She glanced up and looked straight into my eyes. An expression of disbelief and surprise flushed over her beautiful face. With her pouting lips almost hanging for support, she made it explicit by asking me that expected question, “Are you sure Mr Aftab?”
“Of course I am!” was my spontaneous response.
She was a young attractive woman in her twenties, a familiar face at the Jet Airways check-in counter at Delhi airport. After returning from the USA and setting up my own business network in western and southern India, I had been travelling a lot from Delhi to Bangalore and Pune by Jet Airways. It was more than a coincidence that most of my check-ins were handled by her. I always enjoyed talking to her because she resembled my daughter, in mannerisms as well as in cute expressions with a smiling face. She respected my age and was always more than courteous. My seat preference was known to her and even if I forgot to tell her she never forgot to say, “Sir, here is your boarding pass. You have the aisle seat. Enjoy your flight.”
It had become a habit with me to always request for an aisle seat even if I was flying to Jaipur or Chandigarh. Even after I got successfully operated for my enlarged prostate, some of my not so pleasant in-flight and off flight experiences before my surgery had left me with this obsession. Therefore, it certainly was a surprise for her to hear a first time request from me for a window seat.
“For a change this time,” I laughed and said, “Let me see how it looks when you are at the top of the world.” She smiled and the next moment I was in the queue for security check up for Srinagar bound flight.
Sopore, a small town in north Kashmir, nicknamed “Chhota London” and famous for apple orchards, was the place I considered ‘my own village’- my roots ! My father perhaps was never keen to live in a small town like Sopore. Delhi had always been his ultimate destination. Maybe he was right in choosing that option because for a highly ambitious physicist, Sopore was too small a place to grow in. But despite his lack of interest in having any kind of attachment with his home town, he had made it a routine to visit Kashmir once a year during our summer holidays in Delhi. He would barely spend a week or ten days with us in Srinagar and take us around to Nishat Bagh, Shalimar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam, and fly back to Delhi. I usually spent rest of my summer holidays in Sopore with my grandparents.
I was excited like a little kid when I finally occupied a window seat on the Jet Airways flight to Srinagar. Fortunately, from my seat the wings of the aircraft did not obscure my vision. I could clearly see everything in my field of vision and once the flight approached the Pir Panjal range of mountains my heart started beating fast, as if I was going for an interview or an examination. I felt a wave of excitement touching my face gently as if somebody known to me was hugging and welcoming me. A strange feeling of intoxication overpowered my conscious state and I started getting drowned in a sea of colours. As if I was rewinding a video camera and looking at pictures of my past! I remembered myself in school uniform when I started going to a school in Philadelphia after my father migrated to the USA. A new but colourful world, much different from my school in Delhi, and poles apart from what I used to see in Sopore!
The flashback gradually shifted to our house in Philadelphia and focussed on my Dada Ji, a frail old man with a strong will power and extreme patience and tolerance. He had the unique virtue of extraordinary flexibility and adjustment with events in life. He never bothered anybody, never complained about anything. He was apparently very happy in the USA; at least my parents always boasted that and he never refuted that statement till his death. But I know for sure that he did carry a strong desire to return to India, to his native place, Sopore ! Perhaps nobody in the family knew that. Because he never disclosed it to anybody. But I came to know about it because he once asked me to write a letter to his childhood friend in Sopore. His advanced stage of Parkinsonism did not allow him to write himself. I still remember some lines from his letter:
“Our forefathers were either cremated on the banks of river Jhelum or buried in their ancestral graveyard in Sopore... You are perhaps lucky because you have an identified place for your burial in your family cemetery… but I don’t know where I will go... not to Sopore at least... Sopore is another world for me now! There is a river near Philadelphia called Delaware. I believe all rivers finally merge into the sea. So how does it matter whether it is Philadelphia or Sopore, Jhelum or Delaware? Bhagavad Geeta says death is like removing old clothes and putting on new ones; then why to worry about where you change your clothes? But then I wish to make this change in my ancestral land... Sopore... But I know it will remain a wish… I cannot fulfil it…”
I wrote this letter like a robot and did not understand the emotions behind it. I was surprised why Dada Ji’s eyes were wet when he was dictating that letter to me. I don’t think I shared his feelings at that time but I did feel sad while writing that letter. I didn’t like the contents of the letter and decided not to write any such emotional letters on his behalf in future. But I didn’t have to put myself to test because Dada Ji passed away within a week after that.
As a young kid I always wondered why Dada Ji always played a sad song from some Hindi movie on his tape recorder. Those days everybody else including my father listened to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Surprisingly, even Dada Ji used to like that kind of music whenever we played it. But after my Dadi Ji passed away, whenever he was alone he used to play the same sad song again and again. I heard that song so many times that I actually remembered the lyric by heart. Without understanding the meaning of the lyric I sometimes used to hum it on the tune of a famous composition from Neil Diamond, my favourite in those days. But it was only after many years that I understood why Dada Ji liked that song. It was from a film Kabuli-wallah and was picturised on a group of small traders from Afghanistan who used to come to India miles away from their homeland. Now I recollect that many times Dada Ji used to make lip movements with the playback from the tape recorder as if singing himself, “Chod kar teri zameen ko, door aa pahunchey hain hum… Phir bhi hai yehi tammana terey zarron ki kasam, hum jahan paida huye uss jagah pe hi nikle dam… (We have left our land and reached a far off place. But still it is our desire to breathe our last in a place where we were born.)” Every word of the lyric perhaps came from his heart !
Suddenly the scene outside the aircraft drifted my mind back to what I was seeing through the window. My eyes were spellbound to see the beauty of my land. We had crossed Pir Panjal and the beautiful valley surrounded by a vast range of mountains was before my eyes. But my mind again started wandering in the wilderness of my past... my own life, when I was a young software engineer, my wife, my children and my grandson Kabir. For a long time I had forgotten about my home in Sopore and my apple tree. My busy work schedule and my wife kept me away from all this while she was alive. But after her death I really felt that I was all alone in this world. My children are born and brought up in the USA. They don’t understand my feelings. I don’t even expect them to. But I do feel vulnerable. I feel like a five year old kid lost in a mela and nowhere to go.
One of those days when I was depressed with life, I started introspection. A strong feeling of disappointment and failure overwhelmed me when I thought about what I had achieved in life and what I had lost. I remembered my domestic servant in Delhi who always found a way to get relief from his tensions and worries by saying, “Sir, I want to go to my village.” As a child I could not imagine the magic effect of his going to his village in Bihar. But one thing I always noticed was that on his return he always looked cheerful and recharged. Even after his marriage and having a large family of his own in Delhi, he never stopped this practice of going to his village every year. As I grew older I noticed many people craving to go to their village in the event of any distress. One of our drivers lost his job because he risked going to his village against my father’s permission. My classmate’s cook preferred to resign from the job rather than postpone his journey to his village. Maybe that is how people with a heart behave. Suddenly I started craving for my own village. But where was my village!
“After all who is waiting for you there? When everybody from your family is settled in Delhi why do you want to go to Kashmir?” My close relations and friends discouraged me from visiting Kashmir.
“What is there to see? That debilitated structure you call your ancestral house?” They were even sarcastic and mocked at me.
But I didn’t get discouraged. Finally the day came when I got a green signal from them.
It was after a long waiting that I was finally on my way home, back to my own land, to revisit my roots in Kashmir!
It was late afternoon when our plane landed at Srinagar airport. When I came out of the plane, a cool breeze embraced me and I felt I was not alone. I could feel my grandpa’s presence over my shoulders. I gradually moved to the baggage claim area but to our surprise we were asked to go to the waiting lounge and wait for the next announcement. Everybody was confused about what was happening. My heart was beating fast. I was eager to come out of the airport and take a taxi straight to my home in Sopore. But there seemed to be some commotion all around us.
After spending a good three hours in the waiting lounge, we were asked to board the plane back to Delhi. It was yet another day when an army operation was going on to flush out terrorists and locals were pelting stones on the army and interrupting their operation- a paradox which is a reality now in Kashmir. The area around Srinagar Airport was under curfew and we were asked to fly back to Delhi. When the ground staff started directing us back to the plane I suddenly felt my knees were giving way and I was about to fall. I sat down on the chair to support myself. I thought about my apple tree for the last time and helplessly looked at the exit gate of the waiting lounge. Everybody except me left the waiting lounge. The ground security staff suspiciously looked at me. While trying to gather all my energy to get up from the seat I remembered a couplet I heard from Dada Ji: “Kismet par us musafirey bekas pey royiyey, jo beeth jaye har key manzil key saamne! (Wail over the fate of a helpless traveller, who feels defeated and stops walking when he is very close to his destination!)”
*Ashok Patwari is a Pediatrician and Public Health Researcher by profession. Apart from his professional contribution as Professor of Pediatrics at Lady Hardinge Medical College, New Delhi and as Research Professor in International Health at Boston University School of Public Health, Boston he has also served World Health Organization in India and in Philippines. A collection of his short stories in Urdu titled ‘Kuch lamhey kuch saayey’ was awarded by Delhi Urdu Academy in 2005. He has also published 4 collections of his short stories in Hindi- hta paani’ (in print), ‘Racecourse key godhey’, ‘Sitaron sey aagey’ and ‘Ghonsla’ (e-books). “Turquoise Tulips”, a collection of his short stories in English was published in 2015. He regularly contributes to ‘Muse India’, ‘Contemporary Literature Review of India’ and ‘Phenomenal Literature’. .
Thanks Sanjay Ji for your comments. I particularly appreciate your observation about the name Aftab and his grandson Kabir! You are right, the main character is a KP. But I preferred to associate this character with a Kashmiri (Hindu or Muslim) who is away from his roots for whatever reasons, not necessarily our brethren who were forced to leave their homeland in 1990 !
Added By Ashok Patwari
Beautifully written ! Suttle sometimes like ...Our forefathers were either cremated on the banks of river Jhelum or buried in their ancestral graveyard in Sopore.....makes you understand why the name Aftab ( otherwise looks a very real pundit story )
Added By Sanjay Kaul