Wednesday, October 23, 2013

She of Gilgit


In summers, our small garden would come alive with colors of red amarnath, yellow marigold, purple salvia, white alyssum and roses of all colors. At that time of the year, an old woman from Delhi would come visit us in Kashmir. She would stay with us for weeks and then return. I remember it used to take her forever to cross the courtyard, walk past that garden and get to the house. Even with her sleek brown walking stick with a cursive handle, it would take her ages. My grandfather and his brothers would walk patiently behind her, watching her steps anxiously, one of them always holding her hand. At the door everyone would dutifully lineup to greet her. Calls of warm 'Wariays', would ring out. Once inside, happening of the year would be passed on to her.

I learnt her story only a couple of years ago.

Ben'Jighar was my grandfather's elder sister. She was the only sister of four brother. Since, my grandfather's father died at a young age, my grandfather and his brothers were raised by his mother and the elder sister. After the death of their mother, Ben'Jighar, even though already married, was the titular head of our family. She was loved and respected by the brothers for all she had done for them. Since my grandfather was the youngest, he was especially fond of her. She look out for him. And in his own way my grandfather looked out for her.

In 1947, when war broke out between India and Pakistan, Ben'Jighar was in Gilgit along with her husband who was a minor government employee, a teacher in Bunji. As the news of war reached Srinagar, people started counted their losses, all those caught on the other side were considered as lost.

The general narrative of the conflict in that region tells us this story:

There was uprising against the Maharaja in Poonch, and much bloodshed. Masood tribemen were preparing for Srinagar. The Maharaja was still fiddling with his options. The news of partition violence from Punjab was to add further fuel to this combustive situation. Meanwhile, Gilgit, remote from these happening, but not untouched, was starting to rumble. Gansara Singh, the Wazir of Gilgit, a cousin of the Maharaja, acknowledging his vulnerable position tried negotiating with locals. The local feared an attack from Maharaja's garrison at Bunji in Astor. In October 1947, when Maharaja finally went with India, the people of Gilgit decided to act fast. On 1st November, after taking their two young British officers in confidence, the Gilgit Scout staged a coup. Telephone lines were cut, the Governor was put under house arrest and the Hindus interned. Soon, India, probably thinking less about regaining the region and probably more thinking about cut-off the support Gilgit Scout were providing to raiders in Ladakh region, was air dropping 500 Lb bombs on Gilgit. Gilgit's transfer to Pakistan was simple affair compared to other war zones in the region. People representing Pakistan arrived two weeks later to take charge of the treasury on 16th. After almost a year of fighting and a UN intervened ceasefire, a political prisoner exchange program was carried out. As part of this deal, Gansara Singh finally reach India in 1949. On reach back, much to the embarrassment of India, he refused to state that he was ill-treated by the enemy side.

In all these official narratives, I try hard to imagine Ben'Jighar in Gilgit. Did she hear the bombs drop?

After a certain time, a conflict becomes a summation of moments in lives of the lead actors of the war theater. The common people and their woes, apparently the good basic cause over which a conflict usually starts, in the end just become a dead mass of props on the grand stage, a number, of dead, wounded, killed, missing, looted, stabbed, burnt, raped; a date, of wins, defeats and ceasefire.

Even we don't remember. This all history becomes just another vague family anecdote told in passing.

Her brothers had given up hope of finding Ben'Jighar alive. These were desperate times. But after months of fighting refugees from the other side started tickling into Srinagar. This was taken as a sign of hope in distressing times. Return of someone from the other side was treated as a second coming. 'Duba're Yun', as they say in Kashmiri.

Ben'Jighar and her husband reached Srinagar almost after eight months. How? What did they experience? Nothing is told, or remembered. What is remembered is the state in which they arrived and how they were welcomed. The first thing my grandfather did was to hire a tailor and have them measured. They were to be given new clothes. They arrived destitute. A Shamiyana was set, cooks hired, relatives invited, a feast was organised. It was like organising a marriage. This part was important to get them back into the family and the society. Similar procedures were followed by other pandits housing
refugee relatives. Given the strict caste rules of Pandits, it was important to show publicly that they were welcome. That the refugees were ready for a new life.

Then it was all forgotten like a bad dream. 

-0-

1 comment:

  1. Vinayak amazimg site and articles. I came here researching about Bunji coincidentally my Uncle Capt Baldev SIngh was posted with 6 Kashmir Rifles and bore the brunt of attack planned and executed by his own comrades and Gilgit Scouts led by Scot Maj Brown. His soldiers were all new recruits and majority of them chased and executed. He was POW at Attock Fort with Skardu Hero Maj Thapa. Later he was ADC to Karan Singh. He was fourth generation officer serving in Kashmir Army

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