The Myth and Reality of Belonging and Togetherness

The Myth and Reality of Belonging and Togetherness

After Maharaja Hari Singh left the State in 1947, his Band too vanished from its quarters. An army outfit occupied the place. I think it was a temporary “home” set up for the soldiers fighting the Tribal invaders in 1947-48.

It took several janmas for the Widows’ Palace to be born as the Government College for Women. In a similar vein, the Band Headquarters of the early 1940s on the Exchange Road also went through many incarnations before finding salvation as the Kothi Bagh Higher Secondary School for Girls.

After Maharaja Hari Singh left the State in 1947, his Band too vanished from its quarters. An army outfit occupied the place. I think it was a temporary “home” set up for the soldiers fighting the Tribal invaders in 1947-48. They used to show movies on an outdoor screen, which was a delight for us children, because perched on the shingled roof of the outhouse, we could watch them free. These once a week ticketless treats were a high point of our innocent lives then.

But soon the Centre was wound up and in their place came the ‘’Peace Brigade’’—a motley crowd recruited by Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad’s administration to enforce ‘peace’ in the aftermath of the 1953 ‘coup’. These ‘Peace keepers’ were also known derogatively as ‘kuntruh pandaah’(Twenty nine fifteen) referring to their monthly stipend of twenty nine rupees and fifteen annas—one anna less than thirty! It is after they vacated the place that the Kothi Bagh School was shifted here from the premises of the Women’s College next door.

At one end of its grounds was a little bungalow, which was used for some time as the residence of the then Principal of the Amar Singh College Prof. Sahibzada Mahmud Ahmad, a perfect gentleman and his daughter, Arjumand, (who remains, till today, a true Kashmiri beauty) soon became my best friend and partner in many a childhood prank until she went outside the state to become a Doctor. Like Prof S.L.Dhar, my father who lived close by, Sahibzada Sahib too enjoyed a game of bridge and would often be a part of a foursome. Such integration was so natural at that time that nobody even commented on it. Lifelong friendships were forged between individuals without any thought of the religion they professed. This bungalow later yielded place to a building to house the office of the Director of School Education.

A vivid memory of the close trust between communities in Kashmir those days pertains to the scary times of Partition. In October 1947 when the Tribal invaders had reached the outskirts of Srinagar, the women and children of our household were sent off to the Drugjan home of Mahmud Ali Ji (later Principal of the Women’s College), whose brother the renowned doctor of the valley Dr Syed Naseer Ahmad Shah was (and continues to be) my brother Anupam Dhar’s childhood friend. It did not even occur to any one that it was a Muslim house to which the family’s safety was entrusted. The only precaution taken was to send the family cook Sudarshan along, as my grandmother and her daughters-in-law would not eat the food offered by the generous Shahs! For us children, the aroma of garlic and onion—never used in our kitchen till my grandmother was alive- lent an exotic touch to the food and sent us into paroxysms of joy. Such was the togetherness in the midst of apparent separation!!

The present day soulless buildings of the BSNL office in Exchange Road are built on the remains of a heritage house, which was torn down and razed to the ground. It had belonged to one Nazir Ahmad a Punjabi speaking high official, who left for Pakistan in the wake of Partition. His house and its grounds became what  is known as Evacuee Property and were then rented by the  legendary physician of the state Dr Ali Jan. He and his family moved in and integrated so well with the neighbourhood that it seemed they had always lived here and not in Rajouri Kadal of the old city—downtown. The participation in each others’ festivals was taken for granted—the Pandit men and children looking forward to Eid feasts, (the older Pandit women did not eat food cooked by Muslims, neither did the Muslim women of that age group eat that of the Pandits), while the Muslims waited for Shivratri with its fish and fowl and soaked walnuts!  When Mrs Ali Jan came visiting, it was only fruit for her and so it was when Mrs Dhar, my mother, went to visit her. But the confidences they shared would not be shared with their own blood sisters. Respecting each others’ food taboos was a given among that generation of Kashmiris. As we grew up we saw perfect tolerance of a multi cultural society and took it for granted that it would always be there. Ours was certainly a privileged generation whose dreams did not die young.

 

People would have to wait weeks before getting an opportunity to be examined by the celebrated Dr Ali Jan, but for this neighbourhood his was an open house. My father Prof S.L. Dhar, who had taught the doctor in college, was held in such affection and respect by him that he could walk into his consultation chamber with a sick member of his family without a prior appointment, no one daring to challenge him for ‘gate-crashing’! In fact he had taught generations of students in S.P. College, who had gone on to become celebrities in various fields. Among such luminaries was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah whom he taught Physics. Prof Dhar later switched over to English, because he had a master’s degree in that too. Post retirement he taught English in Islamia College for many years.

It was Mrs Ali Jan, "Boba" to all of us children, who came with the biggest majma of dry fruit and shirini to shower us with her blessings when we passed an examination. It was she who celebrated our success, while our own parents were subdued! She genuinely appreciated the value of education. The whole Mohalla felt bereft when the Ali Jan family left to move into their own newly-built house in Magharmal Bagh.

The Mitra house, the present day Government Teachers’ College also saw other occupations before becoming the hub of teacher training that it is today. In the early1940s the Burn Hall School, which is a premier school of the valley today, was set up here. It had boarding facilities then and the boarders were housed in the nearby 48, Exchange Road. It belonged to Mr V.D. Zadoo, the highly competent engineer of the State who had been trained in Harvard University. After the Tribal invasion of 1947 the school was shut down before opening again in its present premises in the fifties, leaving the place for the Government to establish a college to impart training to teachers. The mohalla was now surrounded by great educational institutions!!