The Rainbow Hunters:
One Mother. Two Boys. A trip around the world in search of seven colours, the first pigments, made by the first colour men, raising money for the charity War Child as they go.
At first sight Srinagar is a colourless mess of mud and silt. Six weeks after the floods that swept through the city, people still wade knee-high through stagnant pools of water trying to salvage what they can of their belongings. Houses have collapsed into piles of rubble. Debris hangs from the broken electrical wires. Cars languish abandoned beneath layers of dirt. Three hundred people lost their lives in these floods. Three thousand their homes, as winter hovers on the edges of the wind, a sharp sting in the breeze that blows down from the snow capped Himalayas.
It seems a hopeless place. A desolate place. Soldiers still line the streets, loaded rifles and grenades swinging from their belt buckles, alert to troubles on the Pakistan border and the fragile state of Kashmir. There are tanks and barricades and barbed wire coiled along the tops of walls and official buildings.
And then there is us. The only white faces in sight. Looking amid the grey, for of all things, the bright colour yellow.
“Yes, we will find your colour,” says Khursheed Butt beneath his green cap, the only person in all of Kashmir to answer my pleading emails all those months ago and to insist on showing us his land.
“Yes,” echoes Nazwa, a moon-faced Muslim man who’s house boat we are staying on and who, it turns out, by sheer coincidence, is a relative of Khursheed. “Certainly we will find you your colour. Kashmir is full of colour.” This from the man who has lost his whole hotel business to the floods, who was trapped for a week on the roof of a building waiting for the waters to subside. Who watched the bodies of two children float below him in the swell.
We move slowly through the silt stained streets, the traffic clogged and fume-filled in the drizzle that is falling from the sky, as the sound of the muezzin starts up, calling muslims to noon time prayers over the loud speaker. People wade through the mud, stand in the relief queues for their ration of food. We pass the hanging carcasses of two pigs and a sheep in a nearby butcher stall, chickens squashed and squawking in a cage, a cart piled high with apples. A soldier directs the traffic, shot gun in hand. The boys can’t decide whether to be frightened or overjoyed that all their imaginary war games have come alive in the streets around them. Their faces are full of a quiet disbelief that what they are seeing is real. But then at the first check point their wooden slingshots and plastic army men are discovered. There are stern mumblings. Dark frowning exchanges. I hold my breath. But then these soldiers, weighed down with grenades and rifles, grin, squeeze the boys’ cheeks and set about building a toy fort. For the next hour or so they play at make believe, firing M&M’s into a tin can with the slingshots. There is a joyous absurdity to it all.
We head from one end of the city to the other, leaving behind the noise and the traffic and eventually the grey as we head out into the countryside to green hills and a sky of pale blue. Here there are groves of almond trees growing, silver leaves shimmering in the breeze, the air filled with the sound of bird song. There are fields of ploughed soil, dotted with the bent backs of harvesters in bright coloured saris and loose cotton shirts, a wicker basket swinging from their arm. A plough pulled by two oxen rounds the corner of a far field. A swallow flits across the sky.
Khursheed Butt finally pulls the car to a halt beside a rough track. He takes a deep laboured breath.
“Here, is your colour,” he says, faintly dramatic as he points across the brown earth.
And there we find them. Our first colour. A scattering of tiny saffron crocuses, their purple petals delicate and breeze-blown, stretching out into a hazy white distance. “The best saffron in the world,” he declares. “We have lost ninety percent of our crop to the floods. So these are a wonder. They are the fight against the odds.”
We clamber out across the soil and kneel down to look at one of the most expensive spices on earth. Three red stamens that sit in the centre of the flower, that once dried feel like strips of cut silk in the palm of your hand. They will flavour perfume, hot lasis, tea and sweets, and if you place them in a cup of warm water they will produce a sun beam of yellow pigment that will not fade with time. It has coloured the gowns of monks, the kilts of Irish pipers.
“Like the Kashmiri people,” Nazwa says softly behind us. “They fight to find the light.”
Lindsay Hawdon’s debut novel, Jakob’s Colours, a story about a young gypsy boy during WWII, who uses a legacy of colour making, to survive, is out now with Hodder and Stoughton in the UK and with Quercus in the US.
The Rainbow Hunters are raising money for War Child (warchild.org.uk) as they travel. War Child work in countries that have been devastated by armed conflict and help children suffering the worst effects of violence; child soldiers, victims of rape and abduction, disabled and street children. They provide vital care to a traumatised child and help them to rebuild their lost childhood. Their aim is a world in which the lives of children are no longer torn apart by war. If you would like to donate something please go to http://www.justgiving.com/Lindsay-Hawdon.
Lindsay’s trip was supported in part by Inventing Futures, a global youth agency, based in Bath, that works with 9-24 year old who are at a transitional stage in their lives, giving them the chance to create a future full of opportunity. If you would like to know more please visit: