RIP, Pratap Park Pandits

Recalling Shaym Ji and other friends

BREAKING VIEWS

NAEEM AKHTAR

Whatever else the upheaval of 1990 did to Kashmir, it has undoubtedly left a profound and what sadly looks irreversible social and cultural impact on it. It could be compared to the devastating fallout on places like Delhi, Lahore, Kolkatta and Lucknow in the aftermath of partition or even what the 1857 war of independence did to Delhi. Suddenly a part of life was gone away, never to return. A situation that Ghalib chronicled in many of his beautiful post mutiny letters and immortalized in some poignant ghazals.
Every time I learn about a pandit friend dying out of Kashmir I realise someone belonging to an era different from anything that Kashmir would witness in future has gone. It makes me feel more lonely and somehow reminds me of my own end whenever that comes as another member of that dwindling tribe which had loved each other across religious differences and picked up small quarrels along community and political fault lines only to prove that there was more to bind them than divide.
The Kashmir cataclysm is most evident in the Pratap Park colony that was renamed Press Enclave after Mushtaq Ali the bright young martyr to senseless violence. There is no doubt that the young Kashmiri Muslims have proved themselves worthy successors to the gentleman tribe that lived in the press enclave before them. Post 1990 many English newspapers and magazines have come up which help in our communication with outside world perhaps for the first time in history. The Srinagar dateline is serviced exclusively by local journalists of high capabilities and a distinct Kashmir narrative is developing. There is a lot to write home about on the development of English journalism in Kashmir in past two decades but that does not subsume the pre 90 significance of the press enclave. Shyam ji's death brought that back yet again.
The Srinagar dateline was for decades dominated by pandit correspondents. The fact that almost all of them lived in rented government accommodation is enough to give an idea of the frugal means they employed and the ends they achieved. They belonged to a different class of people who thrived in innocent but enlivening coffee house gossip, forays by some into the Lab Kouls, official parties in between and the information office. I came in contact with the press enclave in 1976 after I was posted as Information officer Kashmir by Muhammad Sayeed Malik who distinguished himself in director Information for a brief while and was one of the few non pandit residents of press colony representing the now defunct Patriot.
Shyam Kaul developed a special affinity with me perhaps because of my family background that had a strong radio identity and the fact that we belonged to the same area, he to Safapore and I to a village not far from there. His family was quintessential rural elite with some land holdings still left and all brothers intellectually oriented. The eldest of them Som Nath Kaul taught for long in Bandipur and carried himself with a poise that comes only to the scholarly and well groomed aristocrats. Though Shyam Ji represented radio, which was the most important source of news those days he would ghost write for at least one of his colleagues representing a highly respected national daily and stringed for half a dozen others. Even the local papers, all of them in Urdu, switched on radio Kashmir for the 7.30 pm news to lift some stories. But Shyam ji's ghost writing was always a juicy topic which he too enjoyed.
R K Kak was grace personified. When I came to know him he was already a senior citizen working for Indian Express. His thumb and first finger would be stained with smoke from his hookah and he would always turn out tidily with a radiant face. He was a hard boiled Kashmiri and I firmly believe if he had not passed away in 1989 he would have died of the shock of migration. Kak saheb never went to Jammu in winters like his most other colleagues. In Winter he would come to information office usually wearing a coat of hand made wheatish tweed and unwind with his stories from the past. Though he was the senior most and highly respected member of the fraternity he would not mind asking me, a green horn, to " write a few lines for me" which the departmental peon would take to telegraph office as his despatch for the day. Whenever I think of an ideal Kashmiri visage I think of Kak saheb.
J N Sathu was the immediate neighbour of Shyam Ji. The 4 o' clock rendezvous would be at either place. It would be rummy without stakes and kehwa with marie biscuits at Sathu's and something more wholesome at Shyam Ji's. Sathu saheb who had sold his ancestral home in Shopian for Rs  900 ( out of which he received only 650) was a rationalist follower of MN Roy and political disciple of Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz. He sold his house incidentally to set up his home after he married in exile because he was externed by the state government for his pro Kashmir political ideology. My friends know the special bond Sathu saheb had with me for which he bestowed on me the privilege of carrying out his last rites, which I consider a rare honour. I feel that small act of lighting his pyre in Jammu authenticated my credentials as a Kashmiri. He represented daily telegraph London for many years. Migration for him too was a pain that ultimately took his life. At the rummy parties every one of us tried to occupy the place right of Sathu saheb as he usually discarded jokers.
The leftist PN Jalali was another distinguished resident of the press enclave. His style of working endeared him to every one. He had been associated with the freedom movement also. Jalali saheb famously used to roll up his sleeves when on type writer conveying an impression quite opposite to the well balanced stories he produced. Jalali saheb's son Rahul is carrying on the legacy of his father with distinction.
ML Kak who lives in Delhi now was a rather late entrant to the press colony. The gentlemanly ML is the elder brother of BL Kak who was a pleasant, sweet natured component of our party. Though he lived in Jawahar Nagar we would always find each other at the press enclave before going home. BL died young and a sad man after migration though he had shifted to Delhi much before 90. ML arrived as a welcome addition to press corps from Haryana after spending some time in jail dusting emergency. He worked for tribune. He worked from Jammu for many years before his retirement.
There were many other pandit journalists like ON Kaul, a very talented gentleman who after living at Pratap Park for some time shifted to his home at Rawalpora. He passed away last year. O N Ganjoo represented half the Indian press and was known for having maintained the file of Statesman which filled one of his three rooms at Budshah flats. He too could not survive migration for long even though he was known for his sturdiness in collecting and processing news. CB Kaul worked for some years for Indian Express. JN Raina was a gentleman who passed away last year in Pune. Though he spent most of his career outside the state he worked from Srinagar for some years with distinction.
Pratap Park quarters owed much of the charm to Shamim Ahmed Shamim and his iconic weekly Ayeena. It looked like the epicentre of Kashmir's vibrant intellectual life with all stalwarts and larger than life personalities finding a reason to meet there.
 My friend KL Dhar a highly civilised officer of the information department who did handholding of recruits like me too lived in one of the houses at Pratap Park. He lives in Delhi. The typical Kashmiri cocktail of fish, nadroo and radish is always a treat but when Mrs Dhar cooked it there was no other feast in the world worth even a look.
I wish my friends who live outside Kashmir a long life and those who departed peace. It is generally argued that Pandits face an existential threat as an ethnic entity after their migration to different parts of the world. That is a valid apprehension. But what we who continue to live in Kashmir face is no less than an existential threat as a civilisational entity and a cultural collage. Departure of Pandits is certainly a major contributing factor to the mess we find ourselves in.

Lastupdate on : Wed, 9 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Wed, 9 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Thu, 10 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST




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