It was the first time I was going across the Banihal Tunnel on towards Jammu, the winter capital of the Jammu & Kashmir state. Now-a-days you take the Jawahar Tunnel to do that. I was on my posting there that was automatic as the entire official machinery of the secretariat got posted out during the winter months, called “Darbar Move”, in anticipation of the city of Srinagar going into deep freeze in winter not allowing the normal functioning of the government. I had earlier been offered the post of a Junior Clerk and had joined the service just a few months back in summer. I was on cloud nine and eager to cross the mountain range that had encased me within the confines of the valley. The tunnel was the only escape route available to me. I wanted sunshine and I wanted it bad. I hated the winter months and I hated the cold. I was told it never snows in Jammu and Oh Boy, was I excited?
My mother was at her wits end whether to feel happy or sad at seeing me go. She was in a dilemma and rightly so. My father was posted at Ganderbal as Head Master of the Primary School and he usually stayed there, coming home once every two weeks. My elder sister was married and she lived a few miles away from us. The only way mother could sustain with my moving out was to join father at Ganderbal and that would mean she would not get to see her daughter who frequently called on her and she would miss that. She would also probably miss the evening spiritual sessions even more that she had with Pt. Pitamber Shastri at the Bod Mandir along with many other ladies. The sessions were held at the Gita Bhavan in the complex. The temple was an integral part of our culture in the locality. Pt. Pitamber Shastri was a learned Vedic scholar who held a discourse on Gita. Besides our house would stay unguarded as there was no one else who could habitat it. But it probably did not matter. Ours was a small dwelling unit at Rainawari and we had good neighbors who would willingly look after it. Had we been living uptown we could easily find someone to stay there instead.
As preparations for my departure were getting along my father dropped in from Ganderbal. He was concerned about the date of my travel as according to him the day was not auspicious. When he asked me to change the date of my travel I explained that I could not do it as the government had made arrangements for an entire bus load of employees who would all travel together in the state roadways transport bus. Some had their family members with them and if it was OK with them it was OK with me. It was here that our family priest was consulted who provided an easy solution. I was asked to leave my travel shoes at my neighbor’s house a day earlier which was an auspicious day and I could collect it the morning of my departure and get going. Well I had no problem with that as long as I was not in conflict with father’s ideology.
So it was finally decided that mother would accompany father to Ganderbal and the house would stay in the care of our neighbor. All said and done, I started dreaming about my new abode – far away from the snow carpeted roads that turned into slushy and muddy nightmares in the by-lanes of Rainawari during winter. I would no longer have to wear my wooden platform footwear called “khrav” to negotiate the streets of Rainawari during the snow falls and face the horror of getting a frostbite in my toes that usually affected me every winter. But in the depths of my heart I knew I would miss my buddies and the long evening chats we had at the only newspaper vendor’s outlet by just standing at the roadside and reading headlines since we would hardly buy the newspaper. And when we had finished scanning the headlines we would assemble at Satlal’s cloth shop where his salesman, a relation of his from the village, would entice us with his newest Kashmiri poetry that he wrote during the day. And if he discerned we were not attentive and would perhaps leave his company he would order some baked bread “telvor” from Satlal’s bakery shop just across the street and offer us some “kehwa” with it just to keep us glued to our seats. And once we were done we would stroll to the Saraf Park nearby to smoke a few cigarettes in the shade so that no elder would spot us being engaged in an unbecoming behavior.
But why am I thinking like I will never return to savor such moments once again when I finish my tenure at Jammu? There will certainly be another “Darbar Move” and I will be back in just six months. How could I miss the famous floating vegetable market of Rainawari? The thought alone brightened my spirits. I started giving finishing touches to my travel case which was a steel trunk that would accompany a hold-all containing my bedding. My mother made me pack some utensils separately that I would require to cook food in. But when I was tired of cooking and needed a change I could eat at the hotel and that would be just fine. There was an old primus stove that I would carry along and all I required was to buy some kerosene from the local market. She also packed some “masala” in a pouch that would be handy. She gave me some quick tips at cooking rice and a variety of vegetables and dal. I was satisfied I could look after myself after all the years of being mothered so fondly. Whether my mother was satisfied or not, I have my doubts.
A day before departure mother asked me to accompany her to Bod Mandir where I prayed for the safety of my parents and myself. As always it was a moment of peaceful renunciation to God that must have been a source of strength to me in the days to come. The Shivlinga looked serene and composed and it emanated bountiful blessings that I deserved the most. After I lighted Dhoop and Rattandeep at the temple I booked a “tongawalla” to take me to the Tourist Reception Center early morning next day where we had to board our bus. All I had to do now was to pick up my shoes from my neighbor’s house and stroll out to start my day long journey to the sunshine land. As I did that on departure my neighbor’s daughter came rushing out from her inside room and said:
“Bhaiya when you cross the tunnel just look behind and call out my name over your shoulder, may be then I also will get to see the land beyond.”
As our bus reached the base of the mountain that contained the Banihall tunnel, the weather abruptly started to get cold and colder still as the bus gained more altitude. We must have been just a thousand feet below the pass and at about 7000 feet AMSL when I saw snow drifting along that grew in intensity as we climbed further. The twisting turns in the road made our bus lose the speed and I felt we were not making any progress as regards covering the distance. It was well past 1 O’clock and I was getting hungry even though I had grabbed an “anda-paratha” at Quazigund some two hours ago. The frequent changing of gears by the driver was un-nerving and I got a feeling that he was not an experienced driver. We meandered along somehow and finally I could see the tunnel, just a few hundred meters ahead. By now the snow fall had intensified and my feet were intensely cold sending cold currents right through my body. But the bus kept going, its engines groaning in agony, until the time when instead of moving forward it suddenly started to move in reverse. It was not the driver who had applied the reverse gear but the sheer weight of the bus on this incline was pushing it backward due to the slippery road and nothing seemed to stop it as the traction was not holding. All passengers knew this was the end as the bus was sure to roll down the gorge into a deep abyss below taking all of us along. I closed my eyes to say my last prayers as did everybody else. There was shock written down on all faces but there were some who shouted out the loudest as the bus careened down further.
Then all of a sudden the bus stopped. The front end appeared much higher in level than the back but nothing more happened. The driver stood up on his seat and looked out towards the rear. He cautioned everybody to move out of the bus slowly, one at a time, from the front end and not make any attempt to open the rear door that probably opened up in vacant space. We followed his instructions meekly and the bus was soon empty of its load. When I came up on the road I saw something freaky. The bus was just leaning against a frail tree that held its entire weight. How long would it hold, we did not really know. The snow was falling in big drifts now and the visibility was just about 50 meters. I was shivering uncontrollably and longed to be back home in the warmth of my own home that I already started missing badly. I saw some family members hugging each other and crying at the same time. The driver was conversing with the conductor about what they could do in this situation. No one asked him any questions. We were all recovering from the shock.
We must have stood by the roadside in shocked silence for a very long time. It appeared we were not going anywhere till we heard a strange groan that increased in intensity as time passed by. In about 10 minutes, a long agonizing wait for us all, we could make out the outline of a bus in the poor visibility conditions as it labored along the road trying with all its might to gain some ground to reach the tunnel. The bus stopped just about 50 feet away when it sighted us on the road ahead. A burly Sardarji came out of the cockpit and casually inspected the situation around. It did not take him long to understand what was going on. He walked towards the driver, whom he probably knew, and there was some exchange of words between the two. The dialogue lasted for about five minutes when I thought to get closer and find out what was being discussed. The bus had to be towed out and they did not have a tug rope. Sardarji finally went to his own bus and with the help of two conductors they together got on to the roof of the bus owned by ND Radhakrishen & Co and undid the rope that covered the luggage on its top. They wanted to use it as the tug rope to pull out our bus. On inspection both the drivers thought the rope was not strong enough to hold the weight of the bus and they needed to strengthen it but they could not risk going on top of our bus to remove its ropes as it was precariously balanced on the edge. After a long deliberation and in total frustration the Sardarji removed the turban from his head and with the help of the conductors it was used to strengthen the rope by coiling the turban around the other rope. He was more concerned about saving lives rather than saving a religious sentiment as regards his turban. In about another agonizing half hour of hits and misses the bus was finally towed out by the other bus until it gained solid ground. Loud cheers were heard all around and Sardarji was hugged by all, me included.
I did not write about my experience to father when I sent him a post card about my arrival at Jammu. But when I was back home after six months I could not contain myself and narrated the story to both my mother and father in the presence of my sister who had come to see me after my six month long sojourn at Jammu. There was an expression of disbelief on their faces and mother did not talk to me for the rest of the day. She only kept mumbling some prayers. The next day she took my hand and dragged me to Bod Mandir where she made me light a Rattandeep and place it before Lord Shiva and I had to promise her I would do it every day for the rest of my life. I feel sad I am not able to fulfil her wishes as I now live at Jammu for the last many years and can’t go back to Rainawari.
My neighborhood sister of Rainawari, who is sadly dead now, also lived at Jammu for some years even though I had forgotten to call out her name over my shoulder as I crossed the Banihal Tunnel that fateful day many years ago.
Author’s Note: The description of details and happenings in the story are based on true events and only the characters and the sequence has been changed to give a direction to the story.
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.
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A mesmerising story indeed. Really heart touching. Thanks uncle for this.
Added By Gaurav K
What a nice story and beautifully written. You deserve my congrats for this.
Added By ML Razdan
I think I am compelled to say this one is a compelling story. A must read. Prithvinath Raina
Added By PN Raina
I haven't been to Rainawari for decades but the picture of Bod Mandir transported me there in an instant. Sad to see the temple looks deserted. Good story though there. Well written.
Added By SK Tikoo
Very touching. A beautiful read.
Added By vijay thusu
Very touching. A beautiful read.
Added By vijay thusu
Somebody recommended I read this story. I did and must say this one is just fantastic.
Added By Sanjay Saraf
Thank you Dhar Sahab for this earthy story. I liked the way the end has been touched up. It tugs at your heart.
Added By Avinash Ticku
A very nostalgic trip to Rainawari. Nicely written and sometimes touching my emotions. Especially the mums visits to Bod Mandir to listen to Pandit Pitamber Ji's Geeta pravachan.I still remember standing by Shri Mahi Kak's shop to catch up with the headlines from that day's newspaper and picking up the delicious "Takhtach" or "Girda"from Shri Sat Lal baker's shop on way home. Those days are etched in my memory. I wish I could travel back in time and relive those magic moments. I wish.
Added By BalKrishen Dhar
You have way to write which is your own, unique way - simple, elegant and captivating. You have created masterpieces out of ordinary day to day experiences.
Added By Ramesh Kaul