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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Kashmir: A final journey

Kashmir: A final journey

Uma Shori Gigoo left Srinagar 23 years ago. When she returns, it is for a final departure

The river Jhelum. Photo: IndiaPicturePremium
The river Jhelum. Photo: IndiaPicture

On 24 June 2012, my parents and grandmother undertook a trip from Jammu to Srinagar. The plan was to go to Tulmul, Hari Parbat, Zaethyar, Ishbar, Nagbal, Nishat Bagh and other places where they once lived, where their ancestors were cremated, where they dreamt of nurturing their children and grandchildren, and where they wished to die in peace.

Uma Shori Gigoo, whom I called Babi, had an infallible memory. She could trace the entire genealogy of her family—the names of her relatives, their ages, hobbies, tastes, likes and dislikes, the yarns they spun and the riddles they invented. She had told me about her mother-in-law, who was addicted to snuff and who, in her youth, had chased a lion in Khrew, famous for the temple of goddess Zala. She had also told me about her father-in-law, my great-grandfather Madhavjoo Gigoo. He was a scholar and traveller. I got to know that he had written a book, The Serpent In Kashmir, which was published in Portugal during his travels in Europe. He had introduced the Arya Samaj to Kashmir. Sadly, his library of rare books was pillaged by intruders in the spring of 1990, soon after my parents shifted from our ancestral house in Khankah-i-Sokhta, Nawa Kadal, in Srinagar to Indira Nagar, a cantonment area.

A year earlier, Babi had fallen sick. The doctor had 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.

The writer’s grandparents.
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The writer’s grandparents.

When I got to know that my parents were taking her to Srinagar to spend a few days in solace, I was happy. My sister’s family took everybody in their car. They were to stop briefly in Srinagar and then proceed on a pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath. Thereafter, they were to visit several other places. 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.

They stayed in a rented house on the outskirts of Srinagar. A visit to our ancestral house was on the itinerary. It had been 23 years. Despite having visited Srinagar four times previously, Babi had not been able to go to her old house. The four-storeyed house in downtown Srinagar is nestled in a cluster of houses belonging to Pandits and Muslims. The locality consists of narrow lanes, corner shops, a ration ghat on the bank of the Jhelum where many houseboats are parked, a mosque, a temple dedicated to the 17th century saint-poetess Roopa Bhawani, the shrine of the great mystic Reshi Peer, vacant patches of land and an embankment. The neighbourhood is a diverse mix of traders, poor people, shopkeepers, educated people and illiterates. People with a tremendous sense of humour. The Eidgah is a 5-minute walk from our house.

That evening, when they reached Srinagar, I telephoned my father to inquire about Babi’s health. 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 through the city, a visit to the old locality and, then, her “home".

I kept telephoning my father to find out how Babi was doing. Later that same night, he telephoned me. “We’ve taken her to the SMHS Hospital. There are a few complications," he said.

An hour later, the phone rang again. “The doctors say she needs surgery immediately. But the chances of survival are slim." Within a few minutes, the phone rang again. “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? Let her live a few more days. Let her be with you."

“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 morning, I booked a flight ticket to Srinagar. I reached in the afternoon and rushed to the hospital. The matron came out of the ward. “I am her grandson," I said to her. The matron looked at me with compassion and said, “She just died a few minutes ago." Her eyes were teary.

I went to the bed on which my grandmother lay. My mother sat next to her, wiping a tear from her eye. She lifted the white cloth off my grandmother’s face and asked me to pour a spoonful of water into her mouth. I struggled to keep my hand steady while pouring the water. Her lips were grey and her tongue was curled.

A thought crossed our minds, that of cremating her in Srinagar, the place of her birth, where she got married, gave birth to her only child (my father) and reared her grandchildren. The crematorium in Karan Nagar was not far from the hospital. It was the same place where her parents and grandparents had been cremated. But nettles had overrun the place. Only a handful of Pandits lived in that locality now.

The ward staff saw us off at the hospital gate. They hugged us. Some cried.

“She died in her home," a woman said.

We couldn’t get hold of a hearse or an ambulance that afternoon. We found a private SUV for hire. We laid down my grandmother in the middle seat. At about 4.30pm, my father, mother and I set off for Jammu.

Dusk fell as we left the city behind. We drove through Pampore, famous for its saffron. In her youth, my grandmother used to visit this town every summer and stay for days with her relatives. She must have used this road a thousand times, always certain of returning to the town. Now, perhaps, she was looking at the town from a different realm.

Women plucking saffron crocus flowers at Pampore. Photo: Alamy/IndiaPicture
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Women plucking saffron crocus flowers at Pampore. Photo: Alamy/IndiaPicture

The vehicle sped through the countryside amid a sudden hailstorm, leaving behind the valley and everything else that had been precious only a day before.

Back in Jammu, after the last bath, my grandmother was draped in a shroud and a shawl—the same shawl she had asked me to get dry-cleaned months earlier. We took her for cremation amid the chanting of Vedic hymns and prayers.

Two days later, just after dawn, we went back to the crematorium. We collected the ashes in two earthen pots, decorated them with marigolds and set off for Akhnoor, a town not very far from Jammu. The Chenab river runs through this town. Mango trees dot the road. Alongside, a canal runs serenely. Children swim in it. We crossed a steel bridge and reached the ghat on the Chenab. During the monsoon, transporters who work for timber merchants throw hundreds of logs into the river and the waters ferry these from one place to another. Some youngsters dive into the river, even when it’s in fury, to gather driftwood.

The water was cold. It was greenish-grey in colour and a lot cleaner than 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 in a zigzag movement and slowly moved away from the riverbank. I watched the flowers till they were visible no more.

Where does this river go? I asked myself. I remembered that the river flows 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 exile. For many of us, it would take years, even decades, to fathom the impact of the loss of a generation that traced its ancestry to a unique people who originated from the land of the rishis (sages) more than 5,000 years ago. The death of my grandmother made me realize how little I knew of her life, which had spanned more than eight decades.

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 liked to go. For her, there was always one more place to set foot in and explore, even when, for many of us, there was nowhere else to go.

A version of this story has appeared in the Earthen Lamp Journal.

Siddhartha Gigoo is the author of The Garden of Solitude, A Fistful Of Earth And Other Stories and co-editor of A Long Dream Of Home: The Persecution, Exodus And Exile Of Kashmiri Pandits.

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Published: 22 Apr 2016, 08:53 PM IST
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