The Courage of Choice

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Doctors Girija Dhar and Syed Naseer Ahmad Shah was one of Kashmir’s most talked because they retained their faiths after their marriage. Shah died in October last and Girija last week, almost nine months after. Read the story of their marriage by Meera Khanna

Dr Girija Dhar

If the Indian army reaches in time, we are safe from the Kabalis. Otherwise the well is the only option,’ her uncle said. Mother turned away with tears in her eyes. Girija was certain that something was very wrong if it upset her calm and strong mother. She pestered her mother and finally got to the bottom of the matter.

It was the year 1948. The cruelty of the Kabalis in Baramulla was fresh in everyone s mind.

No one slept that night. The men formed mohalla committee, to keep watch and give timely warning of an attack. Girija’s house, which was also the temporary office of the National Conference, was tense and calm. In the office, volunteers made lists of the men who had volunteered to join the militia to protect Kashmir. Girija lay lose to her mother, taking comfort from the familiar smell of saffron and sandalwood. Her large family of landed gentry, scholars, doctors and members of the civil services was waiting in trepidation, with nothing to do except pray for the soldiers from Delhi to arrive in time.

Arrive they did within the next two days, pushing back the raiders and ensuring Srinagar’s safety. With the arrival of the Indian army a wave of hope swept the city. The raiders were no match for the army.

In their ancestral house at Safa Kadal, preparations were on for the marriage of Girija’s elder sister. In keeping with her uncle DP Dhar’s advocacy of ostentation-free weddings, everything was low key. Much of the sugar and salt that had been stored for the wedding was shared with the neighbours. Pakistan had stopped the supply of salt to Kashmir in an arm-twisting move.

One evening, just as dusk was setting in, the local police came to Girija’s home with two unkempt men bound with ropes. They were captured raiders and had to be kept in custody in the National Conference office until further instructions. Girija and her cousins peeped from behind the wall at the bearded men. They looked doleful, a far cry from the ferocious raiders she had imagined from the stories and rumours running rife in Srinagar.

‘Ma, you want to feed the raiders. Why should you show any kindness to these rascals?’

‘There is a wedding feast going on. Everyone is going to enjoy the wazwan. They may be raiders, but even the most evil man suffers hunger.’

‘Really, Ma, your goodness is beyond me. See if you can persuade the policemen.’

Girija watched her mother talking to the policemen.

They couldn’t believe their ears. ‘Behenji, these wolves deserve to be starved. Do you know what they did in Baramulla? They-’

‘Yes, I know. But if they die of hunger, it will be inauspicious during the wedding ceremonies. Besides, what will you tell your superiors?’

For Girija, it was a lesson on compassion and the Kashrniri way of life…Little did Girija and her mother know that the same religious tolerance would trigger the most momentous decision of Girija’s life.

While in England for her higher studies, Girija fell in love with and decided to marry Dr Naseer Ahmed. Even though the two families enjoyed a social relationship, this was a grave matter. Naseer hailed from a respectable, progressive family that had made significant contributions to the movement to Kashmir from monarchy and again in defending Kashmir against the raiders from Pakistan. He was a handsome, suave and popular doctor – every mother’s dream son-in-law. But the tolerant Sufi culture of Kashmiriyat did not stretch to accept an inter-religious marriage.

Girija and Naseer knew that would be the obstacle but social mindsets. At gatherings, for instance, Muslims and Hindus ate at the same venue, but there was always a separate tab for the Hindus. Then, there was no sense of the division that was to manifest in later years and each respected the other’s individual space.

Girija watched her mother apprehensively. Her announcement about her civil marriage to Naseer was greeted with absolute silence. Girija knew she could not take on an emotional scene filled with tears and recriminations. There was none. Girija’s mother withdrew into a shell. Girija understood her mother’s dilemma and imagined her wondering: ‘Naseer is a good man, popular with the family. But to marry him? Would his family accept this relationship? To reject Naseer on the basis of religion cannot be right. But how will society view this decision? Will they be ostracized? Will they face trouble even before they start their life together?’

Her mother got up and went into the puja room. There was a clamour as Girija’s sisters and cousins questioned her bold decision.

When mother came out, she looked calm and composed. ‘I think we should send word to Naseer to take his wife to his house. Husband and wife should stay together.’

Girija knew that although her mother had accepted and respected her decision, she was deeply hurt.

Cover page of Meera Khanna’s Book

Naseer and Girija had no religious ceremony in Srinagar after the civil procedure in England, but Naseer’s family insisted on a grand reception. Although that went against the young couple’s political ideology about ostentation, Girija realized it was her mother-in-law Dulhan Begum’s way of telling the world that she was proud of her daughter-in-law. It was also a cue for the rest of the family to accept the Hindu into their Muslim family.

Years later, Girija recalled the warmth with which Naseer’s family had welcomed her. For them too, it was out of the ordinary. But their progressive views, their education and above all their innate generosity made her feel special – a feeling that was to last forever. Dulhan Begum realized that Girija would not be totally comfortable in a typical Muslim household, so she suggested that the young couple set up their own establishment. It was the beginning of a great relationship between the two women, and reinforced Girija’s view that the only things necessary for human connection are an open mind and a willingness of the heart. Her sisters-in-law too smothered her with affection and applauded Girija’s every achievement. And there were many. She attended international conferences, wrote acclaimed papers and upgraded medical facilities for women in Kashmir. As a successful gynaecologist, she was much sought after. She conceptualized, constructed and got the 500-bed Lal Ded Hospital running, for which she was conferred an honour by the grand old man of Kashmiri politics, Sheikh Abdullah himself.

Girija sat under the shade of a magnificent Chinar tree after paying her respects at the Char-e-Sharif, the famed shrine of Nund Rishi. From a distance she could hear the melodious strains of Bulleh Shah’s composition. As she watched the pilgrims she marvelled at the large number of Hindus at the dargah of a Muslim Sufi saint. She had seen a similar sight at the Golden Temple in Amritsar where large numbers of Hindus bowed down in respect at the Sikh temple of worship. It crossed her mind that shared religious identities were a tradition in the rich Kashmiri culture of tolerance. In the Valley one is a Kashmiri first, then a Hindu or a Muslim. Belief in the powers of the Sufi saints and attendance at their shrines had helped to create a point of sharing between Muslims and Pandits. She wondered if her marriage to Naseer was so free of tensions because of the Kashmiri culture of tolerance or because of the broad outlook of his family. ‘If I had married a Muslim from another state in India, would things have been so smooth?’

In the early years of her married life, in an effort to assuage the hurt that Girija’s mother felt, Dulhan Begum made a momentous offer: ‘Behenji, I have four sons. All of them were born Muslims. But I offer Naseer to you. Convert him to Hinduism if you like. Make him a Pandit if you will.’

Such greatness of spirit is the basis of true religion, Girija thought. The question of conversion to either religion did not ever rise in the long years of their marriage. The religion in Naseer’s home was that of humanity, in which all respect was accorded to a person’s right to choose. More importantly, the cornerstone of the ethos was that worship of God was meaningless if it did not translate into actively helping those in need, irrespective of religion. It was in this environment of true integration that Girija and Naseer brought up their only child, Tina.

(This piece was excerpted from a chapter in Khanna’s book In A State Of Violent Peace – Voices From The Kashmir Valley)

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