Not too long ago, there lived two friends, Sheela a Kashmiri Hindu and Misra a Kashmiri Muslim (though we would not segregate ourselves in these compartments, those days) in the beautiful valley of Kashmir.
Their friendship blossomed into a happy innocent relationship through the naughty pranks at school, the shy looks in the college and the winsome smiles in the romantic scenic beauty of the Kashmir University on the banks of the famous Dal Lake.
They were like Siamese twins, inseparable and indifferent to the worries of life.
Time moved on, both got jobs, Misra as a government teacher and Sheela as a junior assistant in government departments.
Both, Sheela and Misra excelled in their chosen vocations. Even though busy, they did find time for themselves. Come Sunday, they would invariably be found together-running in the rain, splashing rain water, drenched but laughing; crushing the crunchy red leaves of the majestic fiery autumn Chinar, as they walked around the Dal Lake.
Their affection was the envy of all those who knew them, but in their exuberance they couldn’t care less.
As was the precedent those days, wedding bells were in the air for both. Sheela got married to a small time business man from Haba-kadal and Misra to a senior assistant in a government office. Happily they lived their lives but continued being in touch. Since they both lived in Srinagar, it was not too difficult.
Soon after Sheela was blessed with a baby girl and three months later in 1980 a baby boy was born to Misra.
Time had probably come to put to test the genuineness of the relationship on the touchstone of sacrifice. The little baby boy was very ill. The mother could not breastfeed him and he refused to take any oral feeds. Dr Manhas, the famous paediatrician was his doctor. All were very worried. They tried all kinds of methods-Taweez, prayers Taher sacrifices and wish strings, but nothing worked. The baby was growing very weak and listless by the day. The mother was inconsolable and the father helpless.
On the ninth day, he suddenly thought of Sheela. He knew she was on maternity leave, for her daughter was barely three months old. Helpless as he was, he picked up the baby and left for her house in Haba-kadal.
Tears fell from the eyes of Sheela when she saw the weak baby. The father pleaded with her to save him. Trembling she took him and held him close to her and started feeding him and lo! He hungrily sucked and tired went to sleep.
The questions that intrigue me are: Is this possible in the present times? Wouldn’t it demand a Fatwa? Could a kafir look after a believer? Could a fanatic Hindu be trusted? But these weren’t doubts those days for they were the best of times. Trust and love ruled strong.
The baby boy however was left with his Sheela Ma, and she happily looked after both the children and as time went by Sheela found her joy in the smiles and pranks of her two sweet children, Jameel and Sweety. Both were happy kids and the house resounded with their laughter and pranks. Shivratri and Eid were celebrated with the same fervour and on each Sunday the two families would go out on picnics and Shikara rides.
As the children grew a young moulvi was employed to give little Jameel lessons in the Holy Koran. Both of them were admitted to the nearby Montessori school and proper care was taken to see them grow into good human-beings.
Sheela and her husband would read stories from the Panchtantra, the Ramayana the Bible, the Holy Koran and the various story books to the children, sleeping time was the most sought after by both, the kids and their parents.
Misra and her husband would visit regularly with gifts and favourite chocolates for the children, and occasionally on holidays she would take both of them home. Misra would cook their favourite dishes and feed them with her own hands. She found a lot of peace and joy, as she fondly looked at their innocent faces while they slept. Jameel was very good at studies and would recite verses from the Holy Koran in his mellifluous voice, and it would resound in the whole house.
There couldn’t have been a happier world, contended, complete and happy and then 1990 happened.
No matter how I tried not to break this story into an AD and a BC, yet it was divided into two fragments, before and after, and1990 happened: As the writer says, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.
Cold, dark wintery nights, the sound of piercing sirens of the police jeeps, the movement of the government ambulances and an occasional gunshot was the only sound. It seemed even the stray dogs were unsure to howl those days.
The days were as bleak as a cold wintery day in Kashmir could be. People seemed scared and hurriedly walked home, avoiding conversation or even eye contact. Each one was unsure of the other. They found solace in their locked homes, huddled before their transistors, listening to the quarter to eight local news bulletin.
That night was a horrific night. Sheela held on to her children, while the sound of slogans engulfed the whole valley. She spent the whole night awake.
Early morning Misra and her husband came to see them and tried to re-assure them but the shiver in their tone gave them away.
Sheela would go to her office but her husband stayed home. The schools and the shops were closed. The roads were deserted, the windows closed and the curtains drawn. Sheela found a sense of helplessness in the eyes of her friends, while they whispered and looked at her sadly.
She saw slowly the houses in the Mohalla, locked and no sound. None confided in the other, unsure and insecure.
Each night was worse, The sound of the loudspeakers, the slogans and the rumours made it difficult for Sheela to sleep and the last time when she overheard a conversation in her office, someone claiming that it was a matter of time that the enemy would walk in to help and he already had a select list of ambassadors to be appointed by the new independent state, in his pocket. She knew she had to leave.
With each day hope receded further. Sheela would wake up in the middle of the night and hold Jameel tightly to herself while tears trickled from her eyes.
Her heart and her mind was at a constant conflict, she could not arrive at a decision. Each day there would be news of new killings, young and old, Hindus and Muslims, politicians and common men. Death seemed to hover over everyone and people seemed to be under a spell- unable to think or speak. For some it was a kind of a euphoria, a feeling of a new dawn, just round the corner and for some a sense of betrayal.
Sheela understood that it was impossible for Misra and her other Muslim friends to help her, for they themselves did not know what fate held for them. It was a period of agony, mayhem, arson, death and uncertainty. People lived moment to moment, not sure of tomorrow.
That night Misra and her family helped her pack whatever little they could, while dry eyed she held on to Jameel. The time had come to leave.
Sheela felt as if her heart was torn into two and slowly she dragged her strength less body into the vehicle.
She looked at him until he was just a speck in the darkness. She left in dark into a dark world, not sure of where she was going. They knew no one there and Jammu, though the same state seemed so alien.
The hope that everything would settle down in a few weeks made her resilient and helped her in those hard days.
They reached Jammu at around two o’clock in the afternoon. With the luggage around them the family were sitting on the road near the Shiv Mandir at Shalimar, not knowing where to go. People looking at them with curiosity and some with a peculiar sadness. Sweety suddenly became conscious of the strangers and their gaze, she wanted to go back home. Silent tears trickled down her pink cheeks as she remembered her protective brother, Jameel.
And Misra locked the door to the house and holding the hand of the ten year old Jameel walked out into the lane. For the child it was not a home-coming. He was inconsolable and wanted to go back home.
At home every minute was pain; their thoughts were constantly with Sheela. Those times were different, the mobiles did not exist and the only available information was what one could gather from the local newspapers.
Dinner times were particularly upsetting. They were not sure whether Sheela had eaten or not.
Not being able to take it anymore Misra and her husband, late in the night when Jameel had gone to sleep, looked into their bank accounts and calculated what all they had. It wasn’t much and then Misra brought out the box that carried all her jewellery. Without even a flicker of doubt, she gave it to her husband, saying “first thing in the morning go and sell all this. What use is it to me?”
The next day her husband went to a friend who was a goldsmith and sold the gifts that that her parents had collected for her, ever since she was a child. He lovingly looked at the neck piece that she wore, when she came as a bride to his house. She had left nothing for herself.
Carrying all the cash and Jameel they left very early to catch the bus at the Tourist Reception Centre, for Jammu.
They clutched at the bag of money and went looking for Sheela. They boarded a matador to reach the camp where Kashmiri Pandits, now named migrants were given some battered tents and were living like the animals in the zoo.
Going through the dingy lanes of the camp for hours, they did find Sheela.
Famished and bleary eyed she took time to register their presence and then she saw the joy of her life, Jameel. Was it a dream or a hallucination caused by extreme heat? Sheela touched the sweet face and held him to herself, fearing that it might be just her mind playing tricks with her.
The heat of Jammu, sleeping on the floor in company of snakes and scorpions, the buzzing of the mosquitoes provided the music was tolerable, but sleeping in the tent which virtually turned into a furnace at night could turn anyone insane.
Misra and her husband could never witness peace till Sheela would find a home.
Sheela and Jameel were unmindful of the discomforts, as long as they were together. Jameel would happily get water from the tanker which would show up once a day and help in buying vegetables from the market. He would enjoy seeing Sheela cook on a kerosene stove, and when he would pass into a fretful sleep in the night, Sheela would ward off the mosquitoes with the help of a old newspaper.
Meanwhile Misra and her husband found a house, which was on sale and they decided to buy it.
They shifted into the new house and Sheela continues to live there, but for her it is just bricks and concrete. The home is where she had gone as a bride, were sweety was born and where the walls of her mud house held the treasure of her memories. She even after many years would dream of that small house on the banks of vitasta, of the temples on its ghats. During the long summer nights she was reminded of the songs sung by the women living in their boat houses.
Tears would silently flow when she would hum ‘bhai maine saudaghar lolo,nabus maine gandmye taar lolo’. Even the rains here were so different, pouring down, as if in vengence, and she missed the music of the pittar patter of the rain drops falling on the tinned roofs, back home, she dreamt of the beauty of the virgin snowflakes falling on her face and the joy of the snow fights, of stealthily eating the icicles with salt and chilly powder, o! How she missed her home.
Jameel, however became a important link between the two families, infact a bridge between the two estranged communities of a single state. Examples like these are our hope, our hope of a happier tomorrow, our hope of building institutions of peace and love and our hope for reviving Kashmiriat. Sheela and Misra have long conversations on the phone and continue sharing their beautiful memories; their stories of what they had lost, what they inwardly craved for and their songs of hope and anguish.
It was difficult for the young blood to desire what they were not destined to experience. Thirty years of bloodshed and death had changed this beautiful heaven on earth a virtual hell. No one danced the rouf any more, and none could hear the wedding songs filling the valley with love and romance, during the late hours of the night. Only what was audible were the gunshots, sirens and people crying in agony.
Jameel is a handsome young man, married and has two children. He works in the state dept and is lucky to have been blessed with the love of two mothers’. He continues coming to see his Sheela mother every month and the bond grows stronger, inspite of…?
The author has retired as professor in English and is presently associated with Ehsaas and various other intellectual think tanks working for Indo-Pak bonhomie.
This article is based on a true story and the names have been changed on the request of subjects.