Suhail tells me of a boy who went with him to a boarding school, in a remote district of Kashmir. The boy, it seems, felt home sick, time and again, and would run away from school whenever he got a chance. After a few days, he would resurface, with absolutely no emotion on his face.
“What happened, why are you back so early?” his friends would ask him.
“Nothing,” he would reply. And then after a pause, he continued. “It may seem as if I was beaten up with brooms and a cricket bat, but that is not the case. Or it may seem that father kicked me and then rubbed nettle grass over my legs, but even that is not the case.” Then he would be silent. He would not speak for days.
I have felt home sick for seventeen long years, but like that boy, I never got a chance to run away. In my case, it was not the school, but exile from which I longed to escape.
It is a hot day in Srinagar, when I drive down on the roads in a Maruti 800. Beginning from the aerial view of the valley from the aircraft, as it prepared to land at the Srinagar airport, it feels like déjà vu. Tin roofs, vast fields of paddy, and the T.V. tower atop Shankracharya hill, standing like an old man, adjusting his spectacles, but still struggling to recognize a great grandson who has been away for too long – it only seems as If I have been here before.
From the Rambagh bridge, the car moves towards Lal Chowk. I see the first signpost of my home: Chanapora. How many times have I waited at this spot, in sky-blue shirt and grey trousers – my school uniform – clutching a one-rupee coin in my fist, to catch a bus back home!
On the Jahangir chowk, I spot the exhibition ground. Flashes of an incident, narrated to me by my mother, occur to me. A week after she was wedded to my father, the entire family went to watch a circus in the ground. While looking at the distant face of a performer, who stood at a height, ready to set himself on fire and then jump into the water below, my mother sensed that something was amiss. She told this to her mother-in-law but she wouldn’t pay heed. In a few minutes all hell broke loose. The performer got nervous and just would not jump. The crowd got restless. There was a stampede. My mother led every family member to a nearby shop, whose rear wall was broken, and then, they got away to safely.
The Assembly building on the banks of Jhelum is like a pale moon. The black soot of a fire that broke decades ago is still there. Nothing has changed. On the other end is the Hanuman temple. During Operation Blue Star, some miscreants had held the God responsible for the military action, and thrown his idol in the muddy river water. But as children, we were only interested in sweetmeats of Tuesday and watching sadhus with matted hair, sitting cross-legged, taking deep puffs from a common chillum.
The Palladium cinema looks like a postcard from Gaza strip. The Sun Chasers shop is still there. And so is the Jan bakery, the makers of the best pineapple pastry in the world. Tibetans (or are they Ladakhis?) still sell thick woolen sweaters on the pavement outside the Tyndale Biscoe School. The Clocktower in the central market square boasts of a digital clock now. But it still doesn’t show accurate time.
The Boulevard road is the same. Paper machie boxes are still on display in shops at the Dal Gate, as they used to be when I was at home. Dr. Naseer still practices there. 26 years ago, he had told my father that he has a small puncture somewhere in his intestines. Almost three decades later in Delhi, the doctors confirm it, but are unable to detect its exact location. Dr. Ali Jan has passed away. The road on which his clinic existed has been named after him.
The Dal Lake has shrunk but the houseboats still have names like Buckingham Palace and Cleopatra. The car takes a fast turn near the Chashme Shahi, but I guess I have seen the shop where I had the first (or perhaps, second) ice-cream cone of my life. Last time, I had come here with Ravi, on his sparkling red motorcycle. Ten years later after we made that trip, he was dragged out of a bus and shot dead by militants.
Another ten years have passed since then. But not much has changed in Kashmir. The last thing that needs to be checked is our erstwhile house at Chanapora. Have the new occupants of the house changed its structure? Is the apple tree - the keeper of my childhood secrets - still there in our small lawn?
I swear, the thought feels like nettle grass.
(To be continued...)