Times and trials of Sultan Mama

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Bilal Handoo

Mama was the only Jehadist among scores of his time. But the sorry state of affairs is that: while India honoured Muma Kana with Padma Shree for something very sordid, our own state government shrugged Mama off, as if he is nonentity!

Photo: Ashraful Kadir

Photo: Ashraful Kadir

I am told that the man I am asking for has been cut from rare fabric—the one that attires bona fide legends! He is someone who has seen rise and fall in life like an adage. That family, that status and that Arcadian shade of life are no more at his side. In fact, a sort of change he underwent in his life was reflecting from Friday sermon of a cleric: certain changes in life are radical. Indeed, the life and times of Sultan Mohammad Mir aka Sultan Mama—forgotten and frail man of downtown Srinagar—is an instance of radical change of life.

Sometimes, radical strokes of fate fail comprehension—especially, when the person at the receiving end is no corrupt in character. A case of Mama is no different from that. Tribulations faced by him wonder one as how much a man could endure test of the fate. But in the supreme lord’s creation, jaws often drop in wonder when astonishing sensations seep into senses!

 *   *   *

In this freezing afternoon of December 2002, Mama is slowly walking on sliding snow with a help of supporting stick near Srinagar’s Habba Kadal. His drooping frame conveys a sense of destitute one often faces in later stage of life. Like a recluse, he staggers on without minding the pace of life around him. His heavy huffs are quite audible in the din of street.

After a while, he rests on a wooden plank of a shop nearby. He seems struggling to slow down his fast heaving chest—by contracting his eyes and flashing uneasy looks on his face. While doing that, his half-open eyes set on a road reflect his lost state of mind. Some moments later, he adjusts soiled Karakuli or skull cap on his head, and then resumes walking towards some unknown place…

 *   *   *

Senile man like him is the worst hit of fate. From his present plight, nobody can guess that he was once a mover and shaker in state administration! He was there when regime after regime kept shuffling in the Jammu and Kashmir, that too, at crucial times. Perceived closer to power centers, Mama always maintained distinction to have his say on political matters. It is said that some landmark decisions in state administration were his brainchild. But whenever time demanded, Mama was seen at forefront—raising and objecting certain questionable decisions of the state.

Soon after Shiekh Abdullah’s imprisonment in 1953, Mama became Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s pen and policy. But growing vested interests in Bakshi camp later denounced him “too idealist” and quite convincingly wrote him off while taking major decisions. But this never discouraged Mama.  Later when Bakshi government introduced subsidy system in the state, Mama was the first person to voice his concern.

“I believe in the long run, such policies would deteriorate workforce of the valley,” Mama had written in his correspondence to Bakshi soon after the introduction of subsidy system in the state. He didn’t stop there. His correspondence that has been dusted to near death in the state archival department, further reads: “By nodding such a shady policy, we are creating a huge chasm for ourselves where one day we would have no way out!”

His readings of the policy were, however, brushed aside by many in Bakshi camp. But later, when dependence of Kashmir escalated too much on supply lines coming from the other side of Jawahar tunnel, Mama’s timely predictions were discussed threadbare in leading dailies of the valley.

One of the most visible columnists of present day Kashmir—who, never deprives his columns from Edward Said’s sayings, once wrote: “Mama was the only man awake when others in Bakshi regime hypnotized Kashmiris into a ‘sound’ sleep of subsidy system.”

In the concluding paragraph of the column, he wrote: “Mama was the only Jehadist among scores of his time. But the sorry state of affairs is that: while India honoured Muma Kana with Padma Shree for something very sordid, our own state government shrugged Mama off, as if he is nonentity! Inarguably, it shows that Muma matters more for them than Mama. What a shame!”

As Bakshi government became irrelevant for the rulers rooted in plains, Mama like scores witnessed Khwaja Shams-ud-Din being inducted as next PM of J&K on Oct 12, 1963. Mama felt sorry for Din who lost his office four months after on Feb 29, 1964—as it was during his administration that Prophet’s Relic was stolen from the Hazratbal Shrine. And then, Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq walked in as head of executive. And soon, an idea was conceived: Nallamar water channel must pave way for blacktop!

Like always, Mama objected the move. While dusting the records in state archival department, I lay my hands on a document, dated back to May 16, 1968. (Perforated by moths over the years) The opening lines of the document read: “So, are we creating an engineering disaster, aesthetic loot, tourism wreck and economic damp squib!”

The document written in black jet ink, further reads: “Please go ahead if we want to make mess of our water bodies.” It ends with three dots (…). It is puzzling what Mama meant by them. Perhaps, he was trying to send some larger message, which only fell on deaf ears when blacktop replaced serpentine moving water body in downtown.

“I tell you why he left those three dots at the end of his correspondence,” says Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a well known literary figure and Mama’s close friend. “His insights were saintly. He had a hunch that blacktop would be soon spilled red by innocent blood. He would call it Koonimar [bloody canal]road instead of Nallamar road!”

Now when much blood has been spilled on Nallamar, some elders from downtown recall Mama’s insight with sense of nostalgia. Besides, when environmentalists are saying that death of Nallamar canal has led to fatal growth of Dal Lake and other water bodies, Mama finds his due mention.

“We crave for heroes who could put some check on societal matters and rapid deterioration of environment,” wrote one political commentator from the valley recently. “How many of us know, we had one, in the skin of Sultan Mama, a former administrator. But then, who took him seriously!”

*   *   *

In the crowd of shallows, some striking heads often stir up storm and end up facing collective conspiracy, observes Mama in his memoir ‘State Strokes’. He has written this maiden book in the fall of 1986, the year he attained superannuation from state services. The memoir spanned on 355 pages has recorded events in Kashmir from Mama’s first day in office (1949) to the last day (1986).

Some lines of foreword reads: “…There are certain things very personal to each one of us. But sometimes, one should vent them out for the larger benefit of public. After serving state for 37 years, there are certain memories worth to share…”

On page number 38 of the memoir, he reveals something very starling: “When Sheikh Abdullah sent his executive Mirza Afzal Beg for talks to New Delhi before signing 1975 accord, I secured a private meeting with him at Mujahid Manzil [an erstwhile National Conference headquarters in Srinagar]. He was flanked by many of his loyalists including Sofi Mohammad Akbar who parted his ways with NC soon after the accord. I told Abdullah, ‘Jehab, how it is wise, to shake hands with someone, who has already let you down in past?’

The very question flashed ire on Abdullah’s face and, in a voice filled with command, he replied, ‘Look, we need to move on, irrespective of what happened in past. The sensibility doesn’t lie in crumbling present with past? And know something, wisdom always lies in handshake!’ ”

And on page number 45, Mama notes how decks were cleared at state level for Maqbool Bhat’s hanging in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail on Feb 11, 1984. “That man from Trehgam had unnerved many loyalists of power centres in the state. And, many had started feeling the heat of his fiery and fearless stand on Kashmir.”

Besides, the memoir foretells about an upheaval of pent up public feelings in the valley. And also talks about changes that are likely to take political sphere by storm very soon…

Mama’s prophesy turned prophetic when armed uprising started few years later in 1989. The movement—as Mama, had predicted—changed the political landscape of the valley, forever.

*   *   *

But much opposite to his matchless administration acumen and insightful readings of state of affairs, Mama in his personal life was a struggling man! He married to Kulsum, his childhood love from Srinagar’s Nawab Bazaar in early sixties. The couple was blessed with three sons. The first eight years of his marriage were quite pleasing, but soon, he faced flipped side of life—a cursed one!

His childhood beloved was diagnosed with blood cancer in the summer of 1970. Simply shattered by the revelation, he did put up a brave face by arranging her medical treatment in and outside the valley. But her ailment proved too robust than expected.

With the fall of Dhaka in December 16, 1971, her health also fell to the point of no recovery! And then, in the same month, she passed away peacefully at Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital. It is said that she was lifted as a skinny frame of bones from her deathbed.

Her departure amplified Mama’s responsibilities. His children lost their mother when they had not even stepped into their teens. But their father became their default mother. A highly regarded administrator was cooking meals for his kids back home, besides taking care of chores. He didn’t hire domestic help—only to stay close and attached with his kids. But deep inside, he was longing for his departed beloved. But he never let it known to anyone.

*   *   *

It was early eighties when his elder son decided to visit USA for pursuing his higher studies. Soon, his other son followed the footsteps of his sibling. By 1985, Mama was living with his youngest son, Zubair in that spacious bungalow at Srinagar’s Nishat area.

Meanwhile, the other two had completed their studies back in USA, but decided to stay put there for job. Like tourists, they would show up once in every two years to meet their father and sibling. And each time, they would speak high about life in America. But they would never miss a chance to pick up holes in life in the valley.

But unlike his other siblings, Zubair was the sensible son of the man whose probing senses had put state government at uncomfortable position during his service. Over the years, this son of Mama had grown up as shy and introvert youth who was much into literature. Often in the hours of solitude at home, he would discuss Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Shakespeare and other literary giants with his father.

During one such discussion in the evening of April 1992, somebody rushed inside their home. It was Hilal Khan, an area commander of JKLF. He was running for his life—as battalion of paramilitary was after him. His entry alarmed the father-son duo in the room. But sensing danger to his life, Mama hid him inside the Ganjeen of his home.

Moments after, troops showed up. They frisked everything, but found nothing. Search operation was led by one notorious paramilitary officer of the area, Munda Rathore. He was one of those officers—who never liked the idea to return from search operations with empty hands!

But Rathore had already set eyes on his man in that dark dusk. He grabbed Mama’s youngest son by his collar and took him away. The poor father pleaded before the paramilitary officer, but instead received a hard kick on his face. He was left wailing for his son in that spacious bungalow throughout that night.

He tried to put up a battle he had already lost by using the influence of his good office he once held. But nothing helped. Then he sold his bungalow to pay money to mediators—who put him in dark by assuring that they know the whereabouts of his son. But soon, it became clear that one man’s tragedy had become other’s cash cow!

And with each passing moment, he was growing tired and impatient. The longing for disappeared son was slowly sending him into oblivion. And soon he shifted his base back to downtown to stay closer to his family roots.

*   *   *

In between, learning about their sibling’s disappearance, Mama’s USA settled sons visited him. They exhibited great concern for their sibling by actively searching his signs until an American call hampered their resolve. They didn’t want to end their ties with Uncle Sam, and soon cleared their positions: “Look dad,” the elder one told his father in that archaic house in downtown, “I know it is very much awkward to believe this, but I presume, Zubair is no more in this world now!”

These words didn’t surprise Mama. He was prudent enough to realise an underlying meaning of his son’s language. He gave him a patient hearing. “Dad,” spoke other, “we all know how things work here, right? With so many disappearances going on here, I think it is futile to stay back and figure on that list! Just look, how many people are being reported disappeared by newspapers on daily basis. These are terrible times to stay back in the valley.”

For a long time that evening, Mama’s mind reflected concerns raised by his sons. They had, in fact, insisted upon him to come along to America with them—only to escape, the life of uncertainty in Kashmir.

“But what about Zubair?” His inner self spoke up later that night. “What about that son who stayed with me when other two flew to green pastures? What about that son who never made company only to spare all his time with me? What if he comes back tomorrow and finds me missing? Won’t he feel cheated then? What about all great lessons of life and commitment we shared in our hours of seclusion in that spacious bungalow where he was last seen?”

*   *   *

But as the light of new morning replaced the darkness of the night, Mama’s vision was clear. While taking breakfast with his sons, he flipped the pages of newspaper, hoping to trace some signs of his disappeared son. But disturbed details and violent pictures carried by paper made him to drop it.

After a while, he ended the silence of breakfast gathering: “I gave a good thought to what you said last evening,” Mama said. “I think, both of you should return to America, immediately. You better stay in exile for me than meet a fate of your brother. Go and make all the preparations.”

“But Dad, won’t you come along?” Mama’s elder son asked.

Mama lifted his eyes and set gaze on his son’s face. How much he wanted to tell him that, “Son, please don’t go away. I am alone and tired now. Look, your brother is not returning home. I don’t know what is wrong with him. Please spare some more time with me, so that we can bring him back home. Just stay with me to find him out, and then I won’t stop you from going.” He couldn’t speak anything what he was yearning inside, and soon downcasted his gaze.

After a while, he said: “Don’t worry about me, son. I am an old man who has spent his entire life in the valley. I don’t think I can adjust there. Let me spend last days of my life in my own home.”

Two days after, Mama was lone man dwelling inside that weathered house…

*   *   *

Ten years have passed since Zubair has been disappeared, but the seclusion of his father is still persistent. He has already crossed eighty years of his life. The burden of age and fruitless search for his son has impaired his movement and sight. His other two sons have raised their own families back in America. They do visit their father after every two years to spent vacations with him. Over the years, they have almost forgotten that they used to have a sibling who too vanished in thin air like thousands!

 *   *   *

In this December morning, Mama wakes up to glimpse snowfall outside his window. In a sleepy state, he leaves bed and walks towards the washroom. After a while, he returns to offer morning prayers. And then, he grasps his supporting stick and starts moving out of his home. Without locking the main door, he merges with morning rush on the street. He staggers towards some unknown place…

After sometime, he reaches Malkhah in downtown—his ancestral graveyard. While walking besides a crowd of tombs, he reaches his own last-resting-piece of land. He steps inside a square piece of land by muffling prayers. Some 11 graves are staring him—seven houses his relatives; two his parents; one his elder brother; and the last one appears a new one.

He cups his hand towards sky and prays for the lasting peace to the departed souls. And then, he moves towards the fresh tombstone. He runs his right hand over it to clear gathered dust from its surface.

He sits down and hugs the tombstone that is inscribed by following lines:

In the memory of Zubair Sultan—the budding flower who was brutally plucked from my garden!

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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