It was like Alice, that little girl in Carol Lewis’ novel falling down a rabbit hole to discover a wonderland and seeing an attractive garden. That is how the Haj pilgrims felt on their arrival at the Bombay Central Railway Station. Sitting, atop their tin trunks and luggage in the old terrain military trucks perhaps of second world war times, on their way to Saboo Siddique Musafirkhana at the Crawford market the city opened to them as startlingly as pictures inside bioscope to us during our childhood. A fleet of these truck was owned by a robust, jocular but dwarf Pathan and hired by by the state government.
Everything around; the high rise buildings, the gothic architecture of the British times, the traffic snarls, the surging crowds pushing their way to catch a train, the bustling markets of Mohammad Ali Road and the Mahatma Gandhi Road made them jostle with joy. Most of them, in fact, more than ninety percent of the pilgrims for the first time in their life had moved out of Kashmir, boarded a train and were visiting for the first time the metropolitian city of Bombay- biggest commercial hub of India. Notwithstanding, the magic spell of the city ‘assaulting their senses’ it was the sultriness that troubled them the most. To beat the sweltering heat, unmindful of hygiene, immediately after their lodging in the Musafirkhana many of them rushed into the lanes of the Crawford marked to buy some crushed ice or slices of ice and gulped them down. Some drank tumblers full of cheap icy milk laced with cardamoms and almonds at the kiosks on the corners of the buzzing street. Many were immediately taken sick- it was a hell of job for the medical team that accompanied these pilgrims from Srinagar to provide them healthcare till they embarked on the ship.
The eight days, before the pilgrims would embark on the ship to sail across to Jeddah were toughest for some dedicated Kashmir volunteers and officers of posted in the capital city. They explained them do’s and don’ts of the sea travel, informed them about custom duties and warned them against failing in the traps of touts on their return. Those days, for performing haj international Passport was not required, the Haj Committee of India issued a pilgrim pass valid for a stipulated period. Majority of the Haj pilgrim used to be unlettered and ill-informed about the travels rules. I remember an old couple from a distant hamlet in North Kashmir out of innocence believed that the pilgrim pass was a ticket for embarking upon the ship. The two after embarking upon the ship and getting the pilgrim passes stamped thought that now it was not required, so they threw them into the sea. It took Haj Committee couple of hours for issuing fresh passes to them- delaying shipping out. Some pilgrims out of sheer naivety carried with them certain items that could land them in trouble at the time of disembarkation at Jeddah; it took a lot of pleading to convince the Custom authorities about their innocence.
Many a pilgrims, guided by those who had already performed the Haj looked upon the stevedores or the dockyard workers as the most important persons, who could help them at the dockyard and do undoable things both at the time of departure and on their return. There was quite a good contingent of stevedores from Kashmir who worked on the dockyards, some were living permanently in the metropolis and owned flats, and some were seasonal, they arrived during the Haj pilgrimage, and they had license from the Haj Committee. A good number of them was from the Baramulla town. There was one Mohammad Yousuf, from Baramulla who owned a perfume and imported cloth kiosk in the Crawford market. He had been living in the city for many years; it was he who had helped his fellow townies to get license from the Haj committee.
More than at the time of departure, at the time of return of pilgrims the dockyard workers turned for pilgrims the most sought after VIP. In their nervousness at the customs, the pilgrim desperately looked for them, even a watch in their pocket was a cause of worry for them……
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist