“Maharaja Pratap Singh even banned burial of the dead”

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Muhammad Siddiq Parray, the Grand Old Man of Sonawar, breathed his last on March 21. A witness to an eventful century of Kashmir’s history which he has recorded in his yet to be published memoir, ‘My 100 Years’, he talked about life through the reign of two Dogra rulers in a candid conversation with Khalid Bashir Ahmad recently

Muhammad-Siddiq-Parray

Khalid Bashir (KB): How does it feel to be a centurion and what is the secret of your long life?

Muhammad Siddiq Parray (MSP): It is a great feeling. I am very happy and content and hope that Almighty would grant me many more years to live. I have spent an eventful life in the last 106 years and never lost nerve in the face of the severest difficulties that came in my way. I have lived a life of both deprivation and plenty but never let greed overtake me. My mother, although an illiterate, had taught me not to lose heart at the sight of a problem, howsoever grave it might be. The one thing that has served me a good deal in life is patience and perseverance, especially when life went through rough patches. I have never thought ill of anyone and, to the best of my ability, have helped everybody. Honesty and truthfulness are what I have always tried to retain as the permanent feature of my character. I believe that if we steadfastly walk the path shown to us by Allah, a contended, long life is just one of the many rewards that He bestows upon his servants. All my children are well to do and live their own lives as do I my own. I have given up worldly things and I am building my hereafter. After living for 100 plus years, I am not tired and would like to live for another hundred years.

KB: You were born and lived your life at Sonawar. Just describe the place of your childhood.

MSP: Sonawar then had about 150 households. As was the case elsewhere in Kashmir those days, people were poor and had no permanent source of living. Being a place frequented by foreign tourists, most of the population in Sonawar and Dalgate would get seasonal employment in tourist trade. Ours was a relatively better off family because my father had a round-the-year assured employment with a missionary physician, Dr. Ernest F. Neve. He would get a monthly retainer of Rs. 20, which by the standards of that time was a good income. My father’s grave is the only one of those times that had a tombstone, a rough one though. That spoke of our relatively better economic condition. Overall, it was a period of deprivation for the people of Kashmir who were crushed under an oppressive dispensation. Most of the poverty stricken people did not have a pajama to wear. I had a very limited friend circle that essentially comprised two persons, Abdus Samad Bhat and Ghulam Ahssan Bhat with whom I would spend most of my free time till they were alive.

KB: When were you born and how did you spend your childhood?

MSP: My Matriculation certificate shows my date of birth as March 4th 1907 but I am older than that by a few years. I got admitted to school late compared to other children. I was orphaned at 5. My father had 7 children and my widowed mother showed exemplary courage in bringing us up. She would sell milk to run the family mill. My brother, Abdul Aziz Parray became the first Muslim graduate of the area and obtained his Bachelors degree before Mirza Muhammad Afzal Beg. He was first appointed as a teacher in Tyndale Biscoe School, Anantnag and later joined as Inspector in the Police Department. He was one of the only two Muslim Police Inspectors in Kashmir then, the other being a Jammuite. On a monthly income of Rs. 20, my father brought up a large family. I was always intrigued to know how he did it, and that helped me a lot in life. After his death, we had very bad time but the Almighty ended those difficult days too. Dr. Ernest F. Neve’s brother, Dr. Arthur Neve, got my other brother appointed as a clerk in the Srinagar Carpet Factory.

So far as my childhood is concerned, as I said, I went to school as a fairly grown up child. I would help my mother in the domestic errands and took cattle to graze on the Takht-e-Sulaiman hill. But I had this urge for going to school and without the knowledge of my family took private tuition from a Pandit teacher. I was soon able to study almost all the prescribed books up to 6th standard. When my family came to know about it, they allowed me to appear in the examination which I passed and later joined SP School as a regular student of Class 7. I passed my Matriculation examination in 1930 and did my FA in 1932. Because of acute poverty, Muslims in Kashmir had no access to education which was then a monopoly of the Pandit community. My two elder brothers and a cousin were perhaps the first Muslims to attend missionary school.

KB: You have lived through the rule of two Dogra Maharajas, Pratap Singh and Hari Singh. Would you reflect on those times?  

MSP: Those were very bad times. The administration, both police and civil, comprised only Dogras and Kashmiri Pandits. People were deprived of all rights and liberty and the Muslim subjects lived a life of abject dispossession. The administration was ruthless. One would tremble to even think of the tyranny that people would go through. The farmers had to part with most of their produce that was forcibly taken by the officials. There was this infamous and inhuman institution of begaar (forced labor) which ran chill through the spines of the people. They were scared of Maharaja’s soldiers and avoided walking on roads lest they were spotted by the sepoys and taken for labor.  Women were molested by Shakdars in the name of body search pretending to ascertain that they had not stolen fruit from the fields they were employed in for deweeding. The officials of revenue and police administration like Tehsildar and down below and policemen were also the institutions of repression and dreaded by the people.

KB: Is there any specific instance related to your own area?

MSP: I recall one policeman, Nil Kanth of Puhroo village, nicknamed as Nil Puhroo, who was posted at Munshi Bagh Police chowki under whose jurisdiction our area fell. He was a terrible man who caught people and sent them on begaar. People would put huge stone mortars against their doors and remain indoors when they heard this cruel policeman was nearby. Such was the fear he had created among the population.  I remember two men of our locality, Mukhta Mir and Khaliq Mir who were sent on begaar to Ladkah, a treacherous journey from which not many returned. Razak Rather of Bonamsar, Sonawar was among such ill-fated people who perished en-route. When a person was taken on begaar, the entire village would come out and weep for him as he would most probably not return alive. The revenue officials who would enlist people for begaar beat drums and play music to drown the chest-beating and wailing of women and, sort of, boost the morale of those being dispatched on begaar.

Maharaja Pratap Singh was particularly awful. He had even banned burial of the dead in the graveyard at the shrine of Syed Sahab, Sonawar because he did not like to see a funeral procession while he walked by. The ban remained in force for about 12 years till the death of my father, Ghulam Rasool Parray when it was lifted on the intervention of Dr. Ernest F. Neve who contacted the then Resident Commissioner and ensured that we buried my father in the ancestral graveyard.

KB: I have always seen you meticulously dressed in coat-pent, jacket-pent or shirt-pent. Did it have to do anything with your close association with the Englishmen?

MSP: You are right. I have had a very close association with the Englishmen including Dr. Neve and Harry Nedou. It is possible that this proximity influenced my sense of dress. It is also a fact that I have never worn pheran in my life. You will still find me clean shaven and I tell my children that when I will set out on the journey to hereafter, I will go with a shaven face. [His son, Muhammad Afzal said that on the last evening, he insisted for it and had a shave before passing away in the morning at 5 am]

KB: You have written your memoir and aptly named it “My Hundred Years’. What prompted you to write a book at an age at which we do not see many instances of writing books?

MSP: I was with my doctor son in the United States and one day while I was sitting idle at home I thought why I should not write all that I have seen and gone through during my long life. I encouraged myself to do my autobiography so that my children would know all the trials and tribulations I have faced and the successes I have achieved. This, I thought, would give them strength to face life more resolutely. It is a narration of my resolve, determination and courage as well as of the social and political situation that prevailed in Kashmir.

KB: You are known to have wielded quite an influence during your service career in the revenue department. Is it true that you would even pass orders on behalf of the Financial Commissioner?

MSP: I got appointed in the revenue department in 1933. I started as a Receipt and Dispatch clerk and worked in many capacities including as Special Assistant and PRO to Financial Commissioner. I retired in 1963 as Office Superintendent of the Revenue Training College. The Financial Commissioner was my friend when he was Naib Tehsildar. He knew me very well and I was his trusted man. So full was his trust in me that I would run the Commissionaire in his absence and even pass written orders on his behalf that he would subsequently confirm. I knew people in the department by name.

Once Prime Minister Bakhshi Gulam Mohammad telephoned the Financial Commissioner and asked him to immediately sack a particular Tehsildar in Bandipore for his alleged failure to help flood victims there. I told the FC that this fellow was a very good official and that it would be unjust to punish him. I suggested him to visit the place and have on-the-spot assessment. When he and Governor Nab Ji went there, it turned out that the poor man had done exceptional relief work and flood victims were all praise for him. The Tehsildar was thus saved from being victimized for no fault of his. When the Prime Minister was informed about this, he said that Jail Baba had complained about the revenue official. It seemed that he had a personal grouse against the Tehsildar and was on the lookout for an occasion to fix him. I was twice called to brief the cabinet when Ayyangar was the Prime Minister during Hari Singh’s rule.

KB: The famous Kashmiri poet, Mehjoor, was also a revenue official. In your memoir, you have written about his calling on you to seek your help. What was it about?

MSP: I had a servant who belonged to a village in Budgam where Mehjoor was a Patwari. He told me that Mehjoor had a problem and requested me to help him out. One day, Mehjoor along with another Patwari came to my office and told me about their problem regarding a service matter. It was before 1947 and he was not very famous then. I helped him in lieu of which he conveyed his thanks in verses and also offered to provide me a helper for a year without any money for the services. I declined the offer. He was a competent Patwari and a very good poet too.

KB: You have mentioned two poor individuals becoming very rich businessmen of Kashmir. Could you recall this story?

MSP: The Englishmen would daily visit the Srinagar Club near the Zero Bridge. Dogs were not allowed inside the Club. There was this man who would take care of these dogs outside the Club and earn an anna or two in return. The other man carrying a basket full of bread on his head would walk miles shouting “Double roti huzoor” (Bread Sir) and earn his meager living. To the credit of both, they were hard working and ended up joining the very rich fraternity of Kashmir. One of them later set up fruit processing factory and the other opened a bakery shop and a hotel. The latter was my friend. Both of them did not feel shy in doing petty jobs to earn a living while most of the people those days would idle away time at the Polo Ground.

KB: What was the scenario so far as employment of Muslims in government services was concerned?

MSP: You could hardly find any Muslim in a government department. I was the only Muslim among the 32 clerks in the revenue department. Similar was the case elsewhere. It was an all-Hindu administration. I had a very tough time in picking up my job when I was recruited in the revenue department. I was given the assignment of receipt and dispatch. I did not know how to do this job. None of my colleagues would help me. Then I looked out for one Mohammad Sidiq Wani of Bonamsar who had been appointed as a clerk in the Accountant General’s office a year ago. He taught me by drawing lines and writing on the dusty ground and I picked up quickly.

KB: Did you move to Jammu with the annual Darbar Move?

MSP: My job was such that I had to. Unlike present days, the offices would not move according to a set schedule. It was the sweet will of the Maharaja that determined the time of the Move. If he wished so, the Darbar Move from Jammu to Srinagar would delay up to the month of July. It was (Barjor) Dalal who later fixed May 5th as the date for Darbar Move.

KB: In 1931, you were quite a young person. What are your memories of 13th July 1931?

MSP: I am not a witness to the incident as I was not in Srinagar on that fateful day. I had gone to Shahabad Dooru with my brother where he was posted as a Thanedar. In the morning, we heard in the market that there had been firing in the Srinagar jail. The news was brought by the milkmen who had returned from Islamabad after sale of their produce. They said that the entire army stationed at Islamabad had been moved to Srinagar. We heard that people wanted to be allowed inside the jail to witness Qadeer’s trial and tried to break in but were fired upon by the Dogra army, killing about 22 people. Some Kashmiri Pandits came to my brother and told him that they did not feel safe at Dooru and feared they might be harmed by Muslims. He sent them back with a reprimand for flagging a non-existent threat. They went to Srinagar and complained to Governor Attar Singh against my brother who was immediately replaced by a non-Muslim Thanedar. My brother had to run from pillar to post to know where he had to report for duty. Ultimately, he was transferred to Muzaffarabad.

KB: You have spoken about your close association with Harray Nedou, father-in-law of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Could you say something about this association and how close the two of you were?

MSP: Harry Nedou had some issue with the revenue department with regard to a document which was not being issued to him for being an Englishman. He had landed property at Tangmarg and had asked one of his employees at his dairy farm, Abdullah Sheikh of Sonawar, if he knew someone who could help him. It was the time when his son-in-law, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, was a mass political leader and President of the Muslim Conference which had taken on the Maharaja’s government. Being so closely related to the Sheikh, nobody would dare to help Nedou. Abdullah Parray had told him about me and he sent an invite through his servant Rahim Mir, asking me to visit him over a cup of tea. I did not respond. Next day, Mir came again and repeated the invite. Then I visited him in his house at the Nedous Hotel Srinagar. He told me about his problem. I called for the settlement file of Tangmarg and found that the land was actually transferred in his name on the orders of the Maharaja himself. The entry read like: Ba hokum-e- Maharaja Bahadur, falan zameen Harry Nedou ke naam indraj ki jaave (By the order of the Maharaja Bhadur, so and so land be entered in the name of Harry Nedou).  I obtained a copy of the revenue record and together we went to the Tehsildar at Gulmarg and got the document issued. This resulted in our friendship, which lasted till his demise in 1940.

I would daily visit him at 4:30 pm after my office to have tea with him. He would wait for me at the appointed time.  If I could not visit him someday, he would send a messenger to convey that he was waiting for me. This friendship blossomed into a family bond where he would consult me in his family matters also. We would discuss politics, religion, Kashmir, everything. We also exchanged letters when I was at Jammu in connection with the Darbar Move and twice Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah himself delivered his letters to me at the Dak Bungalow where I was lodged as a Darbar Move employee. People were astounded to see a political leader of his stature coming to me to deliver a letter. Once Sheikh very curiously asked me what was transpiring between the two of us in those letters to which I jokingly replied: “These are love letters”. The government must have come to know about my correspondence with Nedou following which my mail was censored for several months. After Harry’s death, I remained a family friend of Nedous for about 20 years and helped his wife in supervising accounts of her dairy farm at Gulmarg which I did in the spirit of my association with the family without monetary return. I would go there every Saturday evening and return on Monday morning to attend my office. Harry’s son, Akram was my close friend.

KB: What was the depth of this relationship that you describe as a family bond?

MSP: Well, Harry would consult me on all issues. Let me give you an example. Once I got busy with my own affairs and could not visit him for some time. His wife sent a word to me that she had always found her husband cheerful in my company and would I visit him again. Before his death in 1940, while he was on his way to Lahore for undergoing surgery, he asked his driver to drive to the Dak Bungalow and sent his servant to me saying he wanted to meet me. I came out and found him seated on the back seat and looking very ill. As he departed, he told me in a gasping voice, “Please take care of my family and guide them.” These proved to be the last words I heard from him. Later, Akram told me that before going into the operation theatre from which he did not return alive, he gave a three point advice to him. The two related to their property at Gulmarg and a particular fellow. The third one was, “Always obtain guidance from Sidiq (Parray) Sahab.”

KB: Harry Nedou had converted to Islam. Was he a practicing Muslim?

MSP: Harry was one of the three British siblings who had been invited by Maharaja Pratap Singh to facilitate accommodation for British visitors at Gulmarg and Srinagar in 19th century. They constructed hotels at the two places. Harry had the responsibility of procuring fresh milk from the Gujjars at Gulmarg where he came in contact with Mir Jan and fell in love with her. He proposed to her which she declined for him being a non-Muslim. She put the condition of his conversion to Islam before he could take her hand in marriage. The lovelorn Harry converted to Islam, took a Muslim name and married her. He turned a devout Muslim, offered prayers, sported a beard and gave charity. Rani (family name of Mir Jan) once told me about the rich Englishman’s fascination for her and her insistence to convert first before she would accept his offer of marriage. She told me, “I made a king to bow before an ordinary girl.” Rani made her husband to change his business, objecting to his supplying pork and wine, abhorred by Muslims as haram or forbidden to eat and drink, to foreign visitors. He then took to sheep rearing and dairy and poultry farming.

KB: Were you also close to Sheikh Family?

MSP: Not really. In fact, the Sheikh would occasionally come to his in-laws and stay in the second floor of the house. I have seen his son, Farooq Abdullah, as a kid. He would call me Maam Laal (maternal uncle). When Sheikh’s eldest daughter, Khalida, was married, he asked Akram to go to bridegroom’s house as a witness for the Nikah ceremony. Akram said he did not know what to do at the ceremony. The Sheikh pointed towards me and told him you have your advisor with you. At the Wazwan, I was curiously looking at what they had cooked and if it was like what we do on our marriage functions. I found while everything else was similar, the rice was fried in butter. Mirza Afzal Beg spotted me and asked what I, a low level official in the revenue department, was doing there. I pretended to be a family friend.

A poet and an author, Khalid Bashir Ahmad is currently working as a secretary with Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.

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