‘Birds of the Snows’: A Crucial Coming-of-Age Saga 

By Tarannum Riyaz 

THERE was not a single picture of Ammi in it, but there were many other interesting pictures in the family album. The first page had a picture of the Hazratbal shrine in the Naseem Bagh area. Its pagoda-like architecture looks like the shrine of Hazrat Khawaja Nagshband Sahib. Like many other shrines built in the region, it has a wide square roof covering the whole building. There is a smaller square roof on top of it, which is covered with still another smaller one like that. This beautiful series of roofs continues, and the last one has a short minaret on top of it in the centre.The first roof has excellently carved wooden ornamentation attached to it in all the four corners. They look like lotus flowers hanging upside down.

Abbu said that before reaching other places, Buddhism had reached the Kashmir valley first and flourished there. Kashmiri Nagas accepted the creed, along with their previous symbol of a dragon as they had been worshippers of Naga- the serpent. From Kashmir, Buddhism spread to Gilgit Baltistan, Kashghar, and the kingdom of Khotan.

The ancient kingdom of Khotan was located on a branch of the Silk Road, running along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin–the southern area of present-day Xingiang. Buddhism continued further on to China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, and other countries from one side of the Kashmir valley, and to Ladakh, Tibet, Nepal and other Himalayan states from the other; and the pagoda architecture spread far and wide along with it. But it was also thought that the pagoda architecture can be traced to the older Nepalese stupas, which was adopted in Southeast

and East Asia on the one hand, and to the Kashmir valley through the Ladakh region on the other. Whatever the origin, the style is still very popular in Kashmir. Abbu had once told Sheba that it greatly influenced handicrafts in the Valley, with its fire-spewing dragons, chinar leaves,nightingales, flowers and creepers painted delicately on the papier mâché items in vibrant colours, and also carved painstakingly on wooden artefacts.

The new building in Hazratbal on the bank of the Dal Lake was modelled on the holy shrine in Madina. The Azan from the magnificent minaret next to the green dome seems to be coming from all corners of the sky.

Six-year-old Sheba closed her eyes in devotion, the way Ammi did for the prayers after namaz. The previous scene returned to her eyes once again.

The room became very dark, probably because some lingering clouds from the storm last evening covered the moon. Sheba stared at the ceiling which was almost invisible in the darkness with wide open eyes. The sound of Abu’s breath was barely audible now. It resembled the sound of the air passing through the swing, hanging from

the walnut tree in the backyard, as it begins to stop. She was hearing Abbu breathing continuously, as the sound travelled directly from Abbu’s window to her. A short while ago she had heard it growing faint; and now, she just could not hear it. Is Abbu dead? She thought in terror and felt as if the rope of the swing had broken and she herself was dying, having fallen to the ground. She sat up in the bed. Her sister Faheema, older by seven years, poked her in the ribs. Can’t you sleep peacefully? she asked irritably and, changing her side, went back to sleep. Baajis bony elbow felt like the joint of the divider in her geometry box. She wanted to tell Baaji that Abbu had died but choking on her own pain, she could not utter a word. She started crying silently and slowly rose from her bed. She glanced at Ammis bed; Farkhanda was fast asleep with Ammi’s arm under her neck like a pillow. Sheba sobbed silently. Whenever she slept with Baaji, she made her cry on some pretext or another. In her imagination, Sheba moved a step back, picked up Baaji along with her bed, and threw her down from the window.

But the next moment, she saw her sleeping peacefully as before. She was enraged, but also laughed at this absurd thought.

A strong gust of wind hit her face as she walked carefully to Abbu’s room. Sleeping on his huge bed peacefully, Abbu’s huge chest moved slowly up and down, and his nose blew out the same sound as the rope-swing when it’s just about to stop. A smile spread on her lips and she returned to her room. She held Ammis left hand very softly, spread it and put her neck on it. She didn’t disturb Ammis sleep at all; Ammi pulled her right arm out from under Farkhandas neck and put it on Sheba’s waist. Sheba laughed softly and closed her eyes.

The next morning, the children woke up to such an interesting day that no game could be equal to all the fun. Early in the morning, when their devout parents got up to offer their Fajr (dawn prayer), the carefree children woke up too–but only to go right back to sleep, as it had started raining heavily. But the walnut-pelting rain and clouds which had been forcefully driven away by the strong winds last evening had given a thorough soaking in the night to all the hills and valleys around, before making a comeback.

  • Excerpted with permission from Birds of the Snows, Tarannum Riyaz, translated by the author from the Urdu original Barf Aashna Parindey, Niyogi Books

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