The past is a foreign country

Siddhartha Gigoo | | Updated on: Jan 20, 2018
BLink_Debate.jpg

BLink_Debate.jpg

BLinkPP_Siddhartha Gigoo.jpg

BLinkPP_Siddhartha Gigoo.jpg

Udhampur, a makeshift homestead where the quixotic dreams of childhood germinated, teaching a boy indelible lessons in love, loss and longing

In the summer of 1990, my sister and I stayed in a dormitory in a makeshift migrant camp in Talaab Tillo, Jammu. My parents and grandparents were in our ancestral house in Khankah-i-Sokhta (the burnt mausoleum) in downtown Srinagar. There was no way of getting in touch with them. In the camp, there wasn’t enough to eat. Water supply was limited. The displaced families shared one toilet block. For weeks, we waited and hoped that our parents would come and find us. An acquaintance informed me that my father was seen in Udhampur. I’d not heard of it. School admissions were over, and the academic session was already underway. I had passed the Std X board examination from Srinagar, and my sister had cleared Std V.

One morning, without informing the people with whom I was staying, I went in search of my father. I boarded a bus to Udhampur. The journey involved going back through the highway towards Kashmir. Beyond the Pir Panjal mountains was the home I had left behind. A milepost read: “Srinagar: 250 Kilometres”. I reached Udhampur in the afternoon, and located the house where my father was staying. He was surprised and relieved to see me. He told me not to worry about my mother and grandparents, who were still in Srinagar. I returned to Jammu in the evening.

Some months later, my father brought my mother, grandparents and some household belongings in a truck to Udhampur. Before arriving, he had rented two rooms in a house near the Chabutra Bazaar. The house belonged to the Chattriwala family, which owned two electronics shops in the Dabbar Market. I enrolled in the camp school.

One evening, at the ghat of the Devika river, a flute seller played a melody. Because I had nothing to do, I bought a bamboo flute and started playing. Sensing my interest, my father persuaded Professor Bushan Lal Kaul, a sitarist who taught music at the Government Degree College, to give me lessons. He taught me for three years and then asked me to request the flautist Anil Raina, son of the illustrious musician Omkar Nath Raina, to take me under his tutelage. He taught music at the Kendriya Vidyalaya on the Dhar Road. At first, he refused to accept me as his pupil. For days, I camped outside his transit quarters. I would come at noon and wait for him to return from his school to present my case. After three months, he agreed to be my guru.

One evening, our landlord Mohan, whom I called Dixon (he owned the Dixon Electronics store), offered me whiskey. It was my first time. Then he taught me how to ride a scooter. We crashed against a wall. My mother cried when she saw me drunk and drenched in blood.

I became friends with Chander Aima and Deepak Tiku. Tiku’s father worked in the Army Canteen Stores Department. Aima’s father and my father taught literature in two colleges. The three of us hung out together. People called us the three musketeers. In the mornings, we would go to the district library near the Dabbar Park to read newspapers. There I chanced upon a dusty and cobwebbed rack stacked with Russian novels. Gogol and Dostoevsky lay on a shelf partly eaten up by termites. We hatched a plan for a grand heist. After a week’s planning, we broke in and salvaged a dozen books. A month passed, and the dusty rack was rendered vacant. Thereafter, we stopped going to the library. A friend, whose father was a Colonel, took us to the Chinar library in the Northern Command Headquarters, which was 10 km from the Udhampur bus adda. Partly out of curiosity and partly to escape the ennui of our daily routine, we started surveying the area, where trespassing was prohibited. One evening, when Tiku and I were ambling near a tennis court near the general officer commanding-in-chief’s residence, two security guards caught us with cigarettes dangling from our mouths, and took us to a shed nearby. It was an interrogation centre. Not convinced by our pleas of innocence — that we were students who had inadvertently sauntered into the area — they interrogated us for four hours. At last, Tiku’s father talked to a Colonel who, in turn, talked to a Brigadier who then got us released on an assurance that we would never be seen there again.

The Link road, connecting the highway to the Chabutra bazaar, became a haunt where, at twilight, the three of us experienced hallucinations. A grand plan to write a novel was hatched there. An elderly spice merchant at Lambi Gali recounted tales about the Dogras and the war of ’65. We would sit in Dabbar Park and listen to the woes of the displaced Pandits living in a camp set up in the football ground. One day, looking at buses going to Srinagar, we discovered the Roxy bar, and went inside with empty pockets. At a chai shop in the Dabbar market, Raju was born who then became the character of our column ‘Looking Glass’, published in Daily Excelsior . At Vatika, the college garden, we recited poems, and wished someone heard them too. Occasionally, we would undertake trips to Krimchi to be among the ruins of the ancient Shiva temples there.

In 1994, my grandfather entered a world where the past and the present collided, and where he hopped from one island of memory to another, looking for a place called ‘home’. He suffered for three years. His last wish — to go back to his burnt mausoleum — remained unfulfilled. During those years, we lived in a partially constructed two-room set with no windows and no tap water. For over a year, in the mornings and evenings, my mother and I ferried water from a spring in the foothills nearby. In the rainy season, we chased snakes and centipedes out of the rooms.

Among other things the three musketeers discovered in Udhampur were love and longing. The search for the three girls, who never got to know that three loafers secretly fancied them all the time, is still on.

(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)

S iddhartha Gigoo’s The Umbrella Man won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Published on June 10, 2016
COMMENTS
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

You May Also Like

Recommended for you