Allow me to take you on a journey, to explore my home country and the land of my ancestors: India. When I proudly say that I am from India, know that I truly am Indian in all that I am and through more than the mere five senses. India flows through the veins leading to my heart and beyond to my very soul. The passion of India is in my DNA, inherited from my father, his father and his father’s father, passed on through the generations and spanning two centuries.
My great grandfather first forayed into showcasing India, specifically Kashmir, to the world in 1925 at the age of 17. With a two bedroom houseboat named Eagle, reflecting the abundance of the beautiful bird high above the boat’s location on Lake Dal in Srinagar, he laid the humble foundation for my family’s travel and tourism business that continues today. Houseboats came to be in an interesting manner: the Maharaja or King of Kashmir at the time decreed that foreigners were not permitted to own land in the region. The British circumvented this regulation by creating the first houseboats on Dal Lake and Nageen Lake. Houseboats in Kashmir are made of wood, stationary, moored to the land and used as homes or hotel alternatives. Many tourists were and still are attracted to Srinagar by the charm of staying on a houseboat, which provides the unique experience of living on the water in a beautifully carved cedar-paneled bedroom, with all the conveniences of a luxury hotel. At the time, the boats catered primarily to English tourists and high ranking officers who preferred summer stay in Kashmir due to its temperate weather. In 1927, he married my great-grandmother in full traditional Kashmiri style with extended family and friends. The big fat Indian wedding costs a whopping $12 Canadian. Two years later in 1929, my grandfather was born and raised on a small family houseboat next to the Eagle. As he got older he helped his father with tourists staying on the houseboat. I still remember the colorful stories he would tell me of life on the boats. With telephone calls beings very expensive if available at all in the area, tourists would send simple telegrams to my great grandfather such as:
SIR JOHN SMITH ARRIVING ON FEB TWO -(STOP)- PICK UP AT BORDER -(STOP)- 30 DAY STAY ON EAGLE HOUSEBOAT -(STOP)-
In addition to attending school, it was my grandfather’s job to read the telegrams and pick up the tourists when he was old enough. He joined the family business on a full-time basis when his father told him that he did not have the money to continue paying for his school fees: at the time approximately 20 cents Canadian. To give you an idea of why this was considered expensive, the rent of the houseboat per night including all meals and butler service was 75. Interestingly, we still have in our possession the guest books from this time period.
Subsequently, my father was born in 1948 and continued in the same houseboat lifestyle as those before him. It gives me great pride that he expanded the family business in 1966 by purchasing another houseboat which he named, Maharaja Garden for 8000 rupees (about CAD $180 today). I too, in turn, grew up on the houseboat exposed to people of different cultures from around the world. I could not have asked for a better childhood nor a better informal education on how best to meet the needs of travelers. The philosophy that my father imparted to me was that each tourist is not a tourist, but rather is a guest of the family. This comes from the Indian saying, “Atithi Devo Bhava“, or a guest is like God. Over the years, we have expanded manifold with houseboats, hotels and travel/tour companies. Recently, we were the proud recipients of the National Tourism Award for inbound tourism in India. This prestigious award was presented to us by the President of India and is a moment in my career I cherish. While we have grown and many things have changed, my father’s philosophy of guests as God has and will always remain constant.
A chance meeting on a road in Delhi several years ago led me to my wife and quite literally changed my life and the place I call home is now Vancouver. Today, living in Canada with my own son, I may be far from India physically, but she runs through the veins leading to my heart. She is my passion and I can’t wait for you to see and explore India.
Nazir Karnai, President – Explore India