Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jammu and My Inheritance of Loss

 J&K channel is playing on the television as I write this. I am slowly trying to come to terms with the reality of Jammu, versus the image in my head, which was admittedly dripping with nostalgia.
The question comes to mind, what makes a culture? A society with history and tradition to back up its present? Or the relentless sociocultural construction and destruction, driven by conspicuous consumption and the accoutrements thereof?

Ever since I left Jammu 7 years ago, I have been trying to come to terms with my identity, or lack thereof. Was I a Brahmin, because I was born into a Brahmin family? Was I a Dogra, because my parents spoke Dogri? Was I an Indian, because I had an Indian passport and I could recite the Indian national anthem by heart? To a teenage mind fuelled by angst, belonging to something was important. How else would I place myself in the world?
I was an apolitical atheist, so the Indian Bhraminical edge was gone. I had the Dogra card going pretty good. There was enough space to be tortured about my identity in a manner that was socially acceptable and also socially beneficial. I was born in a Dogra family, and I was constantly told by people that my mother's Dogri was beautiful. My parents and grandparents all spoke Dogri exclusively at home. The only problem was me. I was always talked to in Hindi and English. I never ended up learning the language, the language of “my people” from my parents.
What all I learnt of it, at the age of 15, was from the people on the streets, a uncouth mixture of Punjabi and Dogri, with none of the grace and delicacy of either and cusswords from both. How could I connect with the Duggar folk, when I didn't know the language, the idioms, the songs, the stories, the aphorisms?
The linguistic identity route was pretty much buggered, so I was left to the place. My earliest memories were of the court complex of Mubarak Mandi, the historical courts of the Dogra rulers. I grew up in the court chambers there, where my father passed judgments for almost a decade and a half. My mother would tell me stories of how she gave her exams at Mubarak Mandi. My grandfather, famously litigious, would be a constant fixture of the courts. I still remember rows upon rows of typists, armed with an umbrella against the noonday sun, typing and notarizing documents furiously on 5 rupee sheets of stamp paper.

View of Mubarak Mandi from Demolished Solicitors Offices

I remember the grandfather, before he went senile and started telling the same story again and again, telling me about the days when Jammu was still a monarchy, and how no one was allowed in Mubarak Mandi without something covering his or her head. I remember hearing about the spectacle of the festivals in the Mandi, and about the court complex and the monkeys who would terrorise it, and rip apart the Indian flag on the pinnacle.
The Mandi had become a symbol of Dogra identity for me. It was fitting therefore, that it had become dilapidated, near collapse, populated only by snakes and monkeys, with errant police wallahs hounding out kids sneaking in to smoke cigarettes and chillums on the sly. Somehow, to me the decay mirrored the decay of the Dogra identity. It became a ritual for me to commune with the Mandi every time I would come back to Jammu, to take in as much of what was left of it, before it all went away.
Which brings us to today.
I went to meet a gentleman who had a couple of old cameras he had on sale. One of them was a 100 year old camera, which I was very excited to see. As I made my way down to the fellows house in the old part of town, I was struck by the sight of town. Gone were all the old shops, and I was familiar with the part, mind you. Instead of the barber who cut my hair til I was 8, there was a shop of cell phone accessories. Next to a banyan tree, still wrapped in red thread, was a off brand clothing store, trafficking in Pooma shoes, and Bay Ran glasses. I still remembered that there was a old store that used to supply all the newspaper wallahs in that area, where the Bay Ran shop stood.
I reached the designated place to see a dilapidated structure that served as the persons print shop and home. A rickety table stood encased in piles of books, business cards, wedding invitations. In the back was a case of geological specimens, and a photo of Rafi, a popular singers in the days gone by. The shop reeked of days gone by, and stale gold flake cigarettes. Illuminated by a single yellow lamp sat my perspective seller. I sat looked around, and pulled out a beedi. There were ashtrays on every other pile, and the piles were less piles, and more prodigious mounds of ephemera.
I was offered chai, which I gratefully accepted. We started talking and discovered that we had a mutual circle of acquaintances. The arts scene in Jammu is miniscule, and everybody knows everybody. I looked at the camera and the lens. It was of middling value, and I promised that I could find him someone who would want it. He sure could use the money. He then started telling me about how he got the camera.
Thirty years ago, I had a fire in my belly to do something with myself. I had just quit my job in the geology department in the Jammu university, and started graphic design and a print shop. I heard that there was a whole plate camera on sale. I could use one for my engraving work, so I went to Raghunath Bazaar, where next to the Amitabh Bacchan pan shop I stood waiting for my friend. He came up the stairs leading down to the mohalla with a box in his hand, and a lady wearing the white clothes of a widow. She was in her 50's and looked stricken. I paid her some money, and took the box containing the camera. I was about to walk off, when she stopped me. In her arms was a bundle which she carried like a child. She opened it up layer by layer, and in the middle, was the old lens. She was not strong enough to carry the camera, but she had taken out the lens, the last vestige of her husband. As she handed me the lens, her expression was as if she was handing me everything that was and would ever be of her and her marriage.

I saw visiting cards for the justices in the J&K high court lying on the side room, and so went into investigate. There was an entire room dominated by a 5 ton press, with multiple silk screen frames and old zinc plate etching baths sitting on the side. The ubiquitous ashtrays were now on mounds of darkroom chemicals and plumbing tools. In an alcove on far right was a small shoddily constructed darkroom containing a small red light and brake wires for motorcycles and an arc welding rig.
The fellow told me that he was fixing motorcycles and plumbing to make ends meet. Printing and design were no longer worth the effort to do right when people were easily satisfied with stuff coming out of small shops on every galli. So he was liquidating everything and thinking of what to do. I kept on trying to talk him into using the print shop as a base to teach the younger generation the old trade, lest it be lost.

I had a kid who was sent to me a couple of years ago. His father was a bus mechanic at a yard somewhere. He had done his BFA from the institute of music and fine arts, and his teacher told him that coming to meet me would do him good. I couldn't teach him anything, but we stayed in touch. He got into NID Ahmadabad. They asked for 6.5 lakh. He couldn’t afford it. Tried next year too. Same story. The last I heard, he is trying to drum up some collateral for a loan. I would have helped him, but then...

From talking to him, it was obvious to me that here was a thinking man, deeply sensitive to the goings on of the culture and the arts. He also talked to me in Dogri, so I figure that I liked him because of that too.
As I was on my way back from his place in the local bus, I was reminded of this one person who was a constant sight in my youth in Jammu. Bald on top, long shoulder length hair on the side, tall, lanky, cadaverous, hooked nose, bright eyes, beard and mustache. Always sat at the news paper shop near the parade grounds. This time, I didn't see him. I went to my usual chai shop and asked the kid who served me about the guy who I always saw and never got to know. He had died sometime in the last 6 years I was gone.
As I sat reading the newspaper from the day before and drinking chai, as is the way of things, a friend from my theater days popped in, Chai shops are the last bastion of the gainfully unemployed and the terminally lazy, and one is wont to always run into people one knows, as is the way of things. Over chai and navy cuts, we started talking about the changes since I had left town last. I asked him about the lanky fellow. He was an MA in English literature from the 70's. He maintained that the last pure thing Indians had written was the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Everything else written by Indians was a product not of the Indian voice but of a mixed voice. Mughal, British, German. He wasn't against literature of the mixed people, but he maintained that Indians are only fit for telling and retelling the same stories over and over in multiple iterations. Never anything new. Disillusioned, he remained to the end of days, sitting on the same chair outside the news paper shop near the parade grounds, reading the news paper. And then he was gone.

I remember walking down residency road with my mother, who would tell me about how Mallika Pukhraj was a courtesan on the kothas on residency road. How going up from that road, you would come to Rajtilak road, where the king was crowned. The road was so crowded, if you wanted to get from one end to the other, you just stood in the middle. You would get jostled, and pushed, but you would eventually get on the other side. On the left was the road to Sabzi Mandi and to Pacca Danga, where she was born and where the entire family was raised. My grandfather had a shop there, binding books. He passed his matric, which was such a big deal that he was sought after even by the people who wanted their PhD thesis bound. You would go straight up that road and hit the Sangeet Vishvavidlaya, where my grandfather would play tabla with Zakir Hussain's father, and my mother learnt classical music. You kept on going and you would reach the Manda forest. My grandfather used to regularly cycle to Sialkot before partition. He would tell me that coming back he would sometime hitch rides with trucks, loaded with people, coming to spend nights in Jammu. The nights were famously cool here.
And from Manda, you would go down past the palace of the king, and hit Mubarak Mandi. These days, surrounded by rubble, you see cricket games. People take walks in the scenic piles of 150 year old bricks. The cherubs in the fountains are green and don't piss out water, but at least the fountain has water in its base. You see the rainbow shimmer on the surface. Some civic minded citizen has thrown some kerosene in the water to stop mosquito. People make do.

View of Buildings Leading up to Temple in Mubarak Mandi

Once in a while, the city has a Dogra festival, with singers getting called in from villages in the mountains where Dogri survives alongside poverty. They still wear the pink turbans and dance to the old songs. Every year, two men still come to my house and sing the baakh, a style unique to the hill tribes. The baakh they sing is a song of the names of the months. And while the two men with drums and a harmony reminiscent of Appalachian bluegrass singing, or when the villagers from the mountains in their pink turbans dance, it seems for a fleeting instant that the Dogra people are still Dogras, and not just an anonymous mass of rootless folk. But then it goes away, not to return until next year.

Every alley of the old city is full of cell phone shops and shops selling off brand clothing. And the halvais making matthi are selling chowmein in air conditioned shops with a smaller footprint than a public toilet. And that is ok. I will not be the one to stand between the right of anyone to make money howsoever they see fit. But I do see it as a sign. The chowmeins and the bay rans and the cell phone cases do not make a city. For a city to be, it needs a cohesive vision, a direction. Otherwise it is a village. That is what has happened with Jammu. It was a city before partition. Now it is a village with no direction and no culture. The best and brightest leave for greener shores. I did, as did most of my high school class. All those who stay are the Mahajans who have shops and factories to run here. Turns out, you don't need education and culture to make a living. Peddling rice and shampoo is enough.
Maybe my fixation with Mubarak Mandi is still based on that need to belong. Maybe it is the weepy nostalgia for the pomp and ceremony, that wasn't even there in my days. Maybe I am a sentimentalist. Maybe Dogra culture is dying. Maybe the language will go away. Maybe I am just bellyaching about inconsequential things. Maybe I am just the joker, and the joke is on me. Or maybe all I have is an inheritance of loss.