An excerpt from ‘Reply-Pad Card,’ by Dinanath Nadim, from ‘The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told’, Selected and Translated by Neerja Mattoo.
“Zoon Ded! Zoon Ded! Aren’t you up yet?” Announcing his arrival loudly, Jamal Mir walked in and sat down on the doorstep. He pulled out a snuff-box from a pocket somewhere in the folds of his tattered pheran and taking a large pinch from it, rubbed it all over his teeth and gums. There was a little stick in his hand and with it he began to draw shapes in the dust.
After about fifteen minutes had passed, there was a creaking sound to his left. He was startled and looked towards the noise. It was the door to the barn, which had begun to open, revealing the figure of Zoon Ded. Seeing her standing there, he felt as if he had sighted the full moon and his lips parted in a broad grin, as if the corners of his mouth wanted to touch his earlobes. He gave a full-throated laugh.
“Oh, you slime, it’s you, is it? I wondered who it could be so early in the morning! How loudly you shouted!” Zoon Ded said with a smile.
Zoon Ded, grandmother to everyone in the village and a mother to the whole world, her hair white as snow, with deep eyes, full as brimming cups of wine, a high, commanding nose, long arms, dressed in a spotless white under-pheran, standing at the door like a queen from the wild forests.
“Why, Ded, the sun has risen so high and you still seem reluctant to give up your sleep?” said Jamal Mir through a mouth full of snuff-stained saliva. “When will you learn some manners? I don’t know what to say to you,” said Zoon Ded. “Didn’t you see me coming out of the barn? How could I be sleeping?”
Jamal Mir looked a bit sheepish, but still went on, “No, Ded, I thought maybe because of Gula sahib, perhaps…”
This brought a thoughtful look on Zoon Ded’s brow and Jamal Mir ate the rest of his words. For a while, they both kept their eyes on the ground. Then Zoon Ded spoke up with a sigh, “You are right. You could understand about me, but just look what has happened to Badri – she touches neither grass nor her feed. It is she whom I have been attending to, since dawn.”
Meanwhile, some others gathered around and a regular assembly was formed.
Who was Zoon Ded? Where had she come from? How old was she? No one in the village knew the answer to any of these questions.
Even the oldest among them did not remember her looking any different from what she looked like today. But Zoon Ded was everything to them – she ruled the village, she was judge, maulvi, police officer, nambardar, chowkidar, patwari. In fact, all authority rested with her.
She was counsellor to the old and a friend to the young, a listener to mothers-in-law and a repository of daughters-in-law’s secrets. When the panchayat met, it was Zoon Ded who delivered the verdict. If somebody had to be sent for forced labour, it was Zoon Ded who decided whether to send him or not.When marriages had to be fixed, Zoon Ded was the one to act as a go-between. When someone fell ill, Zoon Ded gave the treatment.
The whole area knew that what Zoon Ded declared must prevail, her word was law and could not be challenged. Not even the viceroy could change her writ. That is why Zoon Ded’s home was open to all villagers – they treated it as their own grandmother’s place. Whenever they were in any trouble, even if it was merely a thorn that had pricked them, they would rush to her for comfort.
Bonapore is known as Kaav Maalyun or Kawpore, the home of crows, among the people here. The reason is that all the crows in the area spend their nights here among the high branches of the chinars, where many of them have built their nests.Today, too, the crows had started making a huge racket at sunset, so much so that even the rumble of the mountain stream had been drowned in it. Suddenly, there was the sound of a gunshot and all the crows flew away from their perches in the chinar, cawing loudly in panic.
Who could have fired the shot? There, look, see that soldier advancing – it must be his doing, the crows thought, perched on the branches of fruit trees, turning their necks this way and that.
A jawan, well built, with a broad chest, well-rounded shoulders, handsome face, graceful walk, looking like an officer from a foreign army. How he swaggers along, with this striking air of nonchalance, without a care in the world!
As soon as he reached Heripore, all the children gathered around him, some hugging his legs, some putting their hands in his pockets, some scratching his gun with their nails and all of them setting up a shout of welcome, “Gula sahib! It is Gula sahib. Zoon Dedi, it is Gula sahib. He has come home to you…it is our own Captain Gula sahib!” Singing the refrain this way, the procession of children reached Zoon Ded’s doorstep.
Throwing her door open with a bang, Zoon Ded came out. Her eyes were smiling, though she tried to keep a serious expression on her face. “Oh yes, ‘Gula Chaab’ indeed! A captain, did you say? A cockatoo sahib, I say…if they made fools like him a captain, I don’t know what they would do next!” But the mother and son were hugging each other, their arms entwined.
How was Gula sahib related to Zoon Ded? Nobody knew for certain – there are always as many stories as there are mouths to tell them. Some said he was her sister-in-law’s daughter’s son, some declared that he was her own grandson, while some others were sure he had been found by her on the stairs to the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib.
But why are we concerned about their real relationship? The fact was obvious to everyone that Gula sahib was her life, Zoon Ded lived for him. Since he had joined the militia, his name was always on her lips, she would talk of nothing else. His name figured in all her conversations.
“Did you hear, Vaasa? I received a letter from Gula today. He says that he killed seventeen tribal raiders in one single day!”
“Do you know Sonamali? Gula sahib, may God bless him, has sent me a reply-paid postcard! It is beautiful, as though not words, but pearls have been studded on this paper.”
“Jamal Mir, our seven generations have been blessed, such glory has been brought by a son like Gula! Today he is defending the honour of the whole of Kashmir.”
The day Gula sahib left for the frontline, the whole village was on its feet. At the first light of day, their kitchen hearths had been lit and by the time the sun rose they were all – men and women, the elderly and the young – at Zoon Ded’s door. Some carried sanctified food from holy places, some brought talismans with powerful spells in them. Ordinary peasant women came with gifts of little packets of pickles or chutneys tied to the ends of their veils. Some even brought bundles of dried vegetables like turnips and haak leaves with them, the tuber braided with rope in the traditional style. As soon as Zoon Ded opened her door, they all rushed in, jostling for space, each visitor eager to be the first to give their gift.
“Here, Zoon Ded, take this plait of dried turnips. These grew from pure farm seeds,” said Rahti, the milkmaid, shyly holding out her gift. “I had saved it for Gula sahib all these days.”
“Take this bunch of dried greens too, they are from the famous kohlrabi produce of Khashipore,” said Ramzu Begari. “Tell Gula sahib that finding such stuff is not possible in the city!”
“Would you please take this little portion of pickle too, Ded? Tell him it is from genuine Kashmiri kohlrabi of Bonapore.”
“Zoon Ded! Please call Gula sahib. Why doesn’t he come out? Is he still in his nightcap?” said Vaasa Bhat, hesitantly.
“Didn’t I say that you had become senile? Would he be still sleeping at this hour? He has gone to the stream to wash himself. He must be on his way here now. Why, are you getting late for something?” said Zoon Ded jokingly.
“How you dote on him! It is just that I got this powerful talisman for him with potent mantras from Kanth Guruji and I wanted him to wear it in my presence,” responded Vaasa Bhat.
As soon as Gula sahib walked in after his ablutions at the stream, they all crowded around him, some hugging him, some kissing his forehead. When he came out dressed in his uniform and picked up his gun, their hearts swelled with pride. The women showered blessings on him, “God be with you, Gula! May you reach the heights, may good fortune follow your steps!” The whole village walked along with him up for many miles into his journey. They only retraced their steps when they lost sight of him behind the trees.