Sushant Dhar – ‘The Lost Home’
A few lived it, many died and some waited. His last words were, ‘Where is Home?’
Refugee Camp, Jammu Province, 1990’s…
It was a sea of people. Hundreds of trucks were lined up; each carrying a home. I remember the day when one man lost his life to the blazing sun in the afternoon. He lived in our block. He was forty. He earned his living by binding books. He was playing cards on the roadside. Feeling dizzy he left in between, and fell panting in the middle of the road. People offered him water. He died instantly.
Pitambar Nath’s body was found on the banks of the river Tawi1. He was cremated the same day at Devika Ghat2. The next day we woke up to cries from the block adjacent to us. The temple was flooded with men and women. I saw an old man’s body wrapped in white cloth lying on the floor. He was being washed. A priest was chanting hymns. People were offering water to the dead. Gash Nath died due to electrocution. A high tension wire ran close to his quarter. The chant asking God for forgiveness reverberated in the entire camp. ‘Kshyantavue maiaprada shiv shiv shiv bho shree mahadev shambu’. The man who works at the crematorium says, ‘We mostly receive bodies for cremation from refugee camps.’
The whole camp is engulfed in a silence of despair and longing. A house with several rooms lies vacant in the village. Fifteen families have sought refuge in Narayan temple near the camp. Some live in sheds and fabricated structures alongside the railway station. One old woman is hurling abuses in her native language. She is sweating profusely. Her husband is continuously stamping the earth with his feet. He shouts at the sky, ‘This is galling, this is galling.’ He does this all day.
People are dying in numbers. The one in E-1 died of a snake bite. Hriday Nath succumbed to fever. One of the teachers from the Government School lost hold of himself. A week later, he left and never returned. Some say he was last seen at the crematorium and then at the bus stand. Did he ever board the bus to his home? Is he alive? Nobody knows.
The camp welfare association has been formed last night. Trilok Dhar will be taking us to the commissioner’s office. He has a few contacts. People taking refuge in Geeta Bhawan will also be joining us. Have you received the ration? They are giving 5 kilos rice to each family. This is the ration card. It has my permanent address. This is all what is left. We must carry it along with us every time. This is our identity. They are going to shift us to a different camp. It will be on a hilltop. Where are you going? You must not go out. The sun has come out early in the morning. Be with us for a few days. We will talk.
Niranjan Kak with a frozen flickering smile: I’ll take a walk over the wooden bridge. I’m feeling a bit perturbed. I have to take care of my cows. The fields have been left unattended. The garden is in complete disarray. Let me call Jigri. Where is Vijay? Where is Asha? What’s with the walnut tree? Why has it dried? Who has stolen the fruits? Look at the frozen sky. The river has changed its course. Someone has set my house on fire. It’s burning down to ashes, the house of my ancestors. Look at the mound of the dead. I must leave. I have things to do.
He lived alone in the camp in a shabby room covered by cobwebs. He mostly seated himself on the bed and at times on the wooden chair alongside his bed. The picture of his native house always lies close to him. It is not a dangerous illness but the memory of home that torments him for days and weeks. The sobs slow down when the darkness sets in. Nights are filled with shrieks and native songs.
I remember the way to my home, 200 meters from the bridge, near Farooq’s bakery.
‘I nurture my longing and see through days. I will wait. They say we will be taken in buses. I have packed everything. When are they taking us back? I make amends with my heart. I caress it. My heart starts throbbing violently when I visit the place. I tremble and run back. Look at the stream of tears flowing through my eyes. I have grown bitter over the years. I am losing my memory. It’s something like a bridge which hangs above the desert. The bridge shakes every second. It’s not fixed. One has to crawl to reach to the other end. It changes position. Many fell down and died. The old man and the woman couldn’t hold for long and jumped to death. I persisted for days and years. Hundreds died. Bridge remains. It hangs. It devours. I escape. I run. Horses cry, make sounds and gallop towards the bridge. I mount on a horse and take the route through mountains. I jump from mountain to mountain, peak to peak, into the valley of mountains and then towards a vast emerald blue sea spanning the entire universe. I have grown lonelier. Solitude is eating me up. Where have they gone? Who is jeering on the streets?
Where are my cigarettes? Have I turned a little sallower on face? No. Am I sweating? Yes. Who started this carnage? They. Who will stop this conflagration? Where are the firefighters? I’ll wait till my final breath. I have tumors in my stomach. It refuses to take food. I bark like a dog. There is mud all over on the sky. It’s on my face. There is no light. One day I will die in sleep. That must be liberating. Death will be my final emancipation. Deliverance.
Do you sense this turmoil in my heart, this devastation? Who can save this exile from dying in an alien land amidst strangers? Nobody! Waiting seems like dying, dying every day. Where is the priest? He is out for the tenth day at Ranbir canal. Who died? Bansi Lal from Block Q. How is Hriday Bhan? He is suffering from lung cancer. He pleads with God to give him death. How is his wife? She died a week back.
Have they cut down all the trees? There are no trees. This is desert. Where is the harvest of this season? Who stained it with blood? I wait for the return of winter. What’s with the sun? Who has fixed it over my head? Why is it not moving away? This is summer. Where are the hillocks? This is desert. Why is the window pane shut? There are no windows. Who will cry when I will die? Nobody. What to do with these memories that have accumulated in my heart? They assail me. Give them to fire. What to do with the dreams? Starve them. How many summers are waiting? My guts have dried. Water them.
Everything will be turned to ashes. Every one of us will die.
Who is groaning?
It’s him. He is trembling, another paroxysm of yearning. He is breathing heavily. Yes, he is alive. He lives.
Where is the photo frame with the picture of his house?
He flings it out.
Give it to him. Tell him, ‘The bus will come in an hour’.
I heard, ‘They are shifting us to another camp. People are already on the move. The place is around cement factories. Slum. Desert. Brick kilns. I am tired of moving from one camp to another camp. Where is home?’
Why these breathless, dreary sighs? Death is near. It has been set in motion. We will die like dogs. Look at them. They are galloping towards us. It’s a mob with swords and guns. Run!
Niranjan Kak is writing names on a paper. It is his permanent address. The place has been burnt. The house was looted. He wears pheran3 in summer. He has a long beard. The photo frame with the picture of his house hangs from his neck.
‘I will wait on the bridge for the whole day. I will wait for the fires to ebb. It is not that everything stands destroyed, that everything is in ruins, a memory still breathes, a laugh still resounds in the rooms, a house still stands tall and the earth still bears my footmarks. Flowers have dried and trees have picked a disease. Time has wilted them. They long for water.’
I haven’t locked my room and wardrobe. They have plundered it. The new pillows still lay on the bed waiting for my father to rest on them. My mother isn’t doing well. She has fever. I’ll go to the town to collect some medicines. My radio and new books are in the almirah.
He is on his bed now, muted. He doesn’t speak to anyone. He has stopped eating. He walks inside his room, making a circle every minute. He never comes out of his dwelling. He fears sun. He waits for winter. He waits for homecoming. He has grown weary and old. He has long hair and beard. He lays famished on his bed. His eyes are fixed on the ceiling. He wears a vacant look. He doesn’t blink for hours. He hides the pills and other medicines under his pillow. The chemist nearby the camp visits him every week and feeds him intravenously. He offers a faint cry, a wail every morning and evening.
What is life to me and what is its meaning? It’s a long tiring wait. It is futile. Flakes of snow welcome me at the door. Who lights the lamp? Smell the incense and see the rising embers. Where has the mystic gone? What’s with the people? Why have they gone mad? Who has killed Janki Nath and Bimla? Where is Ramesh? Everybody has fled. I hear gunshots. Do you hear? A mob is coming towards our house. Do you hear their slogans? They have taken a vow. Every one of us will be wiped away. There will be massacres. They are coming. They will kill us all. Where is Home?
He has grown hysterical and his memory keeps tormenting him.
Why are the trees bereft of their fruits? What has happened to them? Time has poisoned them. Desert has grown on snow. They grow only leaves and stems, no flowers. Where are the birds? What is with the water? Who has changed its color and its sweetness? It has become sour and frothy. What has happened to the village and its houses? Who has lived here? Who has left them? Who wails inside them? Where are the children? What memories they hold? Who cries all night? Let them stone me. Where should I go? I’ll bury myself in the walls or I’ll dig a sepulcher for myself. What’s with the fire and its flame? Who is dousing it?
I am reminded of a path that was all laden with grass and mist with dense woods. Now it’s only stones. I see a river passing by, a flock of sheep dotted with different colors, walnut trees, rice fields, clear sky and a thud of cold breeze floating on chinar leaves. I am reminded of the giant folding of mountains guarding our village. These are spherical dwellings, hovels. It is a new place. The house stands buried now. Bricks have turned into dust.
The next day I visited the engineer to borrow the almanac from him. He was preparing his bed, covering it with white bed sheet, two pillows at the head end and one at the other. He hurriedly allowed me to come in. He was delighted at the sight of seeing someone visiting him. He smiled with a sparkle on his face. I asked for almanac. He offered me tea. I shifted my gaze. A sour odor wafted in the room. Nauseating. The place was reeking. A strong stench emanated from the room. He had placed a kerosene stove on bricks. There were few utensils. A large portrait of a Goddess. A family portrait. Scraps of paper all over, each having the same thing written over, the address. Table Fan. A kerosene lamp hanging from the nail above a small wooden shelf. Ration Card. Books. A dusty mirror and a round comb. Ashtray. Cigarette stubs. A soiled sheet lying on the floor. The smell of quilt and mattress. We had our tea. He mentioned places and names. There were moments of silence.
‘I don’t believe in God, I believe in death, I saw many. I saw water turning black. I saw ghosts pillaging everything in their way. It is only between me and the flames. Only time will decide who will consume whom?’
‘The blood soaked hands rise in the dark, circling my neck. I lost them all. I'll not survive this sweltering summer. I’m all dry. Parched stomach. This darkness is eating me up. I’ll die in disquiet. I vomit. I shiver. I breathe heavily. I have nausea. This is not home. I have been dragged here. I don’t belong to this place. I’m suffering today. I’ll suffer tonight. I’ll suffer tomorrow. It’s a vale of sufferings. I’m dying. I’m waiting for the winter. I’ll go home. I’ll die there. I’ll suffer there, but not in solitude. My stomach is long dead. The food is floating. My mouth is stinking. I can’t bear the stink. What will I do? I will stop my breath.
‘Winter has arrived. Bring me some snow, snow in round earthen vessel. It will not melt. Bring me some snow. I will touch it; I’ll let it melt in my hands. I will stand still when it starts snowing.’
He stopped in the middle of the conversation, something came upon him, and he started murmuring to himself, looked at me in an instant and started crying like a child. He rose from the bed and fell on his knees pleading with me to take him to his native home. ‘Take me. Take me to my home. I have money, I’ll spend it all. Take me to my home. I will kiss the walls of my house. I will die anytime. The sun is eating me. I haven’t slept for a week. This heat is charring me. Take me to the commissioner. Take my ration card and show it to them. This guy knows me. He is from our village. His father was my friend. He will arrange a taxi for me. Write a letter to the Government. Have this diary. Call my friend. He will take me home. Where have they all gone? She is here with me all the time. She loves strolling with me in the garden, walking down the road, and leading to the river gushing through the village. We sit for hours on the banks of the river. She dips her long hair in the water and waits for the sunrise.
‘I will walk close to that mountain surrounding the entire village. They say the river has reduced to a thin quiet stream. The river has dried. I will follow the stream. I will wait for the water to turn sweet. The wait is tiring. I lived life in solitude. I don’t die either.’
It was in the summer of the year 2000; Janmashtami4 festival was being celebrated in the camp. The temple was all flooded with devotees. A rather pale cloak of darkness had descended on the morning. The earth had lost its smell. He was in the middle of eating his lunch. The glass of water had spilled over. There was rice spattered all over his bed. His fingers were clenched tightly with one hand holding a fistful of rice. The tip of his tongue had come out, bruised and marked by streaks of blood. His mouth was half-filled with food. The eyes were dry and clear; a tear had rolled down his cheeks. His face looked as if marred by enormous grief and the picture of his native house hung from his neck. He was dead, lying on his feces. Ashen legs, blue swelled veins, bloated belly, blanched shaven glistening face and combed hair. His eyes gave me a long gaze. Niranjan Kak, the engineer was no more. I opened the pack in a hurry and smoked half of them. The other half I kept on his bed and went away.
The chanting continued… ‘Kshyantavue maiaprada shiv shiv shiv bho shree mahadev shambu.’
1. Tawi: A river in Jammu Province in the state of J&K.
2. Devika Ghat: Name of a crematorium.
3. Pheran: Traditional Kashmiri attire worn during winters.
4. Janmashtami: Hindu Festival celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna.