I am late again. It is close to midnight as I drag my feet, climb the eighteen stairs that lead to my first-floor flat, and gently knock at the door with my car keys. A faint cough sounds from inside – that is my father’s way of telling me that there is no need to knock again, he is awake. In a moment the door opens and I am let in.
My clothes reek of cigarette smoke. My dinner is kept on the table, covered with my mother’s old shawl to keep it warm. After tearing open the day’s posts – bank statements, old copies of magazines which should have arrived a week ago, books, free passes – I sit down to eat. On the table, beside a reclining Ganesha, there is an almanac and a tattered copy of Shiv Mahimnastotram.
“Don’t eat anything impure tomorrow, it is Ashtami,” my father’s voice almost gets drowned in the hum of the ceiling fan. A siren begins to blare somewhere and, on the road below, the watchman, probably drunk by now, strikes the electric pole with his cane.
By “impure”, my father implies eggs, meat, and, if possible, alcohol also. Every month, a day before the Ashtami, my father issues this advisory.
I don’t know how to use the almanac that has guided my family and thousands of others for generations. For us, the Kashmiri Pandits, the entire life cycle is dictated and, perhaps, led by the minute calculations of the planets. For as long as I can remember, a thick, blue book has been arriving at our home every year around Shivratri and then, for the rest of the year, our lives are governed by it. Every month, on Ashtami, for instance, my father keeps a fast, after consulting the almanac.
The almanac decides everything for us – when to get married, when to enter a new house, when to buy a new car or when to join a new job. The last one is a very touchy issue at my house since I change my jobs so frequently that even the muhurat – the auspicious timings – fall short.
Over the years, though, the almanac has somewhat faded from our spiritual consciousness. There are times when my father no longer remembers the Shraadh – the death anniversary of my grandparents; on those days he is supposed to keep a fast. After he has had his breakfast, he then remembers it all of a sudden. But by then it is too late.
He spends the rest of that day looking at the wall in front of him.
Barring Ashtami, no other auspicious days such as Amawasya and Purnamasi are remembered any longer. Even if they are, no one cares about them any longer.
Even our festivals and marriage ceremonies have changed altogether. Shivratri, for instance, would be at least a week-long affair back home in Kashmir. I remember, as a child I would accompany my father to Habbakadal, built on the banks of the river Jhelum. We would get fresh fish and then earthen pots required for the puja from the Muslim potter.
For other puja paraphernalia, we would visit Kanth Joo’s tiny shop. The old, toothless man would be sitting on a cushion and over his head was a pulley through which ran thread used for tying up small and big bundles of almonds, cashew nuts, silver foil, vermillion, lotus seed, sugar cones, chestnut flour and what not.
At home, mother would cook three varieties of meat and fish curry apart from spinach and, of course, the Haakh. The electrician, sweeper and many others would come and ask for small tokens of money. The children would play with sea shells and men would gamble for the sake of fun.
In the spring of 1990, no ceremonial conch would be blown in the Pandit households. We were too scared. On the roads, young men, their LT jackets stuffed with weapons, roamed around, looking for potential targets.
On the fourth day of Shivratri, a hush prevailed on the banks of the river. Families arrived silently, to immerse the gods in the water.
In the dark waters, devoid of floating earthen lamps, the newly-wed Lord Shiva and the goddess looked as if they had eloped and then solemnized their marriage in a court.
In Jammu, and elsewhere too, we now have Chowmein stalls in marriage parties. Instead of Lalded, the youngsters would rather listen to Latino. The marriage ceremony itself, which took close to eight hours, is now finished in two or three. Nobody has time.
Jobs are waiting. Traffic signals are waiting. Friends who don’t what Ashtami is are waiting.
The next day, I am at the press club with a group of friends. There are fish fingers and grilled chicken on the table. I pick up a piece and bring it closer to my mouth.
Suddenly, I remember last night.
I remember the look in my father’s eyes and the cream-coloured wall.
“One fresh lime please,” I tell the waiter.