Gupa Dakhdhar - A Short Story

He was a Bhatta (a Kashmiri Pandit) named, Pt. Gopi Nath. What his surname was, I really do not know. Was it Chakoo (sour); Hustoo (elephant); Kachroo (swarthy); Teng (hillock); Vegra (rice gravy) Kaw (crow); or any other, I do not even venture to know. All Kashmiris are ingenious people and love to distort names and/or attribute subtle qualities to their own and to others’ names taking from elements, places, animals and other characters. Pt. Gopi Nath too was better known in his area as Gupa Dakhdhar. He was famous for his profession, which helped him to serve the suffering humanity. He hailed somewhere from the inner city of Srinagar and lived in his ancestral house, sharing it with four other families of his clan. I knew him when he was in his late forties. Gupa Dakhdhar was a man of medium size with a stout figure. He had a full, fair lama face with half-open eyes, always wearing a suggestive smile that was benign in nature. He had a full slanting forehead which was broad and furrowed. He manicured a turban on his broad head which was either light blue, mild green or slightly orange in color. He always wore a clean dress consisting of white pajamas and cream colored Boesky shirt over which he wore a grey Marino woolen sweater which was knit by his dear daughter and presented to him on a birthday. And during the nippy winters of Kashmir he pulled over a waist coat made of Harris wool over which he wore a tweed coat furred out of a Kashmiri woolen blanket. He had a calm and composed face which expressed him both as a saint and as a sage of deep understanding and morality.

I do not know what his endowments in Medicine were but he was known far and wide as a doctor with a miraculous touch. He had an obese, loutish, short statured wife who became clumsy on occasions when she was angry. But she was faithful to him and had borne him three handsome sons and one petite daughter. He had ensured proper education for his offspring as Kashmiri Pandits of his times did. He had married his daughter to a suitable Kashmiri Pandit boy after hunting prospects for years. Marriages in those days took due time and enquiries to materialize. He had educated his two sons properly, and they too were married to pretty Kashmiri Pandit girls after due enquiries and verification. His third son was still studying Medicine outside the State as there were no facilities in the State for such training. He had to spend quite a fortune on these ventures, which he raised by denying even basic necessities to himself and his family as was the practice with Kashmiri Pandits then; to be discreet and frugal. To record his personal sacrifices for these achievements, it will need the telling of a saga; Maybe some other time. He had great hopes in his last son who he dreamed would become a doctor and sahe his service to ailing humanity. He was known far and wide as the doctor with a difference.

He had established his medical shop which is called a clinic these days in a busy bazaar of the city, more than two decades back from when I knew him. It had no name because people at that time did not believe so much in publicity campaigns and advertisements as they do now. It thrived only on his performance and goodwill. His shop was located on the ground floor of a big building made of stone bricks covered in mud mortar with plenty of deodar timber. To enter his shop a wooden ladder was hinged with the Daswar (foundation beam) of the building behind which would be hidden sills. Those worked as a detachable gate of his shop and would slide sideways to open and to close the shop. The shop had an area of 18 feet by 12 feet with a 8 foot height. The walls of the shop were made of bricks, duly plastered with the mud of clay mixed with shredded rice straw to make them adhesive as well as cold and heat resistant. Wooden shelves were perched on all three sides of the walls at a distance of three feet above the ground to store and stuff drugs, medicines, tinctures and salts. Those were packed in big packs of cardboard and glass bottles to keep packing cost-effective, unlike now when medicines are packed in tiny but fancy packing materials which increase the basic price. Such medicines were cheap and affordable to the people. In the extreme back corner side of the shop was installed a wooden platform of 2 by 4 feet which was 1 foot high from the ground. The platform was covered by a woolen Namda (fur cloth which is pelted manually by men out of wool yarn by rolling and pressing in the mats). It was duly embroidered with the motif of Chinar leaves in a bronze color of wool yarn. This was the permanent seat of Gupa Daghdhar on which was also stored a small box of walnut wood of one by two feet dimensions. The sides of the box were engraved with Ladakhi monastery on one side, House boat on other side, a Temple on the third and a Mosque on the fourth. On the right-hand side of the top of the box was stacked a pack of small sized blank paper and an inkpot and pen with a nib. On the left top side of the box was stored a glass bottle with wide mouth in which was planted a mercury thermometer. On a side of the bottle was a stainless steel box of surgical instruments on which was placed a long iron case containing a mercury blood pressure machine. He wore a tidy stethoscope around his neck which he rarely used. The floor of the shop was covered with rough mats woven of paddy straw, which were layered by soft shiny mats made of hay from the famous Dal Lake. This mat flooring provided sufficient insulation to keep cold and heat under control.

Patients came to this shop from far and wide, so renowned was Gupa Dagdhar in those days, when all the journeys were to be made on foot only. He was punctual in his duties and would reach his shop at 7.30 in the morning after traversing four miles from his residence, both in the nipping cold of peak winter (Chilai Kalan) and sultry heat of summers. He would slide the sills of his shop at close of the day when it became pitch dark in the city, as electricity was barely available. Throughout the day he had to work and serve the needy without a let up except taking a short break to partake his meals which his wife would pack daily in a deep bottomed, bronze, cylindrical case. It was believed that eating from a bronze utensil would make one’s life long and problem free. His meals comprised of a service of full brown local rice topped with green Sag (knoll kohl), fried potato lumps, turnips, lotus stem slices, spinach, dry beans, and other vegetables which were locally available. During the winter months his meals comprised of rice and pulses of different kinds, mixed with dry vegetables as no vegetables could be imported into the valley from rest of the country then, as is being done now. He knew no tea and snack breaks. His hands were always full because patients would start to throng his shop hours before he would open it. It was believed by people that he could treat all their ailments, simple as well as complex. His style of examination of his patients was unique. He would feel the pulse and diagnose the disease of a patient with three fingers and thumb of his right hand, with his eyes in kind of a trance. It was believed that he could read the seriousness of all ailments and sicknesses by feeling the pulse of the patient. It was said that he cured his patients with his intuition and mind which would never fail him. It was believed that such patients also who were abandoned by famous physicians of the town would be cured by him because he was a clean conscientious Dagdhar. Though he had a thermometer, he would rarely use it. The blood pressure apparatus which was on his box too would be collecting dust. But he would use his stethoscope occasionally. After feeling the pulse of the patient and examining his eyes and throat visually he would write down his prescription on a piece of paper in short hand and nod to the patient to move to the other side so that he could check the next patient. His patients were of all ages and both sexes. This way, after diagnosing 10 to 15 patients, he would stand up and go to his dispensing shelf which was perched on one side of the shop. He would start dispensing the medicines himself from the prescription slips of the entire batch of the patients examined already by him. He would mix measured quantities of tinctures, powders and tablets for his medicines, which would be ready after due grinding using a pestle and mortar of quick stone. He would thereafter pour it into the glass bottle which every patient was required to bring with him alongwith with fresh cold water which he had already stored in large glass jars. The bottle of medicine was properly shaken and mixed whereafter it was dozed with a paper strip duly cut with scissors by him. So the entire process of manufacturing of medicines for the patients involved Gupa Dagdhar himself. He was meticulous in his calculation of salts, tinctures and drugs and made no mistake in that. That was why it was said that his diagnosis would always be correct and his medicines perfect. He was not only the physician specialist but also the pharmacist extraordinary of the patient. All kinds of patients would visit him and he would do his best to restore them back to their normal state of health

After dispensing medicines to the first group of patients, he would examine the second and the third and then subsequent batches throughout the day and go about dispensing medicines in the same way. This process continued day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. There were no holidays and days off for him because he was religiously conscious that he could not afford such latitude in his profession of service to the suffering humanity. He thought that it was his Karmic duty ordained by forces beyond his knowledge. He was not working that hard for the lure of lucre because the bills he would charge for his service to his patients were just nominal. He had not taken his profession as a mere trade as he believed that he was born to serve the ailing and mitigate their pain and agony. Usually his bill for all services to the patient would total from 6 annas to 10 annas (A Rupee would comprise of 16 annas then).There was hardly a patient who was not happy with Gupa Dakdhar. He was therefore compared with Dr. Ali Jan (FRCS) who was a medical genius of the town at that time.

When the number of patients further increased at his shop, he felt handicapped to attend to them all in diagnosing and dispensing. He could not afford to put them off to tomorrow as he could not see their agonies prolonged. So he associated an aged and emaciated Kashmiri Pandit to help him to compound the medicines for patients so that he could serve more of them. Now, Gupa Dakdhar got more satisfaction from his job, which he performed as his moral duty. That was the time when medical facilities were based on some basic salts, tinctures, sulpha and other life saving drugs only. Antibiotics were making their appearance but were hardly available in the town. So it was not easy to treat patients with different diseases and chronic ailments, especially when clinical examinations and tests were restricted to Govt Hospitals which were just three in number. Even X-Rays were primitive and not suggestive as they are these days. Besides, people of Srinagar and the valley were poor and could not afford expensive tests, treatments and medicines. Therefore availability and provision of cheap medical service to the poor people was more important then than it is now when incomes have increased manifold. Gupa Dakdhar had realized and felt this need and had taken it upon himself to do as much as his abilities would allow him. It will not be out of place to mention that most of the patients who claimed him to be their savior were Muslims of adjacent areas. But he never treated anybody on the basis of his caste and status. For him every patient was the image of God and therefore important to him. Every patient deserved the best out of him and he did not hesitate to give it. He would rarely take recourse to use of injections and pain killers as he thought of them to be addictive. His treatment would consist of some doses of mixture along with some powders and tablets. He believed in the power of nature and diet regulation to control most kinds of sicknesses. He would advise a little fasting to his patients followed by a light diet of rice with soup of vegetables, sometimes mixed with small shreds of fatless mutton of a ram with plenty of warm water and Khewah (herbal green tea) for detoxification. He would advise fibrous diets for bowel movement and system cleaning. Everyone loved and respected him for his impassioned services to the sick and ailing.

It went on like that till the bloody autumn of 1989 when Kashmir started smoldering for reasons he could not fathom. A sinister chill seemed to be engulfing the environment all around. He started feeling ignored and isolated. The rush of patients at his shop seemed to be thinning gradually. He started becoming restless and had premonitions that something was amiss somewhere. He had witnessed occasional civil turmoil in the valley before but this time it was different. It seemed macabre. There were days when he would see no patient at his shop, an impossible phenomenon in the past and it was not that he had lost his miraculous touch. So he started to become restive as it was not his Karma to be idle. He started pondering as to what had gone wrong. He could not understand because he was a simple, straight man of deep spiritual values. Conditions all around were growing nastier day by day. Bomb blasts became common. Public and private buildings were being razed. Innocent Hindus were being persecuted and killed in the most barbaric manner. Commercial activity was brought to stop with frequent calls for Bhunds, which were termed as civil curfew by Islamic militants. All civil activity came to a standstill. Kashmir Police went into hiding. The administration seemed to be conniving in all this mess as all offices remained closed. Politicians had simply vanished. Civil anarchy was rampant and thugs and radically indoctrinated goons were holding the stage. Civility and nobility seemed to have sunk deep under the frenzied turbulence of Islamic radicals. All Muslims of the valley seemed to have succumbed to the radical Islamic propaganda against Hindus of the valley and India. These indoctrinated radicals preached hate and exhorted violence from the pulpits of mosques. Frantic efforts were made to Talibanize Kashmir and establish a mono-religious regime of Nizami-Mustaffa in which there was no space for others and even the liberals of Muslim community. Even human pain and agony had prostrated before the fundamentalist frenzy. Muslims of the valley were ordered to forget their pain and misery and gird for a revolt and insurrection. They seemed to have fallen into the trap of the preachers of hate and violence. Hate and anger polluted the atmosphere so much that even services of Gupa Dakdhar and many more Kashmiri Pandits like him who were institutions of selfless service and mercy were not only ignored but derided also. More than anything else this pained him the most because he had never ever thought and worked on such narrow and unethical lines. He was a superb human being. His adjacent shop keepers who were all Muslims too started to ignore and despise the same Gupa Dakdhar who had been a saint and a messiah for them. Still taking all risks of his life in those treacherous days he would trudge the way to his shop whenever civil curfew or Govt curfew was lifted. But he would be pained when no patient would visit his shop. He was too simple to understand the under currents that were dictating social behavior of the times. His harassed wife would report to him that all his kith and kin had already run out of town as they were intimidated and threatened by the Islamic militants who had infiltrated the town. But Gupa Dakdhar could not agree with her as he thought her to be too timid. He thought that he had no enemies and rivals. He reprimanded her and advised her not panic.

But the nail stuck on the head one day when he reached his shop as usual in the morning after a gap of ten days during which militants had imposed civil curfew. It was a time when civil curfew was imposed for weeks on end by the militants to harass and pester the civil population and Govt curfew too was imposed for weeks on end to counter terrorist pressure and manipulations. After opening his shop, the first man who visited him was his immediate neighbor shopkeeper who was a model of grace and good etiquette as he belonged to Khawaja caste. But this day he was not that. He was denuded of good manners and customary courtesies. He was blunt and brash and told Gupa Dakdhar in cold words that his activities were being watched closely. It was believed that Gupa Dakdhar was working for security forces for information collection, he told him. Such were the tools of propaganda that terrorists employed to agitate the sedate minds of Muslims and provoke mob fury under operation Topaz. He was told that otherwise there was no reason for him to stay put when other members of his community had already run out of the Valley. He was advised to mind the advice or in the alternative he would lose his life.

On hearing this Gupa Dakdhar got the greatest shock of his life which he carried with himself to his pyre. He could not believe his ears. All previous six decades of his life in which he had served his patients who were mostly Muslims flashed as a live documentary in his mind He felt listless with pain for which he had no remedy with him. He waited an hour or two at his shop but his mind was floating because no one visited him after his peer warned him in the morning. So earlier than usual, he paid his obeisances to the picture of Mata Saraswati that was dangling from one of the shelves with a choke in his throat. He slid the sills of his shop door and locked it firmly for good. But before leaving the place he had a last look at his shop which too had beckoned him to escape and save himself, who had saved hundreds by his service. Trudging the distance to his home seemed an eternity that day. He crawled into his room like an insect that has been crumpled by a naughty boy. His wife seeing him so down and pale asked him if every thing was well. He burst into tears and said nothing in return. His wife who was intelligent like other Kashmiri Pandit ladies understood all and offered him a warm Khasoo of green tea to soothe his nerves.

On the same cold night of November 1989 Doordarshan Srinagar flashed out a news item which he watched on his Black and White television set that he had bought on installments, squared only last month. His next door neighbor’s boy who was working in a Central Govt. office was gunned down on the main road near his house by militants because he was dubbed an informer, as all Kashmiri Pandits were alleged to be. This news was the ultimate chill that went through the spine of Gupa Dakdhar. He knew that it was all over for him and his family. He had to run otherwise he or any member of his family could become cold statistics in his uncertain tomorrow. The air was nippy and there was a bizarre groan in the atmosphere. He asked his second young son to pack up some valuables that were light to carry for the next morning. His daughter had already moved out of the town with some relatives, to which place he did not know. His wife started sifting more valuable articles of the house and filled two sacks. While packing she could not believe herself that she had saved and stored so many valuables as all Pundit ladies those days used to due to their education in frugality and contentment. It was hard for her to distinguish between more and less valued ones. She and even he wondered how she had saved so much in Gupa Dakdhar’s house that she had to leave so much behind. It was extremely painful for all of them. But there was no way out because transport was not easily allowed to Kashmiri Pundits and there was no place to carry such goods in such uncertain conditions.

Early next morning, even as frost remained on the ground, he, his wife, son and daughter in law started early. Each one of them took up a sack except his son’s wife who had a small toddler to carry in her lap. They started for Tourist Reception Centre (a landmark building of brick and timber where from all transport flowed out of the Valley -subsequently put to ashes by the terrorists) on foot. They had to cover a distance of three miles and no mode of transport was available to them, as it was not to other Pandits also under instructions of the terrorists. They started at pitch dark, at 5 A.M from their home, in which they had smiled and wept and lived for more than half a century. They trudged the distance, panting in the winter frost for a full two and a half hours during which their entire existence seemed to be a burden. A bus was ready for Jammu. They boarded it in panic as fire shots were heard somewhere nearby.

Thus ended the sojourn of Gupa Dakdhar in the valley of Reshis where his father and forefathers and their forefathers had taken birth, grown and had been cremated for centuries on end. His job of service to the suffering humanity, which he performed with religious devotion shall be remembered in the heavens but not recorded in modern Kashmir History which has been tarnished by Islamic fundamentalists. He was an institution of dedication and service like many other Kashmiri Pandits in other production and service sectors of Kashmir’s social and commercial life. Many of then had shone in education, judiciary, trade, commerce, agriculture, small scale and cottage industries, forestry, animal husbandry among other professions. And all of them contributed to the growth and nurturing of the composite culture for which Kashmir was famous then and for the lack of which it is infamous now.

*P.N. Ganjoo was born in a modest Kashmiri family about 7 decades ago, lost his father early and was raised by his honest, hardworking mother. With her efforts he received his education in Srinagar and went on to serve in various Government Departments before retiring as a senior grade KAS officer.

Presently he is working on his varied interests besides being a consulting Director of a software services company.

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Could not stop reading once I started reading it. Thanks, Ganjooji for a nice story.
Added By Sunil Aima
Dear Uncle, Your writing always takes me back to my childhood. Your story writing tells all of us something about our culture and makes us feel close to it. Please write more of them so that we can compile a book of your short stories. With Lots of love to you and Auntie from all of us. Regards, Sanjay P.S. Iha and Hemang love to read your stories.
Added By sanjay Kaul
Dear Nanu, I love your stories. For me this is a gateway to my heritage since I have never been to Kashmir. Your stories help me understand what it was like back then for a Kashmiri Pandit.
Added By Arman Koul