By Suhail Akram
He had even engraved her name on his wrist. There was a gossip that he is mad about this tall girl from his neighbourhood, but no one thought that he would go to the extent of poisoning himself of some medical drug overdose. I had seen this girl hop around my Grandma’s place quite a number of times.
That was my Cousin Gulzar, in some distant chapter of his secret life.
I was introduced early to the world of private tuition by him. I have a faint memory of that day when I accompanied him, a group of young boys and some girls sitting in a circle around a study desk. The batch of students, in their teens, may well have been High school students. I would later ask myself, would he have flirted with girls in his batch? Could he?
It is the Kashmir of those early nineties when armed resistance against the Indian Army was firmly setting in. Young men dreamt of crossing the Line of Control- the de facto line dividing Kashmir into an Indian Kashmir and Pakistani Kashmir, for arms training. Some died en route in a bloody skirmish with border patrols, others who managed the tough terrain and nerve crushing chill of Himalayas reached the training camps with festering lumps of pus on their feet and broken backs and still some others reached but never returned. Resistance was the slogan and arms the way out.
To reach to my Grandma’s in Pampore-the small township famous for its high quality Saffron, we took our bus from the centre of the summer capital –Srinagar. Today the distance has shrunk so much with SUV’s that ferry people; I no longer feel nausea tic. But in those days, I puked at least couple of times as the crowded bus trudged along. What I particularly hated was to sit in the bus as it waited for the seats to fill in. People never seemed to come on time. Even my mother would de board the bus to buy some fruits and trinkets for our relatives young and old. It was a tiring journey.
Now when I re collect those memories, of those garishly decorated, steel hunk KMD buses, I feel even they had a quintessential fatigue on their face of a long journey that lay ahead. In rains particularly, bus tyres got covered with heavy mud as she accelerated noisily to get herself out of mud puddles. The scene would get chaotic but those few men, lost in their Urdu dailies perusing the headlines, seemed so distant and cut off. While some other men reserving the seats with their luggage so they could go for a quick pee near the walls splattered with messages like Leprosy can be treated and family counselling nuggets like ‘we two our two’ …
It all comes back in a patina of black and white now. May be all history is black and white. But even memory is three dimensional, at times. It is not just visuals and words that you see as you go down the memory lane; fragrances, smells, aromas, too are an inseparable part of our memories.
Grandmas’ at Pampore has always had that distinct aroma. It runs in people’s blood there, particularly those who are involved in saffron farming. It is indeed the peculiar aroma of saffron which rubs off on everything — from worn out prayer rugs in mosques to women’s headscarves, and hides itself deep inside the white shroud my Grandpa bought for himself when he undertook the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. It dissolves into Salt tea and the famous Shirmaals – oversized cookies topped with dried seeds of opium flower.
On Eid, when we kids waited for our Eid gifts from Grandma’s, this distinct aroma would announce the arrival of my uncles from Pampore, the aroma reaching our noses before they reached our home.
My cousin Gulzar too, like everybody else, carried this fragrance along.
A soft spoken boy with unusually dusky features for a Kashmiri, Gulzar was always an introvert, rather, a harmless introvert minding his own business. There was an element of inquisitiveness in the mind of a person looking at him.
The long walks back from the vast swathes of bright purple bloom of saffron farms framed by spiky snow capped mountains to my Grandma’s home, in Pampore, after plucking saffron flowers from the saffron fields the whole day, our evenings seemed purposeful. We had with us the most precious, costly and the world renowned spice: The Kashmiri Za’faran. A spice which is said to have anointed Cleopatra.
I and my siblings from Srinagar usually visited our Grandmas’ for a long vacation after our annual school exams. It was late October. The autumn winds were in full bloom in Kashmir, a time when annual crop of saffron is ready for harvest.
Plucking saffron fetched us money, besides loads of fun we dreamt of having on the farms. But our elders in the family had strict lessons for us: don’t pluck the flower from its root, and don’t squander away the flower. It is precious, they said.
One day, we were hungry and we had no money to buy food, Gulzar fished out a handful of freshly plucked saffron flowers from the wicker basket, sold it and bought some bananas. It was a bad bargain; ‘elders should not come to know about’ he feared, but good enough to save us from starvation. Gulzar was generous.
There was something luminous in Gulzar’s laughter. He laughed in spurts, a mix of a giggle, hiccups and exclamation. In those evenings, as the dust of the saffron farms settled on our aching feet, and the exhausted sun over the horizon shied behind the silhouettes of that monstrous Power Grid on route the National Highway number One- a heavily guarded stretch of one hundred and eighty miles with its sharply winding curves holding the prized but war torn Kashmir tethered with the rest of India. Gulzar was a jovial company. I liked his stories. I listened to his stories, because I loved his laughter. He had this one story always in store for the occasion.
It was about two smart sisters, Incher and Pincher and their innocent naive dumb but lucky elder brother, MomBhat. The plot always was that the two sisters smartly undertook some endeavour and their brother lazes around. But fate had that he would always get the bigger share. One day Incher gets a cake and Picher gets a cake. MomBhat gets none. Incher gives half of her cake to her brother, and so does Pincher. So MomBhat gets a full cake and the sisters’ only half. There was something very subtle and sweet about this story, and there of course was something very intimate between this plot and the plot of my cousin’s life. Simplicity. (Incidentally, Gulzar also has two sisters).
But it was not just in spurts that he laughed; Gulzar laughed endlessly. We were visiting our small farm to fetch some fresh vegetables. Suddenly out of nowhere a boy came running toward us, asking if he can hide in a nearby pool of yellow straw and grass. Some boys of the locality were playing hide and seek. Gulzar nodded in affirmative with a sheepish smile. The boy ran over a mound of wood and jumped into the pool of ‘straw.’ But he almost drowned in the pool of shit. The guy who sought him did the same.
Many years later, we revisited this fiasco. It made us laugh to our ribs. Gulzar knew the pool stored shit. There was no proper drainage in that area those days, he told me, and the only option was storing the shit for a time being before a septic tank could be build. That incident spoke of a different Gulzar to me, someone who knew the childish eccentricity of human nature, and was not afraid of displaying it. The kid inside him would come out from time to time. But then man’s nature is like an onion: layer within a layer within a layer.
One fine morning in a dimly lit room facing the cobblestoned back alley of their neighbourhood in Pampore, I heard Gulzar reading the holy Quran aloud.
Those days Indian Soldiers would patrol deep into the entrails of the localities, into the small lanes and by lanes. What made my fear all the more genuine was the fact that in the same room some time back a local militant showed off his newly acquired AK 47 to some of my older cousin brothers. As he engaged in a thorough demonstration of his weapon and also of his newly acquired machismo, he pressed the trigger by mistake. A guy sitting in front of the nozzle was hit on his thigh. The incident was kept under wraps. Families were told that he got hit with a cricket ball, other versions included that he fell from the motorcycle. Later everyone came to know about it. Resistance was romantic and ammunition aplenty. What was difficult was to identify the bad apple, and there were many. Later someone told me that the guy surrendered, they called him Zanane Mohnue- ladies’s man.
Rebellion kept growing. And machinations too. Indian Army sought the help of these bad apples- the much feared renegades and covertly funded them. They became the infamous counter-insurgent militants, a name which brought chill down our spine-Ikhwanis.
Pampore, like many other unfortunate villages and towns of Kashmir, became a hot spot of every day battles between militants and Ikhwanis. It was native versus a native now. The fearless but notorious lord of Ikhwanis, Papa Kishtawari, ordered death to anyone suspected of being sympathetic to the separatist cause or to the militants.
Kashmir smelled death and intrigue. In the backyard there was always an apprehension that someone is watching, someone with guns is there lurking in the next lane. The fear was palpable; people mostly waited for the Army to pass by before they could go to the mosque or move out to buy some bread.
My fear was what if they hear Gulzar reading Quran. He kept reciting though. But none of the soldiers came in. I sat next to him. He read like my father did, aloud, lyrical. I silently kept looking the way he went about his business. When he finished reading, there was finesse in how he closed it. Moving his right hand lovingly over the Quran, he moved it over his face and blew the air onto himself. Before I could fathom it, he blew it on my face as well. Paying no attention to me, I think he knew I was silently following him; he got up to feed the birds outside.
I saw him do this act for many days. He had befriended birds, and the birds befriended him. They always came in the morning on the same window. It made for a poignant sight.
There was something philosophical about my cousin. He was not like my other elder cousins, not much into worldly affairs. He worked hard weather on farms or whatever work was assigned to him. But as years passed by he came across as a person with ordinary tastes. He talked less, and would almost shy down his face while eating, as if out of some unspoken carelessness. He wore clothes which were just not in vogue in terms of what the men of his age would wear. He would shut himself up in his room for hours. People in the family, covertly though, picked names for him.
The Gulzar I knew in my childhood was not the Gulzar I knew in my adulthood and certainly is not the Gulzar I know now. He changed with time.
His marriage though brought a lot of happiness. It was there on his face. One can simply see happiness simply. He was very happy that he is marrying a beautiful woman. By that time I no longer was the same kid. We were talking adult talk now. I had grown up. He was no longer “Brother Gulzar” for me. Out of affection I started calling him Gule, which almost becomes a chiding nickname; Gulzar sahib, a dignified name which had an inherent mock hidden in it, or Gullale, a romantic sounding nickname which but was a bizarre rendition of his actual name to lyrically sound sweet but actually mean nothing.
Let me assure you, we Kashmiris are very good with this art of picking funny names for each other. My best example is my childhood friend Nuzhat. Nobody ever called him with his actual name. He had a nick name- Gogjaar. It means a dried brownish round piece of turnip, a delicacy in Kashmir in winters. When we grew up, Gogjaar sounded too old a name for him. He was no longer a bare footed dirty kid on the block with incessantly running nose. He grew up handsome with broad manly shoulders. So one fine day, we heard someone calling him Shalgum Hero (Shalgum is an Urdu word for Turnip). That was it. Keep the essence of the nick name Gogjaar intact but engineer it to such a precision so that it encapsulates the new modern collage going avatar of our friend. Another funny expression was Onye, minimize the sound of latter n but don’t read it as silent. This was a nickname for another friend Qaiser. I was called SP, an acronym for Salam Puj- Salam the Butcher. We used to buy our mutton from his shop and that was my cardinal sin. Even the only son of our local Imam, was not spared. He lost his eye in some accident and thus came the name one bulb short.
Long back a Kashmiri by the name of Karim was once found walking bare-footed in the street. He was instantly called ‘Nanvor, Nanvor, ‘Karim Nanvor‘ (Barefoot, barefoot, Karima the bare-footed). Later to save his soul from taunts, he puts on very attractive shoes only to hear “Look! Look! How beautiful shoes has ‘Karim Nanvor’ put on!”
But here, let us turn our attention back to Gulzar as I know him.
During the days of courtship with his fiancée, One day he took me to his room. There in the room we must have been cozying up to some intimate conversation about women. He suddenly got up to fish out an album from behind his closet. With a shy smile, he gingerly opened it, saying nothing. She indeed was beautiful. The pictures were taken in some local studio. Gulzar held his fiancée close, a wry hesitant smile on both the faces, with a colourful backdrop of a nice heavenly panoramic garden with saturated loud colours of screaming greens of grass, vulgar yellows of flowers and inkish blues of sky, like an intensely coloured fantastical dream.
She had this look of a fragile village damsel staring into your eyes with such calmness as if she were some grand subject of a great artist who is whirling like a pendulum between her and his canvas. The first thought that hit me was, how he could get such a beautiful and fair lady. Unconsciously but ironically though, I too had, like almost everybody else, picked a nickname for Gulzar. I reckon that was jealousy at that moment.
In the week before his weeding, he summoned me for a favour. In one of the hip markets of Srinagar, I chose a nice elegant three piece grey suit for his wedding. Money didn’t matter, he said in jubilation.
Later that day, another of my cousin and me lured him to treat us over barbecued mutton, for the help we were. He was happy enough to oblige.
Physical appearance of a certain kind also speaks of the state of a man’s mind.
Gulzar’s thoughts, though simple, were different. My cousins’ dressing was not really following fashion, his appearance got worse after the first year of his marriage. He met a terrible accident. A piece of metal got inserted in the upper corner of his eye. He got operated upon a couple of times. More medicine meant more fat accumulation in his body and add to that the black spectacles he always wore afterwards. From a dusky but handsome young man, Gulzar over the years metamorphosed into a de shaped man with a bruised eye that always had an issue. It was a difficult situation for him to be in. I think he knew it. His behaviour became creepier, but he was never belligerent or crazy.
But moments of joy and happiness never cease to surprise us. He became a proud father of a beautiful daughter.
Kashmir was changing. Almost a decade had passed and the demon had consumed many innocent souls. More than eighty thousand by some estimates. Kashmir was slowly becoming a forgotten occupation. The ensuing conflict of all the years plagued almost all its institutions. Saffron cultivation too got hit badly. Global warming and the changing weather pattern of Kashmir also played a spoil sport. Illegal imports of Iranian saffron also hit the trade badly. Dying saffron became a more relevant headline in International Media; dying Kashmiri had lost its punch as a news story and more importantly as a human rights issue of catastrophic proportions.
In once booming town of Pampore famous for its gifted spice, people slowly panned out into small other profit making endeavours. His father was enough to shoulder the diminishing saffron business, Gulzar was told. He thus started a retail shop.
Every time I visited my Grandma’s, I met him at his shop located at one of the main squares of the area where, good for them, business was profitable. I always saw him sullen. Lost! The shop too had some eerie greyness to it. It lacked life. The bottles of confectionary wore days of dust. There weren’t enough electric bulbs inside. If there was one place I could not find that melancholic aroma of saffron, it was his shop. But he made some business. Old men bought pouches of tobacco and children cookies.
I left Kashmir to pursue my career. Days and months passed. I didn’t know if Gulzar owned a phone. I never thought of calling him. In fact I never called him. Whenever I spoke to my parents or any relative and if I inquired about Gulzar, the reply sounded mundane. They would share nuggets about him which were like no news at all, like regular updates about the situation in Kashmir or its perennial curfews or its freezing weather. Nobody in our family ever mentioned that Gulzar had gained little weight. They didn’t, apparently because Gulzar was a sweetheart and above all, as is the case in a conservative society like Kashmir, where god fearing mosque going men are looked up to; he by all standards fitted the bill. He was a religious man. But a sort of a religion which he always hid within his layers, some might say within his room.
Yes, but there is this one story my parents appraised me with. After couple of years after his marriage, Gulzar’s wife fell ill. It was some heart ailment making her feel claustrophobic, dizzy and a little hallucinating. She talked less and was jittery. When modern medicine failed to treat her, her husband took the case up as one of spirits. So one day, as they sat for dinner, Gulzar suddenly got up, got hold of his wife’s neck and screamed in admonition, “ Get out from her, Get out of her…you don’t know me …Get out…’ she fainted out of fright. Next day, upset and frustrated over her husband’s obtuse behaviour, she packed her bags and left.
In September, 2010 he slept never to wake up again. He was in his mid thirties. When I got a call from home, they said white foam had smeared his mouth as he lay unconscious. Bilquis was not even around, they said, referring to his wife who had gone to meet her parents. He had died of a sudden cardiac arrest, alone in his room slightly before the dawn broke. Like his life, his death remained a mystery.
I was very close to my cousin brother. This shocking news of his untimely death is yet to sink in. It is a bad dream may be. He didn’t die in front of me. He was not buried in front of my eyes. I am yet to cry for him. I sometimes wonder, if he too, like his grandfather, would have wished to buy his shroud from Mecca.
Back at my Grandmas’, they have cleared his room. They say his room had all these amulets, some cryptic religious algorithms and many photographs of various Sufi dervishes hanging all over his room. I recognize one Sufi poet and saint, Shams Fakir. Did he don a look of fakir to reach enlightenment? Some ask: was he fighting some devilish ghosts in his room? Or did he die like everyone does — death comes. And that is it.
The author is a broadcast journalist in Delhi.
Thumbnail photo: Fozia S. Qazi