Sunday, 9 December 2012

Night Bus to Sialkot

 Night Bus to Sialkot

Mano Javed

An Account of Memories and Anecdotes Associated with my Childhood

My hometown Sialkot is noted for being the birth place of many scholars, two of them the most famous Urdu poets of the twentieth century. I don’t consider this a coincidence. There is an enigma associated with the city – a magic utterly unique.

Known history of Sialkot goes back five thousand years when it was established by Raja Sul and was called Sakal. The city was re-founded by Raja Salbhan of the Sia cast who renamed the city, Sialkot. More recently, the British established a posh cantonment in the north of the old city and set up schools, clubs and hospitals.

My life began in the ‘European Ward’ of the United Christian Hospital on the Paris Road in Sialkot. If you notice, every noun in this sentence reflects the changed post-colonial culture; every noun except ‘Sialkot’. Sialkot is a mysterious word with epic folklore and wonderful history enfolded in it. It is home – the place where the roots of my soul are. 

Our house was on Paris Road as well. As a child surrounded by Anglophiles of all sorts and varieties, I was really proud to say, ‘We live on the Paris Road’ and secretly looked down upon all who had homes in areas with local names like Kashmiri Mohalla, Rangpora or Puran Nagar. My parents named me Yasmine after the flower. The European nuns, who ran the Convent I went to, pronounced it Jazmin. It made me immensely proud.
(Little did I know that it would take another twenty years for me to begin putting my pride in the right places.)

Everyone in Sialkot had a second name. It could either be an appealing alteration of the real name or based on habits or looks, sometimes even on the oldies’ whims. I was nicknamed Mano, an endearing version of ‘cat’. Why? Probably they fell short of ideas after my older sister had been called Billy (cat too) because of her light coloring; or maybe just because it was a cute word, easy on the tongue.

Paris Road was an unusual place to live – a patchwork of houses, mansions, shops and office buildings of all sorts and sizes. It was like a crazy-quilt on which you could find anything if you searched long enough. Stringed between rows of one-room shops and offices were state complexes like the General Post Office and the Chamber of Commerce.  Facing or sharing sides with ordinary houses were state-owned mansions where the resident Session Judge and the Postmaster resided. The most sightly was a stately private mansion called Paris Pillars after which the road was named. Shops, however, were mostly of humble origin. I remember a minuscule one called ‘Willayat Di Hatti’ where we bought chooran and imli wrapped in newspaper bits that were difficult to detach from the gooey contents. I can bet if all the bits of soggy newspaper I swallowed while licking chooran were collected, they would come to a week’s supply of my daily paper. Magnificent Paris Pillars and humble Willayat Di Hatti were at a stone’s throw from each other. That’s what Paris road was like.

Next-door to us was the humungous mansion of the District Railway Chief. The mansion had huge front and back yards. The house was nestled between elderly trees and unruly vines which were pruned only once a year and when they were, the place began looking as bare as a shorn sheep.
Not everything had been modified by the British Raj. Away from this cultivated and changing world, deep in the labyrinth of narrow streets of the old city, life roamed in its rudimentary form. More modest parts of our extended family lived  in these rather humble localities like Kashmiri Mohalla, Rangpora and Pooran Nagar. 
One most remarkable house everyone called Vaira was in Kashmiri Mohalla. Vaira was a small compound with a shared central courtyard in which many families related to each other - by blood or history - lived.  Although it was never accounted in the company of our westernized peers at the Convent, but visiting Vaira was a great entertainment at any given time. Women of Vaira almost all had a unique, a very demonstrative sense of humor which was the most prominent feature of their personalities. From the nicknames they assigned their children and servants to their facial expression and body language, humor reflected in everything. There were names like Nich and Gud. Nich was a slight household helper who got this name because of her tendency of sneezing and Gud got the name when she started school and immediately took up excessive use of the word ‘good’. Invariably, on our visits, two or three recent comical incidents were narrated by the women. Passing from mouth to mouth every incident had become more and more amusing and detailed. Particulars, sometimes fictitious, had got attached to it. I still remember many of the anecdotes. Another skill these women excelled at was mimicry. As children we benefited from the mimicry only but as we grew older, the pun and witticism in their remarks and narratives could be enjoyed too.
I strongly believe that no day in Vaira went unadorned by a highlight, be it the visit of a relative or a squabble among the women. Men, however, were less demonstrative in their behavior but no less witty. Their anecdotes revolved more round acquaintances and friends rather than members of the family.

Another refreshing peculiarity of Vaira (accredited in retrospect) was the unrestrained environment. There were no gender-based divisions accept for the fact that men went out to work and women looked after the house chores. Women had equal, if not more, share in family conversations and decisions; some smoked huqqa in the presence of men while some had said goodbye to bad marriages and were living happy single lives.
Women, generally, were apt in cleanliness but didn’t fuss a lot about cooking. This trait, probably, was widespread and it was due to this feature that every mohalla had its own small food bazaars. Right next to Vaira was a bazaar called Do-darwaaze. Both sides of the bazaar were lined with food shops and food trolleys we usually call rairhies. At most of theses joints, food was being freshly fried, cooked or grilled. Each shop was not only different from others in respect of the assortment of items on sale but also flavors and recipes.
At the heart of the bazaar, there was a food shop where a green-eyed fat woman sold pakoras and fried whole fish. The fish called poong was very small (not bigger than a finger) and extremely flavorful. There was hardly a trip to Vaira when we were not served this fish with tea.

Walking through the maze of narrow alleyways of the Kashmiri Mohalla, we emerged on a slightly wider street across which another family related to us lived in a house nicknamed Mama-ji-ke. It was thus named because it belonged to a character known as Mama Ji, my grandmother’s step brother. Major portion of the house was shared by Mama Ji and his sons while a small wing was occupied by a family recently migrated from Kashmir. One of the members of this other family was a coy and bashful girl called Chiri. She was the most sought-after and the most gossiped-about girl, loved by boys – hated by mothers. Mothers thought that she was too forward and wily. I see no reason behind this supposition except that Chiri invariably attracted male attention.
The interesting characteristic of the residents of Mama-ji-ke was their lack of traveling experience and exposure to modern-day changes. So much so that they were quite unable to distinguish between Dhaka and Bombay, between London and Lahore thinking these were all mystical magical cities visited only by the adventurous of the lot.

The children of Mama-ji-ke were overawed when we visited, staring at us with their jaws dropped down till their lapels. They secretly thought that although we were fortunate in worldly ways, we were quite ungodly. To them going to an English school was synonymous to being an infidel. One of their teenaged boys once dared beyond his siblings’ imagination and asked me; “I’ve heard they teach you Christian prayers in your school?” My religious ego was injured beyond repair and I was about to say, “They don’t!” but he ran away saying, “You’ll rot in hell for going to that school.”

Tara, one of Mama Ji’s grandsons, was invariably sent off to buy a certain food item from the market. Unpretentious house-women prepared some homely savories like boiled eggs sprinkled with black pepper and salt; another popular one was slivered guavas sprinkled with black salt. When tea was served, first a high table was brought out from somewhere, placed in the center of the room and dusted in the presence of the visitors. Then a crumpled table cloth was dug out from a drawer in the visitors’ room and spread on that table. Tara, invariably, was behind schedule so home-made dishes were laid out one by one and tea announced. By the time Tara returned, we were all full up to our throats. My mother used to say that he lingered back in the market deliberately because like this he got to eat the food that he had brought. We used to wonder why, if he was an established foot-dragger, was he always the one chosen to go to the market. But I guess that’s how the Mamaji-ke’s residents were: floating in the world, unwary of and immune to the pressures which end up in amending routines and habits. We used to think they were stupid and gullible; but in retrospect, they seemed to be unconsciously doing what everyone craves for in the busy cosmopolitan cities of today: to channel the energies to the present moment to be able to live it genuinely and artlessly.
Almost everyone I knew in Sialkot had at least once visited Imam Sahib, the handsome shrine on top of a hill. It is the tomb of Imam Ali, the patron Saint of Sialkot. The locals have immense faith in the Saint’s post-humus energies. Many claimed that their prayers never went unheard at Imam Sahib. Even those who don’t share this faith, were impressed by the dwarfing structure and the cool, charismatic atmosphere of the shrine. Every moment spent there is a moment of cosmic tranquility.

Twice every year there was weeks-long fair or mela activity around the vicinity of the tomb: once close to Eid and the second time on the Urs or death anniversary of Imam Sahib. The mela brought a season of festivity for locals and villagers from nearby townships and villages.

My mother allowed us to enjoy a day at the mela with our cook Maasi Zainab at least once every season. For our day out, we wore our best clothes with matching ribbons braided in out plaits. Each of us had his or her own little wad of money to spend at the fair. We left for the mela brimming with energy and returned exhausted after the entertainment spree. The mela offered the same attractions year after year; small circuses, kaleidoscopes, string walkers, lucky dips, and freak shows. Maut ka Kunwa, in which the motor biker rode up the walls of a wooden well, was our favorite show.  
You could have tattoos made on your arm or hands. My father had a peacock tattoo on his arm from one of his childhood visits. Somehow the custom of tattoo-making at melas had become old-fashioned and obsolete when our generation came along.

At the mela stalls, we could buy cheap bead jewelry, bangles, toys, greeting cards, souvenirs, hair adornments and what not. Food ranging from very simple and basic to a full-fledged meal could be enjoyed. My favorite was lobia chaat, a very simple lentil and onion salad.

Readymade food was not restricted to the mela only. There were many famous food joints at various points in the city, most of them having take-home facility only. Eating out was a rarity and only possible in the few restaurants in the Cantt. In the old city, beside the usual barbecue and salans, there was still-water fried fish. The Kashmiris were specialists in making murabba and achar.   
The city was so small, it was practically possible to walk from one end to the other. Till the nineteen seventies, there were very few cars and even well-to-do people either walked from place to place or rode on horse-driven tangas. To hire a tanga, one had to stand on the roadside and wait for one to pass by. While waiting for an empty one to come along, it wasn’t a bad idea to shout at the tanga wala of an already hired tanga to come back after dropping the sawari. Oh what joy it was to ride those unadorned but shapely wooden carriages which were the only form of public transport available up until the nineties! In summers, the ride was breezy and cheering but in winter it was a different story altogether. Especially if you were riding in the front seat, facing the wind, you would end up with a frozen nose and smarting eyes.
Weddings! Each one proved to be totally different from the other. There was one in which two groups of meerasans(dholak singers) competed so heatedly and their voices became so deafening that all the babies at the wedding began crying and the overeager competitors had to be shown the way out of the house. There was one in which the barat was so late, the wedding lunch was served at dinner time. At still another bhaands, self-invited professional humorists who emerged out of the blue and were known for making politician jokes, made fun of a politician who turned out to be the bridegroom’s uncle. The bridegroom’s family took it as a conspiracy against their eminent relative. There was a tiff and the wedding was called off there and then. It eventually took place at a later date and in a stiff and quiet atmosphere.  
When a wedding in the family was coming up, frenzy broke out even if it was a year away. New clothes were made, food stocks were built and houses white-washed. Family relations and friends arrived from far-off places weeks before the wedding and became house guests, either at the wedding house or those of close relations. No one minded accommodating guests for their relatives. Hence, a wedding was not only a festivity spree, but a great family reunion.

For children there was no behavior code at weddings and even funerals. At both, we used to assemble in knots and play outdoor games like Stappoo and pakran-pakrai. Outside the tent or the house where a wedding or funeral was going on, trivial rairhi food-sellers arrived automatically. Children began pestering their mothers for money to buy paapars, fried daal or candy floss.

I could go on describing the the remarkable quirks and idiosyncrasies of people and culture of Sialkot and there would still be more to say. 
Although I cherish the years I lived in Sialkot but when I was living that life, the worth was undiscovered. Rather there was a nonstop, nagging sense of deprivation, maybe because my mother’s family was in Lahore and we used to spend our summer vacation in Lahore in our grandparents’ house. Life in Lahore, being faster and more happening, seemed more enjoyable compared to life in Sialkot.

Much later when I was married and settled I began missing Sialkot. Slowly, the craving became more and more intense. It was at some point of time in the years when my children were babies that my sister and I took to the practice of visiting Sialkot on one weekend every month. At that time, Daewoo had started a bus service between Sialkot and Lahore. We used to take the night bus to Sialkot on Fridays and return on Sunday or Monday. The two days that we spent there, we tried our best to replicate our childhood. We would visit Vaira, Kothi, Almaaman and other relatives’ houses. Our outdoor days were spent in the tranquil galleries circling the tomb of Imam Sahib or walking along the spice shops of Lihaai Bazaar; either merging with the dense throng of shoppers’ in Kaamandi or driving to  to the cloth shops where we used to buy fabrics as girls. And, not to forget the most important activity, eating at our favorite roadside khokhas and rairhies.
We were reliving what was already lived. Or were trying to.

But for the sake of reality in this hopelessly real world of three-dimensional humans, it has to be said: Time is a non-revisit-able domain, a non-replicable service.

In those days I wrote a long poem that eventually got lost in the heaps of papers stuffed in the drawers of my study. But I can still recall a few lines:
If I were a tree,
With my feet within the soil;
Deep and sucking life from the dust;
The dust of my home
The dust of my mother’s ashes
My father’s remains

With my arms out in the milieu
Wide and sopping life from the air
The air of my home
The air of my sisters’ scent
My brothers’ breath;

With my head up in the heavens
High and in oneness with the sky
The sky of my home
The sky of my world
Of my immortal being.

But Ahhh!!! I’m only human
Unwanted, unanchored
Wandering feet amble out
Taking me away from all that I am
I was
I will ever be.
I often think about my role in Sialkot’s history. I think: “If I can no more be a part of it, why can’t I be an ardent admirer – a passionate narrator." I think, ‘It took me 40 years to realize that I am not Jazmin of the Convent but Yasmeen of the migrated-from-Jammu Sialkot-settled Kashmiris; it should not take another forty to express my homage. I feel a strong urge to give my honor, a tangible existence.

Off and on, I had drafted some pieces based on my childhood experiences. I began digging them out, hoping something could be done some day.

And as the saying goes: What you seek, is seeking you!  One day at work as my colleague Saima Arif and I discussed the possibility of compiling the short stories, the idea of chronicling the known history of the Sialkot and fusing it with my anecdotal narrative emerged from nowhere. Saima, a linguist and scholar, agreed to take up writing the history part. Together, we decided to name the book:
“Night Bus to Sialkot”