Of Kanger and Stories

By Majid Maqbool

I can see my own breath on a particularly chilly winter morning. A thick, blinding fog is covering the street. The trees are withered, desolate, robbed of late autumn leaves that lie trampled on ground. I walk towards the road to board a bus. Inside the bus, an old man next to me is holding a kanger inside his pheran. Seeing me fidgeting in cold, he offers it to me. His free flowing white beard looks more prominent in contrast to the dark colored, old style pheran he has put on. He sat next to me in the bus, a wide smile frozen on his sharply featured face. “Gobra kar waeshnaer, sakh teer che azea”, he said as he passed on his exquisitely designed kanger. Just below the ash, the burning coal is emanating gusts of heat. As the bus sped away, I kept both my hands on the mouth of his kanger. My cold hands felt increasingly warm.

The old man had many anecdotes to narrate. Nostalgic of his yesteryears, he seemed dissatisfied with the present times. No matter who was listening to him, he kept his anecdotes coming. Sometimes, if no one seemed interested, he would talk to himself. Since I had his kanger and I was sitting next to him, there was no getting away from his stories.

Then he narrated an anecdote about the kanger.

Once in winter, during a protest demonstration against Indian army excesses in some village, the old man said, the unarmed villagers literally used their kanger as an indigenous weapon of resistance. The kangris were flung, he said, with vengeance at the approaching Indian troops. It was a heart-warming battle scene. Troops with guns; villagers, with a ready, “nare kanger”! An explosive device inside their winter cloaks! If they had their guns,  the old man added with a chuckle, we had our nare kanger!

Adee pate mate boazte,the old man chuckled again, narrowing his eyes, teman choak asea achean soor As he narrated the battle scenes with relish, I couldn”t help but smile. Fascinated by this indigenous act of resistance, I wanted to know the result of the kangri fight put on by the brave villagers. But the old man cut his anecdote short. For quite some time the fog created from the ash of many kangris thrown at them was hanging in the air…,  he hurriedly said as he looked out of the window. Before he could narrate further, I had to return his kanger. He had reached his destination. Long after he came down from the bus, I kept thinking about the kanger fight. I hope the villagers won in the end.

As I write this, hands are reluctant, wanting to go back inside the pheran, on the kanger, for that warmth. The warm touch of the wickers of kanger rushes back childhood memories

In my childhood kanger was kept away from us. It was considered too hot to handle for the kids. As a child I was fascinated by the kanger, seeing elders adore it and carry it around inside their pherans. I was only allowed to have what we call in Kashmiri –“shaale pauphe”. And that too, much to my dislike, under the watchful eyes of elders. It meant sharing the kanger of an elder in the family. Only hands were allowed to be put on the kanger, which an elder held inside his pheran. But I didn”t like this idea of restricted possession of kanger. I wanted more possession, and more warmth. I wanted a kanger of my own.

And as soon as the watchful elders would fall asleep, seeing a quick opportunity, we would slip away with their kanger. The elders wouldn”t know it. The sleep inducing heat of kanger had done its work for us! I remember that childish delight seeing elders suddenly wake up from their sleep. An unknowing dip of a finger inside their hot kanger would suddenly shock them out of their sleep. It would make us laugh.

Elders needed to be convinced enough to allow kids to be in possession of kanger. As the subsequent winters approached, the kanger found a safe entry into my pheran. Finally, a kanger of my own arrived in my pheran. But this exclusive possession came with a price. On numerous occasions at home I was found guilty of toppling “naree kanger” on the floor. (And when a nare kanger topples on the matting “those guilty of it should know” the most difficult job is to clean up the resultant mess without much damage). But you cannot stop the damage though, only the extent of the damage.

Dangling with a coiled thread, the wakhul is a necessary attachment that completes the kanger. What an oar is for a boat, a “wakhul” is for a kanger. It is either metallic, or wooden, and is used to stir the kanger every time it gets perceptibly cold. Some people though dare to directly take on the “tangel” of the kanger and stir it with bare hands if the “wakhul” is found missing.

I remember that specially decorated “cherare kanger” found near the bride on occasions of marriage ceremonies. It was a special curiosity for the kids. A visual treat for all, the “chare kanger” stood out from the rest of kangrisin the ceremony. Distinct in its makeup, it could be easily distinguished from other kangris. Colorful and beautifully decorated, I always found it glowing with ornaments, just like the maharen, the bride. And that specially designed metallic “wakhul” would add to its personality. And like the golden earrings of the bride, those extra earrings attached to the kanger would enhance its makeup. Singing women in festive mood would pour “isband” in this special kanger. It was accompanied by that blistering, tich-tich noise of the soft burning of “isband”. The resultant smoke would pervade the whole atmosphere with festive aroma. The Kashmiri “wanwoen” would only heighten the festivity surrounding the cherare kanger. The pleasant smell of isband would fill the senses with joy.

I remember how my grandmother would lovingly place a potato, sometimes an egg, to bake for me inside her kanger. I would impatiently wait for it to cook. In the meantime, in order to divert my attention, she would narrate a story from her yesteryears. I would immediately come in that position of “shale pauaphe”. My cold hands on her kanger “and that velvety touch of her exquisitely embroidered pheran. And then she would narrate stories in her unique, grandmotherly style full of different intonations at appropriate occasions. She was the best storyteller. No book, no movie can ever bring alive those stories the way my grandmother would. She was the most amazing storybook. She was my school at home. In winters, after school, I would drop my bag aside. And then I would sit in front of her, holding her kanger, and feel that loving touch of her wrinkled, warm hands on my little hands. And then wait for her stories to begin.

I would listen to her stories with rapt attention, misty eyed, always in awe of her story telling skills. In her narration, every ordinary character — every trifling detail — would acquire an extraordinary mystique. Past would come alive and become dramatic and interesting when she would magically weave it into her stories. And soon I would be lost in the fantastic world of those stories.

The only distraction, however, was that recurrent thought of the status of the potato baking inside her kanger. And she would often scold me, lovingly, with her eyes, opening them wide, every time I would look at the potato in the kanger before time. Before it was completely baked, I would expose a part of the potato, unlayering the ash covering it. But at the end of that impatient wait” and at the end of her fascinating stories “the taste of that potato baked in her kangerwas a delight. That wait, in fact, would make it tastier. And the reward– always at the end of the story “was always well worth the wait.

Majid Maqbool is a journalist/writer based in Kashmir. He can be reached at maqboolvoice.blogspot.com.

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