by Faiyaz Dilbar
For a few months in the early 1990s, we rented an extremely cramped and dark studio in Delhi’s Patpar Ganj. It was an obvious sign of our lack of resources, want, and helplessness. One late evening, our neighbor Prof. Majumdar sounded an angry knock on our door, and screamed, “Mr. Faiyaz there’s a phone call for you!” Then he turned to himself, “Stupid people – they should know when it’s appropriate to call on a neighbor’s PP number?”
Shamelessly, I ignored uncle Majumdar’s comment and entered his living room with a fake smile on my face. I picked up the receiver. “Hello… This is Veer – Veer Koul,” a strange voice declared on the other end. It did not ring a bell, so I asked, “Veer Koul, who?”
“Sir, I am Shubanji’s younger brother.” As he explained, I bit my tongue in embarrassment. Veer Koul, in fact, was Shubanji’s younger brother. Shubanji had a special place in our circle of friends. He had sipped coffee with us at every table of Srinagar Coffee House, discussed Ali Mohammad Lone’s popular radio drama ‘Rise, O My Heart’s Pain’, debated G M Shah’s political wisdom, savored grilled mutton chops at Bohri Kadal’s Dastari, smacked harisa* at Ali Kadal’s Ama Lala. The very life of our Rang Munch dramatic club, Shubanji was a gifted actor and an important part of Kashmir Theatre Movement.
By temperament and physical appearance, Shuban Koul was a handsome young man. He was tall with a strong built. He had a high, sharp Aryan nose. A trimmed, elegant beard embellished his face like a Mughal miniature. A streak of smile permanently sat on his lips. One morning while we were in the Coffee House we heard that Shubanji had been admitted in the Soura Medical Hospital. It made us laugh for we took it as a new mischievous trick of his. We rushed to the hospital and found him exuberantly smiling on his bed. The moment he saw us, his smile turned into a loud laughter. Before we could say anything, he shouted, “You devils, I know what you have in mind.”
“You son of a bitch, what’s this all about?” I almost exploded. He laughed louder than before and began to use his favorite vocabulary. A few days later, he was discharged. But a couple of weeks later, he was again admitted in the hospital. Then we heard that Shubanji had passed away. Both of his kidneys had failed.
You may not like it, but to tell you the truth I hated him. I felt disgust towards him. He should not have left us the way he did. He tricked us. I did not attend his funeral nor did I see his family. I did not see how he was cremated. I did not see if he wore the streak of smile on his face when he left us.
Years after, we were at a wedding when we heard that Bhabi has been admitted to the Sadar Hospital. She was in need of blood and her group was B positive. Let me explain: Bhabi was Shubanji’s mother. Her kids, their friends, neighbors, acquaintances, even her husband would call her by that name. My blood group is B positive so I rushed to the hospital and donated some blood. Later I went to see her in the patient ward. As soon as I entered she turned her back towards me and muttered, “The old saying isn’t wrong. When a friend’s mother died, there was a throng of people, but when the friend died, there was none.” Right then she was told that I had donated blood for her. She slowly turned her face back towards me, held my hand and shed tears like a hailstorm. She said, “You know I’ll recover now. I will heal now for I’ll have your blood in my veins.” By the grace of God, Bhabi recovered and engaged in life’s business as usual. Meanwhile I left Kashmir and settled in Delhi. Some years later, pandits migrated from Kashmir and dispersed in all directions. I too lost contact with Shubanji’s family. Now all of a sudden I had received a call from Shubanji’s younger brother.
“Where did you get my number?” I asked.
“Someone gave it to me,” Veer Koul replied hurriedly.
“How’s Bhabi?” As I uttered these words, Veer Koul’s voice became somber.
“That’s the reason for my call. Bhabi passed away, just 30 minutes ago. But she will be cremated tomorrow. We live in Shahpur Jat village. Here’s the address…Please come as early as you can and if possible bring along any people you know.”
I headed to the village before the night fell. Veer Koul was sitting head-in-knees, all alone beside his mother’s corpse in a rented room in the residence of rude and arrogant milkmen. Toward Bhabi’s head, there was a grease-covered, flickering oil lamp. I sat myself at Veer’s right. With tearful eyes, he cast a meaningful look and then pulled out an old cassette player from a shelf. All night we listened to Master Zinda Koul’s mystic poem at Bhabi’s corpse.
My Creator had given me a sign of love
I couldn’t keep it; I lost it for the lack of capacity.
In the morning, a few people showed up. Shubanji’s sister who arrived from Ahmadabad grabbed my shirt’s collar and demanded, “We must have a Kashmiri cremator for Bhabi’s last rites.”
Soon I was asking every pandit in Delhi’s lavish Pamposh Colony if they knew any Kashmiri cremator. None said they knew one. Instead, I found them asking me questions. Some looked at me with suspicion wondering why a Kashmiri Muslim looked for a pandit cremator. Some of them would imagine an ISI stamp on my forehead. Finally, I reached a cremator in the Masjid Moth neighborhood. The cremator further seemed to complicate my mission. Looking at me from head to toe, he brought about Shankar Acharya-like expressions on his face and said, “Your generation is devoid of faith, tradition, and rituals. Otherwise what’s in there? All you need is some samagrah and reading of a few shalokas. How nice if you could perform these rituals yourself now.”
I was speechless and blushing all the way to my ear-lobes. With a numb tongue I said, “Sir, I am a Muslim.”
As if struck by lightening, he dropped his bag from his shoulder that was perhaps full of Sanskrit books. He suddenly began to offer excuses for his unavailability. “My body isn’t well. My blood pressure is high…. I am feeble and old…” I would have dragged him along or left his place without him, hadn’t his daughter intervened. She took him inside and after some whispering between the two, he came out ready to accompany me.
Around afternoon, we brought Bhabi to the Safdarjung cremation grounds. During the rituals at the pyre, the cremator boasted, “Kashmiri Brahmins belong to a high caste. It’s not for everyone to perform their last rites. You may have watched me on TV, I cremated Rajiv Gandhi.” While the cremator repeated these words, the flames rose higher and higher. Somewhere in my heart I wished Shubanji were alive to witness this all by his own eyes!
Translated from the Kashmiri by Muneebur Rahman
* an extra thick Kashmiri recipe made from meat, rice, lentils and other ingredients cooked nightlong by professional cooks for a rich morning breakfast.