While growing up, our old family home was mentioned daily, almost religiously, like an incantation in the everyday conversations between my father and grandfather. I had heard stories about its houseboat shaped stairs, about the famous tang kul (pear tree) which bore the biggest and juiciest pears in the Bagh-i-mehtab area and about the stream which flowed next to it. My Grandfather, a humble and hardworking man, had toiled for decades to put together enough money to buy land and build a house for his family in Srinagar. As fate would have it, within three years of its completion the conditions in Kashmir turned hostile, and we had to abandon the house.
Even though I had spent the first three years of my life in this house I had no recollection of it. My younger brother and our cousins were born in Jammu, Chandigarh or Delhi. So, this house was a mythical place for us all. A place that existed in a time warp where our parents were still young and Kashmir was still a paradise. It was a place of hope and dreams, far away from the bitter truth of reality. A place that existed in our imagination only. Till now.
The surprising thing was we had not even planned to visit our old house. We were in Kashmir primarily because my mother had been ill for some time and had vowed to do a Havan at Kheer Bhawani if she recovered. After the Havan was over, we decided to visit Pehalgam for a night. It was on our way there, near the outskirts of Srinagar, that we crossed a broken road with rubble strewn all over. My father recognized it as the road that led to the Bagh-i-mehtab. On an impulse, he decided that we should all go and see our old home. "You must know a little bit about your roots", he said.
We entered the locality and drove around. My father felt a little lost because the whole landscape of the place had changed. This was his first visit to Kashmir in 25 years. Like lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits he too had been forced to leave Kashmir in late 1980s. During these long and dusty years in which my father had fought to make a life outside Kashmir, the locality where my Grandfather had built our house had changed beyond recognition. Time had altered the landmarks that my father was used to and hence he was struggling to pin down the exact location of our house. After a few minutes of wrong turns and dead ends we finally reached an intersection familiar to my father. He got down and started asking for directions.
From the rear seat of the Tavera, where I sat sandwiched between two burgeoning suitcases, I saw my father approach a thin, elderly Muslim man wearing a Khan dress and a pristine white skull cap. My father spoke to him for a few minutes. For most of the time, the old man kept scratching his beard and shaking his head. It was clear that no progress was being made. Suddenly, the old man started nodding his head vigorously and pointed in the direction of an alley. My father thanked him and walked excitedly towards us.
"He doesn't know where our old house is. But he knows where Abdur Rehman lives."
"Who is Abdur Rehman?”" I asked my father.
"Abdur Rehman was a dear friend of your Grandfather and our neighbour. He was the one who helped us sell off the house when it became clear that there was no future for Pandits in Kashmir. He'll take us to see our old house."
We got out of the car. There were four of us, a typical modern day nuclear family unit, Mom, Dad and two sons. We walked towards the alley the gentleman had pointed out. It was surreal to be there. Not too long ago, my grandfather, father, mother, uncles and aunts had walked in these alleys daily, going about their chores nonchalantly and happily. And then one day they were suddenly and brutally uprooted from there in a clean surgical maneuver which left no traces of our community behind.
From the moment we had set foot in Kashmir I had instinctively known I was home. I felt a strange familiarity with the people and place. Even when I was not in Kashmir, I could spot a Kashmiri in a crowd of thousands. And this had nothing to do with features or language, it was a primal code, passed from generation to generation, embedded deep within my genes.
We reached a house with a large wrought iron gate. My father pushed it open and went inside. I followed him. Inside the gate was a compound, presumably for car parking, but it was empty at the moment. There were two men inside. The older one was in front. He must have been in his late seventies. He wore a light grey Khan dress, his white hair was closely cropped and his beard was predominantly white with a few shades of black thrown in. My father looked at him and said,
"Abdur Rehman, do you remember who I am?"
The old man who was watering the plants put the pipe down, wiped his hands off a towel and said, "I don't. But if you come a little closer I will."
It was at this moment that I heard a joyous cry. "Kaka ji!!" the man in the background shouted. It was my father's childhood name. That cry was so human, so full of longing and happiness that it's still ringing in my ears. On hearing his son's cry, Abdur Rehman realized who my father was. He stepped forward and locked him in an embrace. Fat, pearl like tears rolled down his cheeks as he recited chants of thankfulness in Kashmiri. I was transfixed by the scene in front of me. Abdur Rehman, still hugging my father, asked him about the well being of my grandfather. They had been great friends who had embarked on their domestic journey together. They had bought land, built homes and married their sons. So, Abdur Rehman was distraught when my father told him that Grandpa had passed away a few years back. His eyes fell on me and he said, "Is that Billu?”" I stepped forward and said, "Yes." Abdur Rehman locked me in a vice like embrace and continued crying. He smelled of milk and cheese, of hard labour and dignity.
"He has grown up so much. He used to be this tiny when he was here. The whole day he used to play with Mushtaq and Faiyaz.”" He said looking at me and brushing my shoulders with his hands. Faiyaz came up to me. A young man in his early thirties, he was wearing a white Kurta pyjama and had a long black beard like a Maulvi. On top of his head rested a green skull cap and on his face was the most serene and peaceful of expressions. He asked me if I remembered him. Embarrassed, I shook my head and said, "I am sorry, I don't. I was too small then."
"Of course. Of course. How are Bolji and Bitoo ji?”" Faiyaz enquired about the well-being of my uncles.
"They are both doing well. Bitoo ji is settled in Delhi and Bol ji is settled in Chandigarh.”" I replied.
My father requested Abdur Rehman if we could see our old house.
"Of course you can. But please first come in and refresh yourself."
So, we walked into their home. The drawing room was like that of any Kashmiri house, exquisitely embroidered carpets covered the floor and various cushions were placed along the walls. There were no sofas, tables or unnecessary decorations. On the walls there were huge frames and posters of Mecca and Medina. The light and airy curtains danced to the tune of the breeze. We were served Mountain Dew and Fanta in a tray.
Both Abdur Rehman and Faiyaz were a little taken aback with my mother's appearance. When she had come to Bagh-i-mehtab as a newly wedded wife she had been young, radiant and beautiful. But time and illness had taken its toll on her appearance. And though still graceful and beautiful she was no match for her younger self. We were soon joined by Faiyaz's wife. A fair, moon faced woman who came and sat down shyly. Abdur Rehman's eyes were still red and a little wet. With great anguish he spoke, "What has happened to us? Old friends and families all separated. This land is cursed. I wish another great flood would come and just finish all of it." My father calmed him down saying that whatever happened was God's will.
After finishing our drinks Abdur Rehman and Faiyaz decided to show us the old house. But first we had to meet some other old friends. My father had told me stories about the Milkman of Bagh-i-mehtab, a diminutive, portly man with a tongue as sharp as a razor's edge. Apparently as a kid I would run up to him when he came to sell the milk and say, "Duddhu! Duddhu! Duddhu!"
We walked to his house, a huge double storied mansion with a large garden in front of it. He has done well for a milkman, I thought. There was a girl in the garden nursing a young child. Abdur Rehman proudly went to her and said, "Pandit ji's son has come. Go call your father." She went in and after a few seconds a short man came to the door and stood akimbo. There was a certain aura around the man. From afar he looked like a dictator who was inspecting an army parade. His daughter placed a pair of slippers in front of his feet. He wore them and then walked towards us. He recognized my father immediately and hugged him. At this point in the story I must tell you that in the past few years I had put on a fair bit of weight. The next few sentences will reveal why this trivia is important. The milkman then turned his attention towards us. He looked at me and said, "You know all that milk I fed you as a kid. Its effect is showing now." Everyone had a good, hearty laugh at my expense and I didn't really mind. My father joked with him a little bit and then we moved on. Slowly people from the colony started joining us and our entourage grew. From the Milkman's house we went to the Maulvi's house. Everywhere people recognized me but I had no memory of these wonderful people.
Mushtaq, Abdur Rehman's other son also joined us at the Maulvi's house. A man who looked like a bald Kabir Bedi greeted us saying that he used to play cricket with my father. My father accepted this explanation reluctantly. I suspect the man just wanted to be a part of the excitement. We also bumped into a few women who said that they had sung at the wedding of my parents. There was a strange bonhomie among all of us. Soon enough there were around twenty people walking through the alleys of Bagh-i-mehtab.
It was finally time to see our old house. Mushtaq drove up in a battered blue Maruti 800. I got into the front. Bald Kabir Bedi and Abdur Rehman sat in the rear. My father, mother and brother followed us in the Tavera. I asked Mushtaq what he did for a living. He told me he had finished his education as a pharmacist and now ran a chemist shop. Such was the dearth of doctors in Srinagar that he also practiced a little bit though he did not have the requisite education. In earlier days one could simply walk from Abdur Rehman's house to ours, but now hundreds of other houses had cropped up and that's why we had to drive a little bit to get to our old house.
After a few minutes of roaming around in what seemed like circles, the car came to a stop in front of a black and brown iron gate. I got out of the car and laid my eyes on the house I had heard so much about. It was a large double storied house with a façade of red bricks. Right next to the gate was the legendary pear tree. One look at the fat, juicy pears and I understood why it was so famous. There were numerous bunches of the fruit and the branches of the tree stooped and arched under their weight. There were tall vertical windows on the first floor and the roof like most roofs in Kashmir was sloping. Green creepers hung lazily from red brick walls. I wasn't sure about entering the house but Abdur Rehman pushed open the wrought iron gate and went inside nonchalantly. I followed suit. My mother was right behind me and she pointed out the house boat shaped stairs that led to the drawing room. I saw them and something stirred in my memory. I asked my mother if I had ever tripped on these stairs.
"Many times." she replied.
The present owners of the house welcomed us. We entered the large and airy drawing room and sat there. Dry fruits and cold drinks were served to us. My father pointed to a row of beautiful, smooth, round stones embedded in the wall. "That was my idea." he said proudly. Faiyaz sat next to me and asked me what I did. I told him I worked in a company that made ads you see on the television. He was quite impressed. The atmosphere was brotherly and cosy. I felt at home. After a while my father took us for a short tour of the house. We didn't enter any rooms because we didn't want to infringe on their privacy. From outside only my father told us which room belonged to him and which room belonged to our uncles. My mother requested the lady of the house if we could have some pears to take back with us, primarily for our Grandmother. She was bedridden and it would give her great joy to eat them.
The men of the house climbed the pear tree in the front garden and filled a red cloth bag with kilos of pears. We had just wanted three or four but they just kept stacking the carry bag with more and more pears. By now, we had spent quite a few hours in Bagh-i-mehtab. Our cab driver was getting slightly irritated and we also had to reach Pehalgam before sunset. It was time to bid adieu to everyone.
So, we walked down the houseboat stairs, crossed the pear tree and exited through the black and brown Iron Gate. Abdur Rehman, Mushtaq, Faiyaz, bald Kair Bedi, Maulvi saab and others who formed our entourage stood outside the gate. Some of them were sad and silent; some of them garrulously wished us good luck for the journey; some of them just stood smiling. These men and women who had been strangers a few hours ago, now felt like family. We got into the Tavera and asked the driver to move.
It was time to leave home. Again.