It was a few years back, before downpour had almost swamped the part of city I was born in and brought up, that I had visited my most favorite childhood haunt Badamwari. It was after years– decades that I strolled in Bagh-e-Waris Khan- it has been done up nicely but somehow I felt some artificiality in its new get-up. I don’t know why every new construction including the beautiful chiseled limestone fountain looked to me in clash with its ambience. Everything looked alien to me. Perhaps the new construction living true to our traditional architecture did not sync with my childhood memoirs- that I hold so dear to me but the visit took me on a great odyssey down the memory lane. I did remember many things connected with the almond blossom festival, I have written about in the past. I did remember the songster with his rusted megaphone singing popular lyrics and selling small marriage song booklets, I did remember tattoo makers, Khaliq my second primary friend a school dropout roasting water nuts in a heap of dry grass under the shade of Chinar in Devi Angan, I did remember Hakim my another dropout school friends selling cigarettes and beetles on a kiosk outside the Kathi-Darwaza and I did remember magicians Muma Bazigar, that master trickster who puzzled me and my peers.
But it was the steeple of the temple distinctly visible from the garden that made me remember an excursion to the garden led by our class teacher Kashi Nath. It was the day I had for the first time entered into the premises of a temple. I had watched scenes inside the temple at the foothill near the stairs that lead to the Shrine of Makdoom Sahib almost every Monday and Thursday- the two days that I and my friends visited the shrine. I often enjoyed the flickering flames of brass lamps on the brass plates dexterously moved right to left by the devotees while chanting the hymns- that I hardly understood. But, I do remember that all choruses in praise of deities were not sung in Sanskrit or Prakrat but I could make out that some songs were sung in Kashmiri also.
On entering the temple premises with our teacher it was for the first I and my classmates saw for the images of Hindu gods and goddesses inside the temple. I had seen gods and goddess on the wall calendars hanging in the two shops of two chemist in our Mohalla- Damoodar and Jagarnath. No sooner we entered into the lawns of the temple our teacher Kashi Nath squatted in front of a Saddhu. The Saddhu was pounding apple peel and walnut in a small chiseled stone mortar. For a while I thought that this was the staple food of Kashmiri Hindus including my teacher Kashi Nath.
There were only two Pandit boys in our school and they were sons of two teachers Shamboo Nath and Kashi Nath Koul- the best science teacher…and out of two boys one Dilip Kumar was my friend. I and most of my friends hardly knew anything about the life style and food habits of our teachers which were mostly from this community. In the past I have written how teachers like jet black haired, Kashi Nath Koul, well combed and immaculately dressed mathematics and English teacher Hardiya Nath, wooden faced history teacher Dina Nath and hard of hearing yellow turbaned dressed in Sherwani Arjan Nath had played a role in molding life of thousands of boys from my school, some of whom earned a name in medicine, engineering and bureaucracy. On seeing the Saddhu in the temple pounding apple peels-
It was a year or two after having witnessed the Saddhu eating his food in temple, when I started visiting residence of my teacher Kashi Nath that I learnt their and our food habits were almost the same. But there was a difference, we ate food in tinned copper plates or bowls known in local parlance as tour the pandits preferred to cook and serve food in brass utensils. There also existed a difference in the nomenclature of most of the food items. The Kashmiri pundits ate mutton as voraciously as Muslims but called the slice of mutton by different name- the Muslims called the slice of mutton as “nati-phoul’ and the Pandits called it as “nane-phoul”. Salt tea they called as Sheer-Chai and we knew it as noon-chai, green leave tea, kahwa they called as Moughal Chai. Notwithstanding Kashmiri language was mother tongue of both the communities but elite among the two communities tried to use words from their favorite languages in their routine conversation thus adding religious bias to thousands years old language that had survived many tides of history. No Pandit boy or girl called book as ‘kitab’ but preferred to call it ‘pustak’. No Pandit called water as ‘aab’ but preferred to call it, ‘Peen’. They never called ‘rice’ as bhata but ‘ann’ and so on and so forth. In my childhood, I have never seen any Kashmiri Pandit family having their tea in chinaware cups. They took tea in bright small brass cups that was known as ‘khous’- and would hold them with long sleeves of their pherans or with handkerchief.
I remember vividly that it puzzled me when I saw my teachers Kashi Nath and Shyam Lal Labroo, having their tea in brass cups instead of in green transparent chinaware cups carrying state emblem that were freely available at the cooperative shops. I would often get worried they may burn their fingers and lips. Why they drank hot tea in brass cups. I had no answer to this poser. One day I enquired from eldest daughter of my teacher Kashinath, she was elder to me by a couple of years- I think she was reading three classes ahead of me, Why they were not drinking tea like us in Chinaware cups. Nana- as the elder daughter was known in her family replied that chinaware was contaminated, filthy and unhygienic and brassware was clean. We clean these cups with sand and ash and purify them to please our gods and goddess- If I remember clearly she said this was done to please Mouj Bhagvati.
The staple food for both Muslims and Pandits was rice and ‘hak’ ( a variety of spinach). I have seen my teachers both Kashi Nath Rani and Shyam Lal Labroo having food in the room adjacent to Choka (kitchen). The eating would start with a ritual. The moment a deep brass plate known in local language as thal, with mounds of rice on it was kept before them, with folded hands they used to say namaskar (salutations) to it. Then they would make few balls of rice and keep it on a side of the plate. This was known as “hoon-mat” (rice ball for dog) as it was then served to street dogs. I do not the religious background of the practice — there are many memoirs about my teachers lurking in my mind.
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist