Author: Saadut
•11:57 AM

It was called ‘The Dewakhaane’, a large room, second story, front of the house, all made of wood; tall windows carved on arches supported by wooden pillars in uniform periodicity and a huge folding partition towards the extreme right corner, that led into another big room. Folding the wooden partition in a cascade could merge the two large rooms.  The ‘Dewakhaane’ had its tall windows opening on to the waterway that originated from the nearby sulphur spring. And parallel to the narrow waterway ran a cobblestone pathway, running across an older stone and wood mosque, which stood taller than any building in the Mohalla. The huge mosque with its seemingly dark and large staircase, which I would never dare to explore even though being just across the narrow waterway and the cobblestone paved street, often seemed eerie to me. I would often imagine some secrets hiding in the corners of this tall structure, not only for the enormity of its size but also for the restrained placidity it maintained, like a very old monk in some stoic deep meditation. And the kid in me would not dare disturb the monk in its silent prayer.

Every evening, by the steps of the narrow waterway, womenfolk would assemble to wash clothes by its stone steps, or at other times to just chatter their small town gossip.

Many evenings, especially Thursdays and Fridays, my Granny, a tall women of a frail skeleton, clad in her Afghan Burka, the front side of which would be neatly folded on her head, to expose her bonny face but cover her body, would walk the cobblestone path, further ahead joined the main road leading to ‘Reshmoul Saebun Astaan’ (Shrine of the local patron saint Baba Hyder Reshi also known as Resh Moul Saeb or Resh Mir Saeb). I would sometimes accompany her to the Shrine, over this stone path converging to the metaled bisecting road, that crossed a few mosques on the left, a graveyard on the foothills on the right and then turned across the old telephone exchange, opening up to a wide market near the clear spring, turning up ahead on the left to the Shrine. The Shrine courtyard, all of old stone and some of modern mortar, was accessible from two opposite sides, leading to sanctum of a wide square verandah, latticed windows inside with green interiors, where the saint had his final resting place.

Within the wooden partitions of the shrine were held prayers, some in murmurs, while others in loud callings. Countless threads hanging by the shine grill, spoke of the prayer requests of earlier visitors to the shrine, of fervent appeals to the saint, many of the older threads having been replaced by new requests. My Granny would often stand in one of the corners of the shrine, her skeletal hands risen in prayer and lips murmuring at her own pace. Many a time tears would tickle down bonny cheeks, running down all along the chin and then dropping off to infinite spaces beyond that. I imagined these ‘infinite spaces’ to run along the endless creases of her ‘Burka’, then getting lost in the intricate thread work that lay on its hem. Somewhere within these running threads and flowing creases lay a lifetime of struggle and prayers of my Granny. My Grandfather had passed away when I was still a toddler, and the responsibility of the family immediately had shifted to my Granny. Even during hard days, she never forgot to carry in her hands a few two rupees and five rupee notes as a token presentment to the shrine caretakers.  The shrine, a four-sided structure, constructed on a high quadrilateral plain, lorded over the area with a towering spire in the center of a pyramidal sloping roof.

On Fridays the air would reverberate with ‘Daroud-o-Azkaar’, in loud unison, which has now got imprinted in my mind. Whenever I hear these ‘Daoud-o-Azkar’, am transported back to the old cobblestone path, the narrow water channel born out of the warm sulphur spring, memories often pulling me towards the safe recluse of that shrine.

On one such lazing Autumn Friday of October in the late 80’s, the peace of a post Friday prayers, was shattered by some commotion. As we stood by the edge of the roofed verandah of the shrine, Granny as usual praying teary eyed and the kid holding by the hem of her burka lost aimlessly in this routine, we heard slogans, then in the distance and now closing in. A seemingly large protest was marching down the Reshi Bazaar, gathering a din that rose over the murmuring prayers of the shrine. The pitch of slogans was rising further, like the dust that precedes a storm; slogans incomprehensible to the kid in me. And then we heard shots being fired followed by a strange pungent smell. Suddenly Granny drew me closer to her, trying to protect me in her strong bonny arms, part of her Burqa covering my body, while repeating loudly ‘Parvardigaara now’jaawan karr rae’ch, assi’ karr raham’ (Allah please save these youngsters, have mercy on us). From slogans, the protests turned to a pandemonium and then a stampede of sorts. From one side of the shrine people were fleeing, trying to find a way out from the other side. The other gate of the shrine suddenly became a bottleneck, some people falling in the stampede and few left in torn clothes or barefooted. Terrified, Granny, like other womenfolk within the Shrine, in the hope of safety, rushed closer to inner sanctorum of the shrine, close to where the patron and his twenty-one khulafa have been interred. Then there were loud wails and prayers, each aiming to outdo each other in decibels and reach, trying to awaken the saint.

We reached home close to evening, coughing, drained, terrified and teary. It was not deemed safe to leave the shrine even after an hour had passed since the last remains of any protestor resistance was silenced by the uniformed. The night passed partly awake to pockets of sloganeering or cries in the distant neighborhood. A few days later heard many young boys of the neighborhood, most of them school going lads, had been picked up by men in uniform, for apparently no reason. Four of them, one of who was a school topper and aiming to become a lecturer, were held for months together, facing torture and impalement. He was released late next spring with a fractured hand (local talk was that his hands had been rolled on with something heavy during torture), to be arrested again on seemingly trumped up charges, then his family ‘securing a release’ somewhere by the beginning of next winter. 

Two autumns later, when I was in middle school and Granny went bed ridden due to ailment, militancy sprung up in Kashmir and three of these boys became early converts to the gun. 
My Granny passed away on a cold winter day in Srinagar, when a major part of the city was under its umpteenth curfew and its youth were fleeing a death cavalry march.  
Last month when I visited the Shrine with my boss, I wanted to escape to the same corner, by the edge of the roofed verandah, where I used to hold the hem of Granny’s burka, and shed a tear in prayer for the young lad who never became a lecturer and was shot dead in the alleys of his old town, or the young boys who never came back home.

July, 2016
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