Bansi Lal Pandit, our beloved neighbor in the small hamlet of Tulmulla, district Ganderbal, was fondly called Kaka Ji. He stuck to his roots and didn't leave his home even when his family and relatives left the strife-torn Kashmir valley in the early 1990s. They took refuge in Jammu camps like many other Kashmiri Pandit families at that time. Concerned about his safety in Kashmir, his family and his ailing mother managed to take him to Jammu a couple of times during the peak of the turmoil. But distraught Kaka Ji, like a kid snatched from her wailing and longing mother's lap, escaped from the scorching summers in Jammu camps and returned to his ancestral home for good.
This was the time when there were no mobile phones. Communication wasn't so quick. The anxious family later came to know from the local police that Kaka Ji had returned where his heart was - his ancestral, abandoned home in Tulmulla. The hamlet is known for its pluralistic, syncretic culture and heart-warming Pandit Muslim bonhomie. Here a devout Kashmiri Muslim has been lighting the pyre of Kashmiri Pandits for decades.
Kaka Ji even left his family and all other relations in Jammu just for the love of his only homeland. He preferred not to migrate from Kashmir but to live and die among his Muslim neighbours and friends in his village which at the time was bereft of its coreligionists after their migration.
Kaka Ji’s emotional bonding with his Muslim neighbours, with whom he would eat like a family member, was as intense as his love for his homeland he never betrayed. What endeared us all to him were his virtues of honesty and affable nature. He also worked as a temporary postman over the years, ensuring that every mail reached the receiver well on time without fail. He would make sure nothing remained undelivered, even if it meant walking several kilometers on foot on cold evenings. This was his temporary job for which he was paid a meagre amount. Still, he was fully committed to it.
In those good old days a black and white television, powered by a ruby battery, was a prized possession in our homes. Men and children would also gleefully throng to his home, spending endless hours watching movies and other entertainment programs on his television set. He had donned his TV in an intricately woven and tidy meez posh ( a decorated piece of cloth ). The ambiance of his dimly lit room was akin to that of a mini cinema hall.
When the Khel (a movie in local parlance) was about to start at 4 pm every Saturday and Sunday evening, the curtains of the windows were drawn followed by a pin-drop silence. Anyone chit-chatting or munching anything as the film started would get his due share of scolding, at times mild punches from Kaka Ji. People in the room cracked jokes amid sips of steaming nun chai (pink salted tea). Some would relish freshly plucked juicy pomegranates from one of the trees in the sprawling and serene lawns of Kaka Ji's house. One of the pomegranate trees is still there outside the main door and continues to bear fruit. People would celebrate Kaka Ji’s birthday and festivals of both faiths together. They would gossip and play cards or chess. A man with a grey beard and a needle in his hand sat in one corner. Least interested in the movies, he would make embroidered floral designs on a shawl spread over his legs with multi-colored threads, a bunch of which dangled across his wrinkled neck.
On the walls of Kaka Ji's room, from where one got a splendid view of the kitchen garden abuzz with the melodious chirping of birds and insects, hung framed Quranic verses. There were also photographs of revered Muslim saints, besides photos of shrines like Charar-i Sharief and Dargah where Kaka Ji would often pay obeisance even in harsh winters or on strike days when transport on roads was quite scarce.
Besides celebrations and festivities, Bansi Lal also taught the Hindi language to local students or anyone interested in learning the language. He would hold open-air classes under a shady tree in his lush green lawn. Sometimes he would teach inside his room with an old worn-out chalkboard fixed on the wall.
As I write this, I’m reminded of a pleasant and touching post-lunch moment with Kaka Ji during one autumn’s paddy harvest season years ago. Our paddy field was just adjacent to his. One of my aunts perhaps jokingly asked him:
"Kaka jiya che chuk shakle te aklih asel, zameen makan te che khudayas hawaleh, karezeha nether. woenkya che zurath?"
("Kaka ji, you should marry. You are smart and wise enough and have this land and also a good house to lead a content married life. What else do you want?")
"Yete kus batte gar roud woen, yem me nether den," Kaka Ji replied with his trademark wit, brushing it aside. ("There is no Pandit family left here now to give me their daughter. Almost all have migrated).
"Ade tar teli tamath Jum te kar khander, pateh tar wapas," the aunt said. (Shift to Jammu for some time, find a good match, get married, and come back to Kashmir)
"Dakh karsi. Gar trawne khutei che behter anhorai marun." (It is better to die unmarried than abandon my home.)
This was his level of attachment to his homeland where he was born some six decades ago and where he lived alone with no one from his family for more than three decades before his death in December last year. It is where he silently breathed his last in the dark of the night, with nobody around at the parting moment but just a Kanger (earthen pot) that warmed his body on his last night at home.
His lifeless body was found on his cold mattress with one palm under his head as if he was in a peaceful sleep.
As the bier carrying Kaka Ji’s bathed and scented body was kept in the house for some time, it seemed to be wailing for having lost its only occupant. His handful of relatives and people from the neighborhood showered flower petals and candies amid soothing hymns as if a groom was being groomed and set to unite with his beloved:
Tann, mann, dhan sab hai tera
(Body, soul, wealth, everything is yours)
Swami sab kuch hai tera
(Oh Lord, everything is yours)
Tera tujhko arpan
(I'll give everything yours back to you)
Kya lage mera
(Nothing is mine)
Om Jai Jagdish Hare
(O Lord of the entire universe.)
As we rowed the boat carrying the bier to the cremation ground for consigning his mortal remains to the flames, the eerie silence was broken by the murmur of the gently flowing stream. Perhaps it symbolized the transitory nature of creation.
Rest in peace, Kaka Ji. We will always miss you and forever cherish your memories.
By Hakeem Rouf
(Hakeem Rouf is a teacher)