Friday, March 29, 2013

Islands


I stand over a bridge. There are two bridges that connect the island to rest of the earth. No, in fact there are three. First one is the oldest, a small one for the pedestrian devotees. Second one, just near the first one, is a recently built bigger bridge for the heavy vehicles of dignitaries and security men. Third one is just diametrically opposite the first one. It leads to a wall of wilderness, to the original place, to the marshes from which this island was reclaimed on directions of a snake after a man had a dream about a mother goddess. This bridge leads to nowhere, it is crudely barb-wired and shut at the other end. Here I stand.

I stare at the vastness of the wetlands. An empty canvas painted with green of willow trees and tall grass that surrounds this small island of human settlement. An island built upon faith. Faith that in a way believes that the power that created this vastness and emptiness is an entity that is, or can be, sympathetic to human turpitude and exaltation. And yet all this time these indifferent wetlands  lay in a patient wait to reclaim what was once taken from it. Waging a thousand year war and having little victories each day. Like all wilderness, there is something frightening and beautiful about it. I can imagine a bunch of people setting fire to a corpse in this wasteland, in the anonymity offered by this vastness. Totally possible. Anonymity offered by a vast sea of history. History consumes everything and nothing, till none remain to consume it. Things could certainly burn in these woods and no one would know. Was this where he burned? Why do I have to hear stories like these?Just hours ago, sitting under a Chinar tree, I hear a version of the story of a man named Hameed Gada, Hameed The Fish.

Even after he became the top-most Hizbul  commander of this area, everyday, with his own hands, he would pour 1.5 liter of milk into the holy spring of this island. He really believed in it. In a way it makes sense, he became a militant to protect this spring. Hameed Butt grew up near the island. Since childhood Hameed was fascinated by this spring. Loved it. This love was to shape his violent life. One day he heard of a plan by a bunch of 'extreme' militants to blow up the spring, he protested and fought them alone. All to protect a Hindu temple. But he had to pay a heavy price. To protect himself and his family from these militants, he sought and joined Hizbuls. He became their best man in the area. A dreaded killing machine. Nemesis of security forces deployed in the area. There were many reasons for him to hate the Jawans. Most obvious one being that they didn't protect him and his family when he sought their help to escape the wrath of 'extreme' militants. So he now killed Jawans with an extra zeal and pleasure and made money from it. With each killing and each daring escape, his notoriety grew. And like all men who became killing machines in those days, he got a new name. It is said that once to escape the security men, he jumped in the syendh river near the temple and stayed under water for hours, breathing though a hollow reed. Aaja Ai Bahaar Dil hai... much like Shammi Kapoor and Rajendra Nath in that old film song. From that day on wards, people started calling him 'Hameed Gada', Hamid The Fish. Later he picked up another name, Bombar Khan. Probably for his expertise at blowing up things. I can't image his face, all I see is Bomberman of an arcade game blowing up pieces of colorful squares. In the Wandhama massacre of Pandits, his name is given as Bombar Khan. And yet all this time he continued to visit the temple and offer milk to the goddess. This goddess who in Lanka was fed blood by Ravan. Some years ago, Gada was finally cornered by RR men and COBRAS in those marshes somewhere beyond this island. They killed him and burnt his body right there. No trace left. No mausoleum. No Shaheed. There, that old man you see, he is Hameed Gada's father, still selling vegetables outside the temple. You would like to hear more stories like that...wouldn't you? 

I look away and stare below at the calm icy grey waters of syendh. I hear a boat approaching as someone aboard gently chops water. There is a village just next to the island. This too reclaimed from wilderness. This too in faith. Not in a different faith. In similar faith, faith that claims - in the end it all amounts to something. Does the universe care

'Hey you! What are you doing here?' I hear someone shouting at my back. The voice is closing in. But I don't move. I want stare some more at this green vastness. I wait for the boat.

The boat approaches. There is a man and a child on it. Across this fine divide, slow lydrifting across the river, they pass under the bridge, under me and past me. The boat passes as if the island and the wilderness doesn't exist, or as if the two entities exist only to hold the river in between them. Hold it together just so that a boat with a man and a child would pass over it in peace. Singing songs of faith.

'What's going on? Come down from there.'

Faith and its benign assumptions. The boat is now gone. A month later, back in Delhi, I was to see a strange dream. Shikaras afloat over a road, passing under an overbridge at Manto road. Droves of people passing by, floating under me driven without a sound over an invisible river. Not a man on it, only shadows, only women in black veils, rowing slowly. Alas! Kashmir offers nightmares me no more, no sleepless nights.

'Oi. Tu.' The man's voice again.

I turn around to see a man in underwear and banyaan with a comb in his left hand. Maybe I have strayed in dangerous territory. And stay was long enough to raise suspicion. This man had come out of a tent belonging to the security forces camped next to the bridge. There were cloths left for drying on metal wires, almost making an odd protective mesh. Another human habitation. Another island.

'What are you doing there?' said the man who looked genuinely worried or pissed off in his blue and white lose comfy kacha.

'Nothing,' I blurted. I keept my head low, quickly making my way down from the bridge.

'This is not the place for you. You are not supposed to be here. Go.'

"And you are supposed to be here." I kept the thought to myself. Is world a filing cabinet and everything in it, animate or inanimate, a file. Every file labeled and to be placed in a proper place. Why is he here?

You want to hear another one. In those days, for security personnels this island was a prime posting. A pleasurable stay. Almost a little paradise inside paradise. Here once was posted a Captain who fell in love with to the spring. He must have stayed here for two years and during those two years he become more of a priest and less of a soldier. It was around then that the security men claimed this holy place as one of their own. The place started to look more and more like a regular Hindu temple in mainland India. Regular Hindinised aartis and bhajans orchestrated to the sounds of gongs, conch shells and bells. This was happening at some other Pandit spots too. The shrines were becoming more and more templelish. Any given time, the Captain could be seen near the spring, staring at its waters. Then one day he received  orders to move, a new posting to some other place. To war. From this island of peace to Kashmir. Young Captain couldn't bear the thought of moving from this place to another. He went mad. It is said, on receiving the news he ran straight to the spring and jumped in. As a kid when I first saw the spring, I did wonder and fear if a man, a boy, could drown in it. The poor man survived.

I make my way back to the center of the island still feeling the eyes of that security man on my back. I take a turn and pass some recently constructed structures. These are big halls and rooms meant to house the seasonal pilgrims. Near the wall of one of these buildings, I find a find a bunch of people staring at a giant pile of rundown chappals and shoes. They stare as they discuss contemporary history and seek to draw me in.

You think this is an island of peace. A miracle. You read those news reports and believe their foolish words and think this island is a bridge of brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir. I once found myself on this island while a group of Afghan militants fired rockets at the spring. We just put our heads between our legs and waited for it all to get over. You read those news reports about Kashmiriyat and you won't know how this  place survived and what it survived. In early days, when the Muslim officers of the secretariat stopped coming to work in protest of what was happening in Kashmir, a handful of us Pandit employees kept reporting to work. Of course,  there aren't many of us left in the machinery anymore. We are all retiring. They wouldn't have anyone of us among them. But in those dark days, we kept the machinery going. The state running. And what kept us going. We would come to this island and try to reclaim it. It wasn't easy. You are lucky. You just sat in a vehicle,  told them, 'Tulamulla Chalo' and rode here in comfort afforded by ignorance. In those bad old days an Army convoy used to lead us through a besieged city  to drop us here in this village. And while our convoy would pass on road, people would spit at us and hurl abuses. They didn't want us here. They knew what we were coming for. And yet, now after all these years, you see their welcoming faces in newspapers. It is true many Muslims join the Mela every year. But you want to see something funny. You want to know what happens once the great Khir Bhawani Mela is over. After locals and visiting Pandits have hugged. After all the cameras are gone. You see that huge pile of chappals. That's whats left. Those are the chappals that get left behind. It's a little scam. At a Hindu temple, you are supposed to take your shoes off before entering the temple ground. In old days you couldn't even enter the Island with your shoes on. The whole island was off-limit if you were in shoes. It was an unchallenged rule. The Island was a holy place and not a public park. Even British weren't allowed with shoes. They would have liked to make this spot a park. They never had any liking for Pandit's holy mambo-jambo. But even they appreciated the Pandit's choice in picking these scenic spots as their holy places. And Muslims, of course weren't allowed inside in general. I guess, they too would have preferred a public park. A lot of our monuments are now public parks. You probably don't know an old tale of a Sufi saint who in some village created a public toilet over a spot infested by Vetaals and held holy by Pandits. Death to all superstitions he said. No, you don't know the tale. Just as I thought. Your mind needs expanding.  The whole holy area of Hindus is constantly shrinking. Here, now, only the Spring and not the whole Island is holy. The Island they think is Booni Bagh, a garden of Chinars, another Shaliamar..I was confused. So am I supposed to take my shoes off outside the Island or just outside the temple. So pilgrims come. And so do the local Muslims. It's a great cultural mix happening, you say.  O the Secular spectacle! I say it's just one man gaining a pair of shoe and another loosing it. Locals do come and pray, go around the spring in circles with hands folded, sometimes in anti-clockwise direction. But when they leave, some of them leave wearing shoes that don't belong to them. And the poor looser, the pilgrim, has to the leave the mela wearing a pair stolen from someone else. Some have extra chappals with them and leave in them, while some buy new ones from  local shops. In the end, we are left with this huge pile of old worn out Chappals. What are we supposed to do with it? Tell me what are we supposed to do with this pile of junk. 

Sounds normal. Happens all the time. Isn't it a phrase? Stand in someone's shoes. How do you step in someone's shoe without taking them from him first. Happens at almost all the temples and probably at other places too. That why all these places have these advanced shoe management systems, every shoe marked and numbered. Basic rules to understanding humans: People want to experience divinity, unity with God, fraternity with fellow beings, but not at the cost of their chappals.

I walk my way back to the spring. Under the shed that is the temple, I find the hunchback old man still at his seat near the spring. He is mumbling something under his breath while holding onto some worn out scrolls of paper. And his story too tumbles out.

Over the years a lot of people from the plains have made this place their home. Lot of strange folks. There is this case of a man who was at one time supposed to be a magistrate in Madras. Not a judge, a magistrate. He too made this place his home. He was a man touched by divine, as they say. Much advanced on the path of spiritual development. He stayed put here because he believed his progress had come to a halt. The goddess of the spring wasn't blessing him with a Darshan. He was stalled. But he stayed put, lingered on. Spent all the later years of his life here. Passed away only recently. Made no progress. Some are never blessed. The spring has always been surrounded by men like that. Men of faith. You see that old man there sitting near the spring, lighting agarbattis, that man with a hunch, he is a Pandit. I mean a Kashmiri Pandit. He had been here for months now. His wife stays at the guest house at Zeethyaar temple while he stays here, spending all his time next to the spring. Doing his Sadhna. Keeping to his spiritual exercises.  He has his own seat next to the spring. Every morning, as part of some ritual, he take a full glass of that milky water from the spring and drinks it neat.

I see a woman, a tourist from the plains with a pooja thali approaching the hunchback. She asks him something. The man doesn't reply. He just points to the spot opposite him. The woman implores. She again asks him to do a pooja for her. Pray to the goddess for her. She thinks he is the official priest of the temple. Visibly irritated but still not saying anything, he again replies only in gestures and points to the seat of the official priest. The scene went on for sometime till the woman left in frustration. I was almost chuckling. Over the course of the day, the scene kept repeating with the poor old man. To stay on and to watch this comedy unroll all day long would amount to cruelty. I feel sleepy even though the sun is yet to hit noon. I look for a suitable bench under a Chinar. To sleep under a Chinar is absolute bliss. Had sleep been born under this tree, sleep would have less to do with death and more with life.

The whole Island now looks like a park now. The ground is all tiled, there are benches for people to sit. Rest rooms and dormitory. It was't like this in old day just a few decades ago. There was much mud and muck. And we would set camp on this slippery ground. Even these benches ruffle the religious sensitivities of some old-timers. 'A park!' they curse. 

'I would bring my grandmother here someday. This is a beautiful place.' The words crafted in peculiar accent intrude my half-sleep mind. I follow the worlds. Sitting on a bench just behind me, I find a young man with a camera around his neck talking to a group of locals. This man is obviously not from Kashmir. The older men with him who nod approvingly to his thoughts definitely are. The man is either from Pakistan or India. A Punjabi. A Mirpuri. A Pathan. What is he doing here? I don't want to think. I don't want to know. I get up and head back to our camp.

Under a steel shed, I see aunts shredding monj. A woman, another tourist, an Indian tourist approaches our camp. The woman walks to one of my aunts and makes an inquiry. Bua laugh first and then answers, 'No we are preparing it for ourselves. This is no prashad. But, there is halwa being served by the security guys. Go that way.' Woman leaves confused and disappointed.  Kashmiri pandits have been coming to the Island since ages. They would come days before the special day of the goddess. Families arriving on boats, arriving by road on tongas. They would come from city and villages, from near and far. All these families would camp under the shade of Chinars for a couple of days, sing and pray together, but each family cooking its own meals. And now we arrive in planes, buses and cars. From far and near. Just like others.

Mother is tearing at leaves of hakh. We are going to have a feast in the afternoon. And I am going to have three serving of rice. This air and water has made me hungry all over again. I would have definitely been a fat kid if I had been raised completely in Kashmir. I would have grown old a gargantuan. A bhatte jinn. A rice guzzling Jinn, a big giant ape.

Have you heard this one: The Island owes its holiness to apes. They say Hanuman himself brought the goddess here. Kalhana's Rajatarangini in a story about a King and a Queen who proclaimed themselves as divine. The book offers us an episode that follows the aftermath of Ramayan War. It is said one of the sources  of Ravan's great power was a particular idol of a goddess that he worshiped. Goddess Ragnya. To please this goddess, to control her, to gain power, he would feed this Goddess blood. After Ravan's death at the hand of Ram, this goddess, or rather her idol too was rescued along with Sita. Monkeys, the allies of Ram were entrusted with the job of returning the goddess to her abode in the mountains. But moneys being monkeys, while on way to the Himalaya, in mid air, accidently dropped it somewhere. Now some say, the idol fell at Tulamulya or the present day Tulamula . The Brahmins of Tulamulya were powerful conjurers who could bring down Kings with their spells. That's all in Rajatarangini. Ages later, it was re-discovered thanks to dreaming of a Pandit. Some say, apes made no mistake, Hanuman brought the Goddess to her rightful place. This place where we feed her milk. Pandits believe it to be their highest court. They plead the cases of their lives here. And if you believes the local lore, the court is open just once a year. The goddess visits this place, the idol is alive only once a year. Rest of the time she isn't even here. She is supposed to be at a temple in village Tikkar in district Kupwara. Or at Devsar in district Kulgam. Away from the maddening crowd. She is supposed to be at all these places at various times of the year. Does Hanuman still carry her around to all these places to keep up with court appointments?


'I saw a Muslim man eagerly showing Hanuman to his kid earlier. Ye gov Hanuman. This is hanuman. He said to his little kid while pointing to that big red statue over there,' says my mother while working with hakh. This is the second time she is telling me this.

Mother has been taken-in by the scene she witnessed. She would later tell me that she was in fact fascinated by the presence of Muslims on the Island itself. It seems, for her generation, Muslims were a common sight at a lot of holy sites just like Pandits were at a lot a Muslim sites. But this island was not one of them. And now it is. Is this the good that comes out of conflicts? How is the zoning of a holy place done? The only spot on the island where the Muslims are still not allowed is inside the spring. Is this that particular moment in history when cultural smashups-mashups happen? And this how it happens? Is this the secularization of religious spaces? Is this how the idea of Kashmir, or its extension, the idea of India was born? Or is that vice-verse? Doesn't India like to see itself in idea of Kashmir? Are we loosing space, and is someone else gaining space? Is idea of Kashmir an extension of idea of India? Or is there a a mutual space, a common ground getting created? Can a venn diagram really explain it all?


It is in fact interesting. The Mela is already over, and yet these Muslims arrive, sometimes with families. Some even seem to be regulars. They come, go around the spring and leave. Almost like a pilgrim. Why do they come here? What are we doing here? Mela finished a couple of days ago. Or rather Mata has already left the place if Kashmiri lore is to be believed. Her court here is adjourned for the year. I missed it by a few days because of a massive strike by transporters in Jammu over low fares. We had reached only till Hari Singh's Palace when, just near the tomb of a green Pir Baba, we were stopped by a bunch of people with iron rods in hand who threatened to puncture the tyres of our hired vehicles unless we returned back the same way we came. The multi-lingual Kistawari driver tried to talk to them in fluent dogri, tried all his skills, but to no avail. In Kashmiri, he them advised us to turn back. My younger Bua pretending to be a village woman pleaded with the goons to let us pass. She pulled a pallu over her head and with folded hands went, 'Mata Ko Jatay Hai! Mata Ko Jatay Hai! Jai Mata Di! Jai Mata Di!' It was funny for a moment. Sadly, the men didn't find the act funny. Neither did her twin little kids. The sensitive one of the two started crying as the men raised their voices and hurled abuses. Those angry men were inconsolable. We were forced to return. Back in house, I read the news. In a single local paper, I counted at least 23 news reports on strikes and protests being organised by various people on issues like no supply of clean water, no electricity, low wages, high prices, discrimination based on class, no pay, corruption. criminal inaction, criminal action and things like that. Almost the entire town was trying to reach some higher court that day. Holding courts in street. After the strike was over, even though we missed the Mela, our 'Back to Kashmir 20 years later' trip was back on. I found the determination of  our traveling party a bit out of character.  'Papaji needs to go back at least once,' Father explained.

So here we were on the Island.

'Where is Daddy?' I ask my grandmother about my grandfather.

'He went out. I know where he has gone. He just couldn't do it here. These new toilets on the island don't make much sense to him. He has gone to take a royal crap in the wilderness somewhere beyond the island. An old favorite spot of his. He must be on his way back now.'

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3 comments:

  1. Beautifully written piece... But only a kashmiri can understand what this write conveys... God Bless You

    ReplyDelete
  2. Suman wrote the following comment but it somehow got accidentally deleted(Thanks!):

    Beautifully written, Vinayak. And I find these lines - "Anonymity offered by a vast sea of history. History consume everything and nothing, till none remain to consume it." - particularly haunting.

    ReplyDelete

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