beauty
One of the most ‘feminine’ (in my worldview) B&Bs I’ve ever seen, belongs to Mr. Ghulam’s brother. Somewhere in Nigeen lake, its lawn of roses is bordered with flowers, and shaded with a white umbrella canopy. A vase of fresh flowers on the table when he receives company.
The outgoing opposite to his reserved older brother, he flirts casually and indiscriminately, and never runs out of jokes. He keeps sheep in his garden, and named the ram Isaac, because ‘Ishmael has been sacrificed’*, and calls his black dog George, after George Bush (I’m not sure Jr. or Sr.). Yet even he fusses over his flowers, and openly enjoys the solace of their beauty. He has adopted Nepalese children, he said, during the life he had lived in Nepal.
The two kinds of beauty seemed interchangeable in his worldview, and both are sought.
The sensitive gardener of Nigeen Lake
There was a flower patch in the village that we would pass by, whenever we took a boat up and down the canal. It turned out that it belonged to the very same flower man who had come to our houseboat on our first day in Srinagar. We saw him again, and when he learned that we were staying in his village, he offered to show us his garden.
Bashir was a flower seller whose garden was more than just something he cultivates as a livelihood. I suspect that he would continue with the garden in much the same way, whether he could sell the proceeds or not. What gave it away was his home, where he invited us into for some tea.
It was a new structure, like most in the village, which had to rebuild after houses were destroyed in the flood of 2014. Only the houseboats were unscathed, while the homes around the lakes of Srinagar were swept away. Throughout our stay, from tourist excursions and from tagging along with Mr. Ghulam on his errands around the city (for he would soon return to Nepal), I got to see many Kashmiri homes. From tents to hovels, village houses and houseboats, middle class homes in the country and the city, even a manor house. They run the gamut of furnishing and taste, generally scaling to level of prosperity.
Refinement is not the same thing as luxury
But Bashir’s house was different from the rest. It was different because it was still unfinished, 5 years after the flood.
Oh, it’s liveable. But other than that, the finish was not complete. What was complete, however, was aesthetically pleasing though not expensive. The porch is stone, and the cement finish on the floor and walls are smooth and perfectly done. The bathroom tiles are of good quality. Little details, like the light switches, were more tasteful than even the manor house. It told me this was a man with an artist’s soul, who would rather patiently live in an unfinished house than complete it quickly but ‘wrong’.
I understood, because I took the same patient approach with my own apartment. Only that in my case, my main aim was to ensure I furnished it with sustainable choices. I hope that he would be able to finish it soon.
Masculinity in Kashmir includes needlework
As Baiti and I accompanied Mr. Ghulam when he went around curating Kashmiri embroidered shawls for his shop in Nepal, we came across a most stupefyingly beautiful shawl. The cashmere was embroidered with roses; but it’s so finely done, that when you looked at it from a distance, they looked like they’re painted on. We found it necessary to examine the shawl at close range to assure ourselves that the roses were, in fact, only extremely finely embroidered.
And we asked Mr. Ghulam if we could meet the artist. We wanted to meet the lady with this unfathomable skill. It never crossed our minds that the artist would not be a woman.
But when Mr. Ghulam took us to the village where the shawl came from, and introduced us to the embroiderer, he was a middle-aged man. Large and fatherly, he looked at the photo we took of his shawl, and his eyes softened as though recognising a beloved child. And we knew that Ghulam Qadir Mir was indeed the artist. Mr. Ghulam never let on that we assumed wrongly, right up to that point.
We sat in his living room as he conversed with ‘our’ Mr. Ghulam. Joining us were other embroidery artists who came to show off their skill. Two men, and Qadir Mir’s teenaged daughter, who stitched while chewing bubble gum. For embroidery craft is also ungendered in Kashmir.
Mansplaining still exists in Kashmir
Now, this does not mean that every man in Kashmir we encountered was sensitive and artistic. And for some reason sensitivity was less common with the middle class, than the traditional men in the rural villages. (Is there something in city living that encourages assholery?).
For example, there’s the guy who regularly travels to Malaysia for his tourism business, who attempted to mansplain to me, an actual Malaysian, what kind of Malaysian I was. Incorrectly at that, since he seemed to think that my almond eyes and lack of hijab necessarily meant I was ethnically Chinese, ignoring the obviously Austronesian brown skin and the fact that the Bugis have almond eyes too. He desisted from his rudeness when he realised how much older I was (meaning I socially outrank him, in Asian culture).
It’s not that there aren’t any toxic males in Kashmir. I would be even more surprised, if that were the case. Nor that there aren’t the more ‘universal’ forms of masculinity. It’s the fact that masculinity in Kashmir society encompasses a much wider range, including stuff that many cultures consider ‘feminine’, like embroidery and flowers and caregiving.
To be clear; I don’t mean ‘effeminate men who like these things’ is one of the forms of masculinity. I mean, these things are not considered effeminate at all. And that’s the surprising part.
* in the Qur’an, Abraham’s eldest son whom he was ordered to sacrifice as a test from God, was Ishmael and not Isaac. The Old Testament has it the other way around.
Carbon offset information to Kashmir
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.