Hotel Leeward is probably the only institution in the world to have benefited from the services of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul as letter writer. In 1962, Naipaul rode to a tourist office in Kashmir’s capital Srinagar on a horse cart with an application seeking a permit that would allow the hotel’s officials free entry into the tourist office’s premises. The permit was granted.
The hotel is built on Kashmir valley’s Dal Lake. In 1962, Naipaul stayed in the upper section of the then seven-room building with his Argentinean girlfriend for four and a half months.
An Area of Darkness, his bleak account of his sojourn to socialist India, took shape at Leeward. In the book, he called it a “Doll’s House on the Dal Lake.”
But before Leeward could become a literary destination, it became a paramilitary camp.
In India, A Million Mutinies Now, his second non-fiction book on India, Naipaul again mentions it. “The Liward (that’s how Leeward was spelt during his first visit), my time in Kashmir, became a point of rest in my Indian year, a point of rest in my fearful
travelling; and perhaps it enabled me to go through with my Indian venture,” he writes. “I had uprooted myself from London, and invested all the money I had in this Indian journey; it would have been hard if it hadn’t worked, and I hadn’t been able to last,” adds the author.
Abdul Aziz, who attended to Naipaul during his sojourn and appears like a factotum in the narrative, would tell him: “it is your own hotel,” whenever he noticed consternation on the writer’s face. By his own account, Naipaul threatened to leave on many occasions. But he became fond of the hotel and even wrote a salutatory letter addressed to tourist officials on the management’s behalf.
One 1989 afternoon, during his second visit, after meeting Aziz and his family, Naipaul came out of Leeward and stepped into a shikara (houseboat). Aziz, now the owner of the expanded Leeward, bade him farewell and asked his son Nazir Ahmed to row the writer ashore.
Around this time, the first shoots of the two-decade old Kashmir conflict were beginning to sprout. A few bombs had gone off.
The writer, later hailed as the purveyor of “suppressed histories” by the Nobel committee, wrote about the situation in A Million Mutinies Now. This time round, he stayed with Karan Singh, the erstwhile Dogra Maharaja’s son.
In 1996, when Aziz was in deep slumber at home, paramilitary troops landed on the Leeward islet and began the occupation of the hotel that continues to date. They told Aziz they would be there for a few days.
“They were eyeing it for long, but we had resisted. They first occupied some rooms and later took over the entire premises. Now we can’t visit our own property without their permission,” says Nazir, who avoided eye contact with the soldiers at the hotel as the Shikara in which this reporter and he were talking passed by the Leeward.
The troops occupy several other hotels in the vicinity of the Lake, which is the tourist hub of the city. They also occupy several government buildings because the barracks can’t accommodate all 63,000 of them.
For Naipaul fans, a visit to the Valley was incomplete without a stay at Leeward. The guest book in which these fans—and hundreds of other tourists—wrote their impressions would be moth eaten by now, says Aziz.
The occupation of Leeward rendered Aziz jobless. His son Nazir, described by Naipaul as a “handsome boy”, wanted to become an engineer. The conflict grounded his ambitions. He runs a drugstore in a residential colony on the lake.
The rent paid by the troops and fixed arbitrarily by the government is the steady source of income for Aziz. But it is Rs 170 a room, just one-tenth of the Rs 1,700 per room the family might make during peak season, if there were tourists instead of troops at Leeward.