Thursday, May 30, 2013

First Refuge, 1990

First Refuge
Bohri, Jammu. March, 2013.

'We are here!'

Getting out of the Auto-Rickshaw and dropping the bags to ground, father announced our arrival to the refuge. He could have added a 'Ta-Ta-Da' before or after the sentence and the feeling he wanted to convey would have been the same. Ta-Ta-Da, we are in Jammu.

We had a place to stay in Jammu. It was a house of a kin. For the first few days, we had the entire first floor of the house for ourself. In a few days my father was to leave again for Srinagar to get my grandparents out of Kashmir. But before that, a cycle of life had to begin afresh. Purchases were to be made.

A kitchen was set up. An electric stove was the first thing we bought. Then a bowl, an exact number of plates, a knife and some spoons. Pressure cooker we had brought along from Kashmir. A milkman was sought and easily found nearby. Just next to the house was a field. In the field was a tree to which was always tied a sickly cow. The owners of the cow lived nearby in a shed that stood next to a tall pile of green grass. In the field lived some watery eyes buffaloes, tied to a pole by steel chains. I could see it all from the roof of the house in which we had taken refuge from Kashmir. That tree's top was just within my reach from the roof. I could pluck its leaves, if I could learn to avoid its long pointy thorns. Jammu was kandi area they said. From the branches of that tree hung no fruits, but few round beautiful brown nests of weaver birds. With what mad fervor they build their homes!

Tea was ready. But it's taste caused an instant revulsion. I imagined it tasted like smell of a buffalo. I hated it as it made me nauseous. Kashmir had cows. But cow milk in Jammu was costly. Salaries were three digit and savings five digit. Cows would have to wait. Note for future refugees on getting their priorities right: The first are only two - Food and Shelter, and often in that order. In summer of 1990, we were also at first only seeking these two things. Food and Shelter. And the number of seekers kept swelling. As often happens, other refugees kept pouring into town, first a trickle and then a downpour. At first almost unseen, silent. Too ashamed to be alive. Then not sure of their existence and in the end alive, and consumed by a new world.

About three weeks after our arrival in Jammu, grandparents also were refugees. A few days after the arrival of my grandparents, a newly arrived migrant family took the first floor on rent from the owners of the house. This migrant family belonged to Anantnag, a name I first heard from them. With their arrival we moved to the top floor. To the top of the top floor. To the roof. On the roof was a store room. Our first refuge. I liked it. The roof of a traditional Kashmiri house is an endearing space, a intimate cave. It's a triangle. A crown. But seldom does anybody live there. Maybe cats. Maybe Ghardivta, the lord of the house. This space is used for storing wood for harsh winters, grains at times of weddings and always the ghost stories. I wanted to live there. I wanted to live in such a roof forever. The roof I got in Jammu was flat. All the houses in Jammu were crown less.

Note for future refugees on setting up spaces and boundaries in the new world:
A kitchen was set up in the store. Electric stove, bowl, plates, a knife and spoons, all parked neatly in a corner. Next, to preserve an archaic concept of pure and impure, an old cloth was rolled and set on ground to mark the boundary for pure 'Kitchen corner'. Over the next few days, as the space kept getting accidentally defiled by miss-steps, this boundary was re-enforced by bricks. Not that it helped much, but an illusion of a room within a room was enough to satiate minds seeking a certain familiar order in an unfamiliar territory.

The next thing they say a refugee seeks is shelter, a shade, a place to sleep. This need is somewhat overrated. Pushed enough and given enough time, people would sleep anywhere. But still, some may try to get a bit comfortable. The storeroom on that roof wasn't big enough to house eight people. But the roof was like an open field. The next big purchase was a folding cot. At least one person need not sleep on the ground. We took turns. But I liked sleeping on the ground. It's warmth even in summer a welcome hug, a fine Kashmiri rug. In the dead of the night, if you put your ear against the surface, you could hear the distant hum of a ceiling fan. For me, folding cot with all its Nylon stripes proved to be a thing of wonder only for a day or two. I soon realized those things are not reliable. One night, just before the start of summer, a thunderstorm broke in the sky. A mad wind blew and rains lashed down like whips, catching us all unaware in sleep. We ran into the storeroom. But in our panic forgot to fold the cot and bring it in. Next morning, we found the cot open and spread out in the middle of the road. It had flown away with the wind, People were walking around it, avoiding it like it was a holy cow or a car parked in the middle of a road. Getting that thing back up from the road and on back to the roof was more embarrassing than being forced to live on a roof in a storeroom.

As the summer started, it was obvious that the table fan we had bought with us from Kashmir was not enough. Even if we had brought with us the other fan we had left in Kashmir, the two would not have been enough for Jammu summer. We perspired more, unnaturally, certainly more than the locals. It was like our skin had become surface of a CampaCola bottle freshly moved out of a fridge. Something had to be done. Our next purchase was a big one. We got a big coolar. It was love at first sight. It was like getting a personal robot of red and green eyes and big knobs for control. I bought some He-Man stickers and posted them on to its dashboard. It was obviously going to be our savior. In the sun burnt afternoons, we would keep the door of the room open, and move in the coolar (which was so great that it even had pearly rollers at the bottom). The angle of the sun after noontime was kind enough not to light up the room, and the coolar, once its belly was full of water, would magically turn the killer loo to a cool breeze. To truly enjoy a coolar, you have to sit really close to its mouth, let it blow your hair, dry the sweat off your brows, and then wait patiently for this electric deity, in its benevolent mood, to spit some cool water into your expectant smiling face.

The only problem with coolar was it had to be fed water, and that too, frequently. At least five buckets every five hours. And on good hot day, two buckets extra. Since we were living on a roof, getting water in itself was a huge challenge. There was a water tank on the roof, a big steel one, conducive for getting boiling water in Summer, but there was no tap. So an engineering solution was applied. Father dropped a rubber pipe into the tank. And the tap was ready. My father explained how to operate this fancy tap. 'When you want water, just suck on the pipe, suck till water reaches you, then drop the pipe. If your level is lower than water, hydraulics will take care of the rest. Greeks built great cities on this principle. You can certainly learn to have a bath using this principle.' Why I will build a city on this roof. A city that shall shame the Greeks.

As summer progressed, there were other sources of water too. On the day of Baisakhi, a small drain just across the road sprang to life like a snake. They called it a 'Kanaal'. Icy muddy water of Chenab making its way down from high mountains, passing through sweltering plains, on a particular day, 'released', diverted through a network of canals named after the old Dogra Monarch of the State, Ranbir canal, reached our door step, passed us to reach the farms at the outskirts of the city. This canal was lined with mulberry trees, their branches brimming with a sweet fruit at start of Summer. The tar road near the trees at that time would be a canvas of violet on black. The fruit was edible. I was told. The tempting cold water in the canal, not. I was warned. So instead, I jumped into the canal for a cold bath. The water barely reached my knees. There was no chance of drowning. I liked it. It could be my private pool, I thought. After an hour of lounging in the shallow waters as I came out of my pool, some buffaloes took my place. Goodbye pool! I hated buffaloes.

With time, I did get over my dislike for some things. Like I did find a good use for that folding cot. It was ideal for watching TV. It took the experience of watching television under an open sky to the next level. Get the TV out of the store, spread the cot, light some Kachua Chaap, apply some Odomos, spread yourself long on the cot and watch some good old TV. It's practically a heaven. No fear of scorpions or snakes. There are none in this high Paradise. Even this fear is actually overrated. After few days of stay on the roof, I did discover scorpions, I did lose some sleep over it but eventually if you are alive and young, the sleep always wins over fears.

Best thing about watching television in Jammu was that you had multiple channels. There was always Doordarshan but Jammu offered a great reception for PTV too. On Saturday nights PTV offered English movies. I remember watching 'Jaws' one night. In the evening, we could hear news on both the channels. People were dying on both the channels. But the number varied. On one: 50 people dead while protesting bravely on a bridge. On another: 5 militants dead in an encounter, 5 bystanders in crossfire and a bridge burnt down by unidentified men. I figured if my schooling hadn't been disrupted, I would have learnt the laws that explained these numbers. I thought I would have learnt why it was all morbidly entertaining. These deaths. Most of all I would have picked a better sense of geography and direction.

Towards the west, in the direction of sunset, Pakistan was only miles away from where we stayed. In Srinagar, our house was actually further away from Pakistan, which was miles and miles past Gulmarg. It seemed we had moved closer to Pakistan after moving to Jammu. It made no geographical sense. At night, one could see red bulbs lining the sky. 'That's where Pakistan is.' I was told. But it was obviously too far from Kashmir, from Chattabal, the place in Srinagar where I was born. And yet in Jammu, it was closer. I couldn't grasp how long the borders of countries could run, how deep.

Every morning, my Grandfather took to going for walks in this direction. I never liked getting up early but on a roof there isn't much choice in the matter. Sun is a cruel alarm clock. With it arrived the singing parakeets, and from a nearby marshy field, mad war cries of a early rising titahari, Lapwing defending its land against invisible aggressor. Did-e-do-it.Did-e-do-it. Did-he-do-it. Did-he-do-it.

Most morning I would get up at dawn, pick my pillow and get some extra hours of sleep in a corner of the storeroom. But then kitchen too is a cruel alarm clock. Either Mother, Grandmother or Aunt would start stirring things. A ting of a bowl hitting a spoon. A tang of a spoon hitting a bowl. So some mornings, I too would accompany my Grandfather on his morning walks. These walk would usually end with a bath in a fresh water pool he discovered somewhere off the main road. He always liked to walk. Over the years, he taught me to walk the whole length and breadth of Jammu, covering it within hours, from one end to another, taking trails through fields and ravines, learning together short cuts that often turned out to be long cuts. Jammu back then too was called a city. Jammu city. BC Road, Parade, Panjtarthi on one side of river Tawi and Gandhi Nagar, Nanak Nagar, Satwari, Airport on the other. One, the old Jammu and other, the new Jammu. Everything else was mostly uneven open fields covered with wild bushes. Or, Nallas that came alive in monsoons. And in these spatial spaces often lived a few Gujjars here or a few Duggar there, some Sikhs here or some Mashays, the new Christians. That's about it. Beyond it, on one side there were villages grown around an irrigation canal. Villages in which people bravely tried to be cultivators. And on the other side of town, settlements of  transporters around the highway. If you walked blindly in one direction, you could find yourself in Pakistan and if you walked the other way, plains of India awaited. The city that Jammu is now was born somewhere in between these spaces. Feeding on a growing population. The pandits built houses in ravines, buying land from Gujjars. I learnt to walk these spaces even if these weren't the space I wanted to traverse. In Kashmir, my Grandfather used to take me to the ghat to get rations. I couldn't carry much weight but he would pretend I was a help. In Jammu, at our first refuge, he would take me to a wheat mill by a canal. Buying aata this way was cheaper and the quality better. He explained. I felt wiser. I liked walking with him. I used to pretend I was a help. It made me happy. In fact, I remember most of that year as a happy year.

I was happy there was no school. A few months later, as a new school session began, all the school were already full to their capacity. There were classes being held in playgrounds, prayer grounds and even rooftops. Later, when I did get in, I got a rooftop there too. And I had to repeat a school year. Thinking about it now makes me feel like a rat running on a treadmill. I feel like I was part of some great failed experiment conducted by history and civilisations. Which reminds me of a funny story from that year:

One day news spread that government was doing evaluative work to see what kind of monetary help could be offered to Pandits. At Shastri Nagar (in a school, I think) was set a make-shift office of a government representative doing this evaluation. Pandits were happy that finally the government, their 'Center', was doing something for them. They thronged to the place, all lined up dutifully outside this office. Here, a man handed them all a form to fill-up and list all their movable and immovable assets. Some filled it out right there standing in the queue. Some took it home, to deliberate. I still remember the lengthy discussion that my grandfather, father and uncle had about the dilemma posed by this miraculous form that promised to ease their financial troubles. But it also posed a puzzle. They wondered if they should mention things like '1 old Table fan', '2 new Tubelights', '1 very old Philips Radio set', 'a brand new Geyser', 'a pile of galvanized steel sheets'...over assets like these they wondered if listing everything truthfully was going to send them into some 'income-tax' bracket and instead of receiving money, they will have to pay money. In the end, after much thought, they did list all their assets into that form. Next day, this form was duly submitted at that office. Some days later, just as suddenly the office had opened, it closed. The man with the forms was gone. It was much later that the Pandits realized that the man was probably just a poor student working on his PhD on 'migrants'.

The only worry I suffered that year was the thought of not seeing my father again. In the first month, my father disappeared for two days. He just took off. Didn't tell any body where he was going and just went away. I became worried only on the second day of his disappearance as all those Hindi movies started running through my head, 'Tumhara Baap kaun hai?' Think Rajkumar from Mother India. And that union leader guy from Deewar. That evening father returned with a coconut and some red shiny golden bordered cloth in hand. He had gone to Vaishno Devi. From the roof at night I could see the hill that housed the cave shrine. A hill dotted by a stream of bright lights. A God visible from this far! Obviously, now this Sherawalli, I took very seriously. Some years later, when I did visit the place, lack of Sher on the hill proved to be a bit of disappointment. I would have been a believer today had I found a single tiger on that hill.

The only traumatic memory I have of the year on the roof  is of my grandfather breaking the television one day. He threw a metal jug on the screen. It happened one evening when the elders were having some discussion in the storeroom behind a locked door while my sister and I roamed around on the roof. I didn't think much of it. Locked door discussions were common that year. Even before leaving Kashmir, the subject of leaving was discussed by elders behind a locked door. I thought it was one of those normal family talks but then suddenly, I could hear my grandfather's raised voice and the next thing I heard was glass breaking, followed by the long winding sound of metal ringing on the floor. The discussion ended. There was no television that day. I wondered what they must have been discussing in the room. I never found out. I guess they were not happy on the roof. It was a silent night. A horrible thought took root in my mind. What if it really was a sad situation? What if it was a permanent state? What if we never return to Kashmir? I hadn't met any of my cousins during this entire time. Everyone had stopped visiting each other. I wondered if they too were living like this. What would happen to my treasure trove that I had buried in Kashmir before leaving? Before leaving, in a far off corner of the courtyard I had dug a hole in the ground and buried inside it my precious things for safekeeping: a small wooden black horse, a plastic wound up Jeep toy with a missing roof, half a magnet, some tips of broken pens, some empty casings of sketch color pens, a dead silvery lighter belonging to a dead grand-uncle, some marbles and a piece of a blade of a hand saw. What would happen to them? There were more...a hot-wheels car, one EverReady cell, bottle caps, a shard of green colored glass, whistles collected from sauf packets, two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle...the one that were part of Taj Mahal. Counting my treasures I went to sleep. Next morning, father made me carry our broken 14-inch television to a repair shop to have its tube replaced. It survived. We survived. The show continued.


Rooftop of the place I am staying these days.


1 comment:

  1. i almost connect to each and every word written...same stories for all of us i guess...


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