Thursday, April 8, 2010

Of Men and Memories: Srinagar the Dream City

By M. L. Raina

Because I know that time is only time

And place is always and only place…

I rejoice that things are as they are. (T. S. Eliot)

Nostalgia is a luxury few of us can afford. And I am grateful because I can. To me Srinagar is not a geographical location, but a mood, a veritable see-saw of my mental and physical growth.

It is a school in which I grew up learning the ironies behind pious intentions and failures behind firm resolutions. To evoke one's past or to reach for roots is like touching a wonky tooth: it hurts but is satisfying nevertheless.

Whenever I think of my home town I do not see what the picture post cards sell, not the mountains or the lakes or the valleys, but a jumble of crooked lanes and knobbly backyards.

On the dug-up pavements of the city I recall the familiar sights and smells, such as the fetid reek of makeshift privies huddled cheek-by-jowl outside our drab houses in Drabiyar, or the ungainly sight of the public hydrant of the locality which often doubled as the backdrop for female gossip as the women crowded around to fill their pitchers.

Or the drone of Shamu, the halwai hawking his dals and savouries to the accompaniment of the refrain: ‘dal mein hai kuchh kala, gadbad ghutala ho’-not quite attentive to the unintended puns. Or the birthday blessings of my mother holding out the prospect of a rich meal of taher (yellow rice) and goat liver.

Looking back at the city many decades after I left for greener but less smelly pastures, it all feels so odd but real! And men and memories come crowding in.

Take my father’s rustic cousin from a distant village who, on a visit to our city house, was amazed at the sight of the hanging electric bulb. He tried to spark a piece of charcoal with the bulb but gave up in despair: “what is all this egg-light for if it can’t light a bit of charcoal for the hookah! Kangari fire will do for me”

Here is my uncle Lachman Joo, the police constable, who would practice his brand of English to my eternal delight. Once he bought a pair of pump shoes and bragged, ‘all new and watertroof’. His illnesses (even the milder ones) would mean long holidays from work and constant gripes and grouches amidst visits to the Hakim sahib. And yet he was affable and accessible unlike father who worked away from home.

There was our ever-obliging family matriarch Bhoon Ded who sang at our weddings and wailed at our family funerals with equally enviable gusto. She was rock-solid (her name means granny chinar) and we the children cuddled under her pheran in winter days (she reminds me of Gunther Grass’s Oskar Matzerath who too nestled under granny’s skirts). Of massive build, Bhoon Ded was the one everyone in the family looked up to in testing times.

The hullabaloo of each daylight hour or the eerie silence of each night is linked in my memory with people and places that crossed my path and left their impress on my childish imagination. Yes, the landscape of my youth was worn, predictable and unglamorous. But it was lighted up by ordinary accidents of observation such as the lope of a passing street cow, the strut of the locality’s bully-boy Makhan Lal and the slouch of Jacob Sahib’s shoulder as he walked down our grubby street on his way to the Mission school in downtown Fateh Kadal. ‘Mota Lal’, he used to call me later as my father, ever grateful to the English Sahib’s munificence, admitted me to that school for ‘education and discipline’. He was our saviour, come to lift me out of our depressed life, just as he had lifted father when he was struggling for a livelihood.

Those days the red of our school uniform had none of the chilling evocations it now has on the city streets. It was simply a bright ‘vardi’ and we felt proud to wear it.

The places that these days sputter gunfire were places where relatives, friends and well-wishers lived their peaceful ordinary unhurried lives. We visited them on festive occasions to use their house walls for sundry boyish games. Maharaj Gunj, a trade hub, was the place where our close relatives, Shers, had an ancestral house in which three generations lived in almost daily physical collision. We always wondered why the patriarch of the house had all the windows and doors boarded up before he had his one and only warm water bath of the winter season. It was a funny sight to see the venerable elder emerge from his mini-hamam muttering his gayatri mantra and warning other inmates not to let any air into the room where he chose to rest after his ablutions. It would be days before he cautiously allowed a small wooden trellised window to let in fresh wintry air. Neighbours watched with an uncanny curiosity when the windows opened and tittered no end.

Barbar Shah in the southern part of the city is where other relatives lived and where my father’s school friend Shridhar Kak wore himself thin searching for my future bride who, he thought, would bring in enough dough to support my college education. He would tell my mother: “your son speaks excellent Engliss and girls will fall head over heels to grab him”. Unfortunately, no one did, and I married anyway.

Ali Kadal, further downtown, was where my mother’s people owned a spacious house by the side of river Jhelum on whose banks we made mud crackers and watched beautifully upholstered shikaras ferrying bloated memsahibs downriver, and waited for little tow boats loaded with fresh vegetables to be sold across the banks.

Kraal Khud keeps resounding to the cross-fire of militants and security forces. In our younger days it was a place where our family priest Radha Krishen frightened us with visions of hell and enjoined us to keep to the straight and narrow. What made him special was his claim that his mother had returned from the dead and that he himself had plucked out thorn needles from under her soles—a grim reminder of the fate that awaited the unholy. In spite of his dour look we waited long hours to let him perform the Shivratri pooja which he did with great aplomb, even as he hurried to reach another house to repeat the same chants. In this way he kept everyone happy and probably interceded for our souls’ salvation. As for himself, he lived up to a ripe old age of 101 and died peacefully in his grandson’s house in Jammu. I am sure there were no thorn needles on his soles.

Who can forget Ahmad, the street charmer, entertaining big crowds outside the old secretariat in Sher Garhi area. The trickster had a respectable lineage in that he was the grandson of the legendary Ahmad Bazigar of our folklore. He certainly did not have the Houdini-like powers of the older man, but his sleight-of-hand kept onlookers spell-bound for long periods. What struck me about the man was the manner in which he cadged money from the assembled people after each performance. He would invoke Allah and ask “any one who pitches in with an anna or a two-anna coin or a quarter-rupee—may god fill his pockets with gold mohurs. He who has an empty pocket, may he too receive His benedictions”. At this, coins tumbled in thick and fast while his face expanded in a thank-you grin.

As the knots of people dispersed, he would call them back and say “what a fool I have been, a charlatan no less. I only cadged contributions from Muslim brothers even as my Pandit brothers also enjoyed my tricks. Wouldn’t they think I am a rank communalist, a Pakistani agent to boot? Now I appeal to my Pandit brothers gathered here… he who would pitch in with…..” As more coins fell into the ring, the grin became wider and more expansive.

Perhaps this was the best lesson in communal harmony that we have now forgotten. Ahmad Joo was a grass-roots secularist, but did he know it?


Memory is like a stream coursing through our minds, bearing with it all the algae of our past .It laps against the ribcage of our desires and leaves astringent fragments behind. Our school, for one.

I call up my classroom, tucked away behind peeling walls, and hear the swish of Maulvi Ghulam Nabi’s bamboo cane and the invective emanating from Pandit Damoodar’s permanent rage. I recall Pandit Ji’s English lesson which went something like this “C.A.T cat-cat is billi.R.A.T rat –rat is chooha. T.H.E the- the is yeh ya woh”. When I perked my eyes and tried to suppress a laugh, he would lose his temper and shout: “You scum, you think your father knows better English than I do? I shall whip the daylight out of you if you don’t obey what I say”. So it remained ‘yeh ya woh’ until the class finished.

Of course father always condoned my teacher’s bad temper on grounds of his lowly birth in a priest’s house and asked me to put up with him. But Maulvi Sahib was another matter. He dispensed a unique wisdom: “Hazrat Adam had two sons. One took to the pyre and another to the grave. That is how we were born Hindus and Muslims.” Thinking back on those days, I wonder what our cultural anthropologists, our Clifford Geertzs and Johannes Farbers, will have to say about the evolution of beliefs and customs. Could they have surpassed Maulvi Sahib’s acumen?

S.P. College in the southern part of the city was a landmark institution. There was a curious invitation coming from the place that encouraged us to convert the severities of Damodhar Bhai’s school into a mini-celebration of freedom—that is freedom to hang out near the neighbourhood cinema houses and outside the Women’s College without fear of Mamaji’s scolding. Also freedom to ogle the passing girls while you pirouetted in Raj Kapoor style trousers and almost crooned into their ears ‘awara hoon’.

There on the forbidding façade of the college building M and I etched out our adolescent dreams and innocent promises. Whether it was on the cobbled streets leading into the college, or the back lanes of Habba Kadal, we two drifted furtively to avert the curious eyes of the passers-by or the punitive prudery of a stray kin who might happen to be walking along the road... To relieve the wretchedness of our state, we sang love lyrics from Habba Khatoon and Arni Mal until we reached our respective college gates.

What a bunch of characters we had for teachers! There was Ramji who invariably began his lectures with “in this modern complicated world’. And there was Shyam Ji who found it awkward to explain the more suggestive bits of Othello to a mixed class of boys and girls. As he repeated Iago’s diatribe ‘fie! You are bells out of doors, devils, being offended…housewives in your beds ‘, he would lower his tone and avert his eyes from the women in the class. As congenital pranksters, some of us would ask him to explain these lines more fully—much to his discomfiture and our delight. Often he would dismiss the class as we persisted in our pranks.

Our physics teacher Yussuf Sir was full of surprises. After explaining the principle of specific gravity and then proving it in a practical experiment, he would remove his Pickwickian glasses and thunder aloud: “Bah, this tommy rot .Allah Tallah ordains all. We are but worms. What do we know of His laws?” Little could one realize that he was engaged in a perpetual readjustment of his religious beliefs with the tenets of science. As Robert Burns would say he was ‘a man for all that’!

Crankish as they were, these teachers had their uses. For example Shyam Ji explained the difference between tragedy and comedy with this homely example: “If you slip on a banana skin and bleed that is tragedy. If you only get away with minor bruises that is comedy”. As simple as that! Old man Aristotle could not have improved on this, could he?

In the Botanical Gardens where we went more in order to spy on girls than to hear him, Noor Mohammed, a journeyman city Marxist, expatiated on the Asiatic mode of production and the broader tenets of Marxism. He always succeeded in having a small audience of listeners who engaged him in animated conversation. His nasal twang made Marxism sound like a lullaby.

Yes, we didn’t read trashy books, but pored over grim-looking tomes bought from Kashmir book Centre, that baroque joint where ersatz intellectuals discoursed on political topics with the confidence of converts. We heard about the significance of Picasso’s dove, the Stockholm Peace appeal and Stalin’s genius as a linguist. We also read the latest doggerel from nondescript Soviet poets in the pages of Soviet Literature, a Communist Party monthly from Moscow that published eminently forgettable examples of socialist realism in literature and painting. Here Nadim recycled Mayakovasky in his own poems and Abdul Ghani, the singer with the bass voice, sang them to the tunes set by himself. Bang in the middle of the historical Lal Chowk, this bookshop nursed our ill-formed utopias.

The bookshop is now gone, so are many of its habitués, some them successful in more practical ways. Noor Mohammed became a minister and Ghani Bhai a ruling party member of the state legislature. So much for revolution and change!

Many of my beloved lanes in the city no longer exist, neither do the intimacies and the euphorias that were generated in close proximity to houses and people. Amidst these vanishings and shrinkings only nostalgia can reconstruct the pre-lapsarian times in which our childhood and youth were spent. From the glimpse of the remembered faces nostalgia once again discovers the insignificant and the contingent—say the drippings of blood on fresh mutton chunks in Kadir butcher’s shop, the small lumps of grease on Ragunath’s pretzel bread, the wrinkles of self-abasement on Damoodhar Bhai’s ageing face and, above all, traces of iron in the souls rendered incapable of charity by circumstances.

Not for a life-time can these be wished away. Its ordure notwithstanding, I would hate to see my city altered, let renovators be damned!


Badri Raina said...

most delightful, insightful, and deeply endearing; rk narayan but better;
do persevere.
loved it.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma said...

the art of writing that few possess today. immortal kashmir!

MLR has built a shikara out of memories and words, to take you on a trip over the Dal lake.


Anonymous said...

Very moving and delightful. Somehow this piece reminds me strangely of Heinrich Heine.