One Love and The Many Lives of Osip B

Book Review by Sadaf Munshi
Author: C.P. Surendran
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2021

The book revolves around the story of Osip Balakrishnan, a young boy from Kerala’s Thrissur city, and many interconnected stories of people in Osip’s life. Narrated by the protagonist (in first person) and by the author (in third person), the book offers stories happening across time and space, all converging into one. Osip’s story begins with his desperate search for Elizabeth Hill, the English teacher at his boarding school in Kasauli, who Osip is obsessively in love with. Elizabeth has suddenly vanished after their brief romantic intercourse that resulted in her pregnancy and an abortion drive. After traveling from one city to another and across countries over to Oxford, Elizabeth’s hometown, Osip does manage to find her. And yet he does not find her afterall.  

The novel is dense in content and cosmopolitan in nature, and hence, of interest to a wide range of audiences. The author has done an extraordinary job of summarizing in the book many issues faced by an ordinary Indian citizen aware of their surroundings. There are several characters in the book some of whom never quite make their entry into the scene and yet there they are, adding to the reader’s intrigue. From a social psychological perspective, the novel presents a complex array of rifts and ruptures in relationships depicted by characters engaged in nuptial and non-nuptial arrangements taking an immense toll on them. For instance, Gloria is exhausted at her “small town sacrifices” for a revolutionary husband with a murderous past and her desire “to start living” her life. Maina is devastated and embittered by the apathy of her rebel-genius-intellectual-author husband. Sangita, suffering at the hands of a class and caste-based society, has parted from her own child for prospects of a better future for him. Here Elizabeth comes as an outlier — a free-spirited woman attempting to escape the clutches of custom and commitment. The problem is that there is only a hairline between freedom and estrangement, between surrender and servitude. 

Spanning over various time periods and set in different places across continents, laden with historical detail, presenting layered complexities around the stories of “the victims and their victims,” the novel is more than realistic in its many different dimensions — social, psychological, historical, political, and philosophical. Whether it be the effect of the political events on the psychology of a common man, the futility of and frustration against the modern day “cafe activism”, the hypocrisy of the Indian nation in its conflicting responses to internal and external political problems, the overwhelming nature of the deteriorating politics in contemporary India and around the world, the heavy toll of forced migrations and dislocations resulting from wars, the problem of racism in Europe and the after-effects of colonialism, the depiction of the tension in inter-personal relations and individual aspirations, or the daily grind of a common man at meeting basic survival needs. 

The book is a chronicle and critique of contemporary India facing communal tension, fighting social taboos, and juggling with political movements challenging its national integrity  — an atmosphere where it’s the “hour of the crowd” and personal liberties must succcumb to national security. Through Osip’s struggle to become a responsible adult man, it takes a dig at the corrupt and monstrous media enterprises dancing to the tunes of their masters in power where investigating facts is no longer lucrative. Through Anand’s story of an aspiring godman, it gives the reader a tour of the murky market of religion and spiritualy mushrooming out of India and expanding its reach beyond borders. In Idris’s struggles at making ends meet, it highlights the complex picture of the inter-faith and inter-group hierarchy in a nation of many faiths and identities. And through Arjun’s story of his trials and tribulations against the allegations of sexual misconduct, it exposes the wickedness of cults, witch-hunts seeking fodder to fuel movements often insensitive to the consequences of missteps and resulting in extreme reactionary responses that could damage lives beyond repair.  

Perhaps the illness shared by Osip and his Stalinist grandfather who adopted Osip at an orphanage is both real and metaphorical and so is the unconventional bond between young Elizabeth and old Kris, the estranged brother of the grandfather — triggered by experiences of contact and commune, by shared history, or by the “unique germs of misery” that humans “infected each other with.”  The kidnapping of the corpse for a ransom or the murder of a fly at a dinner party and the events surrounding these are symbolic — tragic as well as comic, depicting the meaninglessness of class and ethics in the face of emotion, greed, ritual, reputation, or simply survival. 

From an artistic perspective, the book merits applause for its linguistic beauty, lyrical quality, poetic texture, deeply sensitive detail, satirical tone, raw humor, powerful metaphor and philosophical touch as illustrated by a few excerpts I quote below:

“My grandfather and I shared a world where centuries fluctuated and flickered , dull one moment, dazzling the next, but never steady….”

“The flowers looked painted, and brittle, almost as if they were made of paper and stuck to the air. Half above, the stars shredded the sky.”

“… summer dusk [in Delhi] falling like a shutter over the Fort; trees turning deep as caves.”

“…watching news or porn, ‘the two secret and interchangeable career aspirations of the hardworking Indian’”

“There are twenty million people in Bombay. But no one has a face, except the film stars.”

“When everybody is rich and free, the idea of the nation will not count.”

“Have you watched the night sky? …..You should. It’s then that you realize that not everything has to make sense.”

“It takes every man’s past to arrive at this moment. Somebody’s future is our past. We are nomads wandering through time. And in our mind any event from any place can recur, and it becomes us.”

The book is definitely not an easy read. It may feel like the author put too many eggs in one basket, and perhaps that is its strength as well as its weakness. But if you are a thorough reader, it will surely activate your pineal gland. 

Originally published on Sept. 17, 2021, at:

© Sadaf Munshi

Tonight, let me write!

Tonight, let me write!
Let me write 
With the burning flames 
Of youthful passion
Under the silver balm 
Of the crescent moon
Amidst the soothing fragrance 
Of the spring air —

Tonight, let me write!
Let me write 
Of the dark 
Dreadful sleepless nights,
Of the days bygone 
And the paths forsaken,
Of the one-way journeys 
To strange lands —

Tonight, let me write!
Let me write
Of the hopeful eyes
And the desperate souls,
Of the severed limbs,
And the silenced songs,
Of the rising suns
And the falling stars,
Of the broken bridges 
And the stifled voices,
Of the victims of humanity —

Tonight, let me write
Let me write Kashmir! 

© Sadaf Munshi

Āzə̄dī ‘Freedom’

Ghulam Ahmad Mahjoor (1885-1952) was a revolutionary, progressive poet of modern Kashmir who used his native language, Kashmiri, as the primary mode of expression. Following the Partition in 1947, Mehjoor played a key role in opposing the Tribal invasions through his poetic compositions inspiring people to rise against the perpetrators in defending their land. Some of his very popular compositions include valo hā bāgvāno (‘Come, O Gardener’) and āzə̄dī (‘freedom’) which reflect his anguish at the state of affairs of the underprivileged, downtrodden and oppressed people of Kashmir. Following is an excerpt from his well-known poem āzə̄di ‘freedom’:

     sanā sə̄rī pariv sānyan garan manz cāyi āzə̄dī
     syaṭha yəckə̄ly asi kun jalva hāvan āyi āzə̄dī
     ‘Let us all offer thanks for to our homes visits Freedom
After a long time, a rare glimpse towards us gives Freedom’  

     yi āzə̄dī čhi trāvān magribas kun rahmatuk bārān
     karān sə̄nis zamīnas pyaṭh charey gagrāyi āzə̄dī
     ‘This Freedom showers the rain of blessings on the West
On our soil, just empty thunderstorms are offered by Freedom’

     garībī muflisī bebūj nāpursān zabān bandi
     amē ruci trāyi asi pyaṭh āyi trāvān sāyi āzə̄dī
     ‘Poverty, destitution, liability, anarchy, and repression
Coming along with these blessings, a shadow on us casts Freedom’ 

     yi āzə̄dī čhi sorgič hūr phēryā khāna pata khānay
     fakat kēncan garan andar čhi mārān grāyi āzə̄dī
     ‘A houri from the heaven, Freedom will not visit door-to-door
Only in a select few homes does merrily dance Freedom’

It seems the poem is as relevant today as it was in 1947. An audio rendition of the above excerpt is available here.

© Sadaf Munshi (August 15, 2020)

A Self Evaluation


It was a deep connection
Far-reaching yet undefined
I wonder what prompted it
There was no history
No prior contact whatsoever
Nothing visibly discernible
Nor physically tangible either —

It tested my resilience
Defeated my sense of platitude
Perseverance —
I cringed
And I crawled
Like an earthly insect
A bird with broken wings
Or a shepherd
Parted from his sheep
Wandering and confused
Aimless –-

Perhaps it’s time to capitulate
For a calm self-assessment
An evaluation of sorts
To measure the heavenly
Against the mundane

© Sadaf Munshi

An afternoon in the Dal


An evening by the window
That opens down my memory lane —
The window and I
And a piece of poetry —
A cup of nun-chai in the chilling cold
And the flights of my fantasy —
An October afternoon in the Dal
In a Shikara, and you by my side
In complete harmony
With the gentle waves
Of gilded water
And an ecstasy–
Autumn in Kashmir
Wrapped in gold and yellow,
Sulphur and crimson —
A breeze mellow
Under the majestic buin’  —
A walk by the Avantipor ruin
In the outskirts of Srinagar
Or beside the dried up Jehlum
At the waning dusk of fury and fear
Do I still not remember!
And it remains forever —

© Sadaf Munshi (2003)


Some useful notes by the author: 

Dal  ‘Dal Lake; a famous lake in Srinagar, Kashmir’
Nun-chai  ‘salt tea; traditional Kashmiri beverage’
Shikara ‘term for a traditional Kashmiri boat’
Buin ‘Platanus Orientalis; name of a tree known for its beauty and majesty world over, it has great importance in Kashmiri literature and historical tradition; also known as Chinar (from Persian)’
Avantipur ‘place name; famous for its historical importance for it houses thousands of years old ruins of the kingdom of Pandavas, great figures in Hindu mythology/religion in India; these are gigantic stones engraved with beautiful and amazing pictures’
Jehlum ‘name of a famous river in Kashmir which has been mentioned in literature centuries ago with different names; known as Vitasta in Sanskrit or Vyeth in Kashmiri’

Breakfast and Bed







Breakfast and Bed

A freshly made waffle
Topped with whipped cream
Blueberries and chocolate
I see poetry on a plate —

A cup of hot tea
With a touch of cardamom
And a streak of sunshine
Peering through the kitchen blind
There’s a rapturous warmth
In this cold Sunday morning

She sings melodies
In a husky voice
                     “Come to me, come to me”
I listen in delight 

You snore and I toss myself
On the bed, in turns pushing
And shoving you aside
I cannot sleep

Bad habits stay long —
What will you say
When I vanish
From your side one day?

© Sadaf Munshi  

The mystery of Okus Bokus

children hands

Okus bokus teli van cokus *
Šāl kič-kič vāngno
Onum batuk lodum dēgi
Val ba naličas savārey
Bramazāraz poyn čhokum
Ṭekis ṭ
eka banyov kyah   

We would sit in a circle with our hands placed on the floor, palms down. The lead player would move their right hand clockwise pointing towards the focus with the index finger touching a hand against a word. When the last word kyah was spelled out, the targeted hand was to be turned upside down. The next time this happened the hand was out of the game. The player would repeat the practice until the last hand remained in the game to be the winner. The winner would then take the lead and the game would continue. 

Stories get distorted when passed on from source to source. Memories fade away with time. But memories could also be creative. Often the end product is quite different from what the actual would have been. I always wondered what this children’s rhyme in my mother tongue would actually have meant when it was composed. Many words simply sounded nonsensical and unrecognizable when we heard them and repeated them. They said the rhyme was considerably distorted from the original over generations of having been orally preserved. Whatever the song meant, it is a testimony to a culture that I was raised in as a child, and which my American born children will perhaps never be able to cherish, experience or understand the way I did.   

The song, which has continued to be popular among Kashmiris of all denominations, has a number of “studied” versions, which attempt at solving the lexico-semantic mystery in Okus Bokus while none of these can be corroborated in absence of any attested data. The opening words of this ditty have been variously rendered as ca kus, ba kus, teli van su kus ‘Who are you, who am I, and then tell me, who is he?’, and hu kus, ba kus, teli van ca kus ‘Who is he, who am I, and then tell me, who are you?’ While the words have been considerably distorted and changed or replaced by other words or nonsensical syllables (as in okus bokus), the interpretations also vary widely. For example, according to one native speaker of Kashmiri, the word su ‘he’ refers to ‘the creator of the universe’ while in its modern, or so to say, corrupted version, su is perhaps a random person sitting in the room, a witness to the children’s play. Similarly, it is not clear how the second line, parsed as moh batuk logum degi by a contemporary performing artist, Kailash Mehra, and translated as ‘I feed my senses with the food of worldly attachment and material love’ (where moh means ‘desire’; refer to an explanation of the rhyme by Kailash Mehra here starting at 4:38 minutes) was modified to onum batuk lodum degi which literally means ‘I brought a duck and put it in the cauldron/pot’ (to be cooked for dinner perhaps? Could that be true?). What exactly is the word batuk (the only word that could come to mind is ‘duck’) is doing in “moh batuk”? If moh batuk indeed is an interpretable phrase used for ‘worldly attachment’, it should be available elsewhere in the language. The question is whether it has been attested in any other historical text — oral or written — in this form, or if it is available in the spoken word or the vernacular? Most likely not. If so, then the philosophical explanation does not make sense. 

The next line was passed on to us as šāl kič-kič vāngno. The possible original version of this line, according to one analysis, is: vs kič-kič vng-mayam, with possibly only one translatable word of Sanskrit origin, viz., vs ‘breath’, while the rest of the words are completely unrecognizable to a modern Kashmiri speaker (cf. Kashmiri ah ‘breath’). A more spiritual interpretation attributed to this line (based on an online publication Gyawun) is: For when the breath that I take in reaches the point of absolute purification’. However, it is not clear how vs became l and how vangmayam (perhaps (likened to) an inflected Sanskrit verb whose meaning is to be confirmed) got replaced by vngno. The contemporary (distorted) version runs the risk of translating l as ‘jackal’ and vngno as the vocative form of vngun as ‘egg plant’, while the meaning of the reduplicated form kič-kič (alternating with khič-khič in certain performances) too is yet to be ascertained. Is it simply an onomatopoeia?     

Astonishingly interesting and perhaps another comic construction is the line: vala ba naličas savrey (Lit. ‘Come and swing on the hookah pipe’). This line is missing from most of the reconstructed (“intellectual”?) versions of the poem. What comes next is the line bramazras pōny čhokum (with another variant form brimji hras pōny čhokum), perhaps originally bruman/braman dras pōny čhokum (Lit. ‘I sprinkled water over bruman dr’, or ‘I sprinkled water over brimji hr’). In this line, while the word bruman is interpreted as ‘nerve center of the human brain,  it is not clear how dr can be understood, whether it is an independent word or, most likely, a part of bruman, because the Dative Case marker –as (roughly translated as ‘to’) appears on dr and not on bruman, which leads us to the possibility of bruman-dr being a single lexical entity, or a compound word. The corrupted version, bramazr-(as), may sound like a contraction of bram mazr, and could even be interpreted as ‘the graveyard of fear’(where bram means ‘fear’ or ‘apprehension’). The latter may rather be an oversimplification.  If it indeed is brimji-hr (which clearly looks like a compound noun),where brimji is the name of a tree, what does hr imply?   

The final line of the ditty reads as ekis eka banyov kyah in one and ekis eka banyov yok in another orally preserved version (with an additional version of brimji beni yekis yokah; Shantiveer Kaul, p.c.). The word yok could mean a ‘drop’ or a ‘dot’ and the line could possibly be (literally) translated as ‘a dot to a dot, and what did it become’ or ‘a dot became one with a dot’. A sophisticated translation equates the word yok with a dot made from sandal-wood paste depicting divine fragrance, and symbolic of universal divinity. This leads to the meaning of the line as: ‘I realize that I am, indeed, divine’.  Is that what it means? I do not know.  

Interestingly enough,  a linguist friend and colleague of mine who I shared my findings with, tried to derive a possible relationship of okus-bokus with hocus-pocus — a sham Latin invocation often used by magicians or jugglers in the West; the origin of hocus-pocus is found in a Latin interjection (Also cf. Hocas Pocas, common name of a magician or juggler in older times (1620s)). The striking phonetic similarity between the two, he thought, could “not simply be a matter of coincidence.” In it’s modern English connotation, hocus pocus refers to meaningless talk or activity, “designed to draw attention away from and disguise what is actually happening”.

It is almost unbelievable, indeed, that a sham Latin phrase would end up in a Kashmiri nursery rhyme. To find out we need to look at a few questions. For example, when did the first European missionaries or explorers come to Kashmir?  Could they have brought this, and people thought it was so funny and weird that they incorporated it in a nursery rhyme?  Is there anything similar in surrounding languages, especially languages farther west? Are there other examples of mock Latin or any other nonsense imitations of European languages in Kashmiri nursery rhymes. We do happen to have a Kashmiri (translated) version of Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star in the form of loke-moke trko.

If we can prove that okus-bokus goes back in Kashmiri (or South Asian) tradition way before any European contacts or influence, then perhaps the analyses provided above would be correct to a certain extent. It is very much possible that some of the philosophical explanations are forced upon and far-fetched.

© Sadaf Munshi

* Click here for assistance with the transcription used in this text.

Coffee and a kiss


A cup of coffee
and a sizzling kiss
ah, pure bliss!

The lover’s lips quiver
on the contours
of her body

He moves around
in the deep dungeons
of a solitary town
mapping its twists
and tracing its turns
with gentle strokes  

Please tell me, will you,
the musings of a mystery
And I shall trail down
the lyrical pathways
of the April breeze

Love is a whirlpool
of wishes and wonders
Brace up and take a dip
lest the thread of life
shall slip away

Give me a hand
when I walk on sand
and pause by the ocean–

© Sadaf Munshi

Language Hunting in Pakistan: A Road Trip to Gilgit

It was summer 2010. After several stressful attempts over 3 years, I received a visa for a research trip to Pakistan. A plethora of investigations, letters of invitation, and even a sufarish from people with contacts in the Interior Ministry hadn’t helped. But this time the process got really smooth. I wrote an impassioned letter to the Consulate General of Pakistan in Houston explaining to him my ordeal over the years. I also sought letters from my university. And, I had a US federal grant to support my project which would document an endangered language of Pakistan. The visa arrived within weeks. I was thrilled.  

“Are you crazy?” my husband fumed when I booked my tickets. It was a lengthy tour from Texas-to-Delhi-to-Srinagar-to-Delhi-to-Lahore-to-Islamabad-to-Gilgit. and I was pregnant. But no good advice could stop me. I took my five-year old, deposited him with his grandparents in Srinagar, and returned to Delhi within two days to take the detour flight to Gilgit via Lahore and Islamabad. I would have preferred a road trip from Srinagar but for the plenty of restrictions on modes and points of entry.   

There was a prolonged wait at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. The ticketing lines for the Pakistan International Airlines were long. After waiting for sometime I started getting impatient. Just then I saw a lady dressed in an all gold attire, layers of makeup and a hairstyle that reminded me of the lead character in a Japanese television serial Oshin aired in India over two decades ago. The lady confidently cut into the line, and was cheerfully received by the men at the desk. I tried to console myself with the thought that she might be flying in the Executive class, which wasn’t true after all.

We received our boarding passes and were seated in the aircraft in a quick rush. The flight took off after the recitation of the Dua-e-safar. An airhostess came with a bundle of newspapers. I randomly pulled out Nawaay-e-Waqt. The first article that grabbed my attention on the front page was about the “48 people injured during protests” and the “three Mujahids” who had attained “shahadat” at the hands of Indian (Security) Forces in the “Maqbuza Kashmir”. I was reading the item about Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s “chest pain” on Page 12 when I saw the lady-in-golden-attire again, sitting right next to me. I stole a look at her disembarkation slip as she wrote “52 years”. I figured she too was headed to Islamabad. As we cozied up during our stopover in Lahore, she talked about her secret courtship with an unnamed Indian diplomat. “We stay in Manali whenever I visit.” Ah! “I wish I could stay longer. Going back and forth every other month — it’s hard, you know.” I wish it was that easy for the commonplace to travel across the border.

My travel agent had helped me find a hotel reservation in a “safe area” in Islamabad. After a good night’s sleep, I got ready for my flight to Gilgit next morning. When I reached the airport, I discovered that my flight had been “cancelled on account of bad weather.” Perturbed passengers started protesting about the “step-motherly treatment” to Gilgit. “They must be needing the aircraft to carry a VIP somewhere.” “They always do this to us. The weather is perfectly alright in Gilgit. They are lying.” “They treat us like second-class citizens.” My contacts in Gilgit confirmed on phone that the weather was “sunny and clear”. I was disheartened. “Please join the protest, Ma’am!” Join the protest?  

On popular demand, I did join the protest. But soon the number of people started dwindling while the officers refused to budge. Traveling to Gilgit is not an easy exercise. Besides the special permit needed to the “restricted territory”, only a handful of flights travel. Other means of transportation were limited. I did not want to lose a single day waiting in Islamabad. So, I pleaded to the officer that my visit to Gilgit was extremely important, that I could not wait for an unknown number of days. I wished I could also tell him how hard it had been to get a visa. The arrogant officer couldn’t care less.

And then I saw Sultan, my taxi-driver, with a group of European hikers, standing nearby. They were also headed to Gilgit, on a hiking expedition. Sultan suggested the group take a road trip. They offered me to join but I politely declined, considering I was five months pregnant and the journey was pretty strenuous. Sultan handed me his card “just in case”, after which the group said a “good-bye”. I went to search for my options.

The Quaid-e Azam international airport reminded me of the Old Delhi railway station — crowded and mismanaged. Anybody that I asked for help directed me to another person so I ended up moving in circles. I had no hotel reservation for another day. The trekking team for Gilgit had left and I was on my own. I went from counter-to-counter inquiring about the next possible flight to Gilgit. “We don’t know, Ma’am. It could take as long as a week.” A week? I was shocked. Finally, frustrated, I took out Sultan’s card and called his number.  “We are about 30 miles away from the airport, but we can come back and pick you up.”  Yes, yes, please! I was relieved.

The temperature was staggering hot — almost 42 degrees centigrade. We bought water bottles and some snacks in Rawalpindi. I got the best spot in the ten-seat van, right behind the driver, with an empty seat next to me where I put my backpack and my camera bag. I decided not to call home about my changed travel plans until I arrived in Gilgit lest they should panic and make ways to stop me from traveling onwards.

It was a 23-hour long journey from Islamabad to Gilgit and a bumpy road, but our high-spirited guide kept us well entertained. Beautiful songs were playing on the recorder as he showed us important points of interest on our way talking about their history and cultural significance. At around 2:00am, we reached a police checkpoint. As soon as they spotted us, a dozen policemen suddenly seemed to be on a high alert. They advised us to “wait for about three hours” before we could proceed any further. I was tired. Despite great pleading the policemen did not oblige us. “You cannot leave before 4:00 am. That is the order.”  

At 4:00am we were allowed to move forward. In about thirty minutes we reached our hotel in Chilas where we slept for a few hours. After an elaborate breakfast, I pulled a local map from the hotel trivia shop before we checked out and moved ahead.

Munshi_fieldtrip_Karakoram Highway_with European hikers

With European hikers on Karakoram Highway

The muddy waters of the Indus ran along the Karakoram Highway. Our guide, a native speaker of Burushaski, continued to chatter in his accented Urdu and broken English while we took pictures and video clips along the shaky ride. Very few vehicles plied on the road. We stopped to take a few pictures. The view of the Nanga Parbat was exalting. 

After some time, we stopped again to buy refreshments at a makeshift shop in Jaghlot, a small town situated 45 km southeast of Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway. I couldn’t find much except for wrinkled and mushy mangoes; I changed my mind. Some curious children stopped by our van. I tried to take a picture of a little girl in a brown shalwar-qameez but as soon as I put my fingertip on the camera button, she quickly hid behind her companion, a little boy in a bluish-green Khan-dress. With a bottle of water in my hand, I waved a smile and boarded the van.

We were 11 kilometers away from the Gilgit city when a majestic sign board welcomed us in three languages: English, Chinese and Russian. Around 1:00pm we arrived in the city.


Arriving in Gilgit

I met with scores of people in different parts of Gilgit and some nearby villages — speakers of the Burushaski language from Hunza, Nagar and Yasin valleys. Everyone was extremely friendly and hospitable. Socio-economically, it seemed, there was a lot to catch up. Although my interest was language documentation, talk of Kashmir politics was inevitable at times. Being a Kashmiri who introduced herself as “an Indian” seemed some sort of a surprise to some. “But Kashmiris want to be part of Pakistan?” Well… 

While I was out on various documentation expeditions, my movement was constantly screened by officials – the Police, the Special Intelligence Bureau, and the Interior Ministry. Every few minutes, people called my host asking about my whereabouts, about what I was doing, who I met. At one point I was so annoyed that I grabbed his telephone and demanded to “handle it myself.” I volunteered to give every single detail of my visit to the officer at the other end and requested not to disturb me any further. Instead, the officer wanted to “see me in person”. Frustrated, I headed to his office to “get it settled”. After explaining my purpose to travel, the officer said: “So what will we get for letting you do your work here?” You must be kidding? I banged his table with my fist, but he said was serious. I am sorry, but my grant is not budgeted for a bribe! I released a sarcastic laugh. At this the officer shot a series of questions. During the exchange I discovered that he too was a speaker of Burushaski. That IS the language! Suddenly his tone changed. He stood up from his chair, headed to a cabinet, and quietly pulled a thick book.

“My father translated the holy book into Burushaski,” he handed me the volume. I opened the first page and read the translator’s name. That’s your father? I am meeting him tomorrow. “Do you know him?” Of course! We’ve been in touch for a while. The officer, extremely embarrassed, apologized and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Just make sure I don’t get any more phone calls from your office, I winked at him and left.

Language documentation is quite an intrusive exercise. It involves close and prolonged contact with the members of the speech community. Together with my research assistants — speakers of three different dialects, I traveled to several places. We met with scores of people — students, teachers, farmers, housewives, lawyers, army officers, “ex-separatists”, businessmen, doctors, sportsmen, musicians, poets, and artists. We collected a huge corpus of linguistic data from men and women, young and old. We recorded stories and legends, personal narratives, historical accounts, discussions on language, culture and politics, proverbial expressions, food recipes, poetry and songs. 

Hundur_men dancing during traditional music and song performance

Burusho men in Hundur

“Record us later,” a group of  women came to me in Hundur, a remote village in Yasin valley, after we completed recording a musical performance in which men danced to exhaustion while women watched from outside; they too wanted to dance but “separately”.

Roads, streets and alleyways in Gilgit were  rugged with big potholes here and there. On our way back from Hundur, our rental car was damaged. So, we had to leave it behind and ask for a “lift”. But incessant rains had caused considerable destruction. At one point it became impossible to drive. Floodwater was gushing forcefully over a rocky blockade. Everyone got down to assess the situation. It was a daring exercise to cross even on foot. Some locals came forward to help. My companions advised me to sit in the car while a dozen people literally lifted the vehicle in their hands. I was nervous; should they lose grip, the vehicle could land in a deep gorge. In guarded steps, the car was carried to the other side. I was glad we made it across safely.

Munshi_Data collection_Floods_Gilgit

Floods in Gilgit, summer 2010

Summers being hot in the city, the frequent power outages were a menace; the nights, however, were pleasant. Many evenings, my host family sat in front of their television watching Indian cinema. Long drives and extended interactions with the locals were a learning experience. Over a cup of tea with phit̩i (a bread cake) or during a course of s̩apik (‘(staple) food’) served with d̩aud̩o (a soup dish made from noodles and meat), and during scores of recording sessions, various aspects of life in Gilgit unfolded.

Ateeqa Bano: An Unsung Hero of Kashmir – II


Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

A day before my return to the US during my January 2015 visit to Kashmir, I met Ateeqa Ji again, this time at the University of Kashmir. She called me and invited me to a “program on girl child,” organized in part with the Markaz-e-Noor. When I entered after taking off my shoes at the front door, I saw Ateeqa Ji sitting in the front row on the left side which was predominantly occupied by men while a dozen women, some of them in complete face veils, were occupying a space on the right side of the hall. As soon as she saw me, Ateeqa Ji quickly stood up in excitement and offered me her own seat – a spot decorated with cylindrical cushions covered in white gilaf. After a bit of polite haggling and my refusal to take her spot, she sat down and I took the space on her left.

We chatted for a while and kept waiting for the Vice Chancellor, the “chief guest” of the event that was supposed to start at noon, but when the VC was nowhere to be seen even by 1:00 pm, people started getting impatient. Ateeqa Ji turned to me in an embarrassing tone, “Sadaf Ji, do people come to meetings this late in the US as well?” to which I responded in a negative. She appreciated that. In a few minutes, the convener began the program and Ateeqa Ji talked various problems faced by women of Kashmir — problems at home, in public and at the work place. She spoke about “the lack of self-confidence in women” its side-effects which often expresses itself in the objectification of women.

Next, Ateeqa Ji invited me on stage to “speak a few words” on the topic, and I, hesitantly obliged. By then the VC had arrived and taken the special seat in the center of the stage. While I was talking, a bearded man came to me with a little note in his hand that read, “This is not a seminar, please be short.” I quickly finished my point and sat beside a burqa-clad woman next to me. I was sipping kehwa from a beautiful chinaware tea cup and gulping on the last crumb of a shirmaal when I saw the woman writing something on a piece of paper that she pulled from out of a file and passed it to me quietly. The meeting was adjourned after a little bit of commotion over the remarks of the VC who said that “women were responsible for their own woes,” at the conclusion of his views and those of another male faculty who declared that “women’s job was to bear and raise kids while that of men was to earn and support the family.” I retorted in protest and some other women joined in as well. At that uneasy note, people dispersed.

aap se jii bhar ke baat karna chaahti huun (‘I want to talk to you at great length’), the burqa-clad woman had said to me while passing the piece of paper along with her email address. I discovered she was a comrade of Ateeqa Ji in her activism on women’s issues, closely involved in the affairs of the women’s welfare organization Jamiah Falaah-e-Nisvaan set up some years ago. I tried to meet her in the adjacent room but it soon got jam-packed with people and suddenly I found myself ensconced between three men on a sofa – one on my right and two on my left while my new friend squeezed into a corner at the other end of the room hesitant to break the invisible barrier between us. She had promised to “unveil” in private when I told her that I felt uncomfortable talking to a person I could not see. I looked at my watch and realized I was getting late. “I have to leave,” I said. I had to prepare for my return journey and meet another friend who was waiting for me outside. Ateeqa Ji offered me a ride back, but I asked her to excuse me and began to leave. “Wait,” she quickly turned around for something and came back with a package: “This is for you. From Sopore.” The bag full of kulchas that she had brought as a parting gift traveled with me to the United States along with several documents and scores of photographs she had handed over to me earlier; my husband and I relished the kulchas for several weekends over nun chai.

I visited Kashmir again in June that year to gather more information on the collections. Over the following year, I stayed in touch with Ateeqa Ji off and on in connection with my unsuccessful attempts in pursuing funds for digitization and documentation besides training of personnel in the methods in cataloging and preservation. The proposal was submitted and declined twice by the British Library (United Kingdom) in 2015-16. Next year, in summer 2016, I was in Kashmir again for a grant-writing workshop (which sadly was never held due to the situation) and for collecting more information for a re-submission. When I was frantically trying to connect with Ateeqa Ji for a letter that needed her signature, with phones only working intermittently (thanks to the government restrictions), I received a short call from her: Sadaf Ji, main aap se bahut maa’zrat-khwah hoon. Internet band hai, is liye main letter nahi bhej sakti, aur hadtal ki wajah se aap se milne Srinagar bhi nahi aa sakti (‘Sadaf Ji, I am very sorry. Since the Internet is not working, I cannot send you the letter. And because of the hadtal, I am unable to travel to Srinagar to meet you (and deliver the letter by hand)’). After checking into a hotel at Rajbagh for Internet access, I somehow managed to submit the proposal, this time to the National Endowment for Humanities (USA). The proposal was declined a third time earlier this year for insufficient information.

For the first time in many years, I did not visit Kashmir this past summer in 2017. Disappointed at my previous attempts, I did not have the enthusiasm nor the patience to pursue the grant a fourth time during the next funding cycle. I lost touch with Ateeqa Ji in the meantime and the next thing I heard about her was that Ateeqa Ji was no more. Heartbroken and embarrassed, I regretted the loss of the repository of knowledge that departed with her – knowledge that may not be assessed by ordinary people nor retrievable by ordinary means. One can only hope that the treasure she left behind is taken care of with the same dedication and passion that she harbored.

© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.