Kashmir is held by many as the “Place & Abode of the Gods!” But, in modern times, it is also increasingly becoming a growing den for the terrorists wrecking havoc on not only the paramilitary forces but also perpetrating violence on innocent women, children, and the public at large.
How was I to know that we (I myself, my ex-wife – Ritu, and her adopted seven years old daughter – Khushi) would also be witness to brutal terror as also be face-to-face with God in one of our many sojourns to the verdant valley. Our visit to Kashmir was almost an annual affair. The incident I am talking about and referring to occurred on our most recent trip in May this year (2016).
WE had thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Gulmarg with the snowfall occurring just in time for us to catch it. Incidentally, Gulmarg happens to be famous spot in Kashmir where the shooting of the 1970 blockbuster Raj Kapoor’s Bobby starring the starlet duo of Rishi Kapoor & Dimple Kapadia, especially the all time favourite and evergreen duet and lyric – “Chabi Kho Jaye”, had been performed and carried out.
WE were just enjoying the snowfall and the scenic beauty of the place, when all of a sudden it started raining cats and dogs, hammer and tongs.
The extreme cold made Ritu shiver and cling to me for comfort. Khushi was dancing up and down with joy and wanted to go out in the heavy downpour and have some real fun. With great difficulty did we persuade her not to venture out as she could catch pneumonia; and, the last thing we could want was anyone of us falling ill or taken sick! Anyway, as her just reward, we ordered veg. (‘Ghobhi’ & Onion) ‘pakodas’ and strong brewing Kashmiri style cups of hot steaming tea for myself and Ritu while Khushi would have her usual hot and stuffed “Badaam Milk”!
WE enjoyed the snacks and the repast to our hearts’ content and delight; the next morning, we set out for Pahalgam, the remote village and hamlet in the Kashmir valley and a very popular tourist spot as well. In our sheer sense of keen enthusiasm, we completely forgot to take into account the fact that at this time of the year, the annual Kedarnath Yatra would have begun from Pahalgam and there would virtually be a rush of pilgrims wanting to avail this rare and holy pilgrimage. Little did we know and realize that we had not only forgotten this factor but another significant event was awaiting us in Pahalgam, which would make this particular journey of ours a really momentous one, indeed.
Anyway, upon our arrival in the tiny hamlet, we were mesmerised as ever before by the narrow rivulet meandering its way up and down through the village slowly but surely. It was making terrific noise as its flowing water currents struck the heavy stones all around. I, Ritu, and Khushi took turns to take some quick picturesque snaps as we posed for some grand family photographs besides the smoothly flowing stream of gushing pools of water.
It was indeed a very special, nice, and cosy little experience for us to put up in the wooden cottage and retiring for the night with the mercury dipping and turning the weather even more bitingly and extremely cold. Khushi and Ritu wrapped themselves up in quilts while I too took shelter in my heavy overcoat with woollen fur.
For the morning breakfast, we made our way gingerly to the Govt. Rest House just at the edge of the hill. We had a good and pleasant time what with the Idli-Sambar, Rava Paneer Dosas, and other South Indian dishes along with hot Bournvita milk, all of them served with warm heaters underneath to keep their temperatures high and safe from the bitterly cold weather outside. We were yet to know and least expected an encounter that literally still sends chills down my spine!
As we were slowly making our way down the aisle of the vistas of the greenery on both sides after the sumptuous and refreshing meal, a group of young Muslim Turks accosted us suddenly from nowhere, taking us to be potential Kedarnath Yatra pilgrims. They ordered us to fall in line at gunpoint. Khushi, by now, was trembling with fear; Ritu, my ex-wife, was in tears, sobbing and virtually in a shambles even though I myself tried to put up a brave face, at least, outwardly. I knew we were definitely in a spot of bother now. If I had been alone, it might have been a different story altogether; but, with my pretty wife and cute little daughter alongside, I felt uncanny, ill at ease, and had realised one thing for sure. And, that was, I just couldn’t afford to take any chances with these masked gunmen.
Anyway, as we approached the main Pahalgam road, I saw an old decrepit man running feverishly towards us; from his long beard and big moustache, he definitely appeared to be a highly religious and devout Muslim. As he came nearer, he waved to me – “Arun! How is Abdul Bhaijaan? It’s been a long time since I saw him last!”
Thereupon, he gestured and gesticulated towards the young gunmen – “Hey! What are you doing with these three? They are the neighbors of Abdul Miyan in Chandni Chowk, old Delhi! Abdul Bhaijaan often talks to me about them and I’ve been personally their guest when I visited Delhi (Red Fort & Jama Masjid) last year!”
By now, the group of young Turks had apparently realised their faux pas. One of them, a burly young man in his thirties, who apparently was the leader of the pack, uttered in a low voice – “Rahim Chacha! Is it really true what you just said?”
“Do you think I’m telling a lie? And, why should I tell a lie in any case? Moreover, you can ask Arun further in this whole matter!” – replied Rahim Miyan, nodding his head knowingly and quickly winking at me.
“Oh! Yes, yes!! Rahim Chacha and Abdul Miyan are very good pals. Rahim Chacha, I vividly remember, had come over to our house in Chandni Chowk last year when he had come to see Abdul Miyan, and we had a whale of a time visiting Red Fort & Jama Masjid together” – added I, understanding fully the import of what Rahim Chacha implied and taking a cue from what he had muttered, in view of the gravity of the situation.
At this, the leader of the young Turks turned to his men – “I really don’t know what to do with the whole lot of you. Can’t you do anything right? You are just completely hopeless. Can’t you even decipher who is a real ‘Kafir’? Now, leave the three of these here and search elsewhere. We will find our catch next for sure!”
Then, he quickly made a low bow before Rahim Chacha – “Sorry, Chachajaan! “, ruefully reproaching himself – “we really got it wrong this time. Please forgive us!” – saying so, he quietly went his way along with his herd and horde of gunmen.
I hugged Rahim Chacha and observed – “You have truly saved the day for us today and I’ve seen the face of God in your form! I just don’t have the words to thank you. But, one thing still bothers me. Why did you have to do this for us, complete strangers that we are to you?”
Rahim Miyan, looking heavenwards, retorted soothingly – “Even walls have ears, as they say. Don’t waste any more time around here, my children! Just board the next bus to Jammu and be on your way. You never know what can happen any moment these days!”
Having first seen the face of God, the three of us were now listening in to His benign words. I wanted to spend a little more time in Rahim Chacha’s divine company but Khushi & Ritu, still not quite having recovered from the way things had turned out to be in the last couple of agonizing hours, were now in no mood to relent and made me hurry on and get back to Delhi safe and sound at the earliest.
But, Delhi or Pahalgam, my heart still goes out to the kind, compassionate old pious man – Rahim Chacha to us, now, and I shall remember that face of God forever! May be, he was a Muslim by religion, but a gentlemanly human being first, above everything else!!