FOOTPRINTS AT FATEHKADAL
A short story
B. L. Dhar
was just a little lad of eight when I left the beautiful valley of Kashmir. I do remember I was in class III and studying at MP School, just a few minutes walking distance from my home near Malik Aangan at Fatehkadal. The events leading to our leaving the valley on a cold winter morning in 1990 in a rush were not clear to me then but I vividly remember the urgency with which we departed and the despondency at such a move that triggered a war of words between my mother and my father. My little sister was not mature enough to notice what was going on and she just stared with those big bold brown eyes of hers. When my father removed a wad of notes from his coat pocket that still carried the bank security tag and handed it over to the driver of a dilapidated truck that was being loaded with our stuff, my mother insisted that we should make the payment only after the delivery at Jammu and not now. But by then the money had changed hands and was carried away by a “pheran-clad” bearded shady character who instantly vanished into the by-lanes of Fatehkadal. I did not notice the denomination of the currency notes then and it could have been in multiples of 10, 20, 50 or 100 that my father paid and I never asked, but more likely it was 5,000 or 10,000 that he paid for the trip for our luggage and we the passengers. Upon hearing that we were moving to Jammu it seemed a bit exciting at that time. All through the truck ride my mother continued to pester my father about his decision to leave home and pay money in advance not knowing where the driver may abandon us during the ride. I do remember our arrival at Jammu late that night but our stay there was short lived when we finally boarded a train after three days, our luggage having been transported a day earlier by yet another truck. We were on our way to New Delhi, the capital city of India, and I was in-fact very excited because I was on my first ever rail ride and I didn’t sleep the whole night we traveled.
I am now 28 and a Captain in the Infantry Division of the Indian Army and right now posted in Srinagar and I live in the cantonment area after a little over 20 years of my being away from this place. I don’t get much time being on my own and am busy with the affairs of security of the state of which I am the state-subject and I keep reminding myself that this is the place of my birth and I belong here. My movements inside the state are random and I go all over the place and have acquainted myself with the topography of the area giving me a much needed overview of all that I had not seen in the few years of my life lived here as a child. I have the liberty of knowing the language that people speak here and I get to know everything that is happening around me without anyone learning that I understand. No one takes any precaution to be discreet while in my company and that is because I am almost always in my uniform and though my name, Amit Munshi, is prominently displayed on my breastplate along with the insignia and the colors of my regiment it does not send any recognition signals to any one. My surname does not sound so Kashmiri as would perhaps be the surnames Raina, Kaul, and Dhar or Zutshi, Saraf and Tiku. It is not my intention to act as a spy for the army or anyone but keeping things discreet is rather amusing. Not only that, I feel I owe it to my parents to present them a status of their fears that had prompted them to leave in distress twenty years ago.
I learnt much later from my father that he was forced into a situation of desperation by a written threat that was pasted on the main door of our house saying that we leave or face certain death. He had withheld this information from my mother making her an annoying person to deal with at the time of our leaving the valley. Coming back to my growing up years, I did my schooling in Delhi and after finishing my 10+2 got admitted in a college in the arts stream, as I did not qualify for admission in any engineering college that my father wanted me to join. After completing graduation I was not able to decide my future course of action until a recruitment drive of the army took me straight to the Indian Military Academy at Dehra-Dun from where I graduated with honors. It rather appeared that I was born to be an officer of the armed forces and I wonder why it took fate to disclose that secret to me. My parents were proud of me that day when they witnessed our passing-out parade and their son receiving the best cadet award from the Academy. I have since gone through two postings and promotions before coming to my birthplace, again as an act of God. Now that I am here I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of living where I belong and enjoy the land under my feet where my forefathers used to tread.
The name of Fateh-Kadal reverberated in my mind umpteen times and I was cautious not to show any urgency to visit this place for fear of being targeted if the threat to my father two decades ago had anything to do with his enmity to any one in particular. But I doubt that it was the case of enmity, knowing my father’s behavior and his work profile, he being an officer at the Accountant General’s and outside the domain of any private or personal dealings. My interaction with my community during my growing up years made me realize the complicity of the situation and a need to resolve issues that would perhaps take considerable social and political acumen. Only then would a safe return of my community be possible for settling down once again in their own homes and hearths. Many houses were sold out for fear of plunder and burning that was reported from many areas including ours at Fateh-Kadal, but my father refused to part with his property even after being approached by some agents over the phone. We later received reports that the property had been considerably damaged and now my father was rethinking about the possible disposal. During his telephone conversations with me he keeps asking if I did visit my home and if I have the wherewithal to seek a disposal action. Maybe I do or maybe I don’t, all because the affairs of the army keep me busy until I find the suitable time to consider visiting my ancestral home.
It is kind of tricky you see. If I wear civilian clothes I still look like an army man from a mile away. The reason is my demeanor, my walking gate and my haircut that is always crew cut. If I speak in Kashmiri, the natural accent eludes me and anyone who hears me will think I am trying to be smart posing like a Kashmiri and not being one in reality. My buddies at the base camp will not allow me to venture alone outside and I still have not figured out how to reach Fateh Kadal. I talk it out with them sometimes and they assure me that we will get to do something about it. We make a plan and suddenly we are called out for duty and sent a hundred kilometers away not knowing when we shall be back. Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes a month or more and we keep camp outside and then return to our base. This happens a few more times and I get tired of waiting. After all I must report to my father that I have visited our house and that all is well with it.
I must have cried when I was a child and I well remember crying just a few months before we left our home at my grandfather’s passing away, the grandmother having died when I was not even born. After that I think my resolves hardened and I never cried again. Life outside my own home made me tough and made me deal with situations that looked straight at our face and no one to take comfort from. I suddenly figured out I had to act as an adult. Our relatives were spread all over the country and it was no longer easy to reach them at the time of need. But I was crying today and crying bad. Luckily I was not in my uniform and I was not with my buddies who would otherwise have chided me for being so sentimental. It was Qadir Chacha who sat in front of me and he was pleading that I take heart. Qadir was our milkman who has a shop in the adjacent lane of our house and now he lives within the same courtyard where our house is located. He bought the property from our neighbors a few years ago and has settled to a life of comfort. It was he who found out the whereabouts of my father and called a few times offering to buy our house, which his brother-in-law needed and my father steadfastly refused to part with. I cried not because I had some affinity towards Qadir, but the anecdotes he related made me realize how touching our absence from our home had been. Our house looked barren all right and some windows in the ground floor rooms were broken, but it certainly was not dirty. It appeared someone was keeping the house all tidy without anyone residing in it and it was obviously the effort of Qadir to keep it that way or was it his wife Ashiya who appears more religious and god fearing and much more as I soon learnt.
It is in her words that I tell the story of the footprints. Every Sunday Ashiya takes upon herself the task of cleaning the entrance to the house opposite her own. The reason, she has seen a blue turbaned Pandit man in a white pheran enter the house early morning every Sunday. After removing his wooden slippers that he keeps at the entrance he enters and spends some time inside. Then he suddenly disappears and returns the next Sunday. Ashiya is a witness to this event ever since she took her abode in the house and though she was terrified in the beginning she soon realized this was the soul of the man who at one time lived in this house. All this while she says her prayers to Allah. She says he does not look at anyone and nor does he attempt to talk and it is only she who can see him. Qadir has not been a witness to this sighting but he affirms seeing the footprints after Ashiya has washed the stone slab at the entrance. She also finds some flower petals strewn around after the person leaves. The flowers are from the very garden at the backside of the house, which Qadir has converted into a cowshed and where his cattle are housed. There are no vegetables grown in the garden now because the space has shrunk but the rose bushes are still there and are in season right now. There is enough cow dung and clay available and Ashiya uses it to plaster her house on festive occasions and she does not forget to give a similar conditioning to our house that makes it look clean and lived-in. I cried and cried knowing fully well that the man described by Ashiya matches the profile of my grandpa and the best part is that it was a Sunday today. Unfortunately the footprints had dried away by the time I arrived and it would be the next Sunday that I could verify the story and I would have to come early to witness the event myself.
It was later that I entered my own house and went from room to room and realized how things had changed outside and our house was the same abode that we loved. A place where our laughter as children was adored by our elders and where our life revolved round the affection and love of our kin who now appear to be lost in the labyrinths of time. Nothing has remained in our lives that I would say is the same. I have memories of a childhood that I only half lived and the craving still exists that I become a young lad of eight again and have my parents and the grandparents fuss around me and I start life all over again. I stopped outside the puja room where my grandpa used to spend most of his mornings and evenings and I thought I heard the chants of his mantras but could see no face. Having spent the better part of the day in the house I ventured out and roamed the lanes and by-lanes of the neighborhood but did not recognize faces that I was used to. I did see the houses of my schoolmates but did not see them. Everything looked alien and the mood appeared synthetic and unreal. I soon left to return to my camp.
I did not know how to recount my experiences of the trip to my father and did not feel comfortable describing the same to him over the phone. So I wrote a lengthy note to him and within a fortnight I got a response that he was coming over to Srinagar to complete a job he had left undone. Well I must admit my father realized he had not completed the formalities of his father’s last rites at the place where he had breathed his last even though the ritual pujas were performed at Delhi. Once he told me about his plans I discussed the same with my OC and the very next day the place was turned into a fortress and army maintenance units repaired the broken windows and temporarily restored the water and power supply to the house. With a dash of paint all this makeover was accomplished in a record time of two days. My father had arranged an elaborate Shraad ceremony that was performed by a purohit of our community who accompanied father from Jammu along with a cook and for two full days the house was turned into a temple of prayer. All credit must be given to Qadir and Ashiya who assisted in the arrangements for stay of the family in our own home for full one week and procured beddings and, surprisingly, utensils that Kashmiri Pandits use at these occasions. They had appeared apprehensive in the beginning when they saw the army take control of the premises and were pleased when they retreated in two days time. The house looked original once again and the relatives who joined us for the occasion made our stay worthwhile.
It has been a while now since my last visit to my home. The place is deserted once again but it no longer looks gloomy. As usual the feeling stays that it is a living place and it is clean as it was when I first saw it and thanks to Ashiya she still keeps it so. I do not know how long this arrangement will stay, but my father has now altogether given up on the idea of selling the house. He says this is our place of pilgrimage. I ask Ashiya and she reports that my grandpa does not return to the house anymore on Sundays or any other day for that matter. I do remember, however, the sighting of my grandpa’s footprints when I had returned on the following Sunday after I had heard the report of Ashiya. The fresh water put on the stone slab at the entry to the house was enough to leave clear foot -prints in the corridor beyond. I also learnt that my grandpa had died on a Sunday and it is heartening to realize that his wary soul has now found its peace. I continue to be at Srinagar and still live in the cantonment along with my buddies and we make it a point to visit the house at least once a month and we have a good time with our neighbors who care for us as much as they would for their own kids.
Shri BL Dhar was born and brought up at Srinagar. After completing his Master’s Degree in Mathematics he ventured out of the state and found a job in the Civil Aviation Department joining as a Gazetted Officer. His area of activity was at Delhi and Mumbai International airports. He was selected to undergo training at the school of aviation; Luxembourg under the UNDP program and later posted at the Corporate Headquarters in New Delhi. He had in the meantime joined the newly formed PSU, Airports Authority of India, from where he retired as a General Manager in 2000. He has written innumerable articles about aviation that was published in the house magazine. He is now settled in Delhi and keeps his interest alive in writing..
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Very touching. We are from Fathekadal and this story sounds almost like our story.
Added By chandra ganju
I have been reading "shehjar" for a very long time now and feel that readers usually avoid writing comments on articles. This one story is so good, it appears like a real story, unless it really is and it could be.
Added By Sabita Raina