(Mr. Tajamul Hussain, 55, was born in Srinagar. He went to the Government Higher Secondary School in Nawakadal, Srinagar, and the S.P. College, Srinagar. He attended the College of Engineering, Andhra University, Waltair, the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT), New Delhi, and the Forest Research Institute. He is a freelance writer.)
Memories of the freakishly chilly days of dismal and distant childhood always send me packing into the nostalgic throes. I would get to the mindboggling visions of those icy winters when I was in my preteens. Winter is a big nightmare for a typical Kashmiri, and that too when you talk of the Siberian Chilla Kalan and the 2 kid chillas. It means poverty, miseries, affliction, diseases and death. Historically speaking during Chilla Kalan, vast expanses of snow, stretched as far as eye could see, would accumulate over days of heavy snowing (followed by subzero temperatures) to be later on smeared with mud and dirt. As if it would never melt, the very sight of the frozen substance gave cold shivers. As if winter were going to be with us forever the unending load shedding cajoled denizens into living life of cavemen….using hearth, damchool, kerosene stove, lanterns, chatta-gheer, earthen lamps(tsoung), kangries, manin etc.
Eyes under pitchy conditions seemed to be of no use….. You could not see, you could not read and you could not work in the pitch black caves. In the unlighted night, as dark as the wolf’s mouth, the howling wilderness would cast a deep gloom and give rise to hellishly nightmarish imaginations. Cuddled up together in the corners of the dark, ill-ventilated cells, kind of cubbyholes, the Pheran clad grave dwellers, with tens of awe-stricken and gloomy eyes gazed into the ghostly shadows that were cast on the walls and roofs. In the pitch darkness, desolate and almost invisible, it’s the flickering flames of the lanterns, chatta-gheer, chirag (tsoung) and candles shining with the subdued brightness here and here that suggested the human habitation. In the subzero temperatures a rubbernecker, who dared venture to peep out, might hold himself in an absolute thrall at the sight of the glittering icicles that hung by the roof tops, but then it would also give him a chilly feeling of freezing-to-death.
We lived in the old city in a 3 storied house built by our forefathers perhaps in the 19th century. The locality largely symbolized kind of slum area…… dilapidated old structures (architectural disasters) that peopled dozens of families in dark, poorly ventilated cubbyholes stretched on all sides. It was a locality that was inhabited mostly by lower middle class (safaed poash) living on haakh batta….. pirs, Hakims, bakers(kandur), dairymen(ghoore), tongawalla, boat men(hanjis), carpenters, labour and the like. Earnings barely enough to keep the wolf from the door, the lone-earners of the families were obliged to feed tens of mouths. In effect a large section of society was plagued with illiteracy, ignorance, under nutrition, ill health, backwardness and all that. A few big bungalow type houses here and there suggested the presence of some well off families in the locality too. They would attract a beeline of poor and destitute to bask under their sunshine and even work as family patsies.
The narrow lanes and by lanes between and behind the lofty structures would invite horde of ragged toddlers, preteens, teens and twentysomething whiling away their time, loitering here and there. Smoking cigarette was symbolic of macho men, and most of us kids would die for taking a puff or two. Freakish games like sazza loung–a game something like hopscotch-, toure-baba (kind of peek-a-boo), bira-ball(cricket) would be played by all, irrespective of sex and age. Hordes (diphri) of gamblers of all ages would settle at the isolated places to play mongapati, trump (Turuf) throughout the day, sometimes even beyond dusk under candle light. A lucky few, as rare as a black swan, attended Madrassas, outanjis (elderly ladies belonging to pir families that taught Quran) and some government (kind of jabri) schools.
The narrow street that connected our mohella with Lal Chowk was hardly motorable. Occasionally when a Tonga or a reda passed through this potholed track the street vendors and pedestrians hurried up along with their merchandize into the shops on the both sides of the road. As I hark back the memories of my childhood, I vividly remember the Pheran clad wrinklie that for some time would situate him (self) against the wooden railing of the small bridge across the sunder kul to beg alms from the passersby. The scantily dressed snow-white-bearded ‘oldie’ invariably started early in the morning, when most of us were still in beds. The beggarly calls of the poor fellow more often than not woke many of us kids up. The ‘oldie’ would sometimes be joined by an ill-kempt tattered girl in her early teens.
On that chilly evening when a couple of us friends were loitering around the road we could make out that the beggar man was shivering with cold. He tried in vain to hide his bare legs. But then oblivious to the icy winds that blew on that evening the fellow kept on begging from the passersby. We stood alongside the kerb to observe him making beggarly calls. But then to our surprise, a turban clad sixty-something dressed nondescript, appeared from somewhere. It was kind of screeching-to-sudden-halt. He looked at the half-naked fakir with curiosity and keen interest. In a depressive stupor the old savior suddenly steered himself towards the old man and caught hold of him by his shoulders. Tears welled up in his eyes. As he hugged the poor fakir, he wept bitterly. ‘O, God, forgive me for my sins; the old man has been shivering due to the congealing cold for want of warm clothes and I …I… the ungrateful and selfish slave of Yours is living on hog and luxuriating in my warm clothing’. He suddenly stood aside, took off his Pheran and sweater and slipped out of the one of those two trousers he was wearing. He then quietly handed over the sweater and the trousers to naked fakir and helped him to slip into them. As the old fakir finished with his job the old messiah took leave of him and vanished in the thin air. The old fakir, after a short break, resumed his beggarly calls