It was jan 1998. Veenaji was in the Kitchen. Her Husband Roshanlal was reading the newspaper in the living/Drawing room of their cramped two-room Govt. Quarters at Tope Sherkhanian. She could hear the flipping sound, when her Husband turned the leaf of the Newspaper. She was thinking about her children, who were perusing ‘B.E’ in Pune. A knock at the Door was heard clearly in the backdrop of the silence of the Quarter. Roshanlal stood up and opened the Door. A man was standing outside.
“Namaskar Roshanlalji. I am Irfaan. Your neighbor from Banamohallah”. Veenaji too had heard the’ knock’, she came out from the Kitchen out of curiosity. Her Husband, greeted Irfaan. “Come inside. Why are you standing there! “. Pointing towards Veenaji, Roshanlal asked Veenaji, “Did you recognize him?” The face looked familiar, But She could not recognize him. Irfaan, it seemed understood the confusion of Veenaji. “I am the Son of Khatijah. Remember my Mother! “. Veenaji’s face lit with happiness.“Yes. I remember her. How is she?” asked Veenaji. “ She died last year because of Heart Failure.” Said Irfaan with regret. She was saddened to hear what he said. “I am so sorry. Please have a seat. I will make tea for both of you.” She went back to the Kitchen.
Irfaan had come to Roshanlal to persuade him to sell his share of ancestral house. Veenaji was listening to them, while she started making tea . The memories of her last visit to Kashmir were still vivid. She recalled how she along with her Husband Roshan Lal and their two Children , a Son-Sachin and Daughter- Meenakshi had moved to Jammu .Her Husband was working in the Govt.Secretariat. They used to live in the Govt. Quarters Tope Sherkhanian. They had moved to jammu in Dec-1989.
J&K has two capitals, i.e, summer capital-Srinagar and winter capital-Jammu. Every year,In winters, the employees of the Govt. Secretariat would move to Jammu for 6 months ; and move back to Srinagar in summers for rest of the 6 months. This custom was/is in vogue since the times of Dogra Rulers . This was/is termed as “Durbaar Move”.
veenaji lit the Gas Stove. She put some milk, sugar and water in an utensil and placed it on the stove. She looked through the Kitchen Window, although she was not looking at anything, But her past.
The memories of the past started flashing in front of her eyes.
Veenaji and her family loved the winters of Jammu. It would be sunny and warm in Jammu, compared to the cold and gloomy weather of the Srinagar winters. But that year,in 1989-90, It was different. In spite of the warm and sunny weather, she would occasionally feel the shivers. Not because of the weather, but because , on T.V and Radio, she would listen to the news . The merciless killing of the Kashmiri Pandits had started.
And then came the horrendous macabre night of 19 jan 1990.And everything changed after that.
In the last week of Jan 1990, that late night, Her elder Brother Makhan lal along with his family landed at their residence in Jammu. He had come by a taxi. His old mother –Amaji, wife-Lalitaji and two sons Rakesh and Sunil too had come.
As soon as they arrived at their residence, Lalitaji hugged tightly Veenaji and started crying. “it is only by God’s grace that we have reached here safely.” She complained amidst sobs . Amaji tried to console her as she said, “Lalitaji, don’t be a weakling. Be bold. You have yet to face the hardships of life. Be always grateful to God.”
They stayed with Veenaji for some days with this hope that the violence unleashed by the terrorists will be abated soon. But the destiny of Kashmir had its own plans. After a month, They realized that it might take a long time before they would return back to Kashmir. It was decided by the two families that, they would enroll their children in Jammu for studies , as it was safe.
Since Veenaji and her Family didn’t knew that the situation would deteriorate so much in Kashmir; hence when they had moved to Jammu on the eve of annual “Darbaar move”, they had not taken any documents such as the Mark sheets and other educational documents related to the education of their children. Without these papers, it would be very difficult to get the admissions in the Schools and Colleges. Also, She wanted to get the documents related to banks such as FD, Saving a/c etc.
Somewhere in March 1990, She decided to go back to her residence at “Bana Mohallah” , Habbakadal, Kashmir.It was decided that Her sister-in-law lalitaji too would accompany her. In fact Lalitaji had volunteered herself to accompany her. The Males of the House were barred to go to Kashmir as they were more prone to be Shot by the Militants.
They flew to Srinagar and landed at the Airport by 3-4 P.m. It took them almost 4 hrs. to reach their house at Bana Mohallah. The lanes and by-lanes were muddy as it had rained the previous night. Some Muslim neighbors , who saw them entering their Mohallah, murmured something. By their Gaze , it looked as if they didn’t wanted them to be there. As they were about to enter their House, Khatijah-the neighbor and friend of Veenaji , came from nowhere and greeted her with a Broad smile. “How are you veenaji. I missed you. Now since Durbaar move will be over shortly, you be staying in Kashmir till November!” she exclaimed. Veenaji warmly asserted “No, I will stay here for a few days and rejoin my family. We will come back in Mid-April.” She half-lied. Veenaji knew that she will leave Kashmir tomorrow for Jammu and may not come back next month.
“Then stay put for the night at my house. The curfew will be imposed very soon and you will not get Rice and any other food-item after 15 mintes ” Pleaded Khatijah. “ I have brought some rice and Dried-vegetables with me. Thanks .” Veenaji kindly declined. But Khatijah kept her conversation going and it took another 20-25 minutes before Veenaji and her Sister-in-law entered their house.
Veenaji’s Husband Roshanlal lived in their ancestral house along with his three Brothers and 3 cousins. Their house was Big and hoary with a courtyard. Though, the house had 25 rooms, But it housed 7 nuclear families. Roshanlal, his 3 Brothers and 3 Cousins(Brothers) though were living in one house, But the wives of all the 7 brothers had decided to cook separately , in separate Kitchens, for their Families(consisting of Husband and Children).All the 7 Brothers had partitioned the 25 rooms in almost equal proportion. Apart from a Kitchen, Veenaji and her Husband had inherited 2 big rooms.
On a normal day, prior to 1990, their house was abuzz with activity. In the morning and in the evenings, many a times, one would hear the synchronous hissing sound from the steaming pressure-cooker, coming from 2 or more Kitchens of the House at the same time. The floating aroma of Knol Khol(Hak) or lamb-meat would titillate the Olfactory of the whole neighborhood. In the afternoon, the shrilled voices of the Children playing in the courtyard was common .In spite of 7 separate kitchens, Veenaji and her 6 co- sister-in-law would often share their delicacies with each other.
But the House was different this time.
As soon as Veenaji entered her House, she was welcomed by the eerie silence. It was frightening. All her 6 co-sister-in-law and their families too had moved to Jammu. The last family that had moved from this house to jammu was almost 15 days back.As she climbed-up the stairs of her house, a strange fear crept into her heart. It was almost 8.00 P.M by now and the darkness had covered almost everything.
She and Lalitajee were feeling the Hunger pangs. Into the utensil, Veenaji took a handful of rice from the polythene bag , she had brought with her from jammu. Soon, she realized that she has forgotten to get a matchbox or lighter to light up the cooking gas stove. “I will go downstairs to Ashaji’s kitchen and get the lighter .” she informed Lalitaji. “Do you have the keys of that Kitchen?” asked Lalitaji. “No, she never locks her Kitchen.” Replied Veenaji. “It is so scary here, I too will accompany you.” Said Lalitajee.
The Kitchen-door was indeed unlocked. As soon as Veenajee, switched-on the light, her face became pale out of fear. Shockingly, she exclaimed “Oh! My God. Someone is cooking here!” . “Hey Bhagwan ! what will we do now?” asked Lalitajee nervously. She was Gaping and beating her chest. Veenaji knew that her sister-in-law is weak-hearted and might behave strangely or may even faint.
She assessed the situation quickly. There was a matchbox lying on the ground. Many burnt match sticks were scattered over the floor of the Kitchen. From The cooked rice in the utensils, it looked as if ,just a few hours back, someone had cooked it. She did not waste much time in investigating. She opened the cupboard that was at the right corner of the Kitchen. She swept her fingers over the things in the cupboard and soon took a lighter , a torch and a candle from the cupboard. And switched off the main light of the Kitchen and closed the door.
“Follow me quickly”, she whispered . Lalitajee did not protest and followed the instructions. “As we know, someone is using the Kitchen of Ashajee, It might be a militant or a group of Militants. We cannot afford to switch-on the lights and invite any unwanted trouble. Understand Lalitaji?” she looked at her sister-in-law. Lalitaji was very scared, but she acted Bravado and said , “Yes, I do. You are right. But can we make the dinner for us?” she asked. “No. We cannot, since, the aroma of the Rice might give them a clue, that someone is inside the house.” she explained to Lalitaji. “Anyways, I don’t feel hungry now”, lied Lalitaji.They ran up towards the room.
Veenaji pulled an iron-Chest, that was placed at the corner of the room . She opened the lid and switched-on the Torch. suddenly, Lalitaji could see A bundle of papers, some folders containing some documents, a photo album, and some books. Veenaji took only a couple of Folders from the Box, closed the lid and placed it to the original position. Lifting the two folders in her hands, she said to Lalitaji, “This is for what we came here and took all the trouble”. She kept the two folders in the bag, that she had brought with her from Jammu.
They were sitting besides a window, so that they could have a direct and unobstructed view of the main Door, leading towards the courtyard. As it was still quite cold, they had draped themselves in the blankets. The main wooden Door of their House was Huge. A big rectangular latch, may be one feet long and 5 inches wide was connected to a wooden Knob .The latch moved up or down angularly, if the Knob was rotated. The latch faced towards the courtyard and the Knob towards the by-lane. It would make a lot of noise, if someone would open or close the Latch of the Door. Lalitaji was constantly praying to Mother Goddess for their protection. They had even made a plan, in case a militant or a group of Militants enter their house.” In case any intruder comes here, we will slip beneath the Bed. Understand!” explained Veenaji to her Sister-In-Law. Lalitaji had nodded her head in approval.
Just past the midnight, It began to pour heavily. The staccato of the rain hitting the tin-roofs of the Houses was rather unwanted and irritatingly. The odd street lamp positioned on the pole went off too. It was pitch dark outside. Because of the pitch darkness and noise, they thought, they have lost the chance of detecting any intruder. Lalitaji was chanting the Hymns of Goddess Indrakshi rather loudly to invoke the blessings. But the sound of heavy rains superseded her frequency of voice modulation .It stopped raining after a couple of Hours.
Both of them were feeling very sleepy. Pretending to be vigilant at this odd hour of the night, they were looking at the main Wooden Door. They were drowsing. Their heads would inadvertently hit the wooden window pane and they would concentrate briefly their attention on the wooden door again. Then, they would drowse yet again. They did not talk to each other for couple of Hours.
And then Dogs began to Bark. They woke up.
A pack of Dogs were barking on a Shadowy figure. The figure, it seemed was waving something to keep away the Dogs. Soon, another figure appeared, it was smaller in the size than the one who was waving something. The smaller figure grabbed the Loose clothing, most probably the ’ pheran’ of the larger figure . It looked as if, the smaller figure was trying to stop the larger figure. And then, their conversation became louder.
“Leave me Aapa, I have to follow the orders”, fulminated the belligerent larger figure . The other voice, that of a female in a protesting tone said, “No. I will not let you do it. I will talk to them tomorrow. I will tell them to leave”.
Veenaji’s heart sank. She recognized the voice of the female. It was unmistakably that of Khatijah. Her neighbor. Many thoughts crossed her mind. “Is somebody coming here to kill me. Am I going to live for another day or not! Will I be able to see my Children and Husband again.” She was weighed down by the weltschmerz. Tears began to roll down from the corner of her eyes .Fortunately for her, Lalitaji’s attention was focused towards the two shadowy figures and was unaware of the upheaval of emotions going on in her sister-in-laws’s mind.
The lone street light began to glow suddenly. They could clearly see the two figures. It was indeed Khatijah. Veenaji recognized the other figure too. It was Ajaz-The youngest Son of Khatijah. And, he was carrying a Gun. Khatijah had held the collar of her Son’s Pheran. Ajaz was approaching towards the main wooden door of Veenaji’s House. Khatijah was getting literally dragged, but she didn’t let loose her Grip on the collar.
Khatijah’s tone was changing constantly. From dominant to Pleading, she was trying her best to stop her son from opening the Door. But Ajaz was equally adamant. He dragged her to the Gate and rotated the Knob of the wooden Door. There was a creepy , unpleasant loud sound of opening of the wooden latch. Ajaz Kicked the door open.
“Oh my God! He is coming to Kill us.” Screamed lalitaji. She threw the Blanket and ran Hysterically from one end of the room to other end. “ Control yourself lalitaji. Instead of getting nervous, think of a plan.”, she comforted lalitaji . She too came out from the warmth of Blanket and held lalitaji’s Shoulders with both of her Hands. “ Let us see and listen to what they are arguing about”. Lalitaji followed her without protest.
Ajaz opened the wooden door. Khatijah’s Grip loosened from the collar. But she grabbed the left leg of her Son. Ajaz kept her dragging. Her pheran was smeared in Mud. “ I will kill myself, if you do not listen to me”. She was crying. Ajaz stopped. He lifted up his Mother and began to clean the dirt from the pheran of his mother. She was still crying Helplessly. Something happened. Ajaz hugged her mother and said, “OK, As you wish. Let us go back”, in a comforting tone. Khatijah kissed the forehead of his Son. They both went back and closed the big wooden door. The dogs started barking again.
Veenaji and Lalitaji had a sigh of relief. They kept on looking at the wooden door until the Dawn. With the first azaan of the mosque, they left the house. Veenaji opened the wooden latch of the Door. She looked back at her House. Little did she realized that she was looking at her hose for the last time.
Within no time, they were at Habba Kadal. The security guards stopped them and asked, “Where are you going?”. Lalitaji’s face lit up. “We are Kashmiri Pandits. We are going to RTC. From there, we will board a Bus for Jammu”. The security Guards let them go. They were intersected and stopped by the Security guards at many places. Upon hearing that they are KP’s, they were let off immediately. It took them more than an Hour and a half to reach RTC by foot.
There were Buses and Taxis waiting for the passengers to take them to Jammu. A sardarji approached them. “Where will you go sister? Jammu! Come sister, in my taxi. Let me take you”. Both Veenaji and Lalitaji were exhausted both physically and mentally. They decided to go by Sardarji’s taxi.
They reached Tope Sherkhanian, Jammu by 4.00 p.m. Lalitaji narrated the whole incident to everyone present there melodramatically. Veenaji had not interfered lalitaji. She wanted her to vent off her feelings.
Veenaji’s Brother’s family had stayed with them for more than four months, before they moved to a rented accommodation at Subash Nagar.
The tea was boiling in the utensil. Some portion of the boiling tea fell on the Flame of the cooking gas stove. The burning smell of the tea, drew back Veenaji from her Past. She closed the knob of the gas and cleaned the Stove with a cloth and washed her hands with a soap. After pouring the tea in the cups, she put the cups in the tray and came out of the small kitchen to the living room.She placed the Tray on the top of the Central table.Irfaan and Roshanlal took one cup each from the tray.
Irfaan and Roshanlal were engrossed in a conversation and were oblivious to veenaji’s presence. She was wringing her hands impatiently. “How is your Brother Ajaz?”, She interrupted Irfaan, with a tone of anger. Irfaan looked at her, Put the cup down, and with a deep sigh, he said with regret, “He died in an encounter with the security Guards 4 years back .He had become a militant. My mother pleaded with him to give up arms .But he did not listen”. And then he looked the other side. “I am so sorry.” Said Roshanlal apologetically. Veenaji did not tried to comfort him. “You carry on. I have some work in the Kitchen. Excuse me.”She said casually as she did not wanted to be a part of the conversation. She stood up and went again to the Kitchen.
She pretended to dish-wash. But for some reasons, once again, the Flashes of the Horrendous night kept coming to her mind…