So Long Kashmir- Habba Khatoon (Zooni)
The Sun had set by the time I returned from the Shankaracharya temple. Darkness was creeping fast on the ‘Dal’ which was half frozen. People had come out of their houseboats with their kangdis to enjoy the age-old nightlife of juicy gossips and chit-chat around local politics. I decided to sit with them and enjoy the warmth of their ‘kangdis‘ while enjoying the starry night reflected like thousand flickering lamps on the ‘Dal’.
One Shikara slithered towards me with its bounty. The Shikara owner greeted me politely and enquired where had I come from. I did not mention Singapore, knowing fully well that it would immediately conjure an image of a stupid, well-to-do tourist in his mind. He inquired if I wanted to buy pure Kashmiri Saffron. I feigned disinterest. The man, though, was well versed with this age-old mind game. He persisted. His hyperboles on mythical properties of superior Kashmiri saffron trickled my ribs. “One strand, brother! One strand; is enough to make your kahwa smell heavenly. It will cure all your cough and cold and your kid will be the fairest like an angel.” Saffron milk is believed to bless you with a fair-skinned child in North India. I asked for the rate. He lowered his eyes for a moment, feigned to consider something and my ears heard a figure which was twice the local grocery rate. I smiled.
He tried his luck with Shilajit; an ancient matter that is said to improve your sexual stamina and a few other rare herbs and minerals, mostly with a promise to make me a ‘lion in bed’. I entertained myself a bit with haggling and eventually disappointed him with no purchase. I returned to my room where hot chicken curry and chapatis waited for me. The curry was so good that it satiated even my soul.
I might have been too tired or Kashmiri ‘Fiza’ was helping me sleep soundly that not even once my sleep was disturbed by morning ‘Azaan‘. I was fresh when I woke up. However, the prospect of the shower in lukewarm water in sub-zero temperature made me stay in bed for quite some time. I finally, gathered enough courage to put my body on cold trial again. After a nerve-wracking shower and plenty of hyperventilating, I feasted on my bread omelet breakfast and thought about the day’s excursion.
Pahalgam was in my mind but I had no idea how to go there without the assistance of Google. I came out to boulevard road and started strolling in the opposite direction of traffic. Soon enough, I saw what seemed like a bus stop. The busy expression and the air of excitement confirmed my hunch. I tried to finalize a destination in my mind. Refreshingly, my imagination tried to conjure visuals from memories and subconscious to aid my decision-making. Is it 60s Bollywood sweetheart Gulmarg or should I go to Pahalgam? Where is Hazratbal? How scary South Kashmir can be? Will I see military barracks in Kupwara? Doda? Poonch? Did I recall Aru valley in Kashmir? All the names of places, I consciously or subconsciously associated with Kashmir came rushing to my mind. I tried to figure out how to find a bus for my choice of destination. After a brief period of confusion, inconvenience and inaction, I gave up on the idea of the local bus ride.
I started looking for a cab rental and soon came across a small shop which advertized cab rentals to tourit destinations. When I started pacing towards the shop, a raspy voice rang in my ear -“Where do you want to go sir?” I looked towards the source of the voice. A handsome face with bronze tan lines and unkempt beard greeted me. My face, camera and clothing would not fool even the most unsuspecting ones. He knew.
He was very good at striking conversation. Even a reserved person like me could not have avoided his charming smile and raspy voice for long. Soon, stories started flowing in all directions. Maajid graduated as an Engineer but would not leave Srinagar for his job in Bangalore. So he stayed without a job and soon discovered his love for driving and meeting people. He had been driving his ‘Innova’ for the last 20 years for tourists in Kashmir. He asked me if I had done my breakfast. I knew a restaurant where he had his commission fixed, awaited me. I thanked him and inquired if we could stop somewhere for a cup of ‘Kahwa’. Maajid advised me against having Kahwa in the city. He assured me of the world’s best cup of Kahwa after 20 minutes of drive away from the city. His persuasion had a sweet quality to it and I was not going to let my ruthless knowledge ruin the entertainment and stories of the journey with him for some crumpled and lifeless notes of INR. I agreed.
As our Innova started its journey towards Pahalgam, Maajid told me that Kashmiris are very fond of the love ballads of Habba Khatun. I was familiar with the tragic love story of Habba Khatun who is immortal in the minds of Kashmiris as Zooni. Habba Khatun was born to a peasant in the 16th century in a village near Pampore as Zoon (Moon in Kashmiri) or Zooni. She grew up to be a very beautiful woman and she took up singing while roaming around jungles in Pampore. Yusuf Chak who was the heir apparent of the Chak dynasty, once heard Zooni singing beneath a Chinar tree and instantly fell in love with her voice and beauty. Yusuf Chak soon inducted Zooni in his royal consort and ascended the throne. The couple was madly in love and very content with their life when misfortune struck their happy lives. The rising Mughal empire had its eyes set on Kashmir for a long and Akbar was waiting for an opportunity to subdue the long independent Kashmir. While other efforts failed, Akbar invited Yusuf on the pretext of an alliance but arrested as unsuspecting Yusuf landed in the Mughal capital. Yusuf spent the rest of his life in imprisonment in torrid Bihar far away from the comforts of Kashmir. Habba Khatoon, heartbroken took to her old life of wandering and singing and turned into an ascetic. Her sad and longing-filled love ballads echoed across Kashmir for generation after generation. Her story became a bitter and uneasy reminder of betrayal by Delhi. When Akbar’s forces reached the valley, they were welcomed by stone-pelting. This incident left such deep scars in the Kashmiri psyche that they never trusted anyone on Delhi’s throne since then and stone pelting against outsiders became a standard; a practice which the Indian state would come to rue later in the 1990s and even now.
I left my home for playHabba Khatoon -‘ the Nightingale of Kashmir’ introduced lyrics to Kashmiri songs known as ‘Lol’. Her legacy continues to haunt Kashmiris
Nor yet again
Returned, although the day
Sank in the West.
The name I made is hailed
On lips of men,
Habba Khatun ! though veiled,
I found no rest.
Through crowds I found my way,
From forests, then,
The sages came, when day
Sank in the West.
As our SUV left the city and entered the Pampore saffron field, I smelled Zooni’s longing and bitterness in the sharp smell of the air and my heart ached. Why do stories of mad love end up tragic and melancholic when love is the primary force of nature; I wondered. Was it Zooni’s curse that Kashmir still suffers, devoid of happiness and loss of love? Does suffering have any bearing on the atmosphere? While these questions swarmed my mind, I knew answers were not to come by.