Altaf- Man in the Crowd
NAEEM AKHTAR PAYS TRIBUTE TO AN OUTSTANDING ORDINARY MAN WHO FOUGHT CANCER TO LEAVE BEHIND SOME HOPE FOR HIS FAMILY THAT REPRESENTS THE PECULIAR TRAGEDY OF KASHMIR
Altaf was the most ordinary aam aadmi out of the seven million people living in Kashmir. Born to a middle class rural family of Rafiqui peers he ended up a medical assistant in the state health department. He was never brilliant at
studies, not even average as most of us, his classmates in a Bandipur school
were. He studied a couple of years ahead of me, shared the class room with me in 8th standard and passed out of the high schoola few years after me and all others.
But he was not dumb or dull. Altaf made name for his classroom pranks. He was witty, humorous, large hearted and extravagant. His releigh cycle was like today’s BMW in rural Kashmir of mid sixties of the last century. He was a great company that along with the warmth and affection of his parents would attract me to his home nestled in one of the prettiest places on earth, almost every weekend when he would pedal me along on the carrier of his cycle from the school. An additional attraction in Altaf’s home for me was their water mill and sometime later a rice husker. The sight of a revolving millstone and the flour dust covered operator with a miniature broom in his hand would give me more pleasure than the entire multibillion dollar toy industry can provide to a single child now.
He was a relative. Even distant relations then felt close and intimate. School
going children in that era would stay at the homes of relations, acquaintances,
maatamals, peers and teachers as the present day communications, accessibility to educational institutions or tuitions were all non existent. That arrangement brought him to stay at our home as well for a couple of years.
Altaf’s story of life some how represents the pain, misery and struggle of a few generations of Kashmiris. But his strength of character, conviction, devotion to a cause and courage unfolded at a time when most of us ended up not displaying these qualities in the face of adversity. Study him closely and you would find traces of that outstanding ‘ordinariness’ in him that Mother Teresa outlines in these words: “In this life we cannot always do great things. But we can do small things with great love”.
Altaf died this Tuesday. He was not killed by a bullet which has emerged as a premier cause in the area he lived. Nor was he the collateral damage in a
bombing that failed to hit the target. His story will never be narrated from the
pulpit, through political platforms or newspaper columns for he was no celebrity victim, a VIP son or father. Like most ordinary human beings across the planet he went down fighting cancer. And he literally fought it with a sense of purpose, nonchalance, and always smiling face.
Mantrigam, Altaf’s home is a microcosm of Kashmir’s history, geography, natural heritage, civilizational depth, political realities and diversionary fiction. As the last Kashmir village on the Bandipur-Gilgit road it is literally at the
cross roads of cultures. Beyond it lay the vast wilderness of mountains,
valleys, deserts and plains inhabited by Shina speaking Dards, Baltis, Kaffirs,
Afghans, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tatars, Farsis, et al, the umbilical chord of our
cultural glory, creative abilities and trading genius. Overlooking the
romantically named Madhumati stream Mantrigam is at the eye contact level of the villages that have been cited as evidence of Kashmir’s Biblical connection. A cemetery on the mounta in opposite Mantrigam is construed to be of some unknown saint from the lost Israeli tribe that a school of researchers believes (for whatever it’s worth) having meandered its way into Kashmir from Palestine.
For obvious reasons of location this could be our novelist’s imaginary border village where people become mere guinea pigs for infiltrators and security
forces to play out their strategies. It is a favourite route for infiltration and of course a hub of security response. That has changed the face of area a great deal. A small Army transit facility for Gurez has grown far beyond its
original size and scope since the outbreak of militancy. Not only that, the
flashy concrete barracks constructed for the Kishen Ganga Hydel project in the village all over a spur of Mudr Baal on either side of Gurez road mock at those who loved the picture post cards from Kashmir. If one considers the three elements dominating Mantrigam, security forces passing for solution, militancy reflecting political malaise and NHPC loot of our prime natural resource, the village could serve as a mascot for any negotiations on Kashmir. So complete and so comprehensive.
Such substratum is pre-eminently fertile for tragedies. Altaf saw his teenaged
son, Gauhar, among the first batch of starry eyed lovers of Kashmir who went out to shoot down occupation with the then MSD, AK 47, as young brats used to conquer a village damsel’s heart with a catapult by aiming at the more powerful villain. The romance for gun was all pervading. Henna handed youth would cross over to other Kashmir through the nearby Chhandaji meadow to seek their beloved at the point of gun. Some months later Gauhar returned, did no mentionable activity as a militant and dropped the gun after a year or so underground. He started a small local business. “Guests” of all kinds, donning shalwar qameez or the olive uniform kept dropping in at Altaf’s home as he defied the compulsion or temptation to leave Mantrigam as most like him in the small hamlet did. Life however regained some equilibrium for him, his extremely noble heart patient wife, two sons and a daughter. He planted new apple saplings to give hope a chance.In 1999, Altaf got his son Gauhar and his daughter married. It was a big feast for all of us. I stayed overnight at his home after decades and loved it. The wedding however proved to be the beginning of a long trail of woes for the family. In October 2001 there was a bomb attack on the state legislature. While the intended target escaped the attack the collateral damage included the son in law of Altaf who had set up a small business in nearby Lal Chowk area. The twenty year widowed daughter was left with a year old son. They both shifted to Altaf’s home. In 2005 Altaf called to inform me, in too casual manner for such an announcement made that he had been diagnosed cancer of stomach. While I was dumbfounded he was not. He kept chattering into the phone for long. A surgery after a few days and the usual cycle of cancer follow up began, with unending therapies and checkups. Gauhar attended on him with dedication. But his services were short lived as he himself was to be.Early 2006, Gauhar received a call from some one wanting to talk to him outside their home. He went out and in a moment the area rattled with gunfire. The family ran out only to find Gauhar’s bullet ridden body lying in the darkness that was to envelope what had remained of the family, battling an earlier death and the fatal affliction of its caretaker for rest of their doomed existence. He left behind two daughters and a young widow. With another son in school yet the once vibrant household was turned into a virtual orphanage cum destitute house.The young widows one after the other ventured to pick up threads of life again and remarried. All aspects of Kashmir tragedy were played out in the small but tidy Mantrigam house by the side of a stream that gently kisses its walls almost in the nature of a divine tribute or when in turbulence seems to be crashing against its chiselled stone basement as successive generations of Kashmir youth have ended up doing. Any one in Altaf’s place would have cracked and wanted to die as an escape from the tormented life whose burden was increasing by the day. But not him, the friend I will always remain proud of. Just one small instance of his courage tells how he refused to die before he actually did. Only last year he underwent another surgery. Though he realized his fate well he cooperated with the doctors. But as the date for surgery was decided Altaf called me to seek extension of one week from the surgeon. “I have to go home first to have the slab of my shops laid. I don’t know whether I survive the operation but I have to finish it for those who live after I am gone as they have very little to live off.” The man spoke like a god as he referred to his unemployed son, his not so well wife and the three parentless children. He made me feel dwarfed. How many dying men have you seen taking leave of the doctor to complete an unfinished business? He made the welfare of his tattered family a mission for all his five years while fighting cancer. It was raining heavily on Tuesday as Altaf’s profusely stitched body was lowered into the grave. Aroma of sprouting mint was competing with daffodils, iris, wild tulip and violet for attention by the side if the mountain brook he had identified as his resting place. In the words of Sir Walter Lawrence, he has the “noble brotherhood of venerable trees” of Chinars, elms and poplar with its white bark and shimmer of silver leaves which give pleasant shade. The trees mostly planted by him in last five years as part of his mission.Altaf, my friend got a much deserved relief from hard labour as world after him is sure to go on. Even for his dazed family.
Lastupdate on : Sun, 24 Apr 2011 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sun, 24 Apr 2011 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Mon, 25 Apr 2011 00:00:00 IST
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