• Publish Date: Jun 17 2019 3:36AM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 17 2019 3:36AM

It was some 79 years ago that an English couple landed in Kashmir to escape the sweltering heat of plains. They stayed at a houseboat at Nigeen lake. The cackling of geese, lotus leaves floating on the lake’s pristine waters, rhythmically moving shikaras, snow clad Mahadev mountain range, cool breeze accompanied by Kashmir’s famous wazwan cuisine left the couple mesmerized.

Subsequently, the couple fell in love with the place. And they decided to buy their own property at the place to spend their vacations every year in Kashmir.

R Foster, the renowned shipping tycoon of England and tea exporter of the time along with his wife Susan wrote to the then ruler Maharaja Hari Singh in 1940 for allotment of land to them, so that they could build a house. The first few lines of Maharaja’s reply left the couple baffled: “You cannot purchase land here…” However, in the end there were some comforting lines: “If you wish you can have houseboats and Maharaja’s darbar (office) will provide you a place to anchor them along the banks of Dal Lake”. 

Following year, Foster secured a deal with the owner of the same houseboat in which the couple had stayed during their last year’s stay. The place to anchor the houseboat was provided to the couple along the famed 16th century Mughal garden Naseem Bagh. The couple planned to build few more houseboats so that they could invite their friends to spend their vacations at the place which had cast such spell on them. They got it extended to a fleet of six houseboats.

Thus came into being the houseboat Clermont, named after the couple’s  native place in England. The arrangement continued until 1947, the year that marked departure of British from the sub-continent. 

Still after passing of nearly eight decades, Manzoor Ahmad Butt proudly talks about his late grandfather Ghulam Mohammad Butt’s integrity and honesty which has been the reason for Butt clan’s vast business spread the world over.

Perhaps, it was late Butt’s honest business dealings that earned him a fleet of houseboats along the sprawling 16th century Mughal Garden at Naseem Bagh from R Foster in 1946.

The same year on a summer day GM Butt got a dispatch from Bombay address of Foster. It left him baffled.

 “…burn them if you are not interested”, read the letter from Foster insisting Butt to take over his cherished spot in Kashmir, since he was closing down his business in the subcontinent, never to return again.

But what prompted Englishman to hand over his cherished possession to Butt? It had to do with Butt’s honest business credentials and high regard for his customers, which Foster had realised once during his stay in Kashmir.

The business tycoon of yesteryears Foster had heard about a famous Kashmiri handicraft trader from his employees back in his Bombay office. One fine summer day, Foster decided to buy some items from Butt’s showroom, located at Khanyar along then gushing Nalamar.

Once at the showroom, burly Englishman found it hard to go inside Butt’s showroom. This left Butt a bit embarrassed, who then made it a point to shift his showroom to more spacious place at Dalgate before Foster would end his vacations.

The next time Foster found himself in a comfortable showroom. He was all praise for Butt’s business sense. Besides, young Butt’s establishment of overseas handicraft business at young age also impressed the Europe’s business tycoon. From that day on, both began meeting more frequently and Butt was now also among the friends who used to be with Foster at Clermont during his vacations in Kashmir.

Perhaps, another instance which strengthened Foster’s trust in Butt was in 1941. Englishman was equally aghast and upset when he did not find the new houseboat anchored at Clermont for which he had paid well in advance. Added to it Foster had invited his English friend to celebrate his first marriage anniversary at Clermont.

“I would never to come to Kashmir again. I had promised my friend that his  marriage anniversary would be spent in a new houseboat. Now I would never come to Kashmir again,” the shipping tycoon had revealed to Butt.

Sensing the gravity of situation, Butt got the whiff that there was a hand of middle man who wanted to charge few more bucks from the Englishman. Next, Butt went all the way to old city’s Rainawari houseboat dock and bought a new houseboat. By evening, the fresh houseboat was anchored at Clermont leaving Foster surprised and in praise of his friend.

Back in 1947, Butt knew what he had do with Foster’s property, which now was transferred to him. He used his already established connections in handicraft business to attract high end visitors to spend their vacations here in Kashmir at Clermont.

Not only high-end visitors started arriving at the spot, but some of the important clandestine meetings were held by foreign diplomats with political leaders that left indelible mark on Kashmir’s political landscape.  One such meeting was of prominent Kashmiri leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah with Adlai Stevenson, the then US diplomat in summer of 1953, news about which reached New Delhi that a possibility of Kashmir’s independence was discussed between the two. This  ‘Lion of Kashmir’ in jail for 11 years for infamous conspiracy case.

Entertainment biggies also found solace at the spot. In 1966 lead guitarist of world renowned rock band Beatles, George Harrison performed at the spot alongside famous Indian guitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar.

The spot has been all time favourite mostly among Americans including US-presidential candidate John McCain, Nelson Rockefeller —41stvice president of USA - and versatile famous Hollywood actress Johan Fountain.

Almost all US Ambassadors to India including Timothy Roemer, Chester Bowles and others have stayed at the spot. Australian governor general Biel Hayden and Canadian governor Roland Michener have also been to the place.

Besides, the spot studded with majestic Mughal era Chinars has also attracted literary figures such as satirist PG Woodhouse and Peter Jennings.

Post 90s when guns and bombs rattled the region’s landscape, the place was frequented by news hunters from across the globe. Pultizer winning photojournalist James Natchey and BBC’s journalist Michael Palin have stayed at the place.

India’s first and last Governor General C Rajagopalachari, Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, J&K’s governor LK Jha and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah also frequented the place. Abdullah’s mausoleum is located adjacent to the place. The spot has also been visited by Bollywood’s tragedy king Dileep Kumar.  

The list of the who’s who have been to the place is endless. However, the gallery has photograph of Lord Mountbatten, whose family visited the place in 1970s. Once his family went back to England, Mountbatten had desired to visit the place. Weeks later only his signed photograph was received at the Butt’s place, while Mountbatten had died in a bomb blast.

When many European nations and USA have issued advisories to their citizens against visiting Kashmir, many throw it to winds and continue to frequent Butt-Clermont. The witness to which is a gallery built by Butt’s studded with certificates of appreciation and photographs from who’s who of the globe.

“It’s a trust that we have built over decades. They believe in us and we try to match their expectations. It is us. It is Kashmir, a trust,” says Manzoor who is  from the third generation of Butt’s.

Few years ago, Manzoor was surprised to receive a parcel containing photographs of Butt street in England.