“Srinagar: Story of Downtown Boy” is yet another book pertaining to birth burg of the author, Zahid G Mohammad. The book is a compendium of the series of his articles published every Sunday in Greater Kashmir. When I read this book, the famous verse of the poet Sahir Ludhyanwi came to my mind:
“Duniya ney tajrubaat-o-hawadis ki shakal mein
Jo kuch mujhey diya hai lota raha hoon mein”
“Whatever this world has given and taught me through accidents and experiences,
I’m giving that back to my people.”
Zahid has really given us back whatever he has experienced in his life. This in reality is the story of everyone of us. That way this book is a mirror and we see our own images in it. Zahid is a downtown boy who was born in mid 40s of the last century when Dogra rule had ended and Kashmir was ruled by its own people. As ill luck would have it Kashmir was facing salt famine “Nooneh Draag” during those times. Zahid feels it is a miracle that he was not born as a salt-deficient boy in spite of the fact that his family had been denied the ration of salt by Awami rulers. Those days the government would refuse giving salt to those people who did not agree with the political thought of the rulers. Such dissidents were asked to surrender their political ideology if they wanted to taste the salt. Seeing all this a poet in a state of disillusionment had to write: -
“Noon heni gayoos National dukanus
Dopham ral Hindustaanus saeth
Ther ther watchim heri boneh panus
“I had gone to purchase salt at a ration shop run by NC rulers
They asked me to surrender my political thought
I simply trembled from head to toe...”
It is interesting to read how the rulers had categorized the ration tickets. Those with red cover were meant for pro-government people. They would get rations without any hassle. While those tickets bearing green color were distributed amongst political dissidents, especially Muslim Conference workers who were mostly the followers of exiled Mirwaiz Yosuf Shah.
The cultural and sociopolitical life has remained similar throughout Kashmir with some differences of course, but certain things are peculiar to Downtown. The excursions to Dal Lake and celebration of the festivities of almond blossoms in Badamwaris (almond gardens at the foothills of Kohimaraan in Downtown) have their own color, ethos, and stories to tell. Zahid has written about these traditions with an artistic beauty.
Downtown has remained a hot-bed of resistance and people of this part of city have fought oppression since centuries. A revolt against feudal autocracy erupted as early as April 29, 1865. In Oct 1924 a memorandum against ruthless policies of Dogra rule was presented to Lord Reading and all the signatories of the memorandum belonged to Downtown. Maharaja Pratap Singh arrested some of the signatories and Sad-ud-Din Shwaal was exiled and thrown out beyond Kohala Bridge. Downtown Boy has heard all these stories of courage of his forefathers and these stories influenced every new born in this part of city. These boys have been fighting exploitation and oppression in every period of time. But Zahid has not mentioned that the sentiments of these boys have a number of times been exploited in a wrong manner. Similarly the political divide between National Conference and Muslim Conference was sharply evident and the followers of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Mirwaiz Yosuf Shah remained at constant war with each other for decades. Mirwaiz was closer to the politics of M. A. Jinnah and Muslim League.
Zahid is nostalgic about how the people of Downtown adored the portraits and photographs of M. A. Jinnah, Gen. Ayoob Khan, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Mirwaiz Yosuf Shah, Chowdary Abbas and others. Zahid has told stories about the most important political centers of downtown like Mujahid Manzil, Jamia Masjid, Mirwaiz Manzil, Khanqahi-Muallah, Muslim Park, Martyrs Graveyard, and Shahi Masjid all located in Downtown. He is nostalgic about a period when people would religiously listen to Azad Kashmir radio. Those were the days when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was in prison and had emerged as the most popular resistance leader.
Zahid mentions in detail the birth of student leaders and various youth organizations in 60’s and 70’s of the last century. He is nostalgic about a period when Plebiscite Front was a leading organization throughout Kashmir. He remembers how he would spend days in the lawns of Mujahid Manzil and would listen to the speeches of Plebiscite Front leaders, most prominent among them being Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. He still seems to be obsessed with this towering personality though he has turned into a staunch critic of this leader who was his one time hero. He remembers how the release of top political leaders like Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was celebrated as a national festival and public places were illuminated with candles in the evening. During those years Mujahid Manzil, according to Zahid, was a citadel of a great moment. He however laments that in 1975, Mujahid Manzil became the burial ground of the thousands of Kashmiris when the flag of Plebiscite Front was replaced by the flag of National Conference. That time he saw an anti-hero in his Spartacus. Zahid however has not mentioned the historical forces of those times which changed the political mindset of the leadership. The article on Muslim Park is worth reading. He has written an elegy on this great historical place which is now practically dead. Great leaders of those times have addressed people in this park.
Zahid is pragmatic enough to mention most of the names of those common people who have offered great sacrifices but have remained unsung. The article on jajeer (hubble-bubble) is mesmerizing. He has mentioned about the shops of barbers, bakers, chemists and tailors, which according to him were non-conventional political centers, were people interested in politics would indulge in hot political discussions. They would discuss arrest of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah by his friend Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru in 1953, exile of Mirwaiz Yosuf Shah in 1947, debates of Sir Zafrullah Khan in Security Council, etc. They would discuss about great leaders like Jinnah, Nehru and Gandhi, and their visits to Kashmir. Zahid has picked up history from these shops which he frequently visited during his boyhood.
The book is a blend of politics and our ethos. The stories of our culture and traditions are scattered over all the pages of the book. The book seems to have preserved our past. Everything that is related to our childhood has disappeared from the scene, but this book again takes us down to our childhood days which were so simple. The chapter, “Cinema Turns into a Shrine” is highly interesting and reflects innocence of Kashmiris living just 48 years back. This chapter is about a film, “Khanae Khuda” which is all about various rituals performed during pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Most of the people performed ablution and out of reverence for the film took out their shoes outside the cinema hall as they used to do on entering a mosque. Such was the God-fearing nature of Kashmiris. Zahid says how Fridays during those times were not melancholic but were full of festivity. A great number of people from all parts of the city would come to Jamia Masjid for prayers and after offering Nimaz would indulge in brisk shopping everywhere from Zaina Kadal to Nowhatta. This part of the city brimmed with joy and the Sun according to Zahid had a sharper brightness on every Friday.
The book is a must read for everyone who loves his culture and traditions. It is published by Gulshan Books, Srinagar in 2016. The book is a bridge between our generation born in 1940’s and preceding two generations. He has rightly dedicated his book to his mother and grandmother from whom he has heard the stories of our ethos, traditions and customs.