Friday, December 31, 2010

flight of Katij

Papilio Polytes, Jammu. 2010.
 A butterfly that mimics the appearance of
 an unpalatable  butterfly so as to protect it self from predators.

'Where are you? What's going on?'

'Office. Nothing.'

'Okay. Guess what. I am right now crossing Jhelum on a boat.  The traffic on the bridge was a bit too much today. So, I thought why not. So here I am crossing it on a boat. Just like old days. I thought I should call you. '

'Do you have the camera with you?'

'No, I forgot.'

'What? How can you?'

'Is a man supposed to carry a camera on him while going to work? There is nothing here that I have't seen. Be Chusa Tourist yeti. I am not  a touristAnyway, go back to work. I will try to keep it with me next time. There is always next time.'

I pull the mobile off my ear, place it in my pocket and stair back at a computer screen that for a moment still remains illegible. Envy was soon replaced by something else, perhaps not soon enough. Perhaps a wish, a longing, a regret. In that moment, I knew it was indeed turning out to be a deliciously difficult year.

At the start of year 2010 my father, nearing retirement, found himself back in office in Srinagar. In the run up to it he spend hours on phone discussing the 'Ardar'. My mother and sister found it a worrisome prospect. 'Adar hasa drav, voyn kyah karav!' (Order is on the way, what will we do now!) I had romantic notions about it. First thing I did was to ensure that he buys himself a camera. 'At least, do not return empty handed.' All this 'Dangerous Place, Kashmir' talk is so often repeated, it all is probably half made-up ghost stories to lull the civilized people to sleep, to just close their eyes. At the end of it, I thought, his adventures in an alien Hindu plains may outshine his adventures in his native Muslim valley. Imagine getting your head smeared with vermilion while being proclaimed a 'Hindu-Brother' by a bunch of drunken louts in a seedy Beer bar in Aurangabad. 'Phikar knot, Pandit Ji! Now you are in Hindu Maharashtra. In this land, proudly sport your tilak, without fear.'

 'India Bahut Bada Hai, Becho-Becho, Yaha Shamshaan ki rakh bhi bikti hai',  is the mantra he has been chanting for last twenty years. It remains one of the few mantras on which I agree with him.

The decision of going back was sealed by him with, 'Woyn Gasav Kasheer ti.' (Now, I will go to Kashmir too). Economics always wins. So he packed his bags and reported back to duty in Kashmir after a gap of around twenty years. I must mention here that, I am in awe of my father's packing skills. Experience has made him expert. Even twenty years back, on some-days, he was packing his bags in Srinagar and reporting to duty in a place called Handwara, working on irrigation canals. Later, he packed bags in 1990 and left for Jammu. Two decades later he packed bags and left for Delhi. Always with family. A few years later moved to Hyderabad and Aurangabad, alone. Now, he was going back to Kashmir.

'I have taken to that place. Kashmir. You won't understand. You were too young when we left. You probably don't remember.'

'No I do.'

'Really! How is that possible? You must have been only...'

'No, I am just kidding. So what's going on. Howz KASHMIR?'

'Hmm...I saw a Katij Ool (a Barn Swallow's nest) a couple of days ago.'

'What's a Katij?'

'Ye cha na aasan ek bird. (It's a bird). It arrives in spring. Flies in a really peculiar way. When I was a kid I used to sit on a high window and watch it for hours while it tried to outpace and outmanoeuvre the buses plying on the road.'

'What's so special about this Ool?'

'You have to see it to believe it. The one I saw recently had built a nest under a Hanji's houseboat on Jhelum.

'What do you mean below it?'

You remember the Zero-Bridge. Well, while talking to a boatman there I asked his whatever happened to Katij. If  they still arrive. The man lead me to his boat and showed a recently built nest.'

'Did you take a picture?'

'No, I didn't have the camera with me.'

'Again! Did you buy it just to photograph yourself cooking Roganjosh in a hotel room? What am I supposed to do with fifty photographs having a bunch of Uncle Jis, who I just do not know, all holed up in a room eating your hand cooked mutton?'

'Those are for me. I was cooking because the hotel staff here, for some strange reason, just does not know how to cook meat.

'Isn't the staff Kashmiri?'

'These kids are from Chamba or Garhwal, besides all sorts of Biharis. What do they know about cooking meat?'

My father at a 'Pandit' Hotel, the kind around zero bridge, the kind often run by a reformed former militant, the kind that houses Hindu government employees during Durbar move to Srinagar. He shared his room with three or four other Pandit employees caught in a similar situation, the situation faced by a dwindling tribe of Pandit government employees, the situation of the employees who are suddenly asked to report back to job after a gap of twenty years, the situation of Rip Van Winkle. Only there was Rip Van Winkle-Panti from government side too.

'I pretty much started my career in the same way. At Hiranagar near Jammu. From the train, on way to Jammu, you can still see the water channels I worked on.'

'Not boasting, but you can see the things I built online.'

'Online-Shonline. Cement and Iron are real. My fist in your face in real. Not this software thing.'
'It is funny. I am here sharing a room with a bunch of guys and you are there sharing your room with a bunch of guys.'

'The people here laugh when I tell them I have seven houses.'

The Muslim guys in the office would often ask him, 'Tohi Keetah Ghari Pandiji'. (How many houses do you have?)And my father would reply, 'Me Che Voyn Sath Ghar.' (My one house in now divided in seven). They seldom understood the meaning of the claim. Instead, my father spend too much time getting dragged into arguments over things like, "Isn't world Beautiful? Surely, someone created it. So, Pandit Ji...you think evolution is a fact? Why do your gods have 5 heads and 10 hands? And what about the stones in your home?"

Post script: Less than a year later, another order arrived sending my father back to Jammu and onto his retirement. A few months later another fresh round of violence started in Kashmir.

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