Trip to Lal Chowk: Memories from a childhood

Aga Syed Sameer

It was a beautiful afternoon of a great summer day, but I was very restless after spending the cheerful morning sitting at home doing almost nothing except for studying. It was the starting day of the summer vacations. I wanted to break away from the shackles of this monotonous feeling that was hanging on me like the sharp edged sword, ready to cut the throat of joy and happiness, whatever was left in me in this blistering heat of July. At least there were cricket matches between India and Pakistan in some place called Sharjah which all of us enjoyed in this season of year. I and Bablu watched them at his home and we cheered for Pakistan every time Afridi hit sixes. All of us love to see Pakistan win, be it a game or something else. I don’t know why this anomaly is there, as we live in Indian occupied territory.  Even the luxury of India Pakistan match was missing today.

I was still battling the feeling of boredom that was eating me up and making me highly restless when I heard my mother call me for lunch. I didn’t have an appetite. I was just waiting for the Ammi (mother) to finish up the house-hold chores and leave for the Lal Chowk.[1] She had promised to take me for ice cream or Gol Gappe.[2] I gulped down my lunch half-heartedly and half lost in day dreams of what I would do in Lal Chowk. I had made plans with my friend Bablu last night about my trip. He suggested many things I would want to do in Lal Chowk as he regularly visits the place with his father. They have a big black car. Bablu says it costs seven lakh rupees. His father Asad Shawl is a businessman and they also have a bigger house than us. My Abbuji (father) owns a provisional store in the heart of Shahr e Khaas[3]. He says we can’t afford the big car like Bablu’s. He always reminds me that “One should be content with what Allah provides.” I usually am content, but Ammi has a different notion regarding me, she says I am rebellious like my father as I don’t listen to her advice.  She says “it is all in the genes” which I have received from my father. She denies anyone in her family was/is as stubborn as my father or I. I usually laugh at her remarks and want to tell her “Has she ever listened to what she utters?”. It is impossible for anyone to get all of the genes from one parent alone. Our biology teacher told us so. I guess she has not been told anything about biology. She must have been “dumbo” in her studies. But today I don’t want to spoil her mood; otherwise she would leave me in this god forsaken cell of a home to rot for the rest of the day. She is already mad at Abbuji for not letting her enjoy with her sisters. I guess it is because we are not that too rich like my other uncles and aunts. My mother constantly nagged my father about her failing health, so he hired Mogli, a local woman to lend a a hand in daily chores.

I finished up my lunch quickly, and waited for my mother to come down from her room and leave for Lal Chowk. After a while she came down, clad in black Burqa,, covering most of her being in its belly. I love my mom in this avatar, as she looks like a Chinese doll when she wears it. She has got a new one made just a few weeks ago. The old one had been worn out after a continuous use. It was more of grey in color. This new one looks trendy with all the pompous laces over its corners and cuffs. My mom has a liking for different colors but she says the Burqa looks best when it is black. She even donned it during these days of blistering heat. She once said to me that it looked very odd to walk among strangers without a Burqa. As soon as she came down she asked Mogli for a cup of tea and some biscuits as she had not had the lunch in the fervor of going out after a long time. She quickly had her tea and then we left for the Lal Chowk.

It is always a joy to walk besides my mom while she holds my hand. But I am not as quick a walker as she is. She would drag me when I got tired. As soon as we left home mom said to me that we have to first visit the Shameema Poophi, my paternal aunt for an hour or so before we visited Lal Chowk for shopping. So Ammi asked Raja the auto-walla to drop us at Hyderpora which is where Shameema Poophi lives. I love to visit Shameema Poophi’s home. She adores me but I don’t know why Ammi gets irritated whenever I want to stay at their place. After buying some gifts for Shameema Poophi’s we got into the auto and it took us almost half an hour to reach their home. It was not a good day for me as none of my cousins were at home. I was planning to play with them for a while; it had been a long time since I had seen them. Soon Ammi and Shameema Poophi were lost in their babble, gossiping about everyone they know.  After about an hour or two I asked Ammi when we are leaving for Lalchowk as I was getting bored to death. It was only after my continuous pestering that she realized that it was very late that she bid good bye to Shameema Poophi and we left for Lal Chowk.

We boarded a Local Bus for Lal Chowk from our bus stop. In this hot day, the bus smells like a chicken coop and to make the matters worse the bus conductor is hell bent to fill the bus with more and more people. Within a fraction of our getting into the bus, some passenger howled at the bus driver to move and soon other joined in. The bus driver didn’t respond to any of their rants. I think he had become deaf by constant playing of the song “Mohabbat uk teer moy lay, mya gayi zaayi jawaani, mya gay zaayi jawaani” which was booming out of the two big speakers just below his seat. It was only after one long hour which seemed like ages to me that we reached the hub of the whole buzz, the heart of Srinagar city – Lal Chowk. As soon the bus got near the Akhara Building bus stop located just within the limits of Maisuma – the Gaza strip of Kashmir. The bus driver was somewhat tizzy as there was the something of a buzz in the adjoining area. There was some restlessness in the atmosphere; everyone was in a hurry.

I caught hold of Ammi’s hand while getting out of the bus and she quickly crossed the road towards the Ghanta Ghar side pulling me like a stringed toy. Bablu had told me of “Erina” located near the Ghanta Ghar which is known for a variety of milk shakes and ice creams. I began to hunt for it as soon as we were in heart of Lal Chowk. But I could not locate it anywhere. All I could see was a huge tower located in the middle of the Road with huge clocks on its top, the Ghanta Ghar. I caught a glimpse of two of its clocks which had been worn out. I observed the hands of both of the clocks were paralyzed. One showed the time was 12:00; the second one was friendlier showing 10:10, looking like a smiley face in the grim environment.

At the bottom of the tower were barbed wires all around the structure. I don’t know whether the wire was to keep off someone or to protect the tower itself from vandalism. There was a huge crowd gathered near the tower and more and more people were pouring in from all corners and occupying every nook and corner of the adjoining road. I could make anything of the developing situation. So I asked “Ammi Yetiy kya daleel? Why are so many people gathered around the tower?” She was not interested in answering any of my questions; she seemed lost in some other world. She pulled me to walk faster saying “Pakku Jaldi, zan chui lakwe gomut zangan, akisiey Jaayi chukh gascaan lagit, lamun chui pyewaan phirre phirre”. There was this irritated tone in her voice which I could sense, but I didn’t pay any heed to. I had not witnessed such a huge gathering anywhere before. I was exploring the big and small shops on both sides of the road. Most of the shops sold TVs, watches and radios. Others sold garments and a few were photography stores. As I was busy in exploring the vicinity, my mother said in a commanding tone said “Walk quickly, and don’t irritate me with your constant demands. You are always having these schemes of embarrassing me”. I was again dragged by arm but I felt a strong urge to quench my thirst when  my eyes caught sight of Raidee Walla (push-cart vendor) who was selling Golden hued gol gappas, which Bablu had told me were spicy but very tasty. I could not resist asking my mother to buy me some.  She gave me a scornful look and said “Na, potus kaarei myadas doad, ye chui mokur asaan/your stomach will hurt, its unhygienic.” My urge to eat them was stronger so I again asked her “Ammi Ammi, I want to eat gol gappas”. Irate, she responded, “Walk properly and quickly, otherwise I will start beating you in front of everyone here.” I don’t know how many times I pleaded for just one plate of gol gappas before I finally let go. I am truly stubborn and persistent in my demands as she says but today it was her day, and she was winning in leaps and strides. She threatened by saying “I will hand you over to that CRPF walla.[4] But I was not intimidated at all. I know she loves me too much to hand me over to the CRPF walla.

The CRPF walla didn’t look that much a threat to me. I am now comfortable in the presence of CRPF wallas. They are omnipresent; no matter where you are in Kashmir.  On top of it the CRPF walla was a skinny fellow, who seemed to be as irritated as Ammi with the whole conundrum that was developing near Ghanta Ghar. It seemed he had more important things to do than beat a small boy like me. Besides, I had once talked to a CRPF walla when they regularly visited our home during the crack downs. He had pointed to me a kitchen lighter which was shaped like a gun. Abbuji had got this fancy lighter from Delhi. I was scared by the CRPF walla as he shouted “hands up,” ordering me to put my arms up in the air and I cried on spot. Making a young child cry for reason, he later tried to pacify me by letting me touch his gun, which was very heavy. Looking at this CRPF walla, standing in his green over-alls, I felt that he must be burdened by the weight of his heavy gun as much as by this blistering heat. I had once asked one CRPF walla stationed in a picket near our house, why they lived like beggars in Kashmir. Don’t they have a home of their own in their country, where they can live comfortably? But he didn’t answer my questions at all. He grinned and uttered “Saaley, inkey bachon ko bhi azaadi chahiye, daed inch ka hai, lekin batein bohut labi lambi karta hai.sister-fucker, their kids wants freedom too, look he is half an inch, but talks such big talk.” He said this to the CRPF fellow, who was inside the bunker peeking through the small window like hole.

Near one of the shops was other raidee walla (vendor), where Ammi stopped and asked for the price of vegetables, and then I heard her go ballistic on the poor fellow. I guess the vegetables were overpriced and she gave him an earful. “Waay Bechaour/poor man” I felt bad for him; he had to suffer because of my behavior, I guess.  No sooner had Ammi scolded the raidee wala that a plump lady wearing old and ragged clothes caught hold of Ammi’s burqa and asked for some charity in typical Kashmiri style “Allah tala kareinay Bajeh, Koori” “Mya Greeb Maaje pyetth kar sa reham” “Kenh ponse ditam, Mya chui ne trein dohaw pyetthe Khyomut Keheene”. Her hair was disheveled. Her skin was hidden behind the many layers of soot that formed an external sheath like that of an armadillo. I was sure that her skin had forgotten the touch of water. Ammi lost her patience with the adamant woman. She reprimanded the begging lady in a loud voice, sending her packing and making shivers run down my spine. I think there is something eating my Ammi, something which Shameema Poohi might have said. Ammi always behaves likes this after visiting Poophi.

While Ammi was lost in shopping I heard loud slogans of “Hum Kya Chahtey Azaadi” “Ai Zalimo Aey Mujrimo, Kashmir hamara chod do/ We want Freedom, Oh! Tyrants and oppressors leave our Kashmir.” It was difficult to know what was going on from that distance, but one could easily say that protests were going on near the Ghanta ghar. This was the reason why everyone was in panic when we arrived in Lal chowk. Ammi quickly settled for some garments and paid the sales-girl whose heavy makeup but still could not conceal the frowns of the panic which spread all over her face. I also caught a glimpse of Baijaan (brother) in the chaos. I called for him consistently but my voice was lost like a hiss in the roar of the crowd and he didn’t listen at all. I would surely ask Baijaan about the protests when I see him at home in evening. He would surely tell me what it was all about. He knows everything that is to be known whether it is Azaadi or any leader associated with it. Abbuji says he is the light of the family since he goes to University for his studies. Abbuji says he will make everyone proud one day.

Soon Ammi left the famed “Kohli” store with a handful of bags and a smile on her face, which I could sense even though she was wearing a Burqa. She got a big cone of ice cream for me and I was delighted by the sight of it. The atmosphere was getting tense because of the protest in the Ghanta ghar, and we tried to get away from the Lal chowk as soon as possible. As we moved through the Partap Park, I caught a glimpse of a Sumo vehicle. The driver was calling “Jammu, Jammu” in his Kashmiri accent and trying hard to get the passengers traveling to Jammu. There was an inscription on the rear window of the car which read “Gas Khodayes Hawale” (Go with God)!

Aga Syed Sameer is a medical doctor and lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry, at SKIMS Medical College, Kashmir. He can be reached at [email protected]

[1] An central area located in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir valley
[2] Fried spheres of dough filled with tamarind water – an Indian snack
[3]  Old historic downtown city in Srinagar,
[4] Indian Central Reserve Police Force

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