As our plane descended through scattered white clouds, I could glimpse villages and groves of trees in a rolling landscape of bright greens. At Srinagar Airport, we were met by a smiling driver, Mohiyuddin, our guide for the next week. I felt a sense of unreality as we drove into the city on roads lined with chinar (sycamore) and neem trees. This was where my maternal grandfather and his parents lived and were buried and I was in Kashmir in the hope of tracing the houses, and, if possible, their graves.
The only information I had was that my grandfather Ataullah Khan had been buried in a graveyard close to the Mission Hospital in the area of Droogjan and that their house was ‘No 1-The Boulevard’. It had been almost 70 years since my grandfather had died and I was not optimistic about finding the graves.
After a quick lunch at a vegetarian Vishnu Dhaba, Mohiyuddin drove us up a hill through the narrow Gagribal road. As we reached the crest, I saw a graveyard on the left slope with old, unkempt graves and another larger one on the right that looked more recent.
We walked into the graveyard on the right side to look for the keeper of the graveyards, Abdul Ghani. Hundreds of graves ranged up the steep hill. I thought it was absurd of me to try to locate graves that had not been seen for over half a century.
In a moving piece, a Pakistani author recounts her travel to Srinagar to trace ancestral graves and reconnecting with her family’s past
As Abdul Ghani approached us, I said, “I am looking for the grave of Ataullah Khan who died in 1943 and of his parents, one Ghulam Mohammad Khan and his wife.”
Ghani replied promptly, “There are three graves in the mosque.”
“Whose graves?” I asked in disbelief.
“They are of the old Thanedar Sahib, his wife and son.”
This was the first clue, for my late mother had mentioned several times that her grandfather was known as Thanedar Sahib in the Valley.
By this time, the shopkeeper of a little store outside the graveyard and several other men had joined us. “Old Thanedar is buried with his wife and son!” Each one of them repeated the same refrain.
As we crossed the road to enter the mosque, an old man leaned out of the window of one of the tall houses across the street. “Who are they? What do they want?” he asked. While Ghani shouted out the details to him, one young man informed me, “That is Mama Kulu. He was the keeper here before Ghani.”
Moments later, Mama Kulu joined us. “What can you tell me about old Thanedar?” I asked him as we proceeded towards the mosque. Mama Kulu told me that the old Thanedar was a large man with a reddish beard. He was highly respected as he had paid for construction of the roof of the mosque and that he visited his son’s grave every morning. “How do you know all this?” I asked, “You must have been very young then. ’
“I was 13 at the time. I remember he used to distribute sweets and halwa roti to the children of this neighborhood. My father was the keeper at this graveyard then and performed the last rites of the son and then later of the father. My mother attended to the old lady when she died.”
A faint hope stirred in me at hearing this for it seemed to match my family’s recollections of my great grandfather. The locals spoke of him as a burly red-headed ‘Pathan’ with a fierce disposition. Still, Ghulam Mohammad Khan was a common enough name. The graves could be of anyone buried with his wife and son.
By this time, we had gone through the ablution area of the mosque into a small enclosure shaded by a huge old chinar tree. At the end was a tin shack, resting against which was a raised platform, of knee-high, soft earth buttressed by stone boulders.
Mama Kulu pointed to the platform and said, “These are the graves!” Aijaz and I looked at each other in despair. “What do you mean? Have the graves been razed?”
Mama Kulu shook his head and said that the graves were there but buried under the mound of earth.
“In that case, we will have to remove the earth to check whose graves they are!” I said. The group conferred with each other and told me that it would be done tomorrow. I thought of a sleepless night on the houseboat for me, wondering whose graves I would be shown the next day. “No, it will have to be done right away,” I declared.
One of them quickly brought a shovel. I sat on a ledge while the boulders were removed and the loose earth was shoveled away. Within minutes, a yellowing narrow tombstone emerged, eroded with time. There was a faint engraving in Urdu visible on the side: ‘Wafat Ghulam Mohammad Khan, 1948.’
‘That is old Thanedar!” Mama Kulu said. I remained silent and still in doubt. Ghulam Mohammad was a common enough name in our part of the world.
The next tombstone bore the engraving: ‘Wafat Zauja of Ghulam Mohammad 1947.’ “That was Thanedar’s wife,” Mama Kulu pointed out, “My mother conducted her last rites.” But her name was not engraved on the tombstone.
Everything hinged now on the third vital tombstone. We watched transfixed as they removed the earth covering the third tombstone. As its inscription became discernible Aijaz read out the engraving: ‘Mohammad Ataullah Khan, 1943’. There was no doubt at all now. This was my maternal grandfather’s grave.
I felt a rush of emotion for a grandfather I had never seen. He had died quite suddenly in August 1943 at the premature age of 49. I felt the grief of his ageing parents at losing their only child and imagined the shock and trauma of his wife and four young children suddenly fatherless. I thought of my late mother Nayyar Khan, then 15. She was the closest to her father and it was through her vivid recollections that the personalities of her father and her grandparents were deeply etched in my mind. I was familiar with sepia photographs of my maternal grandfather — a tall good-looking man glaring at the camera through his glasses. Standing at his grave, I was now conscious of him as a real person.
My grandfather was the only child of doting parents. He graduated from Aligarh University and then the Forest College in Dehra Dun to join the Indian Forest Service. At the time of his sudden death, he was the Chief Erosion Officer in Kashmir. My grandmother, Razia Khan, moved to Lahore for the winter as she did every year, not knowing that she was never to return home again. She would reminisce about the walnut furniture she and Ataullah Khan had collected during their postings to various parts of Kashmir; of the large trunks crammed with clothes and bed linen in the attic and of the pomegranate blossoms and heavily laden fruit trees in her garden.
We arranged with the tombstone maker, who turned out to be Mama Kulu’s grandson, to build a plinth over the graves and place the original tombstones in the same order as they were found, and to make new granite headstones with the same engraving.
Guided by Mama Kulu’s grandson, we drove down the narrow Droogjan road to the Boulevard running along a canal of the Jhelum River. This was the Dalgate area, where we found my grandfather’s house, still recognisable. On the way, he regaled us with stories related to my great grandparents which he had heard from his grandmothers.
The houses belonging to my grandfather and his parents had been turned into one-room tenements and shops. The first house was L-shaped, with gables. Shabby though it was, I recognised it from the description my mother had given me. We stood in the garden with its wild blooms and tried to imagine what the place must have been like 70 years ago. None of the tenants were at home and there were large padlocks on the doors. On the right side of the garden was a double-storeyed house where my great grandparents had lived. There was a row of shops opening on to the Boulevard and the upstairs had been converted into offices. The shopkeepers told me their fathers had rented the shops from the Custodians of Evacuee Property and they still deposited rent in the name of my great grandfather Ghulam Mohammad Khan.
Later, Mohiyuddin drove us down the Boulevard past the Chief Minister’s house and other public buildings to drive on to Srinagar’s esplanade around the breathtaking Dal Lake. As I admired the beauty and serenity of the lake, the collective memories of my grandmother Razia, my mother Nayyar and her brothers, Jahangir and Raza Khan were surfacing from the deep recesses of my mind. Kashmir was a shadow that had dogged them throughout their lives. Nothing in their subsequent lives could compare to their childhood in the valley.
As our shikara (boat) glided in the smooth waters towards the row of houseboats parked in a row across the lake, I finally understood their longing for this beautiful part of the earth. High above the lake, sprawling across a hill, was Akbar’s fort — as much a military asset now as it was during the centuries. On the far right were the faint outlines of the four plane trees on the little island known as Char Chinar.
Our houseboat was called Al Zira, and the young man whose family owned it greeted us as we climbed aboard. The rooms inside were panelled entirely with walnut-carved wood. Our bedroom was modest in size compared to the honeymoon suite, where the walnut panelling had burst into a cornucopia of florid carvings. We had tea in the wooden verandah facing the lake, still overwhelmed with the events of the afternoon.
The next morning after breakfast, we leisurely made our way to the shore to meet Mohiyuddin who drove us to the Droogjen graveyard first. Mama Kulu and his brother Younas met us like old friends. The tombstones had been removed in order to make the plinth. After reciting prayers for them, I chatted with Mama Kulu.
“Why were the graves covered?” I asked him. He looked embarrassed. “For 70 years no one came. But you can rest assured no one will touch them now.” I looked at the towering Chinar tree besides the graves and thought that it must have been my great grandfather who would have buried his beloved son under the tree to provide him shade.
We went down to the houses again and, this time, there were signs of life. As I entered through the small wooden gate, I was met by a smiling woman. “Come and meet my husband,” she said excitedly, “He’s from Pakistan!” We were led into the boarded-up verandah towards the left side of the house and into a carpeted room with floor seating. Her husband, Shaikh Salim, had suffered a stroke and could barely move. However, his speech and hearing was not impeded. “We moved from Lahore in 1947 and Thanedar sahib offered us accommodation in this house. This house was full of furniture and precious items but the custodians moved it all two years later when Thanedar died.”
We gathered that his parents expected to own the house after Ghulam Muhammad died. Apparently, he and his numerous brothers rented two rooms each in the house. My great grandfather’s house, on the other end of the lawn, had been rented out as office space. Perhaps it was a blessing that my grandmother and her progeny never saw the desecration of their old homes.
We were due to leave for Pehelgam and Gulmarg the next morning and drove via Droogjan again. The new plinth had been made and the tombstones had been placed in their original places. On our return, I arranged with Mama Kulu to have pirs recite the Quran besides the graves. I also distributed halwa roti and toffees for the children as my great grandfather had done all those years ago, and I felt a great sense of peace.
Upon our return, my uncle Jahangir Khan drove down from Islamabad to visit us.
“What you had was a spiritual journey,” he said, “and it’s entirely appropriate that Nayyar’s daughter should have discovered the graves. Nayyar was the closest out of all of us to our father and grandparents.”
Later, Uncle Jahangir sent us a very moving letter reproduced in part below.
My Dear Aijaz and Nazu,
Sixty nine years is a life time for painful memories to suddenly come alive in a profoundly moving emotional and cathartic experience. Seeing the home where Abba ji, Mummy Dear, Nayyer, Raza, Lala Rukh and Gul lived and siblings grew up. In flashback, Droogjen appears to be nothing short of heaven with its pomegranate, cherry, almond and peach blossoms in springtime bloom drenching the air with their heady aroma in sync with the hum of honey bees. Jealously guarded lavender hedges, which Dadi jee used to store her and Dada Ji’s winter clothing and ‘razais’ in the loft atop the house!
One could go on and on with the nostalgia and become sadder and sadder.
Beneath the banter, I was much too overcome to thank you and Nazu for giving me the opportunity to relive a chapter of my adolescence which I shall forever cherish.
There were floods the next year in Kashmir and the Dalgate area was inundated. The houses that were already in a fragile state must have taken a battering with floodwaters. The graves were much higher and would have been spared. Since then, Kashmir has been an even more troubled place than before. I am grateful that I was able to fulfill a wish of two lifetimes — my mother’s and mine — to reconnect with our common past.
Shahnaz Aijazuddin is an author and translator of Urdu classics, including the Tilism-i-Hoshruba (published in 2009)
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 10th, 2019