Do you say, what’s in a name? You never know what’s there in the name. Here is the story how my surname came to my rescue.
We – me & my wife -- were in Srinagar in September, 1988. I am not going to talk about how we spent fifteen days there. Briefly, the high points were shikara ride in Dal Lake, visit to Gulmarg and Pehelgaon , inspection of an orchard, an interesting peep into the papier mache and carpet making industries, and of course, tasting of delicious ‘gustava’ from the Adoo’s – the superb mutton balls -- besides the other regular sight seeing programmes.
My story is about what went wrong while returning.
One of my colleagues was from Kashmir – to be exact from village Salia – thirty kilometers from Phehelgaon toward Anantnag. We were supposed to visit his parents and spend one night there on way back. His brother was briefed to take us to their home. The father – Mr. Amar Nath Raina was a very popular figure in the state without being in active politics.
We had a vehicle along with the chauffeur. Starting from Srinagar in the evening we reached Salia when the day was about to turn to night. Soon, it began drizzling, slowly turning into incessant torrential down pours -- breaching bridges and sinking the roads by the night. The radio blared -- all roads were closed. So, we got anchored there. Day and night remained tuned to the All India Radio for the fateful announcement of the opening of the roads. Flood water was flowing every where. Even in remote villages it was difficult to move around. Our host was good. They took all pains to look after us well.
To pass time we began exploring the surroundings wherever it was possible to go on foot. Most of the houses had an open compound with a closed gate at one end. The first name plate we saw was of Haji Aslam Bhatt’s. Original Hindu titles persevered mostly. At Srinagar we met one Nooruddin Pandit as well. On Bhatt’s place we simply swung open the gate and announced loudly, “Some guests arrived at your door please”. All the occupants of the house would come out ushering us in. Curious eyes and smiling faces greeting us, always. Rooms are fully covered with carpets. We squat on the floor comfortably. After a brief introduction an apprehensive question would follow, “Would you mind to have a cup of tea?” Apprehensive, because Hindus don’t eat anything at the Muslim’s. My wife’s ‘sari’ cannot hide our identity. We never had any reservation either. So, the next question pertains to the preference: there are three kinds of tea -- Lipton, ‘sir chai’ and ‘keheva’. Lipton means the normal tea we are habituated with – tea leaves, used, not necessarily being Lipton. Leaves and method of preparation of the other two are different. However, ‘sir chai’ is salty and in ‘keheva’ crushed almonds and other nuts are added after boiling. We would prefer different tea at different places. We visited all the Hajis and many non-Hajis around the locality and tasted all kinds of tea, accompanied with snacks or dry fruits and exchange of views. People are so kind and friendly.
In short, a few more dry facts about the locality I must mention. For the first time we saw ‘samovar’ there: a clear link with central Asia – common references found in Russian classics. It is a must for the workers in the field – providing relaxing drink – ‘sir chai’ or ‘keheva’ -- in between breaks.
Kashmiri Hindus are all Brahmins, no non-Brahmin Hindus are found. No ‘jhatka’ meat is available there – all meats are ‘halal’. And Kashmiris are voracious meat eaters. There is a perennial stream(Ledar Nullah) flowing down from Pehelgaon; everybody uses the same water for all purposes, including bathing etc. A Pandit using the same water, at down stream, doesn’t consider it polluted or untouchable, because, running water is always pure. But, he can’t take even tea at a Muslim’s house.
De-shelling of walnuts is a very laborious process. It has to be kept under water for several days and then trampled, for hours, by feet to remove the outer skin. It corrodes the feet severely. (No effort has been made to find alternative means. Pounding with rubber shoes on, could have solved the problem probably). Heaps of ‘Maple’ (Chinar) leaves are burnt in big kilns -- like that of bricks -- in such a way that it turns into fine charcoal, used in ‘Kangris’ for heating purposes. Once filled and ignited, it keeps on smouldering -- supplying cosy heat throughout the night. Making charcoal out of leaves is a highly specialized technique, passed down since generations.
Now, to the main topic. On the tenth day the roads were declared open. Despite repeated warnings from our hosts we were on the move. They know what hardships tourists face on the way. We were adamant. But, at Banihal we were stopped by the police, because, a few kilometers ahead, at Ramban heavy landslide was on, blocking the road. We could no more proceed further. Thirty four vehicles coming as far away from Calcutta and Mumbai were stranded. Anxiety gripped everybody not knowing what to do.
Soon a minister returned after taking stock of the situation at Ramban. Some Bengalis from Calcutta ignited a spark, “Let’s ‘gherao’ the minister”. Instantly all of us – ladies and gents along with children – surrounded the minister, shouting, “Don’t block us. Allow us to proceed.” Lot of arguments and shouting followed. Ultimately the minister politely assuaged us that it was for our safety only we should not proceed. Boulders are coming down continuously; bulldozers are at work, the moment it is safe, we will be allowed to move.
So, we have to pass the night at Banihal. Not to be left behind, we booked a room at the tourist bungalow immediately. So many rooms remained vacant. Most people didn’t have extra money to pay 80 rupees a day, because they spent all at Srinagar, purchasing pashmina shawls, carpets, dry fruits and other trinkets. The money left with them is only enough to reach home. It is all calculated. Under normal course, they would have no problem in reaching home. All of a sudden they are caught in precarious uncertainty. People with calculated budget were in great difficulty. They had to sell off many of the items, so lovingly procured, at throw away prices. Imagine the hardship they faced in passing cold nights with small children in the car. But, they had to. Their plight was utterly deplorable.
Our case was different. We generally carry double the estimated amount. That way we sometimes overshoot, but never fall short of money in the end. We could afford to stay at least fifteen more days at Banihal.
On my exploration – to utilize the time -- of adjoining villages, around Banihal, people were found, though poor, very friendly and hospitable.
On the fourth day at Banihal the roads were declared clear. We crossed Ramban under continuous rolling boulders. The driver was told to drive as fast as possible, so that we could reach Pathankot for the night halt instead of Jammu. He was driving at over 100 kmph on the highway. Moving straight ahead at one point he judged he should have taken the right turn. Without reducing speed he swerved the vehicle to the right raging an angle iron post, at the corner, to the ground. Immediately, a police on duty caught us. Now we were in trouble. Who knows how much we have to shell out or what other travail it will lead to. Already we passed about a month outside our home. We tried to pacify the police narrating our precarious condition. He was arrogant insisting us to report to his boss, who was stationed in a tent located at an altitude about 200 meters away. Meanwhile, I handed over all the documents of the vehicles contained in a cover of National Geographic magazine, bearing my name and address.
I was biting my nails figuring out how to work out a deal with the police officer. On reaching there, to my utter surprise, I was greeted with a warm hand shake, “Come on Mr. Principal, have a seat” pointing at the chair in front, he told. “Our job is to catch the rogue truck drivers, not to trouble good people like you.” Instantly, asked his orderly, “Offer him a glass of water. No, better make tea for him”. So, I was treated with tea and there was no trouble.
Initial amazement fading, behind the scene story unfolded clearly. They were all Muslims. The constable saw my name on the envelope and automatically took me to be a Muslim. My initial was not expanded. And I was holding a respectable post, coming from far away Himachal Pradesh, now undergoing through harrowing times. But, we were all brothers-in-faith. He immediately conveyed everything to his boss, who in turn, like a good Muslim refrained from troubling another Muslim.
So, my surname saved me well.