Arabian Nights

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Journalist Sheikh Qayoom is a grandfather but has not forgotten his childhood winters which were quite different, adventurous and interesting then

Erstwhile Prime Minister of J&K, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad (L) on frozen Dal.

Erstwhile Prime Minister of J&K, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad (L) on frozen Dal.

The winter of my childhood was the season of Arabian Nights – long school vacations, unending sittings with the story teller, and mouth watering foods like smoked fish, dried brinjals, pumpkins, tomatoes, fat goose, rooster and pulses cooked by the World’s greatest chef, my mother.

Precariously hanging icicles, tons of snow, the magic of light and shade created in black and white by that feeble lantern light, a warm Kangri under a tweed Pheran and a carefree age when yesterday and tomorrow did not exist, you lived only in today and made most of it during my childhood.

We had a small poultry and when the fattest rooster was taken out; we knew mother had chosen to prepare a Shabdeg. The preparation of this special dish is something the present generations, I am sure, hasn’t even heard of!

Rooster feathers would be carefully removed so as to leave its skin intact. Turnips extracted from Khau, a deep hole dug in the family’s kitchen garden for winter storing, usually covered by dry straw, would be washed and cut into manageable pieces.

After adding all the required spices, the properly fried rooster and turnips were placed in Deag, a nickel coated copper vessel. The vessel lid was sealed with dough. Over the simmering fire of the traditional Kashmiri hearth lit with firewood the dish would be cooked during the entire night so as to bring the delicacy to right flavour and taste.

Opening of the Shabdeg vessel lid was an occasion. The small kitchen where the family ate lunch and dinner would be filed with an aroma that still teases my taste buds.

Like a master whose work of art was about to be placed on exhibition, mother would serve the dish to all of us. As a matter of rule, mother always ensured that servants of the family ate alongside me and my father. She, of course, would be last in the family to have her lunch and dinner.

Each evening, an elderly relative known to me as Wali Maam would tell a story after dinner. His stories never ended until I felt fast asleep.

He had the magic to transport you into the world of fairies and demons. He spoke of a mammoth bird called the Rook that would left a human being in his claws and drop him on the Koh-e-Kaff. Later, as I grew up, I came to know there actually is a mountain so named in Chechnya!

Maam’s tales always had an indelible moral, the triumph of good over evil. Smitten with the beauty of a girl, the king’s son always abdicated the crown in Maam’s winter tales. I wonder whether princes still do that?  Not that the era of kings and princes has ended in our age.

We still have them as sons of powerful politicians and filthy rich businessmen with just one difference– none of the present day princes have the heart of Maam’s princes and princesses of yore.

The blissful calm of a winter night was neither broken by the mechanical rattle of a motor car nor the rattle of automatic gunfire from an encounter. There were few vehicles around. Those car owners were engrossed enjoying fruits of prosperity that they hardly bothered to disturb the sleep of the less privileged.

Yes, I did occasionally go to see a movie in my childhood which had to be with the explicit permission of father. No child in my childhood could go to the ‘talkie’ unless permitted by the parents.

My mother hardly intervened negatively when I sought permission to see a film. She would fondly throw her hands around me and request father to arrange for the fulfillment of my desire.

I still remember watching Benhur, Solomon and Sheba, and many other classic Hollywood movies. Not that the magic and thrill of Bollywood was any less. Boot Polish, Awara, Aan, Azad, and Madhumati are some of the Talkies I watched in Regal Cinema.

No cinema hall had an electric generator. Whenever, electric supply failed during a ‘film’ there would be  riot among in the ‘Third Class’.

They would howl and shout till supply resumed and sometimes it took hours for the same to happen. Nobody would leave the hall till electricity resumed and the projector rolled the spools.

Women hardly went to the ‘talkies’ in my childhood, or at least I fail to recall if they did.

The type of socializing we see nowadays among children and youth across genders was considered morally inappropriate. I still do not shake hands with women.

I never heard of essential supplies running short because of the blockade of Jammu-Srinagar highway. I hardly even remember an announcement on Radio during my childhood that spoke of the highway blockade hitting supplies.

The Valley definitely had much lesser population, but its survival strength was far greater than it is now. Never were mutton, poultry, eggs and milk imported from outside. The Valley had enough stocks. Though purchasing power of an average Kashmiri was far lesser than what it is today, his power of survival and self-sufficiency was much greater.

Nobody cribbed because the markets are not flooded with junk food. Nobody ate junk food then. It was only the upper middle class that wore Pherans of imported tweed. We had Potu, our own tweed that went into the making of warm clothes including Pherans in winter.

I cannot fully thank the winters of my childhood because of the number of books we would read during those long nights under the feeble lantern light.

Believe it or not, I did my entire early reading of history and fiction during my childhood and youth in winter months. Sherlock Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Perry Mason series, Agatha Christie and Ibn Saifi’s Urdu crime thrillers, all these made my winter evenings delightful when Maam chose to go home to his Islamabad village.

Playing in knee deep snow would often cause chilblains which mother treated by washing our hands and feet with warm magnesia water. Ointments like Iodex hadn’t come into the market then.

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