Life is a weird roller coaster of emotions for us human. Not sure if it is for the our tiny companions we call insects.
Once upon a time, I used to paint for fun just because I loved vibrant dyes, I loved brush strokes, I loved silk and I loved how when the dyes marry the sheen of soft silk fiber, and magically transform a white serene silk fabric into gorgeously dazzling piece of cloth with vivid colors and that there were endless ways one could play with various techniques to get stunning results.
Though I first began painting while in school, and then restarted almost 25 years ago with French Dupont dyes, I have been consistently inconsistent, with indulging in silk painting in paroxysms and then going into a long slumber periodically. Last I painted was a couple of years ago, or maybe more. But had always been planning to do it with more consistency and devotion.
And look, at the irony, whose mother I am? Of Fatima Fasih, who people say has some superhuman stamina and passion for watercolors. She has been painting very consistently, diligently and with the same passion every single day, despite her education, marriage, job and now baby coming in the way. After Fasih’s demise, she has been constantly pushing me to, “Get back to painting Ammi. It will help you. It will be therapeutic.” And I always whined back, “I don’t have time. There are too many responsibilities on my head.”
However, truth is that if you have passion, there is no need to have extra time. The time stretches itself mysteriously to accommodate one’s passion. Literally mothering me, Fatima made a plan. She said,
So I began yesterday night, to just give myself a try. The first honeybees, I was not sure of them. So then went on to make lady birds and dragon flies. Being men’s ties, and not some ‘wimmens’ dupattas or scarves, even Ismail Fasih, my son, was intrigued and kept popping into my room to check what’s Ammi doing with the ties?
In fact he was the one who gave me the idea to make honeybees, ladybirds and dragon flies. He now likes each of them and refuses to share which one he likes the most. “They are all nice Ammi. Why do you want me to compare.”
And so I begin painting, with both my beautiful children on my back. It is still work in progress and immensely therapeutic too. I hope this time I don’t relapse. Lastly, as I painted, I really missed Syed Fasihuddin, who would always come in and out of the room, whenever I painted, expectantly looking, without saying, “When will this finish?” He was not there, so I went on painting unchecked for 7 hours, with no break.
Here is the series, “Life goes on….” be it a loss, or pandemic, these tiny creatures went on their life as usual.
We returned back to Delhi in end April 1977. After staying a week or so with our cousins at Jama Masjid, one day Papa Ammi came back happy that they have found a house in Ashok Vihar after a long search. One of the reasons to choose Ashok Vihar was that in less than 6 months Papa was planning to start the construction of our house in Vaishali, a University Teachers Housing Cooperative colony at Pitampura. Then, Minocha Uncle, one of Papa’s old friends and colleague had suggested that Ashok Vihar would be an ideal location, if he wanted to put us kids in a good school. Montfort School was one of the best schools there. Even in 1977, it was still not an easy task to find a house in a locality which were vast majority BJP voters.
But Papa Ammi’s liberal appearance and charisma worked. The house they finally succeeded to rent was owned by a couple who were both active workers of RSS in the area. It was a very small 2 bedroom portion on the first floor, but had a big terrace. Papa, as he would always do, took all three of us siblings into confidence and explained, “Dont worry, the house is small. We have to stay only 6 months to an year here, and then we will have our own big house. And of course you will miss the openness of Kashmir, but this house has a big terrace and it faces the green belt jungle and a railway line passes from the far end of the green belt.” He was trying to console us in a very positive way. Eventually, as Papa loved the verandah in Kashmir, most of his and all our evenings were spent on the terrace in this house too.
There were terrible summers when we arrived in Delhi. I still recall those days with a shudder. This was our first encounter with such high temperatures, in our living memory. In a few weeks as the mercury soared higher in May, and the heat became far more suffocating, all three of us kids fell sick with Malaria. Papa and Ammi were nervous, and ran all over the markets, looking for desert coolers. It was peak summer so they were all sold out. Ammi has always been very innovative. Imagine what she did to cool the house. She would open the showers in the bathrooms, and place a table fan in front of it, with the bathroom door open, so the air that blew from the fan was humid and cool. In a couple of weeks, or less, finally the rooms were fitted with desert coolers.
I was still not able to fathom why on earth were Ammi Papa still so happy in Delhi? What was it that we all had to leave Kashmir, when most of our friends happily continued to live in that beautiful valley? Papa’s biggest source of excitement was the prospect of constructing his own home. This was a dream since his days when he lived in his father’s house in Jama Masjid- to have a house of his own. Long before my birth, he had become a member of a housing scheme for Delhi University teachers in 1964. Like any such housing cooperatives, it took from 1964 to 1977 for the land to be finally allotted for construction. Delhi was a congested city and houses were expensive even in mid 70s, and salaries in India were very modest. So it was well out of reach of a salaried class person to purchase a land and then build a house. With this background, it was indeed commendable for a self-made man like Papa to acquire land and build a house. Most of his friends and family were in awe. And Ammi Papa were nervously planning the funds for the next stage- the house construction.
In the meantime, as tenants, we were faced with a senior couple as our landlords, who were old workers of RSS- a radical Hindu extremist organization. Being fussy about what should not be cooked in their rented home, even the other Punjabi families wouldn’t feel comfortable renting their home. Due to stringent conditions to renters, the property dealers generally avoided showing their house to prospective tenants. One day, when Ammi Papa were exhausted looking for a house with the property dealer, he asked, “There is a house which is vacant since a long time. But the landlords are difficult and you are Muslims. They might not even consider you.” Papa was always very optimistic, he told him, “Take us there, we will talk out with them.” Not sure, what transpired, but he managed to convince the landlord to rent it to us.
My parents, being moderate Muslims, were respectful of their religious sentiments, and were in dire need of a short term rental place. They thought they would be able to spend next six months as tenants there, without any problems. The owners had put restrictions on us to not cook non-vegetarian food items on two days, Tuesdays and Saturdays and never bring certain meat parts(like organ meat, trots, and beef) to the house. It did make Ammi Papa uncomfortable but out of respect and religious sentiments, they strictly followed their rules.
Auntie, the landlady, as my parents called her, would quietly sneak into the terrace, and come to check what was cooking in the kitchen. But since my parents were complying to their demands and respecting their sentiments, they did not object. In fact, they invited her in and let her reassure herself. Ammi’s name was Meraj. But Auntie told her, “I will call you Meera.” So from that time, Ammi became Meera, not only for her, but to all the other neighbors.
My brothers would go down to the park across the house to play football with other boys. They were barely 11. One day a boy asked them, “Tum log musalman ho? Lekin tumhari tou daarhi nai hai.” (You people are Muslims? But you don’t have a beard?) 😀 I swear I am not exaggerating or making it up. This was the exact question asked. Another boy some other time remarked, “Hum nai pata tha Muslims itne ache bhi hote hain.” (We didn’t know Muslims can be this good).
In a few months, one of the neighbors who my parents and brothers had become friends with, started preparations for the wedding of their eldest son. They went on distributing invitation cards in the area. I remember we were so anxiously waiting for our invitation, that never arrived. We would stand by the terrace fence and watch their home being decorated, crates of Coke being brought in, boxes of mithais, marigold flowers, rental crockery etc for the preparations. One day a huge tent was set up in the same park the kids played together. All the families in the colony went to the wedding, but we three kids just kept watching the hustle bustle and the music and dance from our terrace in the dark of the night, so that nobody would know we were watching. Papa had noticed our disappointment, and again he sat down on the dining table with us siblings and talked to us. My brother said, “I think we were not invited because we are Muslims.” But Papa very tactfully explained, “Beta we are just short term tenants here, that’s why they did not invited us.” It didn’t make us feel better at all. But of course in few days all was forgotten.
We kids were admitted in Montfort School and were the only and first Muslims in the School then. Papa bought us bicycles to ride to school. Bro. John of S.H. who was the principal, was unusually impressed by Papa, his secular credentials and his pursuit to educate his children including ‘the daughter’ in a convent school contrary to his stereotypical views on Muslims. In the first year, he told Papa, “Its middle of the session and I have no vacancy in the classes. But I will take your daughter in the school.” So I was in. Hilmi & Subhi had to go to a Sikh School, Mata Jai Kaur Public School, for one year, before they joined Montfort, a year later. Montfort School and Bro. John have been a huge influence in my life and will be writing about it in the next blog on Vaishali. Not sure for the reason then, but I was showered an unusually special attention by Brother John. Whenever Brother John, as school principal came to our class, or saw me in the break time, he would give a wide smile and ask, “Baby, how are you doing? Hope no one is troubling you?” In front of the entire class, it was quite embarrassing to be made the center of attention, but quite flattering too, to be honest. My class fellows who called me Illu, and specially the boys, teased me for this special attention from Brother John. “Yaar Illu ko dekh ker pata nahin Bro. John kyun itna muskurata hai?”
Brother told Papa, more than once, that being the only Muslim girl in the school, he gave special attention to me and wanted to see me thrive. He had even shared with Papa that when he was the Principal of Montfort School branch in Sardana, most Muslim families there only wanted their boys to go to the ‘pricey’ convent school. Brother John was generally an affectionate person and was kind to my brothers, and to all kids in the school. Most parents liked him. But I had the privilege of some extra attention. Looking back I can say he was not by any means wanton in his affection, (as some may presume while reading) otherwise that would have rung the bell instantaneously. He was just fascinated by a progressive, educated Muslim family and had massive respect for Papa and Ammi.
In August that year, Papa’s Khala in Lahore fell sick, and asked Papa to come and visit her. All of Papa’s maternal side had moved to Pakistan and were settled in Lahore. Papa had to take specially permission from Bro. John for a 2 week break for us. Incidentally, Papa met the Pakistani Ambassador in some function in Delhi and mentioned about his Khala to him. The ambassador invited Papa to come to his embassy and get the visa. Within hours our entire family was issued the visa too. (Those were the days I swear !) My brothers and I returned from the school one day and Papa Ammi gave us a news, “We are going to Pakistan.” My parents went down to inform uncle and auntie that we were going for a visit to Pakistan, very cautiously, expecting that a negative reaction may come from them. They didn’t react. Honestly, I wasn’t very excited either. “Visit Pakistan? Of all the places?” I must have thought.
To their utter surprise, a day later, both Uncle and Auntie came upstairs and made an emotional appeal to Papa. As Uncle was well versed in Urdu and had studied the language in pre-partition days, he asked Papa, “Professor Sb aap se ek guzaarish hai.” He explained that they lived as newly weds in a house in Lahore before they migrated to India in 1947. He requested if we could go and visit that house in Lahore and bring back a picture of that house for them. “Ham per ye aapka ek bahut bara ehsaan hoga.” (It would mean a great deal to us). They remembered the house address, and the details of where in the gali to turn, 29 years later. The sparkle in their eyes and the excitement with which he talked, could tell that their bond of love for their home city Lahore was still strong and the memories of their newly married days in that house were still very fresh.
The address was (some number, am unable to recall), Ram Gali, Lahore.
We took the train from Delhi to Amritsar, and then crossed the Wagah-Atari border in another train and, in barely an hour there we were on Lahore Railway Station. Papa’s first cousin, Mohammed Mian, was there to receive us at the station. A few days later, we went to visit Ramgali and Papa took tons of photographs. The current residents were quite hospitable and showed us around, pointing at all the curious things in the house they had left exactly as they were with the previous owners. One such thing was the “Om” emblem installed at the head of the entrance of the house. It was a huge surprise for my parents too.
After almost a hurricane fortnight in Lahore and Karachi, when we returned back to Delhi, first thing my father did was to develop the photos of our trip. He collected the pictures of the house in Ram Gali, Lahore into a small album and presented it to the landlords.
Going through the pictures in the album, the old couple broke down. Tears admixed with smiles lit their eyes and faces bright, as they flipped through the album, back and forth, noticing minute details in the pictures. My parents gave them a verbal synopsis of our visit to their house in Lahore. Auntie was particularly moved by the symbol “Om” still being in its original place, and that even the name of the street still being Ram Gali. They even acknowledged with honesty that they have heard no names have been changed in Pakistan, unlike how they changed in India, post partition. Auntie Uncle were different humans after that day.
Around the same time, my Nani (maternal grandmother) had passed away, and Ammi would feel depressed. Auntie would then console her by saying, “Meera, you are my daughter; as it is I have none.” She had two sons, and they, too, were living away in different cities. Her maternal instincts now were no more stymied by differences of faith. Auntie never came up to check for non-veg being cooked in the kitchen again. But she did visit to give us guavas from her tree in the backyard or chameli (jasmine) flowers from the garden, which my mother loved so much.
Our new house in Vaishali was under construction and Ammi Papa would be gone there after their jobs and returned late. Auntie Uncle reassured them that they will keep and eye on us kids. And would occasionally call us from the stairs to check of we needed anything. “Almana, Hilloo, Gulloo, beta aap ko kuch chahiye?”
One day Uncle offered to Papa, “Professor, take me to the construction site, as I have experience in house building and will be able to give you some suggestions.” He then became the go-to person for any trouble-shoot during the construction. Papa’s very old friend Kohli Uncle became our contractor and his son Narendra Kohli was the architect. Uncle insisted to sit down with them to design the house to facilitate cost effectiveness.
We ended up staying almost 2 years in Ashok Vihar. By this time, our house was almost built and needed only some finishing touches. Papa was anxious to shift into his dream home by the time second contract at Ashok Vihar ended. But the house was still not completed. We moved out of Ashok Vihar in April 1980 after writing my 10th grade Board exams. This meant we would have to commute in DTC buses to come to school from Vaishali. Since the rooms were not ready, Papa decided that we shift to our ancestral home in Jama Masjid for a few months before shifting to Vaishali. The next blog would be about Jama Masjid and Vaishali homes.
One thing that became very glaringly clear to me, from these personal experiences is what Raza Aslan, the Iranian-American author has said, and I quote, “It’s not knowledge but relationships that change minds.” And since then, I carry this wisdom up on my sleeves, and yet each time need to consciously remind myself of my unconscious biases.
PS: Our visit to Pakistan, and Uncle Auntie’s emotional reaction to the pictures we gave them, was perhaps the moment, when my own apprehensions against Pakistan were removed from my psyche. Though still a very patriotic Indian, but this definitely helped me take the decision years later to marry Fasih, a Pakistani, with ease. Uncle Auntie were already in their 70s and they passed away a few years after we moved to Vaishali. Brother John remained an integral part of the lives of our whole family even long after we left school. Papa Ammi visited him on every Christmas Eve and invited him for lunch on Eid. Whenever I was visiting Delhi after shaadi, a visit to him with kids was a must. Much to my children’s amusement, he still called me ‘Baby’. Brother John passed away some 5 years ago. There are more stories of Bro John to share while were were in Vaishali. We made lifelong friends in school, and all the classmates and some juniors and seniors are now great FB friends and part of whatsapp groups. Social media has been a gamechanger, indeed. Kohli Uncle was much older than Papa and he passed away a few years later. Narendra bhaiya is still on my FB friends, list, though I have not met him for 3 decades at least.
While I hunt for some Ashok Vihar pics from school days, and these school friends, here are some pics with school from much later days.
A smitten father of a 4 1/2 year old favorite daughter, Papa was unusually touched when I had asked, “Papa hum gate waaley ghar mein kyun nahin rehtey.” (Papa, why don’t we live in a house with a gate?). He was an emotionally intelligent man otherwise.
Coincidentally one of his friends, who we remember as Naseem Ansari was going abroad for few years, and he had built a very tastefully designed bungalow in Model Town E-Block in Delhi. That house was located near a small lake in Model Town, and hence is referred to as, ‘Jheel wala makaan’ in our household. Naseem Ansari was looking for some good tenants who would value the house and keep it well. When Papa asked him he readily agreed to rent out to him. .
Within weeks we were in that gate-wala ghar in E-Block Model Town Delhi. As barely a 4 and a half year old in 1969, I remember how proud I was of being a resident of a stylish house. I am sure my parents were happy too, if not excited like me. And perhaps, my baby brothers were too small to even understand the change. But they clearly had a lot of open space inside home and in the lawn in front to run around. Papa hosted a big party for his close friends and colleagues in this house. A few of his friends I remember were Yogesh Uncle, Balraj Puri Uncle, Khaliq Anjum uncle, Aslam Pervaiz Uncle and Mohinder Saini uncle. It is probably this house that has impacted my sense of what a house should be-aesthetically pleasing to all five senses.
Papa’s younger sister, Farhat Phupijan would often come, with her little kids, to spend a day with us. Her oldest son, Arif Bhai (Guddu Bhai), myself and my twin brothers all shared the same date of birth: 18th November. I remember having a fancy birthday party for all 4 of us in this house. One day, someone from Jama Masjid came with a box of sweets, saying that, Farhat Apa has given birth to another son. Papa narrated this story gazillion times to all he knew, until he lived: “When it was announced about a boy is born to Farhat, Ilmana was quick to ask, “Ek hain ya do hain”? (‘Are they one or two?)’ Papa would continue, “Only Ilmana had the legitimate right to ask that question, based on her personal experience.” Hahaha of course, I had seen my Mom give birth to two boys a few years ago. 😀
Just about 6 months in that house, Papa dropped Ammi and us kids at the railway station, for us to visit Ammi’s parents in Jaipur. When we returned after 2 weeks, I noticed stacks of cardboard boxes in the drawing room. I don’t remember much after that. But Papa later narrated that when he told us, “We are moving.” Ilmana was shocked and began to cry, “No I don’t want to leave this house. It is so nice.” By then probably the excitement of gate was gone, but the pride of living in such a ‘nice’ house had grown over me, I guess. I did not even care to know where were we shifting to? Papa and Ammi tried to explain, “Beta we are going to Kashmir.” I am sure I had no clue what Kashmir was, and why was there so much excitement in both of them about that move. Ammi Papa got busy in packing and one day a truck came at that very gate and took away all our boxes, and again that gate-wala house was empty. We barely lived less than an year in this house.
House No #3:
So in a few weeks, in early 1970, here we were, in a house in Srinagar, Kashmir. I remember it was dark when we arrived. The chowkidar had shown around the place to Ammi Papa, and all I remember is that we were sleeping on mattresses. I don’t remember being excited about the place at that very moment. It was a mundane room with nothing spectacular to be excited about. In fact the windows were old, and the walls were unclean. Nothing close to that pristine Jheel-wala-gate-wala house in Delhi. I was, likely, still grieving the leaving that Delhi house in my tiny heart.
We woke up in the morning and Papa and Ammi told us, “Come let’s go down”. Papa recalled later, “Ilmana, you asked, ‘down?’ Is there a shop there?” thinking probably we were again living in some 1st floor portion of a house like on Jain Sweets. We went down, and then went outside in the lawn. I was wonderstruck. This was a dream I had never even dreamt of. Such a big house with such a palatial open garden around it. The house was a big double storeyed bungalow, with bedrooms upstairs, and a gorgeous teak-wood staircase leading down to the drawing hall, dining area and the kitchen. The house seemed old, unkempt but had a vintage look. I bet, until then, I had not known that houses could be multi storeyed too. The Verandah outside the drawing room and all other rooms had windows looking out towards the Zabarwan mountain range(They are a short range of mountains between Pir panjaal and the Great Himalayas). There was an outhouse for the guests, semi-detached from the house with only a covered walkway connecting it to the main house. On the far end of a gorgeous lawn was the garage and two servant quarters facing across the main gate. The house was located on the University of Kashmir campus, right across Hazratbal shrine, which was a walking distance for us. A few weeks later the truck arrived, bringing all our furniture and belongings from Delhi. Before that Papa had got the entire house whitewashed and Ammi had done the deep cleaning with the help of other workers. So it looked clean and presentable now. Papa was a man of very fine taste. He had bought a beautiful Italian teak sofa set from some diplomat who was leaving, in his bachelor days, and really cherished that set. The sofa finally was all set in a huge drawing room but room still looked empty. Ammi was a great craftsperson and had embroidered cushions and table covers for her wedding trousseau, which were used to embellish the sofa set and the drawing room. Slowly the house was filled with other pieces of furniture and stuff, and we settle down. This is the drawing room where many of Papa’s university and other friends including Jagganath Azad Uncle had long, late night sittings, political debates, arguments and poetry sessions. We stayed in this house and in Kashmir for almost 10 years.
The huge lawn in the front and the side were always lush green and blooming with flowers of all sorts, including morning glory, hollyhocks, pansies, dog flowers, daffodils, dahlias, tulips, roses etc. In the kitchen garden Ammi grew tomatoes, cucumbers, pepper, beans, okra, brinjal, strawberries and more. Papa’s favorite place was the verandah and the front lawn- in summer and in winter. This is where he had his tea and read the newspaper early in the morning, and Ammi Papa had their evening tea, religiously. This house saw most of our relatives, from Delhi, Jaipur and across the world eagerly visit us, to see Kashmir and many international guests including Professors from Universities including Harvard, who visited Kashmir were hosted in this house. One of the visitors from Austria, while sitting in the lawn and having tea with Ammi Papa had remarked, “Do you know Prof Quraishi, Kashmir is more beautiful than Switzerland and Austria put together.”
The outhouse, the guest house, saw many guests stay there. Two most significant were: Safder Hashmi Bhai and Manzoor Fazili Uncle. Both of them have had an immense influence in our lives as kids. Manzoor Fazili Uncle was initially Papa’s PhD student who lived in a village called Bandipore and taught in a nearby Sopore College. Papa found him a brilliant scholar and advised him to accept the post of a lecturer in the department of Political Science, University of Kashmir, where Papa was a Professor and Head of the Department. So Fazili Uncle shifted to Srinagar, and Papa invited him to stay in our guest house until he found a house. Similarly Safder Bhai was appointed as a lecturer in English in Kashmir University. He was related to Papa, so while coming from Delhi, he took his contact details. One day Papa arrived with him at home and told Ammi, “Begum, Safder will stay with us in the guest house.” Until we stayed in Kashmir, Safder bhai lived with us. My brothers spent hours in his room and Safder bhai taught them acting and dance.
Ammi and us kids would be gone all day, to her college and our schools respectively, which were far away in the main Srinagar city. Ammi was teaching in the Govt. Girls College on Residency Road, Srinagar and we kids were studying in Mallinson Girls School and Tyndale Biscoe Boy’s School respectively. Both schools were located in the same scenic campus.
Since Papa walked to his department close by he would return for lunch in the afternoon. One day as he opened the house, he saw all the rooms were ransacked. Then this young boy barely in his early 20s emerged out of a room saying, “Mayn chor nahin huun.” ( I am not a thief). Papa replied, “Tou kya yahan namaz parhne aaye ho?” ( Have you come here to pray Namaz?). He was caught and handed over to the police. He was a small time thief who was just fascinated by fancy things like perfumes, watches and good clothes. Police later reported to Papa that all he had taken was “your cologne and poured over himself.” Papa told the police to set him free. Kashmir was a small community then, and most people knew us or each other. Once we had gone to the nearby Hazratbal market with Ammi to buy some vegetables and fruits. In one of the shops, a young boy was sitting and his face went red as he saw us. While Ammi was busy haggling with the fruit seller, he brought 3 boxes of apple juice for us kids and then vanished. When Ammi turned and asked us, “Who gave you these juices?” we had no clue and gave her a blank stare. Then a nearby shop keeper told Ammi, “Woh chor tha?” ( That was the theif.). Ammi was confused. He clarified, “He was the same boy, who had come to your house to steal.” ( He had a name, which I am unable to recall).
The house was part of the Kashmir University Campus residence to the teaching staff, near Hazratbal. There were identical houses in a row where professors and Librarians lived. The houses were built on an apple orchard and outside our houses in the vast open land were hundreds of apple trees. We literally grew up playing, singing and dancing around the trees (not very different from the Bollywood hero heroines), and of course climbing those trees and picking green apples, taking a bite and throwing the rest. We played around all day, from dawn till dusk, with no fear or insecurity ever crossing our parents’ minds.
Within a furlong, inside the campus, was the botanical garden of the Department of Botany. For the department it was their research lab, but for all the kids in the campus, it was a place to play hide and seek, and in summer vacations, collect leaves and flowers, with their names, to make a herbarium as holidays home work from the school. This helped us learn the names of so many plants and flowers, which normally we wouldn’t have known.
Kashmir has extremely cold winters with temperatures going down to -10* C. But the houses are not centrally heated like in the West. Hence most houses in Kashmir are made of wood which keeps them warm. But the bungalows in the University Campus were made of stones and concrete. My parents spent 10 winters at least in Kashmir Valley as a young couple and with three toddlers and then preteens for a decade. Winters were particularly tough for Ammi, doing the house chores. I remember Ammi complaining about washing and cooking with chilly water from the kitchen taps, as there were no geysers. She had to heat water on the stove when it got too cold. Both Papa and Ammi worked together to bathe us with stove-heated water in a chilled bathroom and put us to sleep every night in the bukhari heated room. I also remember how my parents piled up wood and saw dust in the garage( as there was no car in it) in the outhouse, for the fuel required in the bukhari. One bukhari was used the entire winter in one room at home, and all of 5 of us huddled in that room living, eating, playing and sleeping, day and night. Even the guests visiting us were made to sit there. Any trip outside for groceries and even for packing the bukhari drum with sawdust in the garage, Ammi Papa wore the woolen #Pheran and a carried a #Kangri inside it to keep them warm. Winters for us kids were fun though. No domestics responsibilities, no school even and plenty of excuse to play outside in the snow, and then come back inside in the comfort of a heated room. Papa loved winters too. But Ammi did not. Papa loved to have strolls while snowing, late at night, in full moon or in the pitch dark moonless night, in his full gear of a long tweed overcoat, muffler and a Persian lamb cap( which is a banned item now).
Ammi loved summers. After her College, house chores, she would find time to chat and give instructions to the gardeners and grass cutters. Almost all the time, the grasscutters were local Kashmiri herdswomen who came to cut grass to collect them for their cattle. Ammi convinced the old lady who came to our house, to send her daughter to college where she taught. After she graduated, this girl was counseled to join Papa’s department to do MA in Political Science. By the time we left, she had become a lecturer in one of the degree colleges in Kashmir. Once she was confirmed a lecturer, and engaged to be married, she walked barefoot with her mother from her home to Hazratbal Shrine and also visited our home the same time with tabarruk.
Our own lawn had a cherry, an apricot and almond trees. And they bloomed in early spring and by the time it was summer, bore fruits, and before we could pluck them once ripe, half of them were pecked by the birds. Ammi had planted a desi gulab creeper, which grew really big. After it was full bloom, she would pluck the rose petals, wash them, put them, in a glass jar with sugar. The bottles were kept in the direct sun all summer, until they matured into delicious gulqand. Papa was a pan eater. So we had an elaborate pandaan that was originally Phupi Amma’s. And guests were served, at the end of every feast with pan and home made gulqand.
Our home was well known in Srinagar for this pandaan and this gulqand that Ammi prepared every year. So much so that one fine evening when Papa Ammi were sitting in the Verandah, a car with Indian flag stopped at the gate. The Governor of Kashmir, Bhagwan Sahay, a North Indian, came out of his car, and walked in saying, “Prof Quraishi, mujhe ek pan chahiye, apke ghar ka. Mayn ne uska bahut charcha suna hai.” ( Prof Qureshi, I want a pan from your home. I have heard a lot about it). Ammi prepared a few pans, and brought in a tray. He took them and returned back to his car, in barely 5-10minutes. This became a big news in the University campus, and I remember for years people asked Papa, “Governor Sb waqai apke ghar pan khane aaye the?” ( Did the Governor actually visit your home for pan?).
BTW, Phupi Amma passed away in the first year we moved to Kashmir and the pandaan came to Papa as inheritance. Now this pandaan is with me.
We were just a walking distance from the Dal Lake at the Hazratbal end. Our next door neighbors were Prof Ale Ahmad Suroor and his wife. Their daughter, who we called Jalil aunty, would come visit her parents every summer with her 4 kids. This is how I became friends with Rakhshanda Jalil and Tabinda Jalil, who were Suroor Sb’s granddaughters. Rakhshanda and I once planned to go fishing early in the morning. I think we set the time at 7 AM. I was woken up by Papa, “Ilmana you had to go fishing with your friend?” I hurriedly woke up and looked outside the window to see Rakhshi waiting under an apple tree with all her fishing gear. I hurried and off we went fishing like pros. Although we found no fish but it was great fun. (Rakhshi remembers more details as she wrote about it sometime of face book). Imagine in those days, Kashmir was so safe, that both of us, barely 10 or 12 yo girls went all by ourselves to the Dal Lake.
Some of our friends lived in the adjacent Regional Engineering College campus called Naseem Bagh. One of the families, of Hashmy Sb were very close family friends. Ammi and Aunty were great pals and they had a Phupijan who taught us Sipara. Their daughters Rana and Seema were my friends. I secretly admired Rana Seema’s wooden lodge far more fascinating than our bungalow. Like our house was located in an apple orchard, Naseem Bagh was a jungle of centuries old Chinar trees, and the houses scattered randomly in between the chinar trees, were made of wood. I found their house more exotic and a fun place to be. It looked like an image straight out of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. It was a warm, cosy home, but had a huge kitchen made of concrete, situated away from the main home, for safety reasons perhaps. The kitchen had a huge fireplace and chimney to keep it warm in winters. The open area outside the house was always full of fallen chinar leaves which were green in summer, and turned yellow, orange, red and brown in the autumn. Going to their place was always a wonderful experience.
In Kashmir, we saw the second Indo-Pak war of 1971. Kashmir being a contentious place, our relatives everywhere were very scared for our being in Kashmir during the war. But it went off uneventful, so far as I remember. Ammi had a colleague in her college, Mrs Kapoor, whose husband had disappeared in 1965 war when she was pregnant with her only child. They never came to know what happened to Major Kapoor, and left no stones unturned to search him in Pakistani prisons. During the 1971 war, her trauma was refreshed, and I remember Ammi spending hours with her to support her. Her daughter Preeti and I went to the same Presentation Convent School in Srinagar for an year, before I was moved to Mallinson School. Incidentally I later met Preeti Kapoor in Delhi, as were studying in Lady Hardinge Medical College together.
Kashmir was our golden period. I often tell my children that we had the best childhood possible, which even we could not give to our own kids.
Restless as Papa was, towards the end of the decade of 70s he felt stagnated as the HOD, and wanted to return back to Delhi. He was missing his hometown and had a deep urge to finally build his own house in Delhi. So in 1979, we moved back to Delhi. Three people came to see us off at the bus stand ( as the travel from Jammu to Kashmir is by bus)- Fazili Uncle, Safder bhai and that lady ( name withheld) who had risen from a grass cutter’s daughter to become a lecturer. Fazili Uncle had promised that he will send Papa 2 boxes of delicious apples every year, until his death. And he actually did that, even after Papa was no more. The lady lecturer was crying with tears, and telling Ammi you changed my life. I remember she kept waving at us, until our bus exited the Tourist Centre in Srinagar.
This is the Kashmir etched in my memories- heavenly, safe and a happy place to be. Sometime I dread, what if I have to even revisit it today and the whole image that I have of a blissful place will come down crashing.
PS: Safder bhai came back to Delhi a couple of years later, and by now had become a prominent activist, and a playwright. In 1989 he was doing street theatre with his group JANAM during Ghaziabad Municipal elections, when he was attacked by the Congress goons and fatally injured. He passed away in the ICU on 4 Jan 1989. Fazili Uncle passed away some years after Papa. He was heartbroken to know of Papa’s premature demise. Since it was neither the time of social media, nor mobile phones, Ammi could not keep in touch with the lady lecturer and I have no idea where is she now. Many of our University campus kids are with me on social media and we all form a beautiful common bond with memories of Kashmir days.
Those were the days when Papa had only a black and white camera. We have very few pictures of Kashmir, which are perhaps lost somewhere in our house in Delhi. These pictures are below are what I have borrowed or stolen from friends.
A general overview of Kashmir University Campus, overlooking Zabarwan Hills
Our house was an exact replica of this house and lawn stolen from Sameer Khera (who lived 5houses to our left) just to give a vague idea. I wish I had more pictures. This is how these houses originally existed.
Yesterday I noticed a post on soulsisters about no.of houses a person moves in their lifetime, with an average being 8-9 it said. That got me counting and counting and counting…I did till 14 but it wasn’t the end. Having lived in 4 countries across 2 continents, I thought I will document them in a blog instead of counting them… This post may interest whose paths may have crossed our, in our life’s journey while in any of these houses.
My First Home:
“Jain Sweets wala makaan”…this is how this first house of my life is referred to by our family. It was in F Block Model Town Stop 2 in Delhi. When Papa and Ammi got married on 5th Jan 1964, within a month, Papa moved, with his new bride, out of his ancestral home in 120 Bazar Matia Mahal, Jama Masjid, Delhi 110006, to rent this modest 2 room portion of a home on the 1st floor in F Block Model Town 2, Delhi.
The house was the first floor, front portion of the house located on the main road and had Jain Sweets and other shops on the ground floor. Jain Sweets remained was one of the most important landmarks in Model Town for decades. Across the central open space at the back lived a widower father Mohan sb. with his 3 children in their late teens and early 20s- Anita, Neeru and their little brother Nanna. Within weeks Ammi became friends with Anita and Neeru Didis, while Papa and Mohan sb who they all ended up calling Daddy till the end, became buddies, discussing politics, books and other intellectual stuff. Papa was called Bhai Sb and Ammi Bhabi ji by the 3 kids. They all became one family. Ammi taught the girls how to cook ‘meat’, in varieties like “qorma”, aloo salan”, ‘koftas’ etc.It is in this home that I and then my twin brothers were born. And we literally grew up as toddlers play all day in the Daddy’s quarters.
The house was owned by a couple I remember as Chacha ji and Chachi ji. Chacha ji in my vision( as we kept in touch for decades later ttoo) was a lean and thin, inconspicuous, unassuming, old man. Chachiji, I swear am not exaggerating was the size of Tuntun, and was the real landlord for the two tenant families. As Ammi says, “she would suddenly appear on the floor peeping into ‘our quarters’ and of Anita Neeru to check if the houses were well kept.” She would be particularly impressed that a Muslim couple had kept a tasteful teak sofa and a decent bedroom. And the kitchen was clean too. She would tell Ammi, “Ap log parhe likhe ho naa.. “
As the word spread that a Muslim family is living in the neighborhood, a poor Muslim woman from Rajasthan and her 15 year old son Nizam came up to see my Mom. Ammi was excited that she too was from Rajasthan, as Ammi had recently arrived after marriage from Jaipur too. They were traditional tie and dyers from Jodhpur. Papa suggested them to start a small dyeing business in the corner of the road. Within years they became a roaring success, bought 2 shops, a van and a house. And until I got married, in 1990, Nizam remained our dyer and never charged us a penny.
Papa’s phupi amma lived with them most of the time in this small house as she was the one who had raised Papa. She was the only person who influenced control over him. Not even his father did, as Papa and Dada Abba had fallen apart on many issues, he being a maulana snd Papa being a ardent Leftist who chose Political Science as his field of study instead of Islamiyaat, at that time. In fact the reason for Papa to move out of Jama Masjids ancestral home was that Dada Abba had demanded, “Dulhan ko parda karwaogey…” and instead of arguing or confronting his father, Papa decided to move out. The excuse he gave was that, “Model Town is closer to my University.” So this Phupi Amma was the only one Papa would listen to.
Of course, in those days, especially in old conservative minds like Phupi Amma, privacy was not a thing, not even for a newly married couple. She would insist Ammi to sleep with her as she was afraid of the chupkalis (lizards) that navigated all night all across the walls of her room. According to Ammi, “Your Papa would be strolling in the open verandah, anxiously waiting when would Phupi Amma sleep and when I would slip out of her room.” Once, just to pull her leg, I told Ammi, “Come on, Ammi. You had all your kids in that house. Don’t blame Phupi Amma for not letting you be with Papa.” She didn’t find it funny. 😀
It is in this house that my parents with me as a few month old baby, saw the 1965 Indo-Pak war. There used to be back outs in Delhi. Once Ammi said she got up to make a milk bottle for me at night and lighted a candle and there was a scream from someone in the neighbors, “Shut off the light. What are you trying to do?” Ammi said being a muslim, she was so scared if they would be misunderstood, as the Hindu-Muslim tensions always rose high in such times. Although in 1965, it was still much safer that what if the same scenario had to repeat in 2021.
I was told by Papa that even though his family had grown from 2 to 5, they felt living in that house with wonderful neighbors was a huge plus point so they never moved until the following happened: I was 3 and my baby brother were still infants. So I was sent to a cutest Nursery school nearby called, Jack n Jill School. So I had gotten wiser and my imagination was growing wider. Papa used to ride a Vespa scooter then, and he would pick me up from school and drop himself. I would stand in the front as he rode the scooter, and we would ride back home chatting about what happened in the school. One day, I told him, “Papa hum gate wale ghar meyn kyun nahin rehtey?” (Why don’t we live in a gated house?). What i had meant was, “Why don’t we live in a bungalow?” Papa was so moved by this innocent query that he decided to move out and rent a bungalow. That house will be the next story in the next blog.
I wonder, is the famous Jain Sweets still there? Is that house still there or demolished? Is Nizam’s Dyers shop still there. He must be an old man in 70s now. It merits a visit to this area on my next visit to Delhi.
Unfortunately, despite a lot of searches, i have not been able to find Anita or Neeru Didi on social media. They must be in their 70s now. Nanne bhaiya, called Deepak Mohan had become a Sous Chef in Taj Intercontinental and was last I know posted in Hyderabad and living on Banjara Hills. He must have retired now.
Wonder if this post might reach them? Social media is powerful. YOU NEVER KNOW.
PS: Next houses in next blogposts. Pic below was taken at Jain Sweets house rooftop by Papas photographer friend Nisar Bharti. Lost touch with Nisar uncle since Papa’s death in 1998.
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