I have walked these alleys for years. Cool and shady, a welcome reprieve in the summer. Have quickened the pace in winters when they turn windy and freezing.
Have skipped and hopped to the grey door as a young girl.
Strutted and sashayed to the same door, as a woman.
The steps that took me there, were always eager and happy. They knew they belonged to where they were headed.
In the Old City, is the alley and towards the right side stands a Corridor, at end of which is the Grey door.
The Grey door both in my memories and in real, creaked on its hinges, and shut with a loud bang, announcing every arrival and departure.
The Mohalla, felt like my Territory, even though I did not live there. I visited. But the Mohalla was mine because what lay behind the Grey Door was mine. And what made it mine was the old Board hanging above it with its bold letters in white, which were repainted regularly. The Letters read:
Shri Rattan Chand Sharma (Retd Tehsildar),
74 Mohalla Afghana
This address used to be our permanent address for all official and legal purposes. We shifted houses regularly, sometimes across states and once even across Continents. This Address used to be the one ‘permanent’ in my young life.
The Person behind this Address was in my List of Most Handsome Men Ever, somewhere along with my Father and Lord Shiva.
Retd Tehsildar ji, the man of the House, fair complexioned, with a thick head of hair and grey compelling eyes, commanded attention. Strong, just and extremely kind, he was known to have never raised his voice at anyone. His calmness always comforted me and his wisdom made me secure.
I grew up hearing stories of Retd. Tehsildar ji’s goodness and the respect he had earned because of it. Even the little I heard of his personal journey read like a book I would enjoy reading and learning from. His Mother, whom he loved dearly, was famed for her beauty. The stories that were passed down, told of how if she styled her hair one day, she was not allowed to apply kohl to her eyes. The day she applied kohl, she was not allowed to wear bright and beautiful clothes. Her dazzling beauty was too much to handle for her Matriarch who feared someone would cast an evil eye.
From Partition, to Indo-Pak Wars playing out, right at Teshsildar ji’s backyard, the stories left me agog. The Wartime incidents of sensitive Border Towns were shocking. His beloved dog was poisoned by the ‘enemy’ during those troubled days and he never brought another dog home.
A State which has been a playground for personal egos and political ambitions and where Minorities have been relentlessly persecuted and History hushed and changed, I saw a Man deeply religious and secular in practice till the end. Thanks to him I have never seen a conflict between the two, religion and secularism, either in theory or practice. The Clarity that strengthened later, started with him.
He was always humble and polite. Be it when he was with his Guru Maharaj/ Spiritual Teacher, seeking knowledge or when he enquired after the orphaned/fatherless children he helped educate.
Even in his death he wanted to give more and left instructions for his sons to give away the money which would otherwise be used for Adh-Barkhi and Barkhi (post-death Rituals) to those who really needed it. He taught us to give and to give with Faith and freely.
On many an evening, during my summer break, after dinner I would climb the many stairs, to the little room on the third floor where he would retire to meditate. He would always kindly let me in with a little laugh and share his blanket and tell me and any other grandchild who had dared to sneak in with me, stories of Rishis and Saints, goodness and giving, courage and action. We would be mesmerized by the sparkle in his beautiful eyes and by the deep baritone which was always reassuring. And nothing has come close to the title he conferred upon me of ‘Sant/Saintly bachha’. I am yet to prove him right but hold onto that memory dearly.
He along with my Father raised the bar very high for all my potential suitors. The handsome grey eyed man pampered his wife, all their married life. No one can claim to have heard him raising his voice against his dear wife. And even in the last few years when he was losing his memory due to dementia, her illness and discomfort would cause him the most pain. He would pace restlessly till he was assured of her well being. He was the perfect gentleman and theirs was the most charming love story.
The owner of the Grey Door and what lay beyond, was the patriarch of a Family of seven children and many nephews and nieces. The brood only got bigger with marriages and births. The fact that his Daughters are as strong and fiercely independent as his sons is an ode to his upbringing. The knot that keeps this large family together has been painstakingly tied by him. And how much he valued this familial love was clear in his last note to his family, asking them to continue to live well and with love for each other.
Mine were the first pitter-patter of feet in his life after his own children.
I always secretly thought I held a special spot in his life, which would remain unthreatened. I was in for a shock in Nov 2011. I remember flying from London to Jammu for my Cousin’s wedding. The first evening there, I went upto him to greet him. His strange response was bewildering. Did I dare say that there was no spark of recognition? This was before others in the family had recognized the dementia he suffered from in his last years. I was confused and hurt but his presence was more important than my unrequited love. I truly loved him and could chin up and bear any slight coming from him. In fact I spent a lot of time mulling over my behavior and what could have lead to the cold reaction. His diagnosis brought pain and yet some relief that it was not me but age and ill health that took away my share of love. I stubbornly decided to give him even more love.
The bond was special because the Retd Tehsildaar ji, had a dual role in my life. He was not only my Grandfather but quirkily enough could also claim to be my Father. My Parents after eight long years of marriage and five still born baby boys ran pillar to post to change their childless fate. When the Doctors failed and the Gods refused to be bribed, they were desperate enough to resort to someone’s idea of selling the Fetus in the womb to my Grandparents. The logic behind this incomprehensible idea was that my Grandparents karmic credit would shield me from my parent’s destiny. So I was sold off for a neat sum of Rs 11 to my Grandparents, even as I floated around blissfully in my Mother’s womb. Confident of my Grandparents good Karma my Parents spent that money eating Dosa and dreaming of a future with me in it.
But during the Navratris in 2014, my 92 year old Grandfather had a bad fall. The blood clot in his brain would become the reason for a myriad thing. There was the coming together of the family. They stood more united than ever before. Months of sleepless nights for the family members taking care of him. The way they rose to the occasion, and saw the opportunity to serve and nurse their invalid Patriarch as their good karma is a credit to him. I heard of Sisters with young babies travelling to the hometown and breaking down upon seeing him. I heard of great grandchildren comforting my Grandmother in their baby lingo.
I heard of regular trips to hometown by brother and cousins during Diwali become primarily about Nanaji. I later saw boys in the Family become Men.
And I heard all from afar. And I prayed. When they told me he needed to go and he should get ‘mukti’ I shivered.
In 2011 he hurt me when he failed to recognize me. Would he leave me heartbroken and guilty by leaving before I saw him? I was torn between wanting release for him and wanting deliverance for me.
In the end, like always,he proved bigger. I left for India on 5th Dec. Was at his bedside on the 6th. I stroked his forhead and begged forgiveness for my own selfishness. I had a conversation with him in my head and I knew he heard me, although he lay unresponsive. I told him I had kept a count and noted that everybody had come and seen him. All his children were with him and all the Grandchildren had been with him. I was the last one to see him. I told him, that I knew he was waiting for me. And here I was, his eldest Grandchild. I told him he may go now. I promised we would try and uphold the things dear to him and assured him that he need not worry about his wife of 67 years. He had taught us well. I know so many from the Family must have had similar conversations with him but this was mine. And I am thankful to him and God that I could have it.
I said the same things to him on the 15th, the last day I spent with him before I left to see my InLaws.
In the early hours of 21st, he left, to start another journey.
The grey door still stands but the grey eyes are gone. But I have seen some of what and how, they saw. I also see some of their wisdom and kindness passed on.
The Tree is gone but the roots remain, holding the Earth together.