Mothers are a massive influence on children; it may sound a cliché, a trite, but it is as good truth as the sun rises in the east. ‘They are the bones of the spine, as someone has said that keeps children straight and true. The way my father was, his disposition and demeanour did tell he was his mother’s child. She was a wonderful human being, her supplications like her store of stories never exhausted. Sitting long hours on Namaz-i-Raad, soft and spongy prayer mat made out of dried weeds, she, without holding her breath, endlessly prayed for neighbours children, particularly girls and her children and their progeny. Often her duas ended with supplication: (May Allah’s blessings be on all children of the world including my own!)
I am amazed how this old unlettered woman, ‘love-for-all incarnate, had understood the very essence of altruism. The marriage of all daughters in the neighbourhood always haunted her- it was one of her significant concerns when supplicating the Almighty. She eagerly waited for good news about marriages in Kha’ji Ma’si (Khatija) ‘s family most of the time. In her joint family. She was grandmother’s best friend and companion to the Jamia Masjid. Her wait for good tidings about the marriage of neighbours daughters was never-ending; nonetheless, the Saturday evening wait for her son returning from Baramulla was now about to end. For ten years long years, she had perpetually gazed at the main door of our home on the weekends for him. It was very much in the air at home to the delight of everyone that Thakur Baldev Singh, my father’s boss, had recommended his transfer to Srinagar. The state was going to venture into the most extensive tourism show- the Jashin-I-Kashmir and my father’s services were requisitioned in that regard, as were many other cogs of the administration. These state-sponsored festivities would also have much fun in stock for children; neither my siblings nor I were unaware of it. For me there was nothing big in the news about my father’s permanent positing at Srinagar. It did not bring any warmth to my cheeks but a frown. Amir Khan would be no more accompanying him with gifts for children, so did I believe. My dream of having a sanctuary of birds from Baramulla like that of Ama Pava was dashed. My heart was ballooning with protests, but my discords were of no avail.
One fine evening, a Tonga stopped on the street outside our home with all personal belonging of my father. Amir Khan brought them one by one inside our house. Seeing a big metal trunk as part of the luggage, I started imagining toys inside it. But not finding a pyramid-shaped cage with thrush or dove as part of the baggage saddened me. But, one thing that father had not forgotten was a giant rooster and Shikar, a Pechin (flying duck) for the family. Once a bustling town, Baramulla had almost turned into a sleepy village. The ‘road’s closure’ had taken a toll of economy of this significant city gateway to Srinagar. Its long history of have great travelers from the Central Asia entering into Kashmir through this township had suddenly had been closed for good. . There were no toy shops; even the traditional wooden and terracotta toys had disappeared from the markets. The father regretted it, but it did not console me.
Now, I was not a tot of kindergarten but a third primary boy of Islamia High School, also my father’s alma mater- an institution that always made him proud. My daily routine, too, had changed; the Watanigour days when mother lullabied me to sleep for long hours were over. The crib was back in the loft, waiting to rock the future babies of the family. Then there were no beds for children in our home, sleeping on the floor; three of us, my elder and younger sibling, and I shared a long and heavy cotton quilt. Much before mother or father would prompt us to come out of bed, it was old Cheri Gor and his son from a Cherigari Mohalla, whistling the goats and ewes and bells jingling in their necks who woke us up and made us throw away the quilts and ready ourselves for being school on the dot. Those boys not making it on time to the school had to suffer a cane charge on the gate and at the morning assembly. The father’s permanent presence at home had made a difference; drinking goat or ewes’ milk had become almost as enforced as washing face before entering the kitchen. The goat’s and ewe’ milk sharpened one’s intelligence; everyone in the family believed in this age-old dictum. Mahida Hakim of the locality had strengthened it after he had told our grandmother to feed ewe’s or goat’s milk to children to improve their immunity against cold, cough and other diseases. Our father wanted to see us mentally wise and physically stout. Like many others, he too looked at ewes milk as a potion. He paid Ama Cheri Gor in advance to ensure he stopped at our door with his flocks for dispensing fresh milk without breaks.
Despite being a man with few words, father occasionally engaged in conversation with the Cheri Gor, who looked to us a shepherd from the Nazareth with his head covered with a blanket. He would make all inquiries from him about his flock and income if it sufficed him and his children were going to school. To pay attention to the have-nots was perhaps innate to his temperant. He would get talked at length to Mohammad Shaban Sheikh, who would broom the premises of Khanaqah -I-Naqshbandiyah before the birds started chirping. He shared jokes and chuckled with Jala Band, the shoe mender and shoe polisher who visited our house every morning to collect shoes for polishing. He lived just at three minutes’ walk from our home in an evacuees’ house. It was reasonably a good house with ornate windows and a big doorway. Everyone knew that the owner in 1947 had migrated to Lahore, but nothing was precisely known how Jala Band, his wife and their adopted daughter had occupied the house? A formerly Hafiza owned the home for decades, and Jala Band’s wife was either her relation or her adopted daughter, all that was part of Mohalla gossip. Some others would say Jala Band was her adopted son. Jala Band had sub-let top floor of the three-story house to Tangewala brother Jamal and Nunda, notorious cannabis smokers but owned the best stallions; all bridegroom dreamed of riding on to brides houses.
Much before, we would toss aside our comforter to watch Cheri Gor milking goats and ewes father would be back from his pre-dawn religious obligations. He was an early riser, and he religiously followed his schedule. He never deviated from his plan comparable to the needles of an old wall clock that struck every hour. He got up in wee morning hours before Muzzein Subhan Sonur, at his highest pitch, gave Azan from the Mohalla Masjid or the bell in the minaret of the Jamia Masjid started ringing. On most of the days, he walked up to Khanaqah-e-Moula, a fourteenth-century hospice on the bank of Jhelum, to say his Fajar prayers- and as a routine visited his orphaned niece married near Zana Kadal, whose had been gutted in a devasting fire. At home, he would be busy as a bee in reading the holy Quran; rarely have I seen him reading it louder in the family in Kitchen-cum-Sitting room. And by the time we finished our breakfast- comprising naun chai and Tchout, dressed up to the nines, he would be ready to leave for the office. Sometimes, he would hire a tonga to his office and during Jashin Kashmir days and other occasions, a jeep would honk outside our home to carry him to the office. For my siblings and me, the name of the driver of the jeep was Phahpa, perhaps a nickname for his stammering, and none of us ever tried to know his real name. During the Jashin-I- Kashmir days, which included programs like Shab-I-Shalimar and special musical concerts and late-night shows at the exhibition grounds, he returned late to home, many a time we would have gone to bed.
Our father was not didactic; he did not prescribe a list of dos and don’ts to us, but there was a lesson in all his actions for putting us on a solid pedestal for enabling us to lead a life of Iqbal’s Shaheen’s and perfecting our lives. In the morning, when Jala Band brought back shoes after polishing them, father, before wearing his boots, checked not only toes but if the heel caps and top-line were as sparkling as the toes. He would even see if the shoes’ welt and heel were shining as bright as the toe. If the heel caps would not be, he would quickly rub them with a duster. Sometimes, he would ask my elder sibling and me to polish his and our shoes. My elder brother, who was three classes ahead of me, had perfected the art of polishing. He evenly mixed boot polish and cream and applied it on the toes and back of the shoes and, like a professional, rubbed the shoe with a piece of cloth and made them sparkle. This experience became a habit with my brother. Every Sunday, he washed his bicycle like a car washer with rubber pipe fitted with a jet and removed every bit of dirt from mudguards and made rims, spokes and hub gleam. His bicycle for its shimmer and add-ons bells, horn, dynamo and basket for books was comparable to a bride in traditional costumes and jewellery. His cleanliness and dress sense made him distinct from his friends. Despite my father’s efforts to make me a perfectionist to my annoyance, checking if I had polished the heel side of my shoes and asking me to redo it, till it sparkled, I could not match my elder brother.
Procrastination is the thief of time’, believing in this golden line father did everything on time; in fact, punctuality was his second nature. I don’t remember a single occasion when he would be seen rushing against the time. He never grumbled over a missing hankie or his pen or misplaced wallet at the time of leaving for office- well in advance, he checked all his items. On the regular days, he would go to the office at 9 A.M. dot, and on much other time as his office engagements demanded, he left for office much early without any fuss. By the time he would depart for office, we got ready for the school. He ensured that we went to school in uniform as immaculate as his suits stitched by Dar Sons Tailor- a famed tailoring shop at Amira Kadal. The most fashionable material for making uniforms was poplin and gabardine, a durable and lustrous cloth, sadly quick to get wrinkles. Terylene and terry cot fabric might have been discovered. But, the new material was yet to take over the cloth markets and make people crazy about it. Our father ensured we wore starched uniforms – sky blue poplin shirt and khaki gabardine trousers as tidy as the olive green soldiers who often strut on the streets in our part of the city. Instead of two uniforms, father got us at least four sets of uniforms stitched from a tailor living in a rented house near Ranga Hamam. He was not a native. Like another occupant, Kala Miss, he was also a christen. Kala Miss’s real name was Mrs William; she came to Kashmir in 1931, left in 1965 and died in Delhi in 1970. Having four uniforms was quite good for remaining tidy. My brother and I were never reprimanded, never cane-charged at morning Assembly like other boys in shabby uniforms.
……to be continued
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist