Tuesday, January 19, 2016


October, 2014

There was a storm last night. One of the window panes broke. It had been accidentally left open overnight. Grandmother rang me up on phone to tell me all about it.

'He would have given me an earful. He would have said, "Ye kus taavan sunuth!"

It's been about a year now. I guess she still misses him.

They wanted me to write an obituary. I couldn't. I couldn't sum up a life in just a few words. In the end, he got an obit, the kind that has become the default for most Pandits of his generation who died outside of Kashmir in exile: 'He was a Karamyogi...we remember...Papaji.'

I try to remember 'Daddy'. The most lucid memory is that of him sitting down to eat. The rice in his plate doused generously in lassi. A man of fine eating manner, his plate, even if too watery, was always neat. It was almost like watching a ritual. At the end of the rite, he would wash his hands in the plate, take a sip of water, swish it in his mouth, hold out his right hand like a little wedge, sprout out the water onto it and into the plate, all without a sound. Then he would take out his dentures, clean them up a bit by pouring some water on them and then put them back into a little yellow plastic container. It was a ritual he followed most of his life. 

My grandfather had no teeth. I laugh a little when I hear stories about how peaceful Kashmir was in old days. Indeed, a toothless peaceful Kashmir. Somewhere in 1970s, much before I was born, grandfather lost his front molars in a neighbourhood fight. It wasn't his fight. Two Muslim neighbours were fighting over the right to erect a fence. My grandfather, like a good neighbourhood 'Pandit Ji', was there to help settle the matter. The issue heated up. One of the guys swung a bamboo stick but missing the intended target, instead, hit my grandfather on the mouth. Two of his teeth popped out and onto the ground. Blood sprouted out of his mouth like a fountain of Shalimar in spring. My grandfather was afraid on the sight of blood for the rest of his life. He would pass out if he saw too much blood. Many decades later, he once witnessed a bus accident in Jammu, we had to collect him from hospital for he had fainted on the road on seeing the scene. One would think he ought to tell tales about how he lost his teeth in a fight from a Muslim blow, but he never did. It wasn't anything worth telling. Maybe it wasn't. In the evening of the incident, the bamboo swinger came home to apologize. It was an accident. He had tea and left. However, over the years, grandfather started loosing rest of his molars too.

I never understood. If my parents wanted me to hate Muslims, all they had to do was point me to my grandfather's denture and tell me a story about what they did to him. I would have cooked my heart in oils of hatred every time I saw my grandfather eat. It's not like they didn't tell me other stories, but in this story, 'Muslim' was not the point. In this case, it was just an accident.

After grandfather died, all the relatives came, it was a big gathering. Here, I asked his children again, "Why didn't you tell me a Muslim did it." They still answer, 'Why would we lie to you?'

My grandmother added in mock jest, "In any case, he had crooked protruding teeth. Good riddance!"

I rolled my tongue over my front teeth, felt the point where one of my front teeth bends in a little and seems mashes into another. Grandfather did pass some bad genes to me.

When my grandmother married my grandfather, he worked the accounts in Shali Store, the government grain store. Grandfather was in his early twenties while she was still fifteen. 

"My mother never checked his teeth. She did secretly go to check on him at his work place, the Shali store, but only managed to get a glimpse of the back of his neck. Mother came back and said the boy is fine. He can walk upright. That was about it. I was married to him". As my grandmother recalled this, his elder brother wiped a tear and in a choking voice added, "She was too young, she was just too young. She didn't understand what was going on, she even ran back into the arms of her mother at the time of final send off."

I try to imagine my grandfather with crooked teeth, with teeth, but I can't.

Instead, I see him sitting down to shave, his little shaving kit spread out. Working up lather using a badger shaving brush. Taking extra time to shape his toothbrush moustache. Once done, his face covered in little newspaper bits to stop bleeding from little cuts.

"Kya chukh wuchaan? Aaz ti aav rath. What are you looking at? I again bled today."

In his last days, his sons would give him those shaves. The moustache was long gone. He must have first grown that pencil moustache just when the subcontinent was about to get divided, just when new nations were sprouting. I remember the dates of the wars but I don't remember the birthdate of my grandfather. Our life stories are just footnotes to a greater story of great wars shaping up an adolescent world.

In the violence that followed, as the war arrived in Kashmir, the story goes, my grandfather, like many others, decided to leave Kashmir. He did get onto one of those Dakota planes ferrying refugees to Delhi. But, the plane refused to take off. It was overloaded. My grandfather was among the people who got off-loaded. The impulse was gone, he turned back home and he was to leave Kashmir only decades later in 1990. They say Pamposh colony of Delhi was started by the men that got on those escape planes. This simple gaffe ensured my grandfather was not going to be a Dilliwalla Kashmiri but stay a Kashmirwalla Kashmiri.

This was also the war that ensured that my grandmother will be pulled out of school and married off at a young age. The joke in the family: "She could have at least been a collector!" Yes, she did teach me the spelling of 'Thank You' in Hindi.  Dhanyawad.

They got married in somewhere in early 1950s. Soon children were born. They had four. Two sons and two daughters, my father being the eldest. Grandfather joined state Secretariat as a lowly government employee. He had studied till B.Sc., wanted to study more, but running a family meant finding a secure job. He was born in a big family where joint family system was still the norm. His father had died just after his birth. Grandfather never could recall his face. Youngest among three brothers, he was raised by his mother and brothers. And there was the family of step-brothers - his father had married twice. We once had land, lots of land. It was slowly gone, all sold off. In the joint family system of Kashmir back then, everyone pitched in to run the kitchen and expenses. His children would ask for new school shoes.

His youngest daughter remembers, "Papaji had a wicked sense of humor, he would never say, 'no'. He would say, 'I shall buy you ten'. We soon got to understand it meant you were not getting any."

In 1990, my grandfather didn't want to leave Kashmir. He joined his children in Jammu only after trying to wait out the madness for two more months. In 1989, his youngest daughter was about to get married. He had retired from the government job, but to raise money, he was still working. I was eight at the time. I recall winter evenings he spent counting crisp notes. I was to think my grandfather a rich man. At the time he was working as a cashier for a Punjabi Medical wholesaler in Srinagar. I think their bestseller was 'Boroline'.  I can smell Boroline when I think of those years.

Then I remember Jammu, and an afternoon he was hit by tail of big bull "Billo Bhel", Grandfather smells of Zandu balm. In those early days of Jammu, I remember him writing and receiving letters. Yellow postcards and blue envelope inlays. From and to relatives that were now spread all over the country. Often the letter would end, 'Rest you know what has happened.'

In Jammu, he often took me on walks. His long excruciating walks, familiarising me to the new place. His habit of getting up early in the morning. His habit of walking steps ahead of his wife who would walk too slow. His habit of making weird funny sound to make his grandchildren laugh. His habit of working the garden of his new house in Jammu.

We finally started to built a new house in Jammu in 1996. It completed only in 2015. A vague cement copy of our house in Srinagar. We moved in even before the house had windows. The first monsoon, water just flooded in from the wall. An empty cup was afloat. We laughed and laughed. It took just two more years to get the windows done. The money was raised by selling-off the house in Kashmir. The land for this house in Jammu was bought in late 1960s, a direct consequence of sectarian polarisation of Hindus and Muslims of valley during 'Parmeshwari Handoo Case' of 1967 when a young Pandit woman married an older Muslim man. The violence that followed scared Pandits and some of them started looking for an escape strategy. It was his brothers who suggested buying a piece of a land in Jammu. This was well before politics of 'Love Jihad' was employed in Indian mainlands to polarise community. It is as if Kashmir was a little laboratory where future of India was getting shaped by some mad social scientists.

Grandfather's elder son-in-law remembered him as a true 'Sanghi Batta', a term often used for a Kashmiri Pandit member of the 'Sangh' of which RSS is the spurious fountainhead. In 1990, among others, Sanghi Battas, or anyone suspected of being a Sanghi Batta were the prime targets of the Islamic flavoured Kashmiri terrorist. Muslims were convinced 'Shiv Sainiks' were coming. I couldn't think of my grandfather as a Sanghi Batta. I know in 1970s, he had taken part in agitation over closure of a local ancient temple in Chattabal. Like most Pandits, during the era of Nehru, he would have followed Nehru and during the time of Indira, he would have sworn by Indira. Just like most Pandits now swear by Modi. I think he did admire Vajpayee, and followed the Agra summit with much hope.

I never heard my grandfather talk about the Sangh. Like most Kashmiris he was addicted to News, he knew the politics of the land by heart. A passion for news meant piles of newspaper and every couple of months, he would ask me to carry all the junk paper to the local raddiwalla. And for this job, I could charge and he would pay me ten rupees. This way, every year I would at least make a hundred rupees. And often using them, I would buy comics or a book. My grandfather taught me to love books, he would take me to the library and I was free to read anything I liked. We would often mock fight over the right to read a book first. We read Manto and Sartre.

He once fell from a ladder while trying to change a light bulb. I laughed.

Then I moved out of Jammu to pursue higher studies. I got busy. When the studies finished, I moved to Delhi looking for a job. I remember, he told me Delhi had lot of book stores and book fairs, he gave me a small handwritten note with a list books he wanted me to buy for him:

1. In the woods of God realization by Shri Rama Tiratha
2. Yoga by Patanjali
3. Vairagya Satakam by Raja Bharthari (Bharthari)
4. Sunder Lahari by Sri Sankaracharya (Advita Ashram)

He was much older now and discovering God all over again, I was young and leaving the fold of religion. I promised him the books but never got around to buying them. I got busy. I still have the note in my pocket. I want to drown it in the lake at Harmokh.

His blood started clotting. We took him to Kashmir. He met his old neighbours. He couldn't recognize the crossing to his house. We came back, he got a clot in his brain. He got operations.

His memory started fading. He wanted me to get married. He confused things. His speech slurred. He thought I was married. He named my imaginary wife - Chandani. He had to be prompted lines while talking to me on phone.

He started fading. He faded into a world of his own. We tried to get him back as often as we could. We played games with him. We would ask him questions from his past. We would ask him his name. We would ask him our names. Of all the answers, some would be more lucid than the other. He would often not answer at all. But, he would rattle out names of his brothers and dead relatives like they were still alive. Often, all this questioning would irritate him. His brows would raise and nose would twitch. He wouldn't talk, but one could see it all on his face as he grit his gums. One day, when one granddaughter asked him the routine questions, he just snapped and said, "Why should I tell you the name of my brothers? Who are you?" That's probably the last time he got angry. I remember, in Jammu, he broke the T.V. set once. He did have an angry streak.

He stopped talking. We placed a radio next to his bed. It played Kashmiri songs all day. He became a child. He would run for cover if someone raised his voice. His wife would feed him and clean him. His bed sometimes smelt of urine. Much to my grandmother's annoyance, I would sometime lie in it while he was being given a bath. The songs were from home.

He was locked inside the house and not allowed out. He would ask to be let out. Newspapers in Jammu are full of lost old Kashmiri men. All the local shopkeepers were told to keep a watch on him. Inform, if he steps out. One day he sneaked out, father followed him, keeping a distance. He took the route to raddiwalla and managed to reach back home safely. He stopped walking.

He was now often ill. Doctors and hospitals. 

When I received the call. I knew it was serious this time. I wanted to be there when it happened. I was ready to let him go, but I wanted to see him off. I kept flying back to him. In the hospital, I thumb wrestled him. Seeing us fight, a woman from the nearby hospital bed claimed, "Pandit Ji hasn't lost memory. He is obviously here." I know, I was just tricking his instincts. Or, may be he was tricking me. I wasn't there when it happened. I cried in a long time. The last time I had cried, he was fighting my mother over something that now seems inconsequential.

A few months back, a Muslim man from Srinagar called to offer condolences. An old colleague who read the "First Death Anniversary" message in the local newspaper.

I remember the last time my grandfather laughed. In his lost days, just before he stopped talking, he would laugh on a joke my father cooked up. My father would press the long Kashmiri nose of his father and utter an old Kashmiri saying:

"Bragya nas chaey hej"
Stork, your nose is crooked!

Grandfather would reply with a toothless smile:
"Nat kya chu syod"
What is straight in this world?


The [edited] piece got published at thewire.in, 18/06/2016

1 comment:

  1. Only one word, Vinny : WONDERFUL. I too have spent some wonderful moments with him which I cherish till date. MAY HIS SOUL REST IN PEACE.


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