RAJEEV KHANNA | 21 AUGUST, 2019
The Idea of India – And a Small Kashmiri Bond
Her voice with its heavy Kashmiri accent still rings in my ears
The recent developments in Kashmir have rekindled a small but strong bond after more than two decades. For five days I have worried for an old Kashmiri lady and her family, as I lament how the politics of polarisation destroys sweet memories and relations.
When we talk about the idea of India, we tend to ignore how that idea has lived in us, and helped us overcome many a difficult day.
My mind just goes back to 1995, when in a small house in Sector 15 of Chandigarh that was owned by a Sikh family, the two barsatis or rooms on an open rooftop were occupied by a Kashmiri family and we three journalists.
The family comprised an old man and his wife - I do not know their name for I always called them Uncle and Aunty - who used to come visit their son Raja Basharat, a shawl seller.
Often they were accompanied by their timid younger son Azaad, and often their married daughter too came visiting, with a doting girl child (perhaps her name was Anam).
In the adjoining room were the three of us: a staunch practising vegetarian secular Hindu photojournalist, a deeply religious Hindu reporter, and I who had nothing to do with religion.
Come to think of it, we shared the rooftop quite happily where in one corner stood the common bathroom. The winters, when the entire neighbouring family came to Chandigarh and we spent hours lazing in the sun sharing small joys of groundnuts, walnuts, almonds and other goodies with the youngsters from the landlord’s family joining in…
Small pranks and naughty acts were in plenty. When the family had retired for the night, the old man would leave his hookah outside and we would carry it to our room to enjoy the hubble bubble clandestinely through the night.
But I had a special bond with the family: first, being a crime reporter, I was the most erratic with timings. Then, the wafting aroma of Kashmiri cuisine soon had me seeking mutton delicacies from the neghbouring kitchen. I must confess I even tried enticing Raja Basharat (always Pappu for us) with things that are abhorred in puritanical Islamic households.
I recall the old lady walking inside our always unlocked room early in the morning, lifting the quilt as I slept on a mattress on the floor to ask, “Chai piyega?” (Will you have tea?)
How could I ever refuse? Instantly I was treated to noonchai accompanied with small snacks. Afterwards I would play with two year old Anam for a while.
Her grandmother was a simple, unlettered lady who was always concerned for our well-being besides motherly love. I remember how disturbed she was as she sat narrating her experience watching the Bollywood flick Bombay about the Bombay riots organised in 1992. That was perhaps her first visit, or one of a few to the cinema hall, as back home all of them had been shut down with the advent of militancy.
I can never forget the way she received me with tears in her eyes on my return from hospital after some eight days, following a round of epistaxis that had caused acute blood loss. She had spent the time whispering ayats from her holy book and also incantations for my health. She even admonished my own mother for not telling us three journalists to take our meals on time.
Her voice with its heavy Kashmiri accent still rings in my ears.
Pappu was always joking that we should recommend him for a photojournalist’s job in the Kashmir valley at the paper where we were employed. He claimed to have a good network and promised that the paper would never miss a spot photo. Once he accompanied my photojournalist roommate to visit a Bollywood diva - and managed to sell some of his shawls to her.
To my roommates’ horror, I had even helped Pappu slaughter chicken on some occasions in a corner of the open roof. And I have yet to taste more delicious Kashmiri cuisine than what I savoured from this family’s kitchen.
The old man once put the onus on me to take him on my two-wheeler to the beautiful Egyptian style mosque in Sector 20 for daily namaaz during Ramzaan. It was an altogether a different experience for a person having nothing to do with any religion. But the rewards were fabulous when they came, in the form of iftaar goodies and the sweets on Eid for all of us.
Having spent two years in that house I moved on to different cities and assignments. It was only last March that I went to see my landlord’s daughter who had come visiting from London. I learnt that the Kashmiri family too had vacated the room, but Pappu still comes in the winters with his shawls.
The old man had died. The old lady must now be in her late seventies or early eighties. Anam must be a beautiful young lady now, settled perhaps into married life. We three former roommates recall those days whenever we come together.
It is in the sociopolitical tornado that arose with the decreed abrogation of Article 370 and 35A that the memories have returned, of days spent with the family, in particular the old lady. Hearing about the problems the community is facing on account of being cut off has made me worry about her well being and her family’s, for I carry very fond memories of the days spent in that house.
Looking at the present atmosphere of engineered hate and polarisation, where lumpens roam, hurling abuse at Kashmiri Muslims and celebrating the stabbing of the coexistence that we have shared, I am at a loss for words to explain the bond I share with the old lady and her family.
I hope she is untouched by this violence because a simple heart like hers would never comprehend the unfolding of this present.
I can just imagine her whispering ayats from her holy books and the incantations in these troubled times.
I just hope to run into her son some day in Chandigarh, so I can ask if she is well.
Cover photo: ‘Prana’, Sohan Qadri