My mother told me that I witnessed the Kashmir saga from the womb. She repeated it often, along with some bitter things connected with my birth. I did not understand what my mother wanted to convey. Perhaps, I was too young to understand the stories that ran parallel to when I had tumbled into this world with my shirt-button-sized bluish-brown eyes half shut on a chilly February Monday, precisely at seven mornings when the sky was ominously cast with dark clouds. The sun was still buried behind the Zabarwan hillock.
As I became older, I assumed it was a parable, fable, or myth that Mother was telling; after all, our entire tale is based on a well-known mythology – that survived as a religious belief with our ancestors and entered into pages of our history. It was much later I learnt she was referring to an important chapter of our recent past that was being written when I was still in the womb: The guns were still roaring, and Indian Air Force planes were dominating the skies; they were bombing to drive out the remaining Afridi’s hiding in the outskirts of Srinagar, and clouds of dust and smoke coming from the villages had clouded the sky. My mother, my grandmother, Qadir Kak, a domestic helper and other family members had gone up to the top of the garden roof of our house to witness the scenes. Watching planes bombing the nearby villages from rooftops was not only our family’s tomfoolery act out of innocence, but the entire locality had aped each other and hilariously watched the bombing of the villages from their roofs, my grandmother told me. Some had spread mats on their roofs and filled the air with more smoke after taking long puffs from the Hubble-Bubbule.
With me in the womb, none had stopped my mother from going up to the roof through the Wouga, the small outlet in the attic that led to the garden roof. I would be the second son in the family, so there was not as much excitement as it had been at the birth of my elder brother. After many years, my elder brother was the first male child in the family, so his birth was an occasion of excitement and celebration- that did not hold for my birth.
Nevertheless, my mother did not remember my birth only because she had watched the bombing of the villages while I was still in the womb. She had many other sad remembrances connected to the days when I had tumbled into the world with the help of a midwife in Badekhoute, a room on the first floor of our house was named. It was the most oversized room on the first floor, having a Varusi that separated it into two rooms when required. Varusi was a piece of wooden architecture and an exhibit of craftsmanship- perhaps made from Deodar wood. The room faced the main road that, ‘on my birth, remained dotted with men in olive green, primarily tall Sikh soldiers and the National Conference volunteers, dressed in old uniforms of German soldiers, ‘ my grandmother often told me. The soldiers’ clicking their heels or the National Conference volunteers filling the air with boisterous cries had not bothered my mother. But the painful tongue blisters she had contracted immediately after my birth bothered her the most. There were scant medical facilities in the war-like situation obtained at my birth; she perhaps could not consult a doctor in any of the two nearby hospitals- Christen Missionary Hospital and the State Hospital. However, she had to be treated by Mubi Hakeem, who lived just three to four hundred yards from our home. The short-statured Unani physician was known for his diagnosis and treatment. An overwhelming population trusted this Perso-Arabic traditional treatment. Nowhatta, our birthplace, was known all-over Kashmir for over a score of Unani physicians. And they attracted people from distant villages for treatment.
It had taken her six to eight months to recover from these mouth blisters or ulcers. My mother painfully remembered those horrific months of pain and agony. Someone said beautifully, ‘an ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest-” one could safely say it is beyond quantifying. Much more than her agony of the blisters on her tongue, it was a thorn in her mind that she had not breastfed me during those crucial months that, even decades after, pained her. There were no baby foods in the market; even the concept of nursing children on powdered milk was not there; she often regretted it and told me that I was put on the cows’ milk. She had all praise for Dulat Ded, an elderly milkmaid who owned several cows, for providing fresh quality milk for my feeding.
There was no practice of employing wetnurses to breastfeed the newborn among the natives as it had been in sixth-century Arabia. Working-class natives overwhelmingly populated our Mohalla. No landlords or owners of the big-landed estates or rich Pandits lived in our neighbourhood or our Mohalla. I have no idea if there was a tradition of engaging wetnurses in some ‘naturalised’ or emigrant families living in relatively good numbers in a neighbouring Mohalla- most of whom claimed their roots in one or other Central Asian cities. But women suckling neighbours’ children was a joyous pastime- an expression of neighbours’ deep love and affection for each other. I remember I was very fondly drawn towards some friends of my mother and my friend’s mothers. During my tender years, I loved to stay in their company for hours, watching them working on their spinning wheels, even fiddling with their wheels and other assortments connected with the spinning of Pashmani threads. One day, my mother revealed the secret behind my being fondly drawn towards her friends and told me they had suckled me during her prolonged illness. “I gave you birth; they gave you bones and muscles,” she said passionately.
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist