This is a date that is indelibly etched in my mind for several reasons
In her several visits to Kashmir in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bilqees Taseer, an astute Kashmir observer, carefully noted that my maternal grandmother, Akbar Jehan Abdullah, was given a share of the reverence which they [populace of Kashmir] always held for her husband. She was the person who could give him peace and solace in his tempestuous life. Bilquees Taseer was the widow of the renowned educationist Dr Mohammad Din Taseer, and mother of the late Governor of the Punjab in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, who was assassinated in 2010 by his bodyguard for having opposed Pakistans notorious blasphemy law. I remember Bilquees Taseer rather fondly as Aunty Chris, an imposing, voluble, and politically astute writer. I think of her as one of the last vestiges of the British Raj. She would affectionately call Akbar Jehan Ruhi. She stayed at Nedous Hotel in Srinagar on her frequent visits to the Kashmir Valley. Nedous Hotel was then owned and run by Salima Nedou, the widow of Harry Nedou aka Ghulam Qadir and sister-in-law of Akbar Jehan. At the time, Taseer was immersed in carving a sharply defined perspective of Kashmir for her forthcoming book.
She wrote about the unremitting dedication of Akbar Jehan to her husband in 1982, the year of the Sheikhs death. Taseer poignantly writes that on closer acquaintance, she found Akbar Jehan an astute, discerning, and insightful woman, with all the politics of the State and of the Union at her fingertips. Akbar Jehans education, reading, and travel had broadened her horizons and having been immersed in momentous changes in subcontinental politics for forty-nine years as a partner of an outstanding leader had all developed in her a sense of judgment, political intuition and wisdom. She was affected with great wonder at Akbar Jehans calm demeanour and tactful diplomacy with visitors of all hues and from all walks of life during her husbands illness. She, Taseer notes, tirelessly supervised the ameliorative care of her husbands illness, no light task when visitors were pouring in all day Always she had to show patience, good temper, tact. Her tirelessness was amazing, for after all she is now not a young woman.
The defining presence of my childhood, much loved and just as much vilified, was no more! Death, the ever vigilant and cruel overseer had, once more, established its inevitability
September 8, 1982, is a date that is indelibly etched in my mind for several reasons, some of which I have reassessed over the years. Grandfathers illness had been causing a lot of concern to Mother and her older sister, who with the solicitude of dutiful daughters wanted to be by their fathers side at all hours of the day. So, a couple of months before he died, I would go to his house every day after school where I would find Mother taking care of household chores, supervising the servants, and administering medications to her father. I would spend my time in the living room adjacent to Grandfathers bedroom, where I would assiduously do my homework and study the Quran with the Maulvi.
One afternoon, exhausted and dishevelled after a particularly tedious day at school, I limped into the living room to see Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, sitting there with Grandmother and my aunt, Khalida. Mother, who has carefully and very deliberately avoided hobnobbing with political bigwigs for most of her life, was hovering outside the living room. I, a ten-year-old glamour struck child, was overwhelmed to see the Indian premier exchanging pleasantries with Grandmother and her older daughter, Khalida, and sitting close enough for me to touch her.
I followed my aunt, who gingerly tiptoed into Grandfathers bedroom and gently whispered in his ear that Indira Gandhi had flown from New Delhi to Srinagar just to call on him and inquire after his health. Grandfather turned away and cynically said that she was there to see how much life he still had left in him and to make sure that he, indeed, was on his last legs. His cynical response, however, did not deter the rest of the family from escorting Indira Gandhi into his room, where she tactfully expressed her concern for the stalwart leader against whom she and her father had deployed every stratagem in the book and the unbridled power of the state.
The air was thick with tension, and Grandfather was guarded in his responses to the Indian premier, suspicion writ large on his face. Grandmother was a gracious hostess and made small talk, all the while giving cryptic answers to questions asked by Indira Gandhi about Grandfathers health and prognosis. Grandmothers diplomatic skills were lauded by those who knew her. She had the discernment to receive visitors with the utmost charm and civility, while keeping an adversary at arms length. Little did anyone know that the Indian premier was already orchestrating a rift within the National Conference and the irreparable division of Akbar Jehans and the Sheikhs family, which she engineered not long after Grandfathers death.
A few days after that much publicised and impeccably diplomatic visit, I was taking Math tuitions one afternoon, in the tiny and sparsely furnished room just above Grandfathers bedroom, which didnt do much to rid me of my Math dyslexia. I could hear an audible rattle through the window. Happy in my childs fantasy world of fairies and elves that would vanquish the monstrous mathematical and algebraic formulae that my tutor was badgering me with, I didnt realise that the audible rattling sound was Grandfathers beleaguered breathing. Much to the chagrin of my tutor, I lost interest in my homework and looked through the window only to see everyone running helter skelter. Mothers cousin, Freddy, came bounding up the stairs to tell her that Papa was asking for her. The newspaper that Mother had been reading flew out of her hands, and she ran downstairs in disarray.
I recall spending that entire day in a disoriented daze, running in and out of the womens pavilion, where Grandmother, Mother, and Mothers older sister, who although distraught and utterly devastated, were forbearingly listening to the entreaties of the mourners to remain fortitudinous. Grandfathers bedroom was denuded of his pain-filled eyes, eyes that had told thousands of stories of brutally crushed aspirations, his enchanting but melancholic smile, and his temperate presence. The defining presence of my childhood, much loved and just as much vilified, was no more! Death, the ever vigilant and cruel overseer had, once more, established its inevitability! There is no God but God! From God we come, and to Him we return!
The flags that flew at half-mast that day were symbolic of the diminution of the ideological underpinnings of a mass movement for Kashmiri nationalism, and of the mourning for an abraded Kashmiri identity. In that distressing, heart-breaking, and passionate atmosphere, Grandmother stood with her shoulders squared and employed religious rhetoric to remind the mourners that death comes for us all. In a strong voice, she implored them to be patient and told them that the greatest tribute they could pay to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was to show the world that they were an evolving nation, capable of maintaining an enviable calm even in difficult times. I sat behind her on bended knees while she importuned the crowd of mourners to remain stoic, wondering, with the befuddlement of a ten year old child, how a sense of orientation, order, and clarity would ever follow the fluster and tumult of those few days!
The Article First Appeared In Daily Times