The dust track stretched for miles before kissing the foot of the mountains looming over the horizon. In the last few years, Balji had often found himself on this path. The trees lining the road were familiar, yet intensely strange. For starters, they did not have cylindrical trunks. The base of each tree was a giant, round Kohlrabi bulb. From the top of this bulb sprang tall, smooth stems dotted with fresh green leaves. Every tree, on both sides of the path, was afflicted by this strange mutation. A cold gust of wind forced Balji’s hands into his pockets. Clouds surrounded the sun and held it hostage. The light dimmed. Everything was bathed in a morose grey.
Balji passed a man walking a dog. The head of the man was a Kohlrabi bulb with leaves bursting from the top. The dog’s head, too, was the same. Balji felt disoriented, but kept walking. The man and the dog recurred every fifty meters or so, like auxiliary characters in a low-budget video game. Balji blinked. When his eyelids slid up and the light flowed in, he was underwater. It took him a moment to get accustomed to the new surroundings. Peering through the olive-green water, he spotted a school of Kohlrabi jellyfish. The leaves and stems, working like tentacles, were pushing the water back and propelling the organisms forward. Balji swam towards one, but they all raced away startled. With the next blink, Balji found himself falling through space. Galaxies spun above and below him. Supernovas burst and black holes formed. And a large
Kohlrabi satellite flew in front of him and disappeared into infinite darkness.
Balji woke up with a start. He turned to his wife of 27 years and shook her.
‘I had the dream again,’ he said.
Girija, groggy-eyed and irritated, asked, ‘What dream?’
‘The dream about Monj Haakh.’
‘Uff…god knows how many times you and your Monj Haakh will spoil my sleep!’
Balji turned back to his side. Fragments of the dream came back to him in an absurd montage. He tried to put them away and sleep, but it was futile. He looked at the wall. The egg-shaped Ajanta clock marched forward relentlessly.
Balji taught Physics and Biology to eigth-graders at D.A.V Public school, Ambala. Back in the day, in Kashmir, teaching had been a respectable profession. The term Masterji invoked reverence, even a degree of fear. But these days education had become a business. There was no regard for teachers. Neither in the salary they received, nor in the status granted by society. Such had been the change that even corporal punishment was frowned upon. In Srinagar, the prowess of Balji’s soi strikes was known far and wide. One lash of the stinging nettle stem and the recipient’s skin would break out into angry red rashes. But these days kids were tender, and parents even more so. One had to think twice even before raising one’s voice. Balji often thought about leaving his insipid employment, but never acted for a simple reason. Sitting at home without purpose would corrode his soul. Teaching gave his days shape.
In Physics class, the topic of the day was artificial satellites. The spherical ones, especially Sputnik, reminded Balji of Monj Haakh. While mankind had made great strides in the last century – going from the deepest recesses of the oceans to the edges of our solar system – its most ancient practice, one which birthed civilization, which eliminated the need for hunting and gathering, was still quite rudimentary. Farming, even now, depended on seasons, rainfall, and geography. This urgent problem required the undivided attention of the scientists of the world. But they seemed to be too preoccupied with pandemics, climate change, god particles, and other inane scientific inquiries. What use was all this progress if Balji could not get Haakh in Ambala?
During summers, the obstinate vegetable refused to grow in the scorched flatlands outside Kashmir. Demand for it was insatiable in the exiled Pandit community, but supply was severely limited. Those in Jammu could still manage some bunches, but in places like Ambala it was impossible to source it.
By the time Balji reached home it was late afternoon. He kept his jute satchel on the dining table and went into the bedroom to change. The brown half-sleeve shirt was carefully draped around a hanger and kept in the cupboard. It would last another day. The cream-coloured trousers, spoiled by a lentil stain, were put away for washing. Balji stood in front of the dressing table in his undershirt. His yonya crossed his chest diagonally like the sash of a highly decorated military officer. Balji slapped his protruding stomach gently and muttered, soon…you’ll get some Monj Haakh…soon.
Having changed into a white kurta pajama, Balji went into the living room. Girija was sitting on the takhtposh chopping a bowling ball sized cabbage. Balji looked at the vegetable and gagged.
Not bloody cabbage again.
Something had to be done. Balji opened a drawer and rummaged.
‘Where’s my telephone diary?’ he asked Girija.
‘It’s your diary. How should I know?’
The rummaging intensified.
‘It’s in the third drawer. Next to the jantri. God knows why I married this man!’
Balji opened the drawer. The passport-sized blue diary was there.
Silver stickers demarcated the diary into sections from A-Z. Under these were listed names of relatives, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Balji leafed through the pages. The names and numbers written by him were loopy illegible knots. Whereas Girija’s writing was neat as pearls. When he found the number he was looking for, Balji picked up the cordless Beetle phone and dialed.
‘Namaskar mahrah,’ Balji said affectionately, ‘How are you and Lata Ji? Yes, all good…Girija is also well. When are you planning on giving us a darshan? Oh…ok…you are not in Jammu. LTC with family. Dehradun. Fantastic, enjoy your summer vacation. Hope everything else is fine. Acha mahrah, namaskar.’
Balji was disappointed. Friends and relatives visiting from Jammu invariably brought a few bunches of Haakh. But waiting for them passively could be agonising. So once in a while Balji would call and goad them. Invite them for a visit. But everyone was increasingly entangled in their domestic life. There was a time when Balji’s house in Kashmir was a hub of arrivals and departures. Uncles and aunts and cousins and friends from Anantnag, Mattan, Haal, Shopian, Baramulla entered and exited the revolving doors of their household constantly. Conversation and tea flowed. Balji’s mother was constantly cooking one meal after another. There were arguments, taunts, jokes, laughter, gossip.
But that was another epoch, another life.
With the lack of visitors, it was getting harder and harder to source Haakh. Balji thumbed through the diary despondently. Flipping a page in the S section he came to a stop. A name stared back at him.
Should I? Balji thought.
In the lanes of Talab Tillo, inside a small, dingy house, the shrill ringing of a telephone shattered the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood. A hoary voice answered it.
‘Hello,’ Balji’s brother-in-law said.
‘Namaskar mahrah. How are you?’ Balji enquired with utmost subservience.
‘Bas mahrah. Kadan doha doha. How did you remember this nacheez today?’ Balji, in mock horror, replied, ‘What are you saying sir! If anyone is a nacheez it’s me. Khair, I am calling to invite you to Ambala.’
‘Any special occasion?’
‘Na mahrah. It’s been a while since we saw you. Your sister will be happy if you visit.’
‘Hmmm. I actually have to meet a client in Chandigarh next week. I can come to Ambala for a day afterwards.’
‘That will be great!’
‘Well, I will see you then.’
‘One last thing mahrah. Can you please carry a few bunches of Haakh with you? It’s impossible to find it here.’
There was a small pause, then Shubanji said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘I have invited Shubanji,’ Balji informed his wife.
The knife slaughtering the cabbage froze mid-air. Girija’s eyebrows arched in surprise.
‘You invited my brother?’
‘Yes. Why not?’
‘Because you hate my family.’
‘You hate us because we are from a village. And you are from Srinagar.’ ‘God knows what you keep thinking about,’ Balji scoffed.
‘When is he coming?’ Girija asked, her tone softening.
‘I must prepare a saal for him. Will you get mutton and chicken next week?’
Balji nodded. He would gladly sacrifice all the chickens and lambs in this world for a few bunches of haakh.
Girija picked the plate filled with chopped cabbage and moved towards the kitchen. When she was out of hearing range, Balji slapped his stomach and whispered to it, ‘Get ready for Roganjosh, Kaliya, Matsch,’ and then conspiratorially added, ‘and some Monj Haakh.’
On the day of Shubanji’s arrival, Balji was on tenterhooks. Every ring of the bell propelled him towards the outer gate. Most of these dashes ended in disappointment. He would open the door, breathless with excitement, only to find the maid standing there. On other occasions it was the milkman, the courier-boy or the watchman. His brother-in-law was proving to be particularly elusive.
Around 5.30 pm, the bell rang again. Balji trudged outside, certain it was the cablewallah collecting his monthly fees. But he was greeted with the slight figure of his brother-in-law. The short, bespectacled man had never evoked such joy in anyone. Balji almost tripped over as he fervently moved forward to receive him. While hugging Shubanji with all his might, Balji desperately searched for signs of Haakh. There were none. His brother-in-law grimaced at the extravagant show of affection. Girija came outside and embraced her brother.
‘Balay lagay. Waray chuka ?’
‘Thik, thik. How are you?’
While the siblings exchanged pleasantries, Balji stared at the brown VIP briefcase. It must be in there, he thought. It has to be in there. He opened the door and led his brother-in-law inside.
‘I will keep your luggage in the bedroom. You please sit…have some shir chai.’ Balji carried the battered briefcase into the spare room and opened it. He carefully sifted through the immaculately pressed shirts, trousers and Rupa underwear, but there was no sign of Monj Haakh. On further digging, Balji discovered digestive tablets, a comb, medicine for diabetes, a jantri, a Happy New Year diary, and an inexpensive looking pen, but still no Haakh. Distraught, Balji closed the bag and joined his wife and brother-in-law for tea. Shubanji took a large, loud gulp and sighed with relief.
‘One sip and all my tiredness has vanished. Nobody makes shir chai like our Girija.’
‘Wait till you see what’s for dinner,’ Girija smiled and said. ‘I have made Rogan josh, Nadur yakhin, Matsch, Czaman…’ ‘We would have made Monj Haakh,’ Balji interjected eagerly, ‘but it’s difficult to find it…’
Shubanji kept the cup down, wiped his moustache with a handkerchief, and said, ‘You are wondering where the Haakh is?’
Balji flushed, ‘I was just saying that…’
Shubanji held his hand up and stopped Balji mid-sentence.
‘No excuses. You requested me to bring some Haakh when you called me, right?’
It dawned upon Girija why her husband had invited her brother. It took utmost self-control to not smash her elbow into Balji’s ribs. Her brother continued, ‘I have no interest in becoming your courier boy every month, so I did not get any Haakh. But for Girija’s sake, I got you this…’ Shubanji pulled out a small plastic packet from his shirt pocket.
Balji’s house had two small patches which could be cultivated. In the front was a small garden, half the size of a badminton court. In the back was a rectangular patch the size of a grave. Both were already home to a few plants. Tulsi, the gardener who tended to these plants was a pot-bellied man from Begu Sarai. He was a blue-collar polymath who worked as a car washer at dawn, electrician and plumber during the day, gardener in the evening, and at night he would retire into an ATM booth with his blanket ‘to keep guard’.
When Balji asked him why he worked so many jobs Tulsi sighed and added, ‘I have three daughters. I need to get them married. One job won’t do. I plan to work like this for a few years. Once they are in their sasural, when the burden is off me, I will go back to Begu Sarai. I have fields there…enough for sustenance.’
‘Now what about these seeds?’ Balji asked him, showing him the packet given by Shubanji.
Tulsi suggested planting the seeds out front where there was abundant space and sun. ‘Let’s begin,’ said Balji.
Tulsi sat on his haunches and overturned the soil methodically with his khurpi. The earth revealed its secrets – earthworms, bugs, gravel and dead leaves emerged from dark, somnolent chambers. Tulsi lifted the packet of seeds over his head and looked at it. They were tiny and round – like the medicine prescribed by his allopathic doctor. But while the medicine was white, the seeds were brown and black. He tore the packet and the seeds tumbled into his hand. He used only half of them, saving the rest for another season.
Having prepared the soil bed, Tulsi poked holes in the soil with the help of a broken branch. The distance between the holes was measured carefully so that there was enough room for root and stem to spread. The seeds were placed and covered with soil. Water was sprinkled over the patch. Tulsi wiped the sweat off his brow and said, ‘Look, the planting is done. I am going home for a few weeks. But don’t worry. Keep watering the seed bed regularly. Don’t overdo it though. Once you see the green shoots, watch out for worms. Don’t use any fertilisers they show on these TV channels. Natural is best.’
Over the next month or so Balji tended to the seeds with maternal care.
He watered the plants every morning. And while doing so sang a kashmiri folk song:
Ey Haakh cz kait aakh
Cz koond ghar czaak
Cz Am Tak vaary aakh
Na cz noon na cz til na cz paakh
Ey Haakh cz kait aakh
(Oh! Haakh where have you come from?
And whose house are you going to?
Have you come from Am Tak’s garden?
Without salt, without oil, and uncooked
Oh! Haakh where have you come from?)
The first sapling broke out after a few weeks of planting. Balji was overjoyed. Buoyed by the success, he started spending more time in the garden. He watered the plants carefully. He whispered soothing words to them. He prayed to Bhagwan Gopinath Ji for success. Girja grumbled about the lack of attention to her and the household, but was also relieved the mania about Haakh had found an outlet. There were no more dreams for her to suffer.
Calamity struck in July. The saplings, fresh and full of promise started to wither. Balji was flummoxed. He wanted Tulsi’s advice, but the gardener had not returned from Begu Sarai. Day by day, the patch of Haakh drew closer to death. Drowsy with the heat, the young stems drooped and sagged. The leaves turned to the colour of rust. When Tulsi finally arrived, all that was left was the corpus delecti.
‘You said you were going for a week or two. It’s been over a month now!’ Balji complained.
‘I was looking for a son-in-law. It takes time. My eldest daughter’s wedding is fixed. Won’t you congratulate me?’
‘Yes, yes, congratulations. But the Haakh is dead. Gone.’
Tulsi bent down, uprooted the vegetable and performed a minor autopsy. ‘This soil is no good…’
‘But other plants are flourishing.’
‘They are hardy plants. Aloe vera, cacti, weeds…they’ll grow anywhere…but your Haakh needs better soil and climate.’
‘Well, we can’t just give up Tulsi. Think of something.’
Tulsi rubbed his stubble and said, ‘It seems futile to try again, unless…’
The polymath’s proposed solution was unscientific and ludicrous. And it bore its way into the deepest recesses of Balji’s being. Tulsi had stipulated that the seeds required good, fertile soil. Soil the seeds were used to. Soil with familiar micronutrients. Soil and seed were twins the gardener explained. ‘Get it from Kashmir,’ Tulsi said, ‘not much, just a bagful will do…’ That night, after a dinner of flavorless bottle-gourd and rice, Balji told Girija about the plan. Girija listened to him patiently. After he finished speaking, she slammed her palm against her forehead and walked away.
Balji took out the passport sized diary and opened section B. He dialed the number and waited. A gruff voice, moulded by smoking twenty Capstans a day for thirty years, answered. Bansi Lal still lived in the valley. He had stayed back during the violence-ridden 1990s for reasons he found difficult to articulate to himself and others. He was aware of the risks. And often found his courage wavering. When Wandhama happened, he packed his bags. When Nadimarg happened, he booked a truck. But both times, the courage required to leave was more than the courage required to stay. After initial greetings were over, Balji explained the idea to his old friend. Now, any other man would have ridiculed this scheme, but Bansi Lal understood his friend’s longing.
‘I will send you your soil Balji. Don’t worry. Bhagwaan kari bajah,’ Early next morning, Bansi Lal asked his son to start digging a section of their garden. After an hour of back-breaking work, enough soil had been accumulated. Bansi Lal filled it in a sturdy cloth bag. The package would make the 700 odd kilometer journey from Srinagar to Ambala in the back of a goods truck.
Back in Ambala, Balji droned on about Newton’s laws of motion, and dreamed about the piece of motherland making its way to him. In the interregnum between classes, he paced from one wall of the Teacher’s room to the other. He checked notebooks without checking the veracity of answers. When his colleagues spoke to him, he stared past them, into the distance. At home he refused to eat lunch. He was tired of eating beans and okra and potatoes and cabbage. Girija, frustrated, and at her wit’s end, taunted him.
‘So now you are getting soil from Kashmir? What’s next? You’ll also uproot your old home in Indira Nagar and get it here? While you are at it, why don’t you get Tullmull here for a day, I would like a darshan?’ she scoffed.
In the evening, Balji’s cordless phone rang.
Cars, bikes and autos merged and emerged seamlessly at Manav Chowk. Balji stood at the junction nearby where rickshaw pullers and auto drivers were parked. Some of them were resting – their limp feet, their cracked soles hanging outside their vehicles. Their repose was disturbed by the exhaust pipe booms of Bullets being ridden by sturdy sikh boys. Khandas on the headlamps and kadas on their thick wrists, they parted the traffic like Caesar passing through the hoi polloi of Rome.
Balji stared down the long asphalt road and spotted a truck heading towards the chowk. His heart raced. As the truck came nearer the number plate became clearer – the prefix was JK. Balji gave out a little yelp. When the driver disembarked from the truck Balji pounced on him. Hugs, kisses on the forehead, and blessings followed. One of the amused helpers extracted the bag of soil from the cargo and handed it to Balji. Clutching it to his chest, Balji hailed an auto driver and headed home.
Once there, he did not even bother to go inside. He picked up the tiny shovel
lying in the garden and started digging. Tulsi had gone to Begu Sarai to find a match for his second daughter, but he had given Balji clear instructions for planting. A mound of Ambala soil soon rose next to him. In the hollow which appeared in the ground, Balji poured with incantations and libations, the soil from Kashmir. As the soil tumbled, the imagined fragrance of the valley enveloped him. He bent down, picked up a fistful and inhaled deeply.
Home, it whispered.
Balji took out the packet of seeds. Following Tulsi’s steps precisely, he planted each of them with utmost care. After the seeds were in the earth’s bosom – warm, safe and eager to grow – Balji went inside.
The next day Balji did not go to school. He dragged a white, plastic Neelkamal chair and sat in the garden. He got up in between to water the plant bed and add some manure. Then he sat down again. Girija came outside and called him for lunch but he refused to abandon his post. ‘Have you lost your mind? Will you keep sitting there the whole day? I curse the moment I first saw you!’ she burst out.
Balji ignored her. In fact, he wasn’t aware of her rant. His eyes had a glazed look – of a man slowly retreating into himself. The next day, and the whole week after that, Balji did not budge from the chair. When he had to use the toilet, he hung a sheet between two slender trunks and fertilised the garden. The news spread from balcony to balcony, parapet to parapet, drawing room to drawing room.
‘He hasn’t left the garden in a week..’
‘Surely, he’s going mad.’
‘He was always a bit eccentric…’
‘Did you see what he does with the sheet..’
‘Poor Girija Ji, god knows how she puts up with him..’
Neighbours, curious and meddlesome, came up to him. They tried to gauge what was wrong. But he spoke amiably and in good humour. Kids circled around him and giggled. But Balji did not move. In place of his impeccably shaved cheeks a beard took root. His clothes became dirty and he began to reek of sweat and stagnation. A letter arrived from the school seeking an explanation for his continued absence. Balji smiled and handed it back to his wife without uttering a word. Girija, exhausted and confounded, called her brother for advice.
‘What do I do with him? I am really worried. He hasn’t left the chair in a week. He does everything in the garden. I fear he is losing his mind. Should I call a doctor, or maybe the police?’
‘Is he eating and drinking?’
‘Mostly tea. Sometimes a piece of bread. But no meals. He says he won’t come inside till the Haakh has grown completely.’
‘Don’t worry. It’s just an episode which will pass. Calling the doctor or police will cause an unnecessary scandal.’
Girija reluctantly agreed.
And so it went week after week. Soon the novelty wore off. Balji became a part of the neighbourhood landscape, like those crooked trees nobody gives a second thought to. But a local newspaper, on a day when news was especially elusive, decided the matter was interesting enough for a report. When the cub reporter asked Balji why he had been sitting in his garden for weeks now, Balji smiled and replied, ‘Haakh chu yin wol ,’ he said pointing to the tiny saplings breaking out from the soil. The reporter went back to the paper with his report, and the editor in all her wisdom decided the story simply wasn’t worth running.
Balji kept watering the patch, kept adding manure. The rest of the day, he sat on the plastic chair – a beatific smile on his face. Girija prayed daily to Lord Shiva, not for her husband’s sanity, but for the Haakh’s growth. A month passed.
By now Balji had grown a ragged beard. And with it grew a following – mostly of local women. Branded a madman at first, he was soon granted the status of godman; a path well-trodden by many Indian gurus and sadhus. His neighbours treated him with wary reverence. Women kept meticulously cooked plates of food in front of him, hoping for a devotional coup.
Balji smiled but never touched their food. Dogs from far and wide partook in this prasad. Every evening the canines, a few neighbours and Girija surrounded the chair. They sang bhajans, imploring the Haakh to grow. But the deity was reticent.
Then one day, Balji collapsed.
Chaos ensued in the neighbourhood. Lady devotees fanned him with their chunnis while the men called an ambulance. When they reached the hospital, the doctor on duty ordered a battery of necessary and unnecessary tests.
When the results were in, the doctor shook his head.
‘His parameters are all over the place. We will give him fluids through the IV. And he needs nutritious food.’
At the doctor’s last statement, Girija burst into tears.
The hospital meal was brought in. It had rice and lentils and cauliflower,
all covered with silver foil. Balji smiled and refused to eat.
‘Some bread and tea please, if possible,’ he requested.
The doctors goaded, persuaded, even threatened him. But Balji refused to eat complete meals. A week passed. Then two. Balji was stable. But most nutrients he required were being supplied intravenously. His weight had dropped significantly.
In the third week of his stay, on a Sunday, Girija walked into the hospital room. Her hair was disheveled and her eyes had dark circles under them. Balji was looking out of the window. His eyes seemed to be scanning the horizon for something. Girija took out her tiffin and opened the first steel box. It had rice in it. As the second lid was lifted Balji’s nostrils twitched. He tore his gaze away from the window to the tiffin, to the second steel box. And then Balji slapped his stomach and sang:
Ey Haakh cz kait aakh
Cz myun ghar czaak
Cz myan vaary aakh
Cz noon cz til cz paakh
Ey Haakh cz kait aakh
(Oh! Haakh where have you come from
You have come to my home
You have come from my garden
With salt, with oil, and well-cooked
Oh! Haakh where have you come from!)
Artist Statement: This story is inspired my father’s love for Haakh. Since the exodus in 1990, I have seen him continuously, almost comically, strive to source Haakh for his meals.
In this quest, he is not alone. Many Kashmiri Pandits pine for this simple leafy vegetable.
It is in these mundane desires that we get a glimpse of what displacement does to a people, a community. How it changes their diet, clothing, language and mannerisms. All the things that make a people what and who they are. These erosions seem innocuous at first, but they can lead to the complete deletion of a way of life.
How this slow annihilation can be prevented I do not know. But this story, I hope will become a footnote, a minor record, of the great tragedy of Kashmir, and Kashmiri Pandits.
Karan Mujoo is a Gurgaon-based writer. His work has appeared in Fiftytwo.in, Kitaab, The Tribune, Outlook, Arré and FirstPost. He likes literature, history and football.
Illustration: Arti Malik