I don’t usually get calls from my father late into the night. So when I did, I must confess I was a bit surprised. It was a cool October night in Delhi. After months of scorching heat the weather had finally turned pleasant. I picked up my phone, “Hello, Dad? Is everything okay? What happened?” Silence. “You, there?” Silence. “Dad?” Fighting back tears my father said, “Son, we need to go to Kashmir.” And I knew it all. Mahnga Khan was no more.
It all started when my father was a freshly recruited jawan (soldier) in the Indian Army. It was 1980 and my father was posted in Kargil under the 1862 Independent Light Battery (artillery). Mahnga Khan was part of the 5/5 GR (FF) Gurkha Regiment, Frontier Force. Mahnga Khan was a live wire. He kept the entire unit entertained with his loud jokes and free and constant flow of shayaris (Urdu poetry). He was one of those rare people who have the ability to make sunshine out of rain. Nobody, absolutely nobody, could resist a hearty laugh when he got going. Such was his sense of humour. A victim of the 1947-48 Indo-Pak war that followed in Kashmir after the partition, he was a loner. His wife and children were separated from him during the war. He had no family, no home, nothing on him when he came to India.
Mahnga used to work as a sweeper in the 5/5 GR (FF) but kept the spirits of young recruits, staying away from their native places, up. Shortly before getting to know my father he had a snow bite and had to get his fingers amputated. The unit raised a Mahnga Khan fund wherein everybody donated rupee 1 for his expenses. He continued to stay with the unit and worked as a sweeper. Gradually my father and Khan began to bond. Mahnga was already in his forties when my father met him. He used to accompany my father during night patrols and supply trips. As time went by their friendship only grew stronger. Once Mahnga took my father to Seri Khawaja, a small village in Poonch, where he took shelter for a few days, after he had had to run for his life during the war. When my father got posted to Ambala Cantonment, he made my father a promise to meet him again before he got old. But my father only got the chance to keep his promise, no less than sixteen years later.
April 18, 1996. We got off the train at the Samba station and there was Mahnga Khan waiting to receive us. My mother, sister and I were meeting him for the first time. He seemed huge. At 6 feet and 2 inches tall he seemed to tower over me. Although his hair was all grey, his face had not oneline of wrinkle. There was this kind and a calm feel about his demeanour that was very comforting. He had already retired from service but was still attached to the unit. Every weekend he would dine with us and tell us about my dad when he was younger. He was always full of stories about Singola, his native village, which he had had to leave behind after the war. We used to visit the “Pir Dargah” at our unit every evening. I used to love hearing him sing. “Ali Da Malang” and “Mast Qalandar” were my favourites. I asked him to sing these songs over and over again and he never failed to comply by my request. He had become an integral part of our family, so much so that when the time came to depart he made me promise, as he had made my dad sixteen years ago, to come visit him before he dies.
Days, weeks and months passed by. Mahnga always managed to send us letters. We moved from Pathankot to Chandi Mandir to Bareilly to Ooty to Fort William, but he always kept in touch. I initially reciprocated with equal enthusiasm, answering every single letter he wrote me. But something changed as I moved to a public school. All my life I had been in Army Schools. It was my first interaction with the Non-Army or “civilian” children, some of whom had slight reservations about Kashmiris. My friendship with a Kashmiri raised quite a few eyebrows. Some children taunted me, some even asked, “What does he do for a living? Is he a terrorist?” I felt embarrassed when faced with such ridiculous questions. I put a check on my interaction with Mahnga from then on. He would ask me sometimes about school, if I had made good friends and if I had made it to the school cricket team. But soon he picked up the lag in my replies and sent me a letter asking me if I was having troubles at school and why I hadn’t replied to his letters for such a long time. This continued for a few months.
2003. I had just officially entered my teenage years. It was my birthday. I had stopped writing to Mahnga. But he hadn’t. On my birthday I was home with my friends and other schoolmates, celebrating when all of a sudden the postmaster arrived. When they found it was a letter from Mahnga some smirked. One even said, “How could you be friends with a traitor?” I know I should have stood up for Mahnga but as I saw everyone’s gaze fixed at me, I felt an urge to prove my patriotism for the first time. “He’s just an old acquaintance. Not my friend.” I tried to pass it under the rug.
That night I wrote a letter to Mahnga. My first one in months. I wrote all about the incident which occurred that day and those before. I made it abundantly clear that his friendship and constant involvement in my life was only causing me trouble. I even went to write that Kashmiris haven’t done their bit to prove their patriotism and that further contact with him could go against me.
And that was that. He never wrote back. My father enquired as to why he had stopped sending letters. I said I didn’t know. My father wrote letters to him but got no reply. Mahnga had gone from our lives forever. I felt bad for ending a relationship that had lasted so long. I didn’t want to be in that school and with those people. I moved school, made new friends and met new people and very slowly the promise I once made him as an eight year old got lost in the limbo of oblivion.
A few years later when my father retired from the Army, a strange obsession caught hold of him. He decided to go back to places he had been and get in touch with all his friends. He tracked down all his best friends from different postings. Bhonsle uncle, Mohan uncle, Govindan uncle; he went on to meet everybody at their native places. But my father could not track Mahnga. Apparently he had left the unit after we had left Jammu. Thereafter nobody knew of his whereabouts.
After months of trying, my father had almost given up when one day he received a letter. The name of the sender was not mentioned. But its content shook him up, so much so that he went against his military routine of going to bed early and called me up late in the middle of night. Going by his shaky and tearful voice I could sense something terrible had happened and when he mentioned “Kashmir” I understood it had to be Mahnga Khan.
A few weeks later I and father set on a journey to Kashmir. The Commanding Officer of the 71 Sub Area, Udhampur had arranged for a driver and a vehicle for us. I could literally feel my heart pounding as the jeep passed by familiar sceneries.
My entire childhood flashed before my eyes. My school bus stand, our Army Cantonment, my dear Army School Ratnuchak, everything passed by. We decided to go to the base camp where my father had joined the Army as a recruit and met Mahnga for the first time. And so we travelled, Brahman Bari, Udhampur, Patnitop, Batot, Ramban, Jawahar Tunnel, Srinagar transit camp, Sonamarg, Captain More, Gumri, Dras, and Kargil. Next day we reached the Kargil post. From the Kargil plateau area, nearby camps were visible. I imagined my father in the 1980 when he was my age and Mahnga was roughly my father’s age. It was as if time had started running backwards. I could see Mahnga fooling around with the young cadets. I realised I was missing him more now than ever before. I could not stop thinking of that man, how he used to take me to the “dargah” (Muslim shrien) every evening, how he used to dine with us every weekend, get cashews for me. I remembered all the times that we spent together. I always made fun of his name. That night I just could not fall asleep. Old memories kept coming back to me. Something was eating on my mind. I tried hard to figure out what it is. And then it struck me. I knew what I had to.
Next morning I went up to my father and said, “Dad, I have something to say to you.” I told him why and how I had snapped the ties with Mahnga. “Dad, let’s go to Seri Khawaja”. My father hugged me and I was glad to let go of my mental ghosts.
Seri Khawaja is one of the remotest villages in India and is mostly in ruins. Most of the houses were abandoned. There were very few living souls dwelling there. There was an eerie silence about the entire village. A few minutes of searching got us to the place Mahnga had once taken my father, when they had met years ago. It was the place he had stayed for some time after the war broke out. We were pretty sure he would have come here after detaching from the unit. One could actually see his native village across the border from the hills. As we entered the house we met a boy in his teens, named Asad. He took care of Mahnga’s house. He was the one who had sent my father the letter. When we introduced ourselves he came forward and hugged us. “He knew you would come on getting my letter,” Asad said and from the table drawer he drew another envelope out. “Here is the final letter which he wrote for you and saved for this very moment,” said Asad as he handed me the letter.
My hands trembled as I held the final words of Mahnga for me. Guilt took over me as I realised how much Mahnga loved me and thought of me. I could see him, old and ill, spending the last days of his life. Alone. I tried hard to fight back tears.
“Could you please take me to his grave, Asad?“He showed me the way. The backyard of the house was where Mahnga found his last abode. After offering a prayer I sat down beside Mahnga, with his letter in my hand. Garnering all my strength I finally opened the envelope to read the letter. It read-
Hope you and your father are in fine health. I pray for your wellbeing in every namaaz I offer. I know you must have grown up to be a fine young man now, much like your father. How I wish I could see you, if only once. Only Allah knows how many times I have gone through our old pictures. I keep myself happy thinking of all the good times we had together. Your family has a special place in my heart. In your father I found a younger brother, in your mother I found a sister, in you I found a godson. I remember holding your little hands while going to the dargah every evening. That used to be the best time of the day for me. It is still the fondest memory of my life. Every time you leapt with joy when I got your favourite cashews, I imagined my own son. I always have your best interest. I just want you to be happy.
So when you asked me to step away from your life I agreed with a heavy heart. But, son in life you need to stand up for what is true, no matter what people say. Every time in life you will have two choices: the easy one and the correct one. When you decided to go with your classmates you chose the easy way. Son, a person is born into a family, a society, a community. He does not choose it for himself. I was born a Kashmiri. It is part of my identity and I am proud of it. I am just an average Kashmiri and like any other average Kashmiri I dream of a united and peaceful Kashmir. Don’t let a bunch of politicians and miscreants represent us. I have spent all my life in this country and I love it with all my heart. I maybe a Kashmiri, but I am also just a common man. I hope you judge me for the person I was to you.
Rizzu, I am sorry if my indulgence in your life caused you trouble. I love you son, and I know you love me too. This old man who once carried you on his shoulders has reached his limit in this world. I know my time has come. And I am leaving with my heart filled with fond memories. Your sunny smiles shall forever remain etched in my memory. I hope and pray you have a happy life. And if you ever miss your old man, you know where to find me. I shall forever be here, part of this soil. May Allah bless you with every success in life.
I love you,
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