I had thought of never telling anyone what I am about to tell you. I was not supposed to see and hear what I saw and heard one day, in the summer of 1994, in a camp for displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Udhampur. But I did, because I was there and I could not be anywhere else. And now, I shall tell you what I saw and heard that day.
Summer of 1994
Camp for displaced Kashmiri Pandits
Football Stadium, Dhar Road, Udhampur, Jammu Province
I don’t want to go back to our rented house. I am whiling away the time. There’s nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. I am tired of making paper bags and selling them to shopkeepers. I am fed up with giving tuitions to the wealthy landlord’s son. I am sick of learning typing and shorthand. I am tired of dreaming the same dream over and over again. When I look back, a dark history stares at me. I feel burdened and cheated by the fate it meted out to me. I can’t even shrug it off. Why can’t someone else dream my dream and live my life? Why does it have to be me, trapped in this wasteland with death lurking everywhere and no exit in sight? I decide to wait for the sun to go down and then go to the tea shop by the highway. It’s breezy there in the evenings. I have money for a cup of tea, an omelette and a cigarette. But I am a vegetarian and I have stopped smoking because I am learning how to play the flute.
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He is sitting on a mound of earth outside his tent which is numbered 227. The sun is blazing. Perched atop an electric pole is a crow who has the man in his line of sight, as if he were waiting for him to pop off so that he can feast on his eyes. The I-know-what-is-going-to-happen-next stare is frightening.
‘Crows know about events before they occur,’ the man says. ‘They wait and wait patiently until everything is over and then they come down from their roosts to feast on the remains.’
The man is unruffled. He continues talking to the crow. The crow pretends to be interested in the man’s monologue. ‘I am listening’, is the sign.
‘Listen, son, I have saved some money for the rites and cremation. Don’t tell anyone I gave you the money,’ the man says, slipping his hand into the pocket of his trousers to take out money. After counting the cash, he hands me a note. ‘Here, keep it safe.’
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I accept the inexistent note.
‘Do whatever with it that day. Once we were extravagant with such things in Kashmir. Sell my wristwatch if you run short of money. It is of no use to me now. And don’t forget to buy some candy for yourself once everything is over…,’ he says, as if I am the only one he has got.
In front of him is Rani’s tent. Rani is my classmate Pamposh’s grandmother. She lives with her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren—Pamposh and a little girl whose name I don’t know.
The man steals a furtive glance at Rani’s tent. Then he begins again.
‘Did you learn how to clean the toilet? Your mother must not get to see the filth. She deserves a clean toilet…’
Yes, I did, but what if…?
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‘No ifs and buts. You have no choice. Do it the way I do. Nobody does it better than I do. Nobody should do it better than you after I… Now go and get me a packet of Wills Navy Cut.’
After feeling the packet with his fingers tenderly and as though he were doing so for the last time, he opens it and takes a cigarette out. Turning his head away, he places the invisible cigarette between his lips as if he doesn’t want anyone to see him with a cigarette in his mouth. His lips tremble, struggling to keep the cigarette steady.
Aren’t you going to light it?
‘Ya, ya, I will, but what is the hurry? You know I don’t smoke now. I was the greatest smoker in the whole of Kashmir. But I quit. Someday, when you grow up, you will also give up your most favourite thing for someone… even if your whole life depends on it.’
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The crow starts getting impatient. Facing the setting sun, he is now trying to estimate how much time is left before his wish is granted.
Looking at another mound of earth next to Rani’s tent, the man murmurs to himself, ‘You will know who I am building this hill for. If only she touches me with her feet…’
Rani doesn’t like anyone to come near her. Not even her own daughter-in-law who feeds her after covering her face with a cloth. It’s a trick that works on some days. When it doesn’t work, she turns the light off in the tent and forces morsels of rice into Rani’s mouth. Sometimes she makes bird sounds. She becomes Rani’s husband, father, mother. Rani then swallows the food.
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Rani’s son lifts her. ‘Give me a bath, Ma,’ he says to her while carrying her to the small basin in an adjacent tent that serves as a washing area for the camp-dwellers. After covering the entrance of the tent with a large sheet, he starts bathing her. Against her wishes, of course! The water in the drum is sparse, dirty and full of worms. Rani relents when her son reminds her of something. Son has to throw a tantrum for his mother to listen to him.
‘Why are you doing this to me?’ Rani cries.
‘Have you forgotten? We’re going home.’
‘You’re lying again, aren’t you? I will die if you lie to me one more time.’
‘I won’t let you die. I will take you home.’
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‘Is it the same tomorrow which never comes?’
Photograph by Vijay Koul
She smiles and starts humming a song. ‘What will happen to you after I go away? Is this where you say goodbye to me?’
‘Look at your house—your room is still like a bride,’ says the son, holding her hands, taking her from one room to another, showing her around, pointing to household things, marvelling at them as if they were precious stones. ‘Look, nothing has happened to them. They are intact…’ He opens the tap in the bathroom. Water gushes forth.
‘I am not used to having everything,’ she sighs.
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At last, her eyes light up. Her hair is auburn. Gold earrings dangle off her large earlobes. She’s back in the palace of her dreams.
‘What took you so long?’ she says, seeing me at the tent’s entrance, mistaking me for someone else. Someone with whom she once had taken vows to live and die together.
Outside her tent is another man whose only wish is to take all her sadness and give her his own share of life and happiness. He has given up everything except the wait for someone who can never be his. She is the reason he is still alive.
I’m preparing to leave Udhampur for Delhi to take up admission in Jawaharlal Nehru University. I go to see my music teacher, Anil Raina, for the last lesson before I depart. I don’t want to leave Udhampur, but what choice do I have? What do I do with myself here? Music has come to become my life now. It’s the only thing that is keeping me alive and giving me hope. But I am struggling. My guru and I sit down for riyaz at his quarters. I have a feeling he also doesn’t want me to leave. I play Raag Bhageshwari, which my guru has been teaching me for over two years now.
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‘We shall have to start over,’ he says, seeing me go haywire. ‘No, no, that’s not how you sit. Look at me. Like this. You need to learn how to sit like this. Like a mountain! Still, yet relaxed! Not like a string about to snap! Not like water which goes here and there! And this is how you hold the flute in your hands…’
After years of practicing everything that he has taught me so far, he now begins to teach me how to sit and produce the swara ‘Sa’ the way it should be produced and the way it should sound.
‘Your Sa is still shaky,’ he says. ‘Breath, fingers, mind, body and soul are not in harmony. We need to get them to be in harmony first to be able to play the very first note properly.’
The next morning, I board a train to Delhi. I carry a small bag containing some books and clothes. In my hand is my flute. In my heart—a void.
I am back in Udhampur for the summer holidays. The last few months have been the strangest. I have been among people in a city that’s home to people from all over the country—from Manipur to Gujarat, Bihar to Kerala.
I am back in the camp, hoping to meet the man who called himself ‘the greatest smoker in the whole of Kashmir’. The man who was building a hill out of stones and gravel. For someone who was his only reason to live! But neither he nor Rani are there. Both tents are occupied by some other families. I am told that tents keep on getting allotted to other displaced families who have nowhere else to go.
I survey the camp. Men, women and children are going about their things. Not much has changed. Everything seems to be more or less the same. Everything except the two tents which, only a few months ago, were home to Rani and the man.
Rani’s palace of dreams is gone. But next to her tent is a small hill. On it are a few idols of gods and goddesses. Lord Krishna, Lord Shiva and Goddess Lakshmi.
It is evening. A swarm of locusts is approaching the camp. A crow is perched atop the same electric pole next to the tent where Rani once lived.
(Excerpted from the author’s work-in-progress memoir My Days in the Camp)
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Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth Prize-winning author