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My Memoir: My Uncle And Grandmother’s Myth Part I

My Memoir: My Uncle

Grandmother’s About Her Son

Part One  


Zahid G Muhammad

 Spotting an aeroplane in the blue skies in downtown Srinagar, miles away from the airstrip built by Maharaja Hari Singh for the landing of his private aircraft on an elevated plateau in Budgam, was a rarity. Nonetheless, it was full of excitement and thrill. Those were the times when even streets outside our home were as desolate as deserts, with the City Bus Service passing through an hour’s interlude and one or two cars plying in the morning. The only sounds that filled the air on the road were the songs of Rasul Mir and hymns eulogizing the Prophet (SAW) and one or another saint of the land. The toiling cart pullers in rags, pushing tumbrels filled with loads,  sacks of paddy, stones and bricks, found comfort in these melodious songs to their fatigue. For us, children in this primarily ‘desert silence’, the muffled roar of Dakota transport aircraft in the skies made us come out of our homes. And in our excitement in our compounds or the street cry full-throated, Toma’li Tchor- Toma’li Tchor – for us children, it was like a war cry. The etymology of this word perhaps lies in the famines that had visited Kashmir frequently and how it had got tagged to the cargo planes that carried supplies to Leh, I don’t know. If these cries also had political connotations, as Kawi Yanwoul Mirdad-Un-Byuo’l, Khudyan Goul our spontaneous shouts in a chorus on seeing birds in the evening returning to their nests. For us, spontaneous cries Toma’li Tchor- Toma’li Tchor on seeing the lone Dakota aero high in the skies meant nothing but excitement – the louder we cried, believing our cries would reach the pilot brought us more and more thrill. The same was not true about Ded- grandmother- it got a frown on her profoundly wrinkled face.

Kh. Ghulam Nabi (1923-1979)

Mouj and Ded hated the grey metal birds crossing the azure skies of my childhood. Ded’s burrowed frow had an altogether different reason than my mother’s anger at spotting the lone aeroplane in the sky. My mother’s anger against Dakotas was connected to my birth. I was in her womb when she had watched from the garden roof of our house, billows of colossal smoke coming from villages on the outskirts of Srinagar after Dakotas had bombarded these villages to target some Afridis having taken shelters there. When she watched the grim scenes, I had perhaps crossed the blastocyst stage inside the womb, and I was maturing as an embryo or even a fetus. The Dakotas flew over the city at low heights after bombarding the villages. (Later on, as a student of history, I learnt it was done deliberately on the advice of General Atul -Nehru’s emissary in Kashmir). She was worried because of sonic booms and disastrous sounds of bombardment; she may lose me before I would tumble into the world. On the family grapevine, there was a story at my birth; my mother had lost her voice. Perhaps, that memory loomed in her subconscious, and it irked her when she spotted a Dakota. The story of the frown on grandmother’s face on seeing the Dakota had nothing to do with the harsher realities but had its genesis lay in a myth that she had conjured, nurtured, and believed.

My uncle Ghulam Nabi was the youngest among the five children Ded brought into this world. The first of her offspring were three daughters. The eldest one had two daughters, and three sons, one of them was adopted- perhaps he was an orphan. Ded’s other two daughters had borne no children and died of tuberculosis immediately after their marriage- tuberculosis in those days was the dreaded disease that took a heavy toll on the population. My father was tall, lean, and smartness incarnate –  a couple of years elder than my uncle. Compared to my father, my uncle was hefty, robust, and not as tall as he was, but he possessed a brilliant wit and a booming voice.

I don’t know where my father’s political sympathies were – he died before I had even begun comprehending a world outside school and playfields. But, this much I know that most of his friends were not “Sheikites.”I can, however,  safely vouch that the immaculate M.A. Jinnah was his icon when it came to clothing. He did not wear Saville Row suits, but as far as I remember, he always wore well-stitched cashmere suits during spring and summer. In winters, cashmere was replaced by Harris tweed. He never wore a turban as was the won’t in the day, but a fashionable karakul Jinnah cap- dark brown and black were his favourites. A trench coat also was part of his wardrobe- when he bade us adieu at 39,  there were over a dozen suits in his closet. My heavy-set uncle had no use for his slender brother’s Suits. He wore a Bandhgala coat (closed collar coat), a pantaloon-numa-pyjama and an oval-shaped version of Karakul (locally also called Peshwar cut). It was popularised internationally by President Ayub Khan. It had made it to the front pages when Jacqueline Kennedy flaunted it in Peshawar in 1962. His choicest footwear was Bata’s Jalsa Juttis- he admired its lightness and ease of wearing. The outfit uncle had chosen for himself as his office dress; suited his body; he looked debonair and commanding. For many, he passed for  Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, Chief Minister of North Western Frontier Province,   very much in the news those days for having sent Mehsuds and Afridis to Kashmir. Qayyum Khan, of Kashmir ancestry and my uncle looked like twins. Our grandmother had a grouse against his not wearing a suit like his elder brother. She was not happy with his burliness – and she blamed Ali, one of his favourite grandsons– whose story I have related in an early piece under the title ‘” The Two Ali’s” in part two of my ‘My Memoir- My Father’.

She nurtured a belief that she would share as often as padshah kaeth on chilly nights and just as eloquently as those beautiful stories. With a deep sigh, she would often say: Your uncle Ghulam Nabi was as slim as a poplar tree- pointing towards a polar tree in Muhammad Malik and Sakina’s compound – the only Shia family in our Mohalla. But, his travel in the ominous Dakota to Jammu altered his body- and made him burly. He had to fly to Jammu to prevent  Ali from crossing to Pakistan. Immediately after he was engaged to his first cousin, Ali had run away from home- running away to the newly found country was a craze and adventurism for some young men in the fifties of Kashmir. Your uncle could not prevent him from crossing into Sialkot; when he reached the border, he had already gone, but it took a toll on Ghulam Nabi’s health. He had not also tolerated Jammu’s heat and vomited blood on his return.’

We, as children, took our grandmother’s tales about our uncle’s weight gain because of travelling in Dakota as the gospel truth. But many times, I imagined, if he had remained as slim as the poplar tree as  Ded wished him to be, would he have the same striking personality that would scare juvenile coin-gamblers in the backyard of our house. The landscape of our lower-middle-class Mohalla was dominated by artisans who would work through the week on walnut wood, carpet and shawl looms or toil over copper and tin utensils for much richer patrons. The only open space in our Mohalla was an empty yard -nicknamed Tschouth. On Fridays, a smattering of these artisans would entertain themselves by gambling with loose change. Five to six people played the game. The game had its own set of rules that each player would remember by heart. Some other boys crouched under mulberry and played cards. My uncle’s presence scared away these small-time juvenile gamblers – I can’t say if it was out of respect for him that these boys ran away or out of fear as they fled as they would do on spotting the policeman wearing a red-blue turban with the fan. Nevertheless, his booming voice would collapse fainthearted.

Many times, when I look at the personality of my uncle, I start believing he was many things in one, and every aspect of his life had its beauty- he was a rainbow but had many more shades and colours than “Triumphal arch, that fill’st the sky.”  

(To be continued)   

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