by K. N. Kaul
The game of inventing a name, a label for a particular person that sums up in one word all that he stands for, his idiosyncrasies, his follies, warts and all, is played to perfection in Kashmir. This appellation is usually a funny word, crisp and tasty on the tongue. It is a compound of humour and abuse, the ratio of the mix varying according to the reactions of the person on whom it is plastered. It is not only his identification but also his caricature, honestly and accurately conveyed in just a single word. The epithet is inherited by the family of the person down to many generations. If the family fortune is in the ascendant, this irritant attains a respectability of its own kind.
How the name gets coined is a mystery. But once in the air, it is adopted by the street urchins who give it a wide publicity by shouting the name in unison once they spot out the person to whom it belongs. God help him if he dare try to retaliate by shouting back at them. Prudence lies in a quick escape into some nearby lane. But the echo of the chorus pursues the hapless person right up to the doorsteps of his home like a friend.
Pearce Gervis in his book "This Is Kashmir", has this to add:
"Even the wit in the Kashmiri was not stifled and showed itself on many occasions. He is fond of nicknames. In 1825 Kripa Ram was made the Governor. Of him it is written that he was a mild self-indulgent man who was fond of boating-boatwomen. The nickname he earned for himself was 'Kripa Shroin', meaning the sound of the dip of the boat paddle".
One such victim to this old Kashmiri pastime was one Mohammad living in the city of Srinagar. His name was affectionately rounded off to mere Momma (a word which incidentally stands for a woman's breast) by his father. Now this young boy was an odd-job man for all the families living in the vicinity of his home. So long as his father was alive, he never thought of learning a trade to earn a living for himself. But now when he grew into an adult and a soft little growth sprouted above his upper lip and a fine little goatee on his chin, he stopped obliging those who had taken him for granted.
God had blessed Momma with a keen sense of self-respect which did not allow him to live off the leftovers of his patrons after his father's death. He started as a coolie at the local vegetable market and graduated into a hand-cart puller. But not used to hard work, physical strain involved in the work was too heavy for him to bear. He thought of choosing some other trade, less cumbersome but more profitable.
The local grocer, at whose shop Momma used to have a few quick pulls at the hubble-bubble now and then, was his chief counsellor. To him he confided all his woes and secrets. The grocer in his eagerness to help suggested him to start raising poultry at the backyard of his house. He offered his shop as an outlet for sale till such time as he could own a shop of his own.
The offer of the grocer was tempting and Momma started with a single hen with white plumage. The hen proved to be the harbinger of good fortune, for Momma was the proud owner of a Little poultry farm in about a year's time earning a respectable living. In the mean time he had earned the ire of his neighbours by describing to them the virtues of his hen and her antics. In his eagerness to impress he had not observed the frown on their faces, their snivellings and their yawns. His boorishness gave birth to a silly nickname. From Momma he began to be known as "Momma Kokker" for all. The shock of being reduced to the status of a hen while he was striving to gain a little social status in his neighbourhood was unbearable. Shouts of the children following him and their mirthful cries brought forth unspeakable depravities to his mind. He could not shake them off no matter what he said or did to them. A numb frozen loneliness came over him and overpowered him. He realised that he had to live with the nickname for the rest of his born days. The euphoria of the success in his new business venture evaporated and with that his old habit of lauding his dear hen to his friends and acquaintances too. The die had been cast and he was unable to do anything to save his name which was already corroded and reduced to a minimum. In a fit of frenzy he slit the slender throat of his beloved hen throwing the carcass away for dogs to feast upon. He cursed both his luck and his friend who had suggested poultry business to him.
Not being able to face up to the onslaught of satires, sneers and sniggers of insensitive people, poor Momma's days of milk and honey were over. He felt like a stranger in his own neighbourhood. His entire being got buttoned up with anger, despair and humiliation. Ducking into the lanes and byroads whenever the urchins got hold of him was no permanent solution. The only way out was an escape to some alien land where past regrets and future fears would not assail him. How he wished to be far away from the reach of his persecutors and pursuers!
At last no longer able to bite into life and tear it apart, he decided to quit. That night all through and into the next dawn he was not able to sleep, partly because of rumblings of distant thunder storm and particularly because of leaden despair that had sunk into his soul. Unable to struggle any longer with his gloom, he got up at dead of night and struggled into an old woollen sweater. His life was not by any means over, he thought, while combing his hair with his fingers. Gathering some of his earthly belongings into a bundle, he came out of his hut straight on to the darkness and emptiness of the night. Leaving the door ajar he looked anxiously around and walked away with firm steps without looking back even once. Only the crisp breeze whispered 'Khuda Hafiz' repeatedly into his ears.
Many years flew by silently. The alien soil had granted many boons to our Momma, now known by a respectable name of Khan Mohammad. He had in the mean time found a wife for himself after settling in life with a comfortable income leaving his past far, far behind. But not quite. Often when alone, he would close his eyes with a sigh and find himself roaming in the good old dirty lanes of his native place. It was some nameless sorrow, sharp and painful. Then he wanted to cry and get it out of his heart. It took many shapes in his mind depending upon the mood of his vagrant thoughts. Sometimes it brought to his mind the heady fragrance of almond blossom and the smell of mint and clover, and sometimes the taste of his favourite dinner consisting of 'Hak' and boiled rice roused his tastebuds. Again, sometimes it brought back to him the echoes of the shouts of those street urchins who now looked playful and humless at that point of time. And then the image of his much coddled hen with white plumage would materialise out of the dense mist of the past. How heartlessly he had slit her tender creamy throat and how he hated himself for that!
One day overcome by a savage impulse of visiting his native place just once, he packed his best clothes in a tin box and left for his old home on a pilgrimage of love. Two days of travel by rail and bus did not wear him down. On reaching his destination the familiar surroundings took hold of him and he walked on as if in a trance, hoping to be received by his old friends and acquaintances with the same warmth which he felt for them.
It was now late in the afternoon when he came upon the old chinar tree near the crossing. It seemed to have gained in girth and he sat at its foot trying to calm down his heart which was fluttering wildly in his breast. He spotted two young men coming along followed by an old woman. They passed him by without taking any notice of him, but a low 'pst' from the woman stopped them. Her ancient eyes looked intently at him trying to respond to some impulses of recognition.
"Who are you, son?" she asked Momma, whose heart quailed for a moment at this unexpected encounter.
The old woman continued hesitantly. "I think I know you but can't place you. Damn my old eyes."
The woman looked up at the waving chinar leaves and then out at the sky.
A longer pause, and then she got it.
"You young rascal, don't you recognise your old aunt?" she said. A mesh of wrinkles like the bark of the old chinar broke into a smile and lit the face of the woman. Coming closer she slapped out a hard one at his shoulder. Turning to the two young men whose inquisitive looks seemed to strip off Momma's clothes, she said, in a tone of irrepressible happiness those fatal words which almost knocked him down.
"Don't you know your old friend Momma? I mean, Momma Kokker, my old little one now grown up into a man."
Turning to Momma she said," Where have you been all these years? Stand up so that I may embrace you."
Knowing not where to hide from shame, Momma looked pleadingly first at the woman and then at the two young men who had by now recognised him. The mousey old woman had unwound all that had taken him years to bury. With the alertness of a fox used to being hunted, he gave out a forced smile, stood up and hugged the woman wishing to break every bone of her ancient body.
"Yes grandma, I am Momma, your old son, having come to meet you all after all these years. Shall see you in the morning," he blurted out with great difficulty.
So saying, Momma moved on towards the village trying to distance himself from them as quickly as possible. His homecoming was in shambles and his heart empty like a nest deserted by a bird. He felt cheated and bruised by fate. He walked on, barely touching the earth. At the nearest turning he waited till the silhouette of the three persons melted into the distance and disappeared. He retraced his steps to the bus terminus hoping to board the last bus but not before casting a lingering, sorrowful look at the mighty chinar.
A stain of saffron had by now appeared in the west lending a glow to the dying day. Against this background the leaves of the chinar fluttering in the evening breeze seemed to whisper final 'Khuda Hafiz' to Khan Mohammad, a scene which he bore away in his heart never to forget.
Source: Koshur Samachar
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