Twenty-nine years ago there were very few houses there. And those had no boundary walls. The blossom-strewn patches of grass outside a house mingled freely with marigold flowerbeds outside another. In kitchen gardens, fenced with tree branches and thorny bushes, there grew tomatoes, chillies, brinjals, pumpkins, cucumbers, and on the small embankments, corncobs smiled gingerly from within their furry frocks.
The world was much simpler. An occasional thief would feel content by stealing an old, flickering bulb or a pair of worn-out slippers kept out on the verandah.
A few years before I was born, father had sold-off mother’s jewellery, emptied his provident fund, and got the house constructed at what was then a Srinagar suburb. My earliest memories of those days are to stare at green apples that hung like celestial bodies, amidst a cluster of leaves, on a tree in the front garden. The apples were of sour variety. My grandmother would pluck some of them, slice them with a small knife kept in her pheran pocket, and, after sprinkling salt over them, eat them with a girlish excitement.
During the day, when father and mother went off to work, it was my grandfather who took care of me. In the afternoon, we would sit under the shade of the tree; he would keep a pebble on my head, asking me to balance it. One of my favourite childhood stories was how the Earth was balanced on the horns of Lord Shiva’s carrier – the Nandi bull. And, grandpa told me, whenever Nandi shook his head, it would cause an earthquake on the Earth. When grandpa kept that pebble on my head, I imagined myself as Nandi, and shook my head vigorously.
“Totha, what if the Earth falls down from Nandi’s horns; then where will it go?”
“ In that case, it will crash into the Pataal lok – the nether world, where demons live.”
The Kashmiri Pandits believe in the power of Apezyeth – one moment in a 24-hour cycle, when whatever you say comes true. It was as if grandfather had said that bang on that moment. Ten years later, our world came crashing down.
It snowed heavily that January. Rahman, the milkman stopped coming. Men, wearing heavy LT jackets with stuffed pockets would cross our street. One by one, the neighbours locked their houses and went away. No one played cricket in the backyard.
That evening, the lights had gone off. Father heard someone laughing on the street below. Lifting a corner of the curtain, we looked down. A few boys were distributing houses among themselves. “You take Razdan’s house and I will take Kaul’s,” a boy called Imtiaz said. Then they all laughed. My father turned back. The next day we left.
Seventeen years, six months, and five days later, I am back. After Natipora’s cremation ground, where the ashes of my grandparents are scattered, I can’t recognise anything. The roads have become congested. The empty spaces I remember have all turned into concrete jungles. The streets are shabbier.
“This is where your house should be; the gurudwara is here,” Zubair points out. Yes, Zubair, it should be here. But where? I enter into the street.
A man, wearing a starched white shirt is standing at the gate. He is looking at us. “Whom are you looking for?” he finally asks. I remain silent. The pause is too deafening. Zubair explains. The man breaks into a smile, and extends his hand. As I shake it, he pulls me towards him, into a tight embrace.
‘My name is Gazanfar Ali; I am an advocate,” he says. “This is your land as much as it is mine. I am glad that you came.”
My house is right in front of his. We politely decline his offer of tea. I am madly clicking pictures. I want to show them to my ailing mother.
We enter the house. The blue gate is intact. So is the taur – the handle my father had specially got built. The new inhabitants have retained the name of the house. Aabshaar – the waterfall: the board outside the house still reads that. Zubair has to do a bit of explaining again. It is very uncomfortable. “Well… err… this is Rahul. Err… this house belonged… err…. They used to live here before.” The retired man understands. We are led inside.
I am sitting in my drawing room. All the show pieces in the glass almirah are gone. They have put crockery inside. There was a picture of my father receiving a state award for meritorious service from Sheikh Abdullah. It lay on the walnut-wood table. The photo is not there. The table must be in someone else’s house – displaying, perhaps, a replica of Taj Mahal. I am talking to the man. And I am clicking pictures.
“When we shifted, the house was in absolute mess. The walls were damp and the ceiling had come down at various places,” he says.
“We had been told that after we left, they had taken away sanitary fittings, leaving the water supply open,” I reply. There is silence. And then we both let out embarrassing smiles.
On my request, I am led upstairs, to what used to be my room. I had some books kept on a shelf: My experiments with truth, Freedom at midnight, Arabian nights, Tagore’s Geetanjali and the complete works of Swami Vivekananda. I look at the shelf. It has potatoes on it now. And some onions. One portion of the room has been converted into a sink; there is a tiled slab beside it. I look out from the window. There is no kitchen garden. A few yellow flowers have appeared on the pumpkin creeper of our times. It sways gently, as if welcoming me.
I finally say goodbye. On the verandah, the number of water works connection father had taken is still there: 44732. I am reminded of the apple tree. I turn towards it. A wall stares back at me.
“There used to be an apple tree here,” I ask.
“Oh, we got it cut; it was occupying too much of space.”
Ghulam Hasan Sofi’s voice rings in my ears:
B’e thavnus chaetit’h tabardaaran
Yaaro wan baalyaaro wan
Che’ kamyu karenay taveez pan?
(The woodcutter, he left me broken
Tell me my friend, tell me my beloved
Who has put you under a spell?)