The Wait is and is Not
- Nitasha Kaul
You Don't Mess with Viru - Jayant Kripalani
The Last Journey Home - Siddhartha Gigoo
Family Trip - Mihir Vatsa
For the Longest Time - Mridula Koshy
The Tree's Passport - Sumana Roy
I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg
Oh God, My God - GB Prabhat
Stroke at Noon - KL Chowdhury
Unbroken Awareness - Tendair Mwanaka
Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera
My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
The Stone - Anupam Choudhary
The Return - Shirani Rajapakse
The Unsent Email - Shyama Laxman
Poetry: Naseer Ahmed Nasir
(Translated by Bina Biswas)
Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant
The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak
- Attia Hosain
London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)
Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
The Last Journey Home
- Siddhartha Gigoo
On the morning of June 24, 2012, they undertook the trip from Jammu to Srinagar, Kashmir. She had been to Kashmir four times in the last twenty-three years, each trip lasting five or six days. Twice she had stayed at her brother's place near the army cantonment, a few kilometres from Lal Chowk. On one occasion the whole family had stayed in a hotel in Srinagar; and the fourth time she had accompanied some of her relatives on a pilgrimage there. That time they visited a few temples and a Sufi shrine on the outskirts of Srinagar. During that trip the pilgrims spent some days in quietude found in abundance in temple complexes. The purpose, however, was not to pray or offer obeisance to God and deities but to be in the lap of nature, in a willow grove, by a wistful stream and amid scented gardens. At the end of the sojourn the families returned, not empty-handed, but with presents and mementoes for everyone. Often, these presents and mementoes included packets of assorted dry fruits, condiments like saffron and spices, and decorations made of walnut wood. Upon return, they talked fondly about their stay in the familiar locales of the land of their birth – their homeland – where once they lived, where their ancestors were cremated, where they dreamt of nurturing their children and grandchildren and where they wished to die in peace. They recounted the days spent there, gossiped about people and then, with a certain degree of certitude, thought of the trip as the last one in their lifetime. Even with the passage of time – in weeks and months – these trips were not forgotten. The memory of these visits became a source of regular conversations during family get-togethers. Nothing about these journeys faded.
She grew old slowly. I saw her wither. Yet her smiles were mysteriously radiant. Her eyes shone when we asked her questions about her life and her parents. She came from a vast joint family. It required a sharp memory to remember the details of her brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins. She remembered the minutest details – names of her relatives, their ages, hobbies, tastes, likes and dislikes and even the yarns they spun. Every person had more than one name. She knew the intricate details of the relatives of her relatives. Even the distant ones! Her memory was a cage from which nothing escaped. We were baffled by the infallibility of it all.
Earlier she visited me twice a year. Then, as months went by, it became difficult for her to travel to Delhi, where I lived. Travel by train was out of the question, given her age and condition. She walked with difficulty and needed support while climbing stairs. She became frail. The last time she came to stay with me was a few weeks before the onset of summer in 2012. She had taken a plane from Jammu to Delhi. It was less cumbersome to travel by air. I brought her home from the airport. She spent most of the days in bed, reciting hymns I neither understood nor paid attention to. Upon my insistence she spent an hour or so in the drawing room every evening, particularly after dinner, and looked at the television screen with utter disinterest. We would sit and watch inane programmes. She would sit silently and look for an opportunity to start a conversation about something that had taken place years ago. Sharing anecdotes from her youth fascinated her. When the conversations ended, and we got busy attending to the household chores, she lingered on and pretended not to feel bored. Then she would retire to the bedroom.
Over the next few days she didn't come out of the bedroom because of discomfort and fatigue, and complained of indigestion and nausea. She would fish for a sedative in her medicine kit and pop one into her mouth. Even then sleep evaded her. She struggled throughout the night. I doubt if she ever slept peacefully. Every night, she would get up from her bed an hour before dawn, tiptoe quietly into the kitchen, a few paces from the bedroom, switch on the light, survey the cabinets, take out a saucepan from the tray, turn on the gas stove and make salty tea for herself. The rest of us would be fast asleep. Then she would wash the utensils and sip the tea in the dead of the night, sitting all by herself in desolate silence and then go to bed, content. At dawn she would bathe. In the mornings, she would say, 'I made some tea in the night and the stomach ache disappeared.' During the days, she did nothing. Yet she never complained of boredom. She just waited for the moments to pass by. All she owned was a bag full of a few saris, a towel, a small purse containing some money, a coil of thread, a needle, a prayer book, a comb, a bottle of hair-oil, a tooth brush and a kit containing medicines. These were the only things she possessed. She didn't keep photographs in her purse. Other household things we normally treasure did not lure her. Strangely, she never exhibited signs of attachment to any of her belongings. Talking to people, taking part in gossip, attending weddings and family functions interested her more than anything else. Even though she narrated the same anecdotes repeatedly, the renditions were different every time. No two sentences were alike. Each narration was a consummate tapestry of enchanting tales about people and strange happenings during her youth. Often I would be charmed by the way she conjured up magical tales of adventure, weaving them partly from strands of memory and partly from her fecund imagination. Sometimes one wondered if any of those events had really taken place. Such events occurred mostly in dreams. In one such story a lion made a grand appearance. She was also particularly fond of introducing a viper in many of her stories. She might have seen a viper during her childhood and it must have remained etched in her imagination. It was portrayed compassionately in her narratives and she was quite fond of it. Occasionally, she loved to buy gifts for us and would slip some money into our hands on festivals.
One night she had an attack. She started trembling; her hands and forehead went cold, her breathing became difficult and her voice turned feeble. Despite the terrifying sight, we managed to remain calm and called her nephew, a doctor, who was a neighbour. He came immediately, examined her, talked to her, cracked a few jokes while we watched nervously, and finally reassured her that we were around and wouldn't let anything happen to her. She chuckled and then, partly out of fear and partly because she was relieved to see all of us around her, she smiled a tremulous smile. I shivered clinging to her trembling arm. Anything could have happened at that time. This wasn't the first time she had suffered an attack at my place. The previous one had occurred a year back because of low blood pressure, cramps, bad digestion, diarrhoea and palpitation.
The next evening she called me to the room and handed me a woolen shawl. 'Get this dry cleaned,' she said. After a couple of days, I returned the dry cleaned shawl to her. I had noticed that the shawl didn't need any dry cleaning. It was in an immaculate condition. It smelt fresh as well. I made it a point to mention this to her – the fact that the shawl hadn't needed dry cleaning. She smiled at my remark. 'The shawl is for you to place on me when I am gone,' she said casually. A strange smile played on her lips. 'Who knows, you might need the shawl tomorrow itself!'
She was not prone to anxiety. She was energetic when it came to visiting her relatives or hosting guests at her place. Her conversations were laced with wit and humour. Her laugh was hearty. The anecdotes she recounted were fabulous and racy and held us spellbound. As she grew older, her renditions became more burnished. She had been very beautiful in her youth. Her son used to call her Zeenat Aman. One day when she wore a new blue saree she looked like a bride. She always talked to my wife in Kashmiri at home and even on phone from Jammu. The result was that my wife and my daughter learnt many Kashmiri words. She survived both the attacks miraculously. She even survived the third one at her place in Jammu, when her son was away. She was hospitalized and administered medicines intravenously for a night. But family friends came and helped. A couple even stayed at her place for the night.
When it was time to return to Jammu, her home, she was both excited and morose. Excited because she would be in her own house, and sad, thinking she might not live long enough to see me again. She held me in a warm embrace for a long time and left.
At her house in Jammu she seldom came out of her room. Sometimes I spoke to her on the telephone. She would say a few words and then hang up. I grew worried on account of her deteriorating health. She kept complaining of indigestion and headaches. Her personal physician had prescribed a tablet to be taken in the morning and another before each meal.
When I got to know that her family was taking her to Srinagar to spend a few days in solace, I didn't dissuade them. I was delighted at the prospect of their journey. Cars were ready in the morning. My sister's family took them in their car. They were to stop briefly at Srinagar and then proceed on a pilgrimage to the Holy Cave of Amaranth. I made a few calls to them while they were on their way to Srinagar. They talked excitedly about how fragrant the air had turned the moment they crossed the Jawahar Tunnel at Banihal. The smell of pinecones brought smiles on the faces of the travellers.
They had arranged for rooms in a developing residential locality in Srinagar. They carried a camera along to take pictures. A visit to her old ancestral house was on the itinerary. It had been twenty-three years. Ever since the exodus in 1990, she had not seen her old house. Despite having visited Srinagar four times previously, she had not visited her house in downtown Srinagar. I always wanted her to visit the house. This time I was hopeful that the visit would materialize. I was more excited than she was and wanted to be with her at that time, particularly the moment she would look at her house (which belongs to someone else now) from a distance for the first time in twenty-three years. I was not sure if she would be able to enter the house though.
That evening when they reached Srinagar, I telephoned them to enquire about her health. She was fine throughout the journey. She had braved the ordeal. At her age, driving through a meandering mountainous road for hours together was not easy. A grand plan awaited them the next day – a drive on the roads through the city, a visit to the old locality and her 'home' and some other places. Early the next morning, a two-hundred-year old Sufi shrine was set ablaze in downtown Srinagar. In the afternoon, a violent clash between the people and the police forces broke out and snowballed into a city-wide protest. Curfew was imposed in some parts of town. Hundreds of policemen patrolled the streets. The residents remained indoors as unrest gripped the city.
In the night, while taking rest in the room, she had stomach ache. The pain didn't ebb for a while and soon she vomited. It was followed by diarrhoea. When the discomfort didn't abate for two hours, they took her to a small private hospital nearby. The doctor examined her, administered dextrose intravenously and said there was nothing to worry about.
Two nurses attended her. One of them was kind and compassionate. When her shift ended, the other one took over. For some reason, this nurse hesitated in staying close to the patient. She feigned ignorance when it came to changing the drip. But later she changed her attitude and attended the patient with utmost care.
At night I received a phone call.
'We've taken her to the government hospital in the city,' said my father. 'There were a few complications.'
'Which hospital? How is she doing? What do the doctors say? Shall I take the next flight to Srinagar?' I asked.
'SMHS Hospital. Don't worry. I will keep you posted.'
I looked at my watch. It was half past one. I gave the phone to my wife. She talked. I couldn't sleep and kept thinking about the situation.
An hour later, the phone rang again.
'The doctors say she needs surgery immediately. But chances of survival are slim. There's a ninety percent chance of death occurring on the operating table! Her intestines are a mess. If she survives the surgery, she won't live for more than a few days. We've to decide fast.'
'What do we do?' I blabbered.
'What do you suggest?'
I was clueless and didn't know what to say.
'We should opt for surgery. It is the best thing to do. Take a chance. Miracles happen.'
Within a few minutes the phone rang again.
'How is she now?' I asked.
'Is she conscious?'
'She is in a semi-conscious state. But let us not go for surgery,' my father said. A nursing orderly in the ward had walked up to him and said, 'Why take the risk of surgery when she might not survive? Keep your mother with you. Serve her well in this difficult time. Let her live a few more days.'
It was the wisdom of an illiterate man who saw life from close quarters every day and lived through tumultuous circumstances every moment. Our life is superficial. The man saved us from lifelong regret and guilt.
'Let us bring her home tomorrow. To Jammu,' I said. 'But in case she is in no condition to travel, either by air or by road, then we stay at the hospital there. For as many days as it takes.'
At half past two in the night, I made a call and booked a flight ticket to Srinagar for the next morning.
I couldn't sleep that night. The flight was on time. It reached Srinagar at one-thirty in the afternoon. It was a strange journey. I didn't know what awaited me. At the airport taxi stand I asked for a taxi to the hospital. To my dismay, the taxi drivers and the taxi booth operator said that no taxi would go to the hospital because the area was under curfew due to the violence the previous day. The taxi drivers refused to take the risk. I made frantic enquiries and pleaded with the taxi drivers who were taking tourists to other places in the Kashmir Valley. After moments of desperation, one kind-hearted taxi driver relented. 'I'll take you to the hospital. Hop on.'
The roads wore a deserted look. Fortunately, the policemen who kept vigil in the armoured vehicles parked on the roads didn't stop us. When the taxi reached Lal Chowk, I spoke to my father's uncle on the mobile phone. He asked me to rush to the hospital. My mind went blank. I reached the hospital in forty minutes. I paid the taxi driver and ran to the ward. My father's uncle was waiting at the gate. He had an injured nose. It took me another five minutes to reach the general ward on the second floor. I entered the ward, which was a vast hall with beds on both sides. Some injured persons with bandages and casts on their bodies were being wheeled into it. We walked twenty or thirty steps and reached the end of the ward. A matron came out of an adjacent hall on the left. My father's uncle greeted her and pointed towards me. 'This is her grandson,' he said.
The matron looked at me with compassion and said, 'She just died a few minutes ago.' Her eyes were misty.
I entered the hall and approached the bed on which my grandmother lay. My mother sat next to her and wiped a tear from her eye. She lifted the white cloth from my grandmother's face and asked me to pour a spoonful of water into her mouth. I looked at my grandmother. Her lips were grey and her tongue was curled. It was a moment of uneasiness. There were strangers around the bed, looking at my grandmother's body.
I called my wife and asked her to take a flight to Jammu.
I went to search for my father downstairs. He was standing outside the hospital gate, talking to some people and making arrangements. Upon seeing me, he broke down. We consoled each other and got busy with the preparations for taking my grandmother out of the hospital. The matron and her staff wrapped my grandmother carefully in a white cloth.
A thought crossed our minds ... that of cremating her in Srinagar, the place of her birth, her homeland, where she was born, was married, gave birth to her only child (my father), reared her grandchildren and lived for years. The crematory was not far from the hospital. It was the same place where her parents and grandparents had been cremated. But the area was under curfew. Then we thought that Jammu was our home now.
The ward staff saw us off at the hospital gate. They hugged us. Some cried. 'She died at her home.' We couldn't get hold of a hearse or an ambulance that afternoon. Ambulances didn't go out of the Kashmir province. A private SUV was available for hire. We laid down my grandmother in the middle seat. At about half past four, my father, mother and I set off for Jammu. On the way, we stopped briefly at the house my parents and sister's family had rented to pick some of my grandmother's belongings – a bag and her sandals!
We made calls to friends, neighbours and relatives in Jammu. Some of them started preparing for our arrival. It was the strangest journey I had ever undertaken in my life. Bringing my grandmother home! A day earlier she had plans of visiting her 'home' in Srinagar. But it was not destined to be. She had survived three attacks before. Why couldn't she survive this one? Or live just one more day to be able to see her old house for the last time and spend some time talking to her neighbours, some of whom would certainly have recognized her? But then, she didn't die anywhere else but in her homeland. These thoughts crisscrossed in my mind. I drifted into a maze thinking of my grandmother, regretting that I couldn't make it on time, was not able to see her or talk to her during the last moments, and kiss her. A kiss in return of those thousands of kisses she had gifted me since my birth. A familiar scent wafted in the air. I could smell the hands of my grandmother. Her hands had always been fragrant.
En route to home, we spoke briefly about my grandmother's last day at the hospital. I wanted to know what her last words had been. I wanted to know if she had asked for me. My father mentioned that she had wanted to be in her room. That morning at the hospital, she had vacillated between bouts of wakefulness and stupor. My father had told her that she was in a hospital at Srinagar and that the doctors were treating her. When she was conscious she had been able to see the people around her, the hospital staff, the nursing orderlies, the matron, the team of doctors, attendants of other patients and strangers. She had been very happy to see her younger brother and his wife. She knew the persons in the hospital were Muslims. Everyone around in the ward knew that she was the only Pandit patient and an exile the hospital had ever had. In response to one of the remarks, she had said, 'Muslims are responsible for our plight.' Everyone had laughed and understood the deep humanity hidden in her caustic expression. They called her 'Mother'.
Dusk fell as we left the city behind. We drove through Pampore, famous for its saffron. During her youth, my grandmother used to visit this town every summer and stay for days with her relatives. She must have passed on this road a thousand times and always been certain of returning to the town. Now, perhaps, she was looking at the town from a different realm. Now she was reunited with her husband who had left us many years earlier.
My father fell asleep soon after we had tea at a highway tea-shop. He had not slept for sixty-three hours. My mother's tired eyes refused to steal a nap. She didn't eat or have water. I clasped my palm around my grandmother's feet which were tied together firmly with a string.
The vehicle sped past through the countryside amidst a sudden hailstorm, leaving behind the Valley and everything else that had been precious only a day before. We reached home at half past one in the night.
Family friends waited outside our house in Jammu. I spent the night next to my grandmother in her room. Tired and drowsy, I fell asleep for an hour or so.
My wife and our seven-year-old daughter reached Jammu the next morning.
After the last bath, my grandmother was draped in a shroud and a shawl, and decorated with flowers. We took her away for cremation amid the chanting of Vedic hymns and prayers. Touching her bare body, I grew numb. I knew that this was the last time I was touching her, caressing her, showing my affection for her, not just as a grandson, but as a person who knew her as one of the greatest storytellers. Despite her failing health during the last few months, she never betrayed signs of ageing.
She grew old, but slowly. Her hair never turned completely white. It was grey in patches and some strands were the colour of henna. She was a great cook, a raconteur, obstinate at times and full of practical wisdom. She would crack jokes about her death. During the last few months, she would always say, 'Why am I not dying? I have lived enough. This life is long.' She must have told my father hundreds of times: 'I have only two wishes: I shouldn't fall ill for a long time; you should be by my side at the time of my death. I want you to carry me to the crematorium and light the pyre.' My father used to tell her in his own characteristic manner: 'I will burn you with my own hands.' And she used to laugh and bless him.
The shawl she had asked me to get dry cleaned months earlier adorned her cold body. At the crematory, I pretended to be brave. The burning pyres at the crematoriums have always fascinated me. The smell of burning flesh and bones, the crackle in the flames, the cinders and the ashes that remain in the end! The deep loneliness of the pyres when the mourners leave... The flames take some time to consume the bodies. And at night, the embers, the last traces and the remnants – pieces of bones – remain intact. These remnants crave human touch. The bones crumble in our hands when we pick them and put them into earthen pots. The warm ash settles down as a small heap. It grows less warm as the night progresses. Nothing else exists. Yet, a strange scent wafts in the air. A scent quite distinguishable from any other scent one has known. It is the scent of neither life nor death, neither being nor non-being. At the crematory, people become spiritual and philosophical. It is as though wisdom and enlightenment dawn upon them, not by chance or accident, but by means of some divine intervention. This feeling is transitory and vanishes the moment people step out of the crematory. For a moment, I found myself caught in this magical spell of transient wisdom and knowledge. Of all things material and spiritual the unsettling knowledge is that everything perishes in the end and that life is not to be lived worrying. If only we could spend some time every day in the crematory, many beautiful secrets of life would be revealed to us. What all revelations would lead us to a more fulfilling and purposeful existence! One would become detached and, therefore, experience joy and bliss. Death perhaps turns us into beautiful beings.
Two days later, just after dawn, we went to collect my grandmother's ashes at the crematory. A small Vedic ritual was performed. The ashes were still warm. We poured water on the ashes. Another family was performing a ritual. A young woman cried inconsolably. She still referred to the mound of ash as her loved one. Nothing could console her. Soon she gathered courage and became quiet before commencing the ritual.
We collected my grandmother's ashes in two earthen pots, decorated them with marigolds and set off for Akhnoor, a village not very far from Jammu. River Chenab ran through this village. Mango trees dotted the road. Alongside, a canal, in which children were swimming, ran serenely. We crossed a steel bridge and reached the ghat. During the monsoons, the transporters who work for timber merchants throw hundreds of logs of timber into the river and the waters ferry these logs from one place to another. Some youngsters dive into the river, even when in fury, to gather driftwood.
The water of the Chenab was cold. It was greenish grey in colour and a lot cleaner than that found in most other rivers. I held the ashes in my hands one last time before placing them back in the pots. Soon, we immersed the ashes in the water and saw them float instantly. The water changed its colour for a moment. The flowers floated zigzag and slowly moved away from the riverbank. I watched the flowers for sometime till they were visible no more.
Where does this river go? I asked myself. I remembered that the river flowed into Pakistan. For many of us who saw their elders pine endlessly for one last homecoming, it was Pakistan we always cursed for creating a mess in Kashmir – our homeland – and for making us leave and spend the rest of our lives in waiting and exile. For many of us, it would take years or even decades to fathom the impact of the loss of a generation, which traced its ancestry to a unique people who originated from the land of sages more than five thousand years ago.
And now the descendants of these people struggle to keep alive the consciousness of this fabulous ancestry. The people of my grandmother's generation are fast fading away into oblivion and nothingness. My memory of that generation is eroding. For me the death of my grandmother made me realise how little I knew of her life which spanned more than eight decades. And I was overcome by a tearing urge to preserve what was on the brink of extinction. Like many of her contemporaries, my grandmother had lived an eventful life full of vicissitudes.
In the context of the lives of an exiled family, I came across an unsettling ambivalence. Three generations looked at their ethos, condition and aspirations from three completely different perspectives. The old nursed a yearning to return to their homeland; the middle-aged and the young vacillated between a strange past (which was once beautiful) and an uncertain present; the children born in exile grappled to carve a new identity, yet grew up amid a shared, fragmented memory.
The river took my grandmother far beyond the imagined borders of hope and despair, pain and longing. Yet there existed some more places where she would have desired to go. For her, there always was one more place to set foot on and explore, even when, for many of us, there was nowhere else to go.
A day after my grandmother's death, my father wrote an obituary for her and sent it to a newspaper. It read:
Uma Shori passed away in Srinagar, Kashmir. She was cremated in Jammu and the ashes were immersed in Chenab at Akhnoor. The next day, a havan was performed at home. That was the last day of mourning.
Rice and water are not offered to the deceased. Neither is a lamp lit in the evenings. Other rituals will not be held at all. The dead don't eat anything; they don't drink water, and they don't need a lamp when the evening sets in. They don't hear the melodramatic, horrible, fearful and weird wail. This family tradition should and will continue.
Siddhartha Gigoo is the author of the novel The Garden of Solitude. He has written two anthologies of poetry, Fall and Other Poems and Reflections. His short film The Last Day will be released soon. A collection of his short stories will also be published later this year.