WHEN THE DAY HAPPENED
“The past is never dead. It is not even past.” William Faulkner
On a hot July day in 1994, as I was thinking of leaving Udhampur (in the Jammu province), where I’d been staying with my family since our migration from Kashmir in 1990, I paid a visit to the Camp School where I had studied and which was located in a vast migrant camp where thousands of Kashmiri Pandit exiles had lived in canvas tents. I had left the Camp School a couple of years earlier and was about to complete my graduation as a private student. I could not go to the regular college because migrant students were given admission only in the Camp College where the displaced college lecturers taught the displaced students. Unlike the Camp School, which was about a dozen shabby canvas tents erected in the migrant camp, the Camp College was atop a hill overlooking the town. The migrant students attended classes in the afternoon when the regular college closed. The students of the Camp College benefitted from the college library, the playground, the canteen, and most importantly, proper classrooms. Classes in the Camp School were held in tents. There were no benches, but the authorities had supplied blackboards. The migrant students sat on tarpaulin sheets while the teachers delivered the lectures on Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, History, English and other subjects. During rainy days, most of the students did not come to school. At lunch break, the students returned to their tents to eat with their families. I was particularly fond of the English teacher and dreaded the Chemistry and Mathematics teachers.
The days were mundane. Whenever deaths occurred in the camp people assembled for funerals and offered words of comfort to one another. The sight of funeral processions was unsettling. A grim silence would descend upon the families living in the camp. The young and the middle-aged lived in constant fear of losing their elders.
The School Headmaster’s office was in a tent with a few chairs, a table and a ramshackle cabinet to store files and documents. The Headmaster had spent several years teaching Mathematics at a senior secondary school in Kashmir. Like other Pandit families in his locality, his family had to flee from Kashmir in February 1990 under the most horrendous circumstances. A militant outfit in his district had warned the Pandit teachers to leave. The militants had threatened one of his colleagues. He spoke fondly of his ancestral house, which he was compelled to desert hardly a year after renovating it. The renovation had cost him a lifetime of savings. He boasted of the intricate and artistic woodwork of the ceilings of the rooms. His eyes shone when he talked about the cherry and walnut trees in his garden, the magnificent house and the stylish bathrooms. Now he lived with his family in abject conditions in the camp. All they were able to salvage and bring along were the educational certificates, some utensils, clothes and a couple of trunks that contained household belongings.
The Headmaster carried himself with decorum and poise. He wore a suit and his shoes were immaculately polished. He took classes religiously, despite the increasing administrative workload. He was completely possessed of his subject – Mathematics. The blackboard in his class was the most wondrous sight with mathematical problems and solutions, geometrical drawings and equations scribbled all over it. He would solve the problems without referring to any of the textbooks. The look on his face, after solving a problem, was that of a saint’s. Nothing gave him more pleasure and satisfaction than teaching and seeing his students solve complex problems. Yet there were a few students who didn’t understand anything of Mathematics. He would smile and forgivingly say: ‘Mathematics is not everything. There are other subjects too.’ After living in the camp for over a year, he took up two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom on rent nearby. He gave tuitions in the mornings and evenings.
The Camp School was a 15-minute walk from our rented two-room house. The camp for migrants had been erected in a derelict stadium where locals used to play football and cricket. A part of it was also used as a garbage dumping ground. The fence was a shambles. The Jammu-Srinagar National Highway ran close by. Many shops dotted the highway on both sides … repair shops, petrol and diesel stations, cheap tea shops, fruit sellers, and roadside eateries. In the rainy season, thistles grew all over the camp. Anthills erupted in dozens, and buffaloes and cows strayed into the ground to feed on leftovers. The view of the distant hills from the camp was mesmerizing, particularly during the evenings. I saw some of the most spectacular sunsets there. During the hot summer days, the camp dwellers stayed inside the tents to keep away from the heat. Going out of the tents meant heatstroke and sunstroke. A wretched barrenness prevailed all over. At night, an eerie silence blanketed the camp only to be broken by the mournful howling of dogs.
That particular day in July, I stood alone at the entrance to the camp. I had nothing in particular to do. It was a nostalgic visit, when I found myself wading indolently through uneventful days and nights. Overcome with a sense of futility, I’d dragged myself to the camp, hoping for a chance encounter with someone to break the monotony.
The canvas of the tents fluttered vehemently in the wind. The dust storm threw pieces of paper, cloth, leaves and plastic bags in different directions and engulfed the surroundings. Some migrants ran into their tents and fastened the flaps of the tents with ropes. Some of the torn tents had plastic sheets stitched on to them.
I stood there aimlessly. Then I sauntered into the camp. The tents of the Camp School were empty that afternoon. At night, some migrants from joint families slept in them. Their own tents were too cramped.
Giant clouds of dust hovered intermittently and eclipsed the sun momentarily, providing succor from the blinding light and scorching heat. Specks of dirt stuck to my face. I wiped the sweat and dust off it. After some time the dust storm abated. Evening fell and the sky turned vermilion. Some migrant men and women emerged to inspect the condition of their tents and attend to them. Fortunately, none of the tents had fallen apart, though some of the bamboo poles holding the fabric had been dislodged, while others leaned precariously.
An old classmate came out of a tent. He was disheveled. We met after a long time. He greeted me with an unusual expression. His eyes met mine. He lived with his family in that tent. I enquired about the welfare of his family. He looked around desultorily. It was a congested cluster of shanty tents. They looked the same. Each tent had a number. It was difficult for an outsider like me to tell one tent from the other. He had once told me that the most agonizing part of his camp life was taking baths in the mornings. Going to the makeshift bathrooms, which were in a pathetic condition, was a messy affair. Every morning, he would walk down to a spring at the bottom of a hill to bathe. On his way back to his place, he would bring along a bucketful of spring water for drinking. I’d also done so many times on weekends. But I had a choice. The boy didn’t. For him, it was a torment to see his mother and sister struggle for space and privacy in the scrawny tent.
I had never been inside any of these tents. During my camp school days, I’d spent evenings loitering and looking for an opportunity to be in a tent, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a sense of purposelessness. What else was there to do after the classes, but roam around in the vicinity and strike conversations with acquaintances!
I stood near one tent. The two canvas flaps were placed on either side of the tent for the light and the breeze to enter. An old man lay prostrate on a bed. He was in his shirt and pajamas. An old woman, his wife, was fanning him with a hand fan. I went closer. The man was in some sort of a delirium. The expression on his face betrayed acute sorrow. He seemed caught in a reverie – a frenzy of sorts. He mumbled some inane words. Nothing made sense. Except the old couple, there was no one else in the tent. The old woman mutely fanned her husband and wiped the drool off his mouth with a towel. Nothing distracted her, not even the presence of a stranger who stood at the entrance. I looked at them for some time until I got bored and left.
Some months later, I left for Delhi. I didn’t return to the camp after that, though I travelled past Udhampur twice on my way to Srinagar. Once I had an urge to visit the camp. But it was too late. The entire camp had been demolished a few years ago; the migrants had been relocated to another camp where they were given one-room flats. The ‘tent shelters’ didn’t exist any more. The vast ground had once again returned to its original state – a playground where young boys could play cricket and football.
Sometimes when I look at sunsets in Delhi, I am reminded of the spectacular sunsets at Udhampur. There is only one other image etched in my mind – that of the old man lying on the wobbly bed. And I would wonder what ruminations had seized his mind in that state of borderline dementia! What world he must have been transported to upon losing his sense of reality? A world of fragmented images! Images of his childhood days or a dream-world full of familiar and unfamiliar characters! Different expressions plaited on his wrinkled face.
Twenty years have passed. The memory of that scene is still alive.
In the winter of 2011, I wrote a short story. It was about a family of four migrants living in a camp. At the heart of the story was the story of that old man who lingered on that day in the puny tent in the camp. His world was somewhere afar, and he dangled between nostalgia and pain.
The story prodded me to convert it into a film script. Somehow I wanted to rewind to the past, to that particular day at the camp, and meet the old man once more. The only way to do that was to write a screenplay and imagine the scene playing on a screen. I imagined a freeze-frame or a Pause Button.
The film script remained somewhere in my drawer for several weeks. Occasionally, I leafed through it and made changes. It craved life. I needed someone to translate it into a film. I needed actors, sets, a make-up artist, an art director and a cameraman. A plan took shape. For a beginner like me, there was nothing to lose except inhibition. I started to visualize the scenes, frame by frame. I knew what I wanted. Creating a dust storm scene would cost a lot of money. The biggest challenge was to create a replica of the old camp. I wondered how I was to get hold of the tattered tents if I was to shoot a camp scene. An old friend, who’d introduced me to movies from around the world, referred me to Vinod Veerakumar, a cinematographer who had worked on the Cinematographic Team of 3 Idiots. With a lot of trepidation, I called Vinod and sounded him out about my intent to make a film based on my short story. I narrated the story to him and he agreed to collaborate.
Some days later, armed with the script and a camera kit, we took a plane to Jammu to look for actors. Initially, we explored the possibility of having non-actors. We needed an old man and an old woman to play husband and wife, the old man – bed-ridden and demented – and the old woman – mute. There weren’t many dialogues in the script. The most important dialogue was the old man’s gibberish in Kashmiri. The old man is in the throes of delirium and dementia when he delivers his line to convey a sense of pain and longing. ‘My courtyard, my courtyard,’ he babbles. His wife speaks only once when she thinks that her husband may not survive the day or the night. The entire drama compressed in that one day; the old man, the patriarch who had spent his life in glory in Kashmir, is fading away.
In Jammu, we headed for one of the newly constructed migrant camps – an apartment complex consisting of two-room flats. Vinod and I were in search of the non-actors who could play the roles in the film. ‘They wouldn’t need to act,’ we thought. ‘They could just be themselves. Act as migrants. The expressions would narrate tales of their own…the fatigue, the wait, the loss and the yearning!’
We were greeted by a host of old men sitting in the porches. Some gaped while others seemed disinterested in the two strangers. Vinod started taking pictures. The president of the camp took us to one flat in which an old couple lived. Their children lived elsewhere. The old man puffed on a cigarette. Wrinkles crisscrossed his sunken cheeks. He smiled a mysterious smile and didn’t speak a word. His appearance intrigued me. Would he be able to play the character, I thought? We looked at the black and white pictures on the camera’s display. I tried to get the old man to talk of his house in Kashmir, his childhood and youth, the circumstances leading to his departure, his early days in the camp and, most importantly, how he felt about the current state of affairs, his life and his wife. He barely spoke a word. Then after finishing his cigarette, he lisped two sentences. ‘What else can happen to us? We are ruined.’ He turned his gaze elsewhere and puffed on his cigarette.
We met another old couple that day. They offered us tea. The old man was photogenic. He adjusted his cap and spectacles as soon as he saw the camera lens. ‘Newspaper wallas and television wallas used to come during the initial days, take pictures of us, ask us questions and then leave. But there was no mention of us either in the newspapers or the news on the radio. Now no one comes here. What can I do for you?’ he said. When the conversation ended, he agreed to play the part in the movie. His wife didn’t say much. She was affectionate. It was hard to tell what she was thinking.
The old man reminded me of my grandfather. His karakul cap was exactly like the one my grandfather wore. He sat exactly the way my grandfather sat by the window, holding his favorite transistor in his hand and waiting for a cup of tea. An uncanny resemblance! The cheekbones, the nose, the forehead! My grandfather was bedridden for three-and-a-half years, unable to walk and go even to the bathroom. The trauma of the loss of his home, his clinic, his Kashmir (which meant the world to him) devastated him. He first lost his memory in 1995, five years after the exodus. During those five years, he waited for the political situation in Kashmir to be normal so that he could return home and to his clinic (he had a pathology laboratory of his own called The Imperial Clinical Laboratory at Maharaj Ganj in Srinagar). If there was one word he couldn’t come to terms with, it was ‘migrant’. His condition deteriorated rapidly once dementia set in. We lost all hope when a neurologist diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s. ‘It is impossible to recover from this degenerative state. It is an abyss. One falls and falls until memory and recognition cease to be,’ the doctor said. While studying in Delhi, I read articles about this disease on the internet to understand this state of no-memory, no-recognition. My grandfather mistook my mother for his granddaughter and my sister for his great-grandmother. Once he left the house and didn’t return for hours until my father brought him home after searching for him in the whole of Udhampur. He had found him sitting on a footpath by the roadside. But the worst day of our life was when he went to the bathroom one afternoon and came out after an hour smeared with faeces. For him, the meaning of things had altered irrevocably. From that day onwards, my father accompanied him to the bathroom every single time. One day he went to the bathroom a hundred times. He just wouldn’t stop. My father was patient. He ensured that nothing went wrong and reassured him that he was around, though he was not sure if grandfather recognized him. My father never left him alone from that day onwards. A few days before my grandfather died, his ear lobe fell off while my father was giving him a sponge bath. His body was full of sores. His skin had become flaky and shriveled. Bones protruded out of the fragile skin that peeled when we applied an ointment to it. My father cried on some days. So did my mother. My grandmother was a strong woman. She kept on spreading cheer in her own way. My sister and I were mute spectators to this horror that gripped us, day after day in our lives. As a family we were falling apart. Exile did terrible things to us, as it did to many others who lived and suffered in camps. Love deserted us every morning only to return in snatches, and disappear again. Yet, we waited. We waited for the violence and upheaval in Kashmir to end. We waited for homecoming. Waiting meant hope. Waiting kept us alive.
After days of searching for the same kind of tents that once were used in the camps, Vinod and I managed to rent a few from a scrap dealer. We decided not to cast non-actors and chose theatre artistes who were migrants themselves. We shot the film in two schedules – the camp scene in a set created in Jammu and the dream sequence in Kashmir. Kashmir of the glorious past! Kashmir of the wistful fall! We shot a scene at Ram Mandir in my old locality, Nawa Kadal in Srinagar. The temple is now in a dilapidated condition. I walked through a narrow lane in my locality, a lane where even the rays of the sun didn’t enter, a lane sandwiched between clusters of old houses. A Muslim woman came out of a house and saw me taking photographs and looking around my old neighborhood. She stood in front of me and asked me to recognize her. When I wasn’t able to place her she slapped me gently out of affection and burst into tears. ‘I’ve carried you in my arms when you were a small boy. You were like my son. Your grandmother was like my mother,’ she said and sighed.
There is a scene in the movie:
Old man (Mumbling in a delirious state): Did it hurt her?
Old woman (To her dying husband): My life has become long. Take me with you. (Weeps and embraces her husband for the first time in four years of camp life.)
In the movie, the old man and the old woman are nameless exiles who rediscover love when the old man is fading away. Their son and daughter-in-law leave the tent to let the old couple live together on a day that didn’t seem to end. Was it the first day of their love in exile? Or the last day?