ONE LEG UP, ONE LEG DOWN
It was the 23rd of September 1945 and the city of Srinagar was bedecked in all its gaiety and grandeur to celebrate the 50th birthday of its ruler, His Highness Maharaja Hari Singh Ji who in his 20-year rule of the state had proved beyond doubt that he was the most desirable ruler of them all. He was a beloved of his people for whom he was a messiah of peace and tranquility and a harbinger of a peaceful co-existence among all the communities, be they the majority Muslims or the Dogras or Hindus or Sikhs or the Buddhists or the Gorkhas, Pathans or Muslim Rajputs of Mirpur and Poonch. Being the ruler of a Muslim majority state he had Muslims in his retinue of servants whether in the government or his own personal staff like his cooks and waiters. He was much against the religious bigotry and had abolished the practice of untouchability and the practice of child marriage. He was an educationist and promoted literacy in the state by establishing schools and colleges all over. His keen desire in the promotion of health services was responsible in the creation of health centers and hospitals, well-equipped and modern that took care of all major health issues.
Today, on his birthday, it was arranged that the Maharaja give “darshan” to his citizens while being seated on a bedecked barge that would row down the river Jhelum in a state procession with many more small barges and boats in tow carrying his government functionaries, invitees and well-wishers. The barge was decorated with flowers and silk scarves and had the throne of the Maharaja placed on a high pedestal with a huge ornamental umbrella covering the seat. The barge was boarded by the Maharaja at Palace Gates near the 1st bridge and would row down to the 7th and last bridge from where the Maharaja would be driven back in his official car back to the Palace. Both banks of the river were decorated by buntings and flowers and colorful flags fluttering in the morning breeze. Nearly all schools in town had sent their wards and stationed them at the “ghats” all along on either side of the river bank carrying state flags that they were asked to wave as the Royal Highness passed by. Their location at the Ghats was directed by the State Education Department to evade any conflict of station. They carried placards declaring the identity of the school that they belonged to.
When you row down the river, on the left bank near Ali Kadal, close to the bridge, stood the small old brick and mud house of Indravati. It had a rusted tin roof that needed to be mended or replaced. Today she was witnessing the spectacle from the top storey of her house right in her balcony that was so delicate that it appeared not to hold her weight. She did not really know what the commotion was all about. She was recently widowed and lived with her two sons who were just managing to start their life after finishing school. The elder Motilal was 20 and the younger Kanhyalal 18 and a half. Her husband used to run a small grocery store at Maharaj Ganj, a couple of miles down from their home and now the store was closed and they were negotiating a deal to sell off the premises in order to fulfil the obligation of getting her two sons married. Both boys had initially worked at the store with their father and now declined to manage it as it was not bringing enough returns to feed the family and they felt it had taken the life of their father. They were still young and with the assistance of their uncle, who lived at Habba Kadal, they were offered a position in the state government service, one as a clerk in the “Shali Store” and the younger one in the “Flood Control Department”, that was recently created by the Maharaja in view of floods that used to create a mayhem for the local populace with River Jhelum taking the brunt of the deluge. This uncle was the elder brother of their father who had shifted out of the house soon upon his marriage and he worked at the Maharaja’s Palace and was quite influential. And he of course had a soft corner for the deceased brother’s kids. Father had a sister as well, elder to her brothers, who was married into a family at Ganderbal and hardly ever visited the family due to her old age.
As Indravati tired watching the crowd on the river bank on either side without any visible sign of further activity, she soon got bored and decided to settle indoors. But a war-like cry drew back her attention and she saw about half a dozen boats loaded with police personnel in crisp uniforms row down in boats marked in police colors with their batons waving in the air giving directions to some unseen people on both banks. She looked up and down the river where the eyes of all people on the banks was riveted and discovered a large contingent of boats at a distance heading her way. The water current of the Jhelum was swift enough and not much effort was needed to row the large barge upon which the Maharaja was seated. It was only the craft of the helmsman to manipulate the vessel to keep it flowing straight down the river. As the cries of “Maharaja Adhiraj Ki Jai” resounded in the air the scene was a spectacular display of royalty and loyalty in a showcase of awe and beauty. What was a matter of interest to the populace was the first ever sighting of the 14 year old heir-apparent Crown Prince Yuvraj Karan Singh who stood close by his father as the national flags were being waived by the school-children on both sides of the banks. They also clapped happily as the royalty was underway. No one had ever seen the Yuvraj before as he did not reside in the valley. He was out to get his schooling at the famed Doon School at Dehradun and had only of late shifted to Srinagar and got admitted to the Sri Pratap College for his higher studies. From her perch in the balcony, Indravati clapped as well like a child and she was happy something was happening, because nothing much happened anyway in her life.
As time passed by and the winter season ended with a promise of a beautiful year ahead, Indravati set all her attention on the prospect of getting her sons married. She wanted to let someone else care for the boys now as she was looking out to spend her time in peace and prayer rather than fight through the routines of the day. She had to depend on her husband’s brother who had promised her that he would find a suitable match for the boys. And this he did when he brought a proposal to her from parents of two sisters (cousins) from the same family who would marry the two boys. She did not have to wait long to give her consent as she thought it would be a prudent idea to have two sisters marry her two boys and there would be less of a conflict in the house as usually happens in such circumstances. The shop had been sold away and there was money at hand to be spent on the arrangements for the wedding which finally happened in September of the year 1946.
Sheila and Leela were cousins with barely a year’s difference in age and were brought up in a joint family at Badgam where their parents owned some agricultural land that brought them enough to look after their needs. Their fathers were both attached to each other and besides caring for each other they cared for other members of the family in equal measure. But both the cousin sisters were not the best of friends as their daily squabbles brought forth that trait in them. Most in the family ignored their fights as they found this could be just a playful activity. But as soon as the girls learnt they were going to the same home where their prospective grooms lived they both started planning their own strategies of how to evade each other. But one thing was for sure, they could not evade the marriage that was finalized by their parents. When they finally landed up in the house after marriage, they were at first terrified to look at the structure that looked as if it would crumble any time. Their own paternal home was more roomy and spacious and had that smell of a lively living as compared to the dull smells they found lingering in their present quarters. Had it not been for the adjoining houses that were strongly built with brick and mortar and supported the structure, this house would perhaps have crumbled a long time ago. Within a short time of their arrival the sisters decided to have separate kitchens, one on the ground floor and the other at the top floor leaving the middle floor exclusively for their mother-in-law, not that there was room enough for adjusting anything else in that confined house. But mother was not going to cook on her own and would be treated at the tables by both her daughters’-in-law in turns. They both respected her for the treatment she gave them but were yet to build that bond of love that is reserved for a mother. The boys did not interfere in this matter and stood calmly by the decision of their respective wives
Indravati felt she had her one leg up, one leg down: “akh zang heur, akh zang bown.”
Close towards the beginning of the year of 1947 the Royal family considered itself falling into difficult times as a lot of pressure was being put on it to surrender to the forces of reconstruction of the state of India once the British acceded to the freedom of the country. This would necessitate amalgamation of all the princely states as one and then divide the country on the basis of religion. The creation of a Muslim State Pakistan was becoming a reality as the Muslims wanted their own land with only a Muslim ruler. Hari Singh did not like the two nation theory and did not like to give up his title as he was asked to do. Joining hands with the Indian Union would certainly have robbed him of his royal legacy and joining Pakistan was not his desire even though he ruled a Muslim majority state himself. He kept silence on the issue as long as he could. And when India finally sealed its freedom from the British on the 15th August of 1947, it was at a very heavy price in terms of violent killings and massacres that was totally unnecessary. Hari Singh was grieved too and he still had not made up his mind to join the Indian state.
Indravati had assumed that the sisters when married to his two sons would hold the future of her home in a state of unity but when the kitchens were separated, her dreams had been shattered. Although there was no visible conflict between the two sisters or the two brothers, she only felt that she had her one leg up, one leg down as she moved from one unit to the other for her sustenance that required her to eat at two different tables during the day in her own home. With the passage of time she could not help but to get used to the concept and like the “vitasta” flowing by the side of her house she flowed likewise with the tide. Towards the end of the summer news filtered in that some raiders from across the border had invaded the state and there was a large scale infiltration in the North at Baramulla where her paternal people lived. On a Sunday morning in October she received the shocking news that all five members of her paternal family were killed by these “kabalis” except the son of her younger brother who was at Srinagar at that time and survived the carnage. She fainted at hearing the news and never regained consciousness. Her sons took her to the Government Hospital where she was admitted for treatment.
The Governor General of India, Lord Mountbatten advised the Maharaja to accede to India before the Indian soldiers were sent there for help to fight the Pashtun insurgents. Finally on 26th October 1947 the instrument of accession to the Dominion of India was signed by the Maharaja and the Indian army was airlifted to the state to start the process of evicting all the insurgents. The Maharaja left for Jammu for further movement onwards to Bombay with his wife and he was asked to let the crown prince stay on as a titular Maharaja till the monarchy was abolished.
But it was a sad affair for Indravati who continued with her state of one leg up, one leg down (one in heaven and one on earth) until she passed away peacefully one day when everyone had thought she would perhaps make it.
Author’s Note: The story is fictional and may not be looked up for its historical accuracy. Most events, though, are still true and depicted as reflections from my memory as a primary school kid. But one thing is for sure: the first aircraft that flew into the valley carrying troops had a guide for the pilots in the name of Pt. Jagar Nath Dhar, a Civil Aviation Official (with DGCA), who was entrusted with the job of identifying the terrain where the infiltrators had entered the valley. He had the topography of the area marked in his mind, being a Kashmiri, and had the approval of the PM.
I worked under this man later, much later.
Shri B.L. Dhar was born, brought up and educated at Srinagar. After getting his postgraduate degree in Mathematics, he decided to venture out of the state and seek an avocation more suitable to his taste. He joined the Civil Aviation sector as a Gazetted officer and finally retired as General Manager from the Airports Authority of India. He now lives in Delhi. He is an avid reader and has interest in writing. He has been writing for Shehjar for many years now.
I confess I read this three times and every time I liked it. The story has nicely been blended with a factual situation giving it a twist that makes it more convincing even when you say it is a piece of fiction. You are an artist Mr. Dhar. Thank you for a nice story.
Added By KK Koul
An interesting story that describes an interesting feature of the erstwhile Maharaja. I wish I was born then to witness this spectacle, but I do remember my late father who used to tell me stories of that age and time.
Added By Gaurav K
I do not know if the house described in this story still stands, but I do remember visiting it when I was a boy. An interesting feature of the house that I missed to mention was that if you were taller than 5-feet you had to bow your head to enter due to entry door height restriction.
Added By BL Dhar
Thanks for email of this article to me and I find it equally amazing as the rest of your stories. I do not think I will tire easily reading what you write.
Added By PN Raina
Dear Dhar Sahib, It is hard to guess whether you write fact or fiction or something in between. That is the beauty of your writing. It is wholly engrossing.
Added By Vimarsh Kaul
Most of the events narrated in this story appear to be true except that the author might have changed names to respect the privacy of the affected characters. I can vouchsafe for most of he incidents here, revealed to me earlier by my father who worked then in the Tawaza Deptt. attached to the Maharaja's Palace. J&K may not get an emancipated, progressive and secular ruler of his stature again.
Added By Tej Munshi