I remember those good old days when I grew up in the interior downtown (Shahr-e-Khaas) of Srinagar city. My roots are from downtown. The narrow lanes and bylanes littered with garbage; overflowing drains; fighting cocks; cuddling cows; whistles of pressure-cookers; the smell of meals; sound from high pitched TV and radio sets; women chatting on doorsteps; children playing street cricket—all these indelible impressions get revived even today whenever I visit my relatives there. I experience an unknown delight within. It all tends to be cathartic. Maybe it is because roots make our past tangible, our present understandable and the uncertainty of the future bearable.
Anyway, ours was a spacious house of four storeys. However, we hadn’t a large compound or a garden, something I always hankered for. Almost every day after my return from school, I used to sit near the second storey window and watch the neighborhood girls jollying around in the lane adjacent to our house. I always wished to join them, but my strict tutor, a local Pandit, always warned me not to do so lest I should be spoiled. That he was actually carrying out the orders of my family, I realized later when the urge to play or to make fun was gone.
There was, however, one thing that nobody stopped me from doing. Yes, even today I am excited on hearing the droning of a jet aeroplane or helicopter passing over our rooftop. Today, I simply rush towards the verandah or the garden and watch the flying body till it is out of my sight. But in my downtown home, I could never catch this cherished sight. The moment I used to reach the attic (called bair kanee in Kashmiri), the aeroplane would have already disappeared behind the rusty rooftops of those closely built houses which stood as mute barriers and eyesores. Eyeing the small patch of blue sky, which alone was visible from there, my eye caught nothing else. Only after the cessation of the rumbling sound, I would helplessly turn away my eyes.
“Fool, you’ll certainly break your legs and arms one day”–my family members used to rebuke me whenever I ran fast through the steep stairs to catch sight of the droning aeroplane. And I recall painfully that I always came downstairs dejected, pulling a long face.
This wanton madness had its genesis. Perhaps, it was my innate desire to fly an aeroplane. However, I was somehow afraid to express it. Maybe because I knew skies were out of my feeble reach. Maybe it appeared a wild dream for someone who couldn’t even put her feet firmly on the ground. Whatever, capturing the skies simply seemed a chimera. I never ventured to address myself as a ‘flyer’ on the flyleaf of life’s book. I reconciled that I was possibly born flightless.
Today, when life is transporting, rather kicking me, from one phase to another, I feel as if my childhood is taking a rebirth. Today also, the skies are as many miles away as they were when I was a child. Today also, I am warned of breaking myself, but I still let myself tumble down from sky to ground. And as the injuries I receive are usually painful, they are thought-provoking as well: My confession comes out smilingly! After all, isn’t childhood the age of sincere confessions?! I still feel like a kid within a young framework! Sounds bizarre, but it's true. Sauntering down the memory lane, I find myself as peevish as I was in the cradle. Today also, I can stop crying as quickly as an uneasy child who calms down after a slight caress. Today also, I can fight like a brat and simultaneously forget everything in a jiffy. Indeed, it is a queer renaissance, I am again a child. Time often coerces the revival of our childhood. However, the contours of my Shahr-e-Khaas are not the same. The whiff of anachronism may be perceptible there but everything seems to have changed for good.
Everything of Shahr-e-Khaas has been thrown off balance. The aura of its distinctiveness is dwindling. There is only profuse anger simmering in its lanes. The serene tranquility has been ruffled. Stones are raining. The tornado of disconcert has taken away with it the strong pillars of mutual co-existence and tolerance. Nobody in Shahr-e-Khaas is ready to listen to anything. The smashed windowpanes of houses and shops indicate the broken trust. People are flustered and frustrated.
It wasn’t so earlier. The waves of Jhelum never hurried its gospels. The Zainakadal never wore this nostalgic look. The still standing Hari-Parbat couldn’t fathom this kind of silent betrayal. Life was never so lifeless over Takht-i-Sulaiman.
The primeval essence of this place is vaguely lost in the known and unknown events that transpired over the years. There is a paradox of bricks and betrayals. The silent remnants crumbling into dust are still standing as a cultural artefact of memories we never had, but the rest of the good old stuff has been thrown out of the heart of downtown. The old stories have got a new spin. The chain of chic mannequins, glitzy gyms, swanky salons and trendy food points is sprinkled with variance. The desperate sense of disharmony lingers in them.
The child in me is rediscovering an ugly reality. The wobbly world of Shahr-e-Khaas is persistently unfolding unto me the wide backdrop of toddling truths. I am equally crestfallen.