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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Memories stirred by Pulwama: Where childhood ends and fear begins

I have struggled to hold on to its memory, as to the memory of the Jammu of my childhood, a Jammu untainted, for me, by hatred.

Written by Shalini Langer | Updated: February 27, 2019 5:04:05 pm
The aftermath of Pulwama marks the retreat of political engagement with Kashmir Army personnel stand guard at Gujjar Nagar area during a curfew after the clash between two communities over the protest against the Pulwama terror attack. (File)

The saw mill at the start of the lane. In my growing-up years, the beginning and end of my summer holidays were marked by this mill, a few metres from my grandparents’ house in Jammu. It was never much, just an open shed with a tin roof. But in the dusty, sweaty summers, it carried a hint of the hills.

It was also an odd entity in that neighbourhood. Passing by, we could see what seemed like giant machines whirring and hear the wood being shaved, sliced and hauled. The whiff of the fresh shavings, the irritation in the throat if you swallowed one by mistake, the sharp edges of some spilling onto the road, and the horses lugging the wood in carts, leaving a trail of dung.

When we were grown up enough, we heard another story about that mill. How my aunt’s eldest child, on her way to college, had come under the wheels of a cart there. She didn’t survive. My aunt never talked about her “most beautiful one”. Unlike our angry times, I heard no one blame the mill, whose Kashmiri owners remained respected neighbours.

Years passed, the cousins got jobs and moved out, the grandparents’ house became larger and yet smaller, its grounds holding more cars than grass, our days got somehow shorter, while the mill disappeared. Overtaken by grass, its machines left to rot in a bolting city that it was too slow for.

I have struggled to hold on to its memory, as to the memory of the Jammu of my childhood, a Jammu untainted, for me, by hatred. A Jammu where my mother and aunts spent hours agonising over the thinness and softness of each other’s exorbitant Kashmiri shawls, and proclaiming expertise over the embroidery. A Jammu that would be tied for me with the kangri carried by my grandfather under his clothes (an art lost with that generation) and the kahwa slurped over gossip — the only time we were allowed “tea” by a mother guarding our “fair” looks. The kahwa would help wash down the yakhni, whose fragrance still filled the room, while the mothers swapped recipes of Kashmiri haak saag.

Years later, owning more shawls than she remembers, my mother never passes by a Kashmiri shawl shop — always the most crowded in any market — without picking one up, and demanding a discount. “Hum bhi wahin ke hain,” she says. The shopkeeper smiles back. I ran into one such shopkeeper in Old Jerusalem, of all places, and no, the story didn’t play out any differently.

What is Jammu about me, and what is Kashmir? Where does one end, and the other begin? Could one enter a tunnel (Jawahar) an Indian and leave it an anti-national? Did something change in the air at Banihal, marking this “border”, where a cousin once treated me to a sumptuous lunch, in quarters he shared with families from all over India, there to build a railway line to Kashmir? Maybe I was shielded from it, or maybe I was just blind to the Jammu that has now emerged, picking what it wants from its partner. A Jammu creaking under the vehemence of family WhatsApp groups.

Ironically, the Pulwama attack spurring that vehemence again brought me back those lost years — if only briefly. The Pakistani killed in the Rajasthan jail in its aftermath belonged to Sialkot, the town my maternal grandfather left behind during a time of another terror — Partition. Settling in a Jalandhar lane with his bride, my nana built a small business whose one chain goes across the border even today.

As Karachi Bakery came under attack in Bengaluru, I remembered my mother talking about a dessert he got back from his travels: Karachi halwa. She pulled out that memory one day suddenly, while biting into a sweet — years after he had died. To us children, he was a tall man with a booming voice, who would always get something for us to eat — mostly patties from a local bakery, that he called bakarkhani (a word with roots from Central Asia to Bangladesh). Later, I could never read Kabuliwala — about the tall Afghan with a booming voice, whose pockets always had goodies — without remembering him.

Pulwama has now given me another memory. The 20-year-old who carried out the attack worked at a saw mill. I imagine him driving into the CRPF convoy, and in the blast that follows, I see my saw mill blow up — up go the machines, that table where they sliced the wood, the shavings, the horses, and down they come in a million little pieces. To be never put together again.

This article first appeared in the February 27, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Memories stirred by Pulwama’

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