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Revisiting My Homeland

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No, this can not be my homeland,
not this unfamiliar landscape
not these lanes and bye lanes,
smells so different, sights so strange-
no ducks scavenging the drains
no cackling poultry in the corners
scratching the earth for grains.

What is this heap of rubble and ruin
where my little house once stood,
and these monsters that surround it now,
eating into land, space and sky,
their fence walls so high
you can not see your neighbors across,
their iron doors like prison gates?

Where is the public tap
in the corner outside my home,
and the neighboring maids
that queued for pails of water,
and held a sheet of cloth for each other
as a screen for passers bye
while they undressed in haste
and, unabashedly naked,
helped themselves to jugs of water.
to take turns for a morning shower.

And what has become of my lawn
where children played hide and seek
behind jasmine bushes and almond trees
and rolled merrily on the green turf
now laid to waste,
and a haven for the creatures of the night.

Oh where is the Nale` Me`ar
that flanked my backyard
from where we slid down the slope
for a dip now and then
and walked along her banks
keeping pace with the oarsmen
that ferried fair-skinned tourists
while we treated them to that folk rhyme:
‘me`m, sahab, salaam
pate` pate` gulam.’

On this asphalted road
where the canal used to be
I find automobiles speeding bye
where boats once sailed daintily
hawking greens and flowers,
fresh as fresh can be.
The gentle cadence of the oars
that pushed the boats upstream
now yielding in helpless abandon
to clouds of dust and fumes,
and the roar of machinery.
.
Gone is the arch bridge across the canal,
a grand mosaic of stone and brick
on whose parapet walls
we sat till late hours,
watching the crows, flock after flock,
flying across endlessly,
cawing all the way,
coming home to roost
on tree tops and house roofs,
the sky a black canopy.

Alas the high risers have swallowed the sky,
the majestic chinars and the proud poplars
seem but a memory
and the birds,
oh the birds driven into exile
like me!

And as I walk along
through this changed topography
I see a bustling colony
where the almond orchards used to be,
the buildings inching inexorably
towards the foot hills,
laying a siege around the Hariparbat hill,
that high abode of my deity
her temple bells silent,
no oil lamps, no incense,
not a single devotee.

No kindly neighbors do I see
in the young men here
with flowing beards and swaggering gaits
pherons, skullcaps and karakulis,
looking askance at me,
and the kids with their frigid faces,
where innocent smiles should have been.
O where are the ladies in sarees
and where the men
sporting saffron dots on their foreheads?

No, this is can not be my homeland,
this changed geography
where neither my house stands
nor the house deity.

I can not stand it any longer,
for this place here sounds
more alien than exile.
There I can think of my homeland,
pristine and pure,
and nurture sweet memories;
here the whole ambience
smacks of a deep conspiracy
to uproot me
and wipe out all traces of history -
of my gods and me –
leaving me crying over the loss,
and lose my dreams in the bargain.

Notes:
Nale` me`ar – a canal that joined the Dal Lake up town with the Vitasta at the end of the town to save the city of Srinagar from drowning during floods, and as a navigation channel in normal.
‘mem, sahib, salaam pate` pate` gulam.’ – Madam, Sir, salutations to you, after you the slave too.
Pherons – long robes with closed front
Karakulis – caps, worn generally by Muslims, fashioned from the fur of a foetal lamb. Two animals have to be sacrificed to obtain karakuli – the pregnant mother sheep and the foetus in her womb.
Sarees – 5 meter long garments worn by Hindu ladies