Last summer, on a trip to Dal Lake, Kashmir, the shikarawala nudged us, “Would you like to see some carved walnut furniture?”
Walnut wood was expensive, not for us. What we learn as children becomes our truth. But many truths had changed — we didn’t live in Kashmir any more. In British pounds, nothing was very expensive. My childhood truth was not true any longer. So, we went.
The shikarawala , well trained, talked incessantly as he rowed us into the lotus-fringed backwaters. The prospect of spending a fortune on some carved fantasy was not a pleasing thought. I wobbled out of the shikara onto a dodgy wooden jetty. My heart was not in this.
The jetty ended abruptly in a showroom, surrounded by water. I could hear the lake water lapping under the floor boards. Crammed inside the small space were exquisite pieces of carving. Magnificent and elaborate, they belonged to palaces and museums. It was hard to imagine bare human hands shaping and polishing the hard walnut planks; flowers, creepers and trees springing from walnut wood as hands chiselled and carved it, deft fingers transforming the carved wood into beautiful tables, chairs and beds.
“Sir, it is all hand carved in our factory,” said Rafiq, the sales manager, reading my thoughts. He had a proud look on his face. My wife decided what she wanted — a dressing table.
The wooden floor boards creaked and moved under my feet. The exquisite furniture housed inside the terrible, dilapidated showroom was an incredible contrast.
Rafiq, unshaven, lumbering around the tiny space, did not inspire confidence in me. The kahwa that he insisted on took 30 minutes longer to arrive. His 14-year-old assistant, Bilal, took a thorough scolding for the delay. Rafiq could not write out the invoice himself. I guessed he didn’t know English. The credit card machine had no receipt paper. I was convinced that Rafiq would not know how to transport the dressing table to London, 5000 miles away. I warned my wife, “We might as well throw the pounds into the lake.”
My wife’s unfaltering enthusiasm made me give in. But, I was wary. What if I wasn’t sent what I had selected? Rafiq sensed my discomfort; he promptly handed me a marker and said, “Initial the table, so that you can be sure.” I should have said, “No, I trust you”, but I firmly planted my initials in three places on the dressing table, hidden from the eye.
When my son asked, “Dad, do they make them out of walnut shells?” I burst out laughing. I remembered Tariq, my childhood friend, who had once said the same thing. He and I used to throw stones at the great walnut tree in our neighbourhood in Kashmir. I loved eating raw walnuts. Tariq came from a very poor family of apple packers but he was an expert at prying open green walnuts. He would snatch the sharp knife from me, risking his fingers. The reddish stain on his fingers from the walnut skin wouldn’t fade for days, a dead giveaway. I smiled at the memory.
It was mid-August 2014. After a splendid summer trip we returned home, to London. We were showing our friends pictures of Kashmir and gushing over its natural beauty when disaster struck Kashmir. The Jhelum broke its banks. The valley flooded; the worst in 50 years.
Jhelum poured onto our TV screen, wiping out our Kashmiri stories, rendering them meaningless. We saw streets submerged under 20 ft of water. The shop where my wife had bought embroidered shawls — where the shop owner had wiped his hands each time he touched a Pashmina shawl — was in splinters. The restaurant where we ate Wazwan would have mud splattered on its crisp linen.
I thought about our dressing table in the rickety building, just inches above water. The showroom with the creaky boards and the unprofessional sales manager stood no chance. I decided to call. “We are finished, we have suffered big losses, our house broke down,” came Rafiq’s tearful voice. I kept quiet. “We will contact you when the water drains out of our factory,” he said.
“And your showroom on Dal Lake?” I asked, dreading the reply.
“It flooded and broke down,” he said. The line disconnected.
My heart sank. I imagined my wife’s dressing table, floating on water, knocking against other rotting walnut wood items. “I had told you,” I said to my wife. This was the beginning of arguments in our home, 5000 miles away from the place where people were battling for shelter, medicine and food. It would be insensitive to ask more about our precious furniture, when the person on the other end had lost everything.
News of the horrendous devastation hit the world. Insensitive, vile posts appeared on Facebook from those who were safe in their homes. Those who were trapped and had lost everything had no time to post vitriol and curse the authorities. When you are hurting, you don’t hurt others.
I calmly waited for the waters to recede in the valley. I waited for Rafiq to call. Rafiq called on a bad line, “We saved your table,” he gushed. He was such a poor salesman. I didn’t believe him. “It will be dispatched in a week. Please make the balance payment now.”
“I need to be sure that it has been dispatched,” I said.
“But I am telling you it has been. Is that not enough?” Rafiq quickly switched to Kashmiri. He was smarter than I thought. “So, how are your parents and the lovely children? Your Mrs. will be delighted to see the fine carving. Customised, as she wanted.”
“I don’t pay until I see it,” was my final response.
“My brother-in-law is ill. We have been suffering,” said Rafiq. He was trying everything. This irritated me. I hung up.
I did not spread poison on Facebook like others. I did not jump into a time machine the moment Kashmir was flooded, recalling my own forced migration from Kashmir. I did not remind my Kashmiri Muslim friends what homelessness felt like.
When my mobile flashed ‘Rafiq’ next time, I put it on silence.
Six weeks later, we received an email from the freight handlers in Felixstowe. Our consignment had arrived. It was unbelievable. The dressing table would be in our house soon. A smile returned on my wife’s face.
I made the balance payment to Rafiq’s bank, and drove the wooden crate down from Felixstowe.
“Merry Christmas!” I shouted to my wife on the mobile. “Your Christmas present is here!”
I had done a remarkable job. I had taught Rafiq how to be professional, how not to bring family into business matters, how not to wrangle an early payment. But, when I hit the wooden crate with a hammer to break it open and saw my name written in Urdu in green ink, something I had not seen in 25 years, something stirred inside me.
“Careful, don’t run your fingers on the wood, a splinter might lodge in,” I said to my son. The crate wood was too strong for my hammer. As I looked at it, memories of Tariq’s family rushed in. They used to build strong wooden boxes to pack apples for export. This was the same wood. I stopped hammering. I ran my fingers on the wood.
“Dad, splinter!” my son cautioned. I was not listening.
I smelt the wood. It had faint traces of my childhood. Emotions began welling inside me. I chucked the hammer away. I used my hands to twist the panels out. My son binned the panels, I picked each piece out. I asked him to store them in the garage.
Shredded newspaper filling spilled out of the open crate. The calligraphic Urdu letters spoke to me. They reminded me of instructions written in Kashmiri buses, which I used to read in my halting Urdu — ‘Passengers. Are. Responsible. For. Their. Belongings.’ This new belonging of ours was reminding me to be responsible.
The dressing table slid out of the open crate, bit by bit, in all its glory. Lovingly, we put it together. My wife took pictures and shared them; our friends admired it.
I looked at the beautiful dressing table and remembered the great walnut tree in my neighbourhood, which Tariq and I used to throw stones at. Unripe green walnuts would thud to the ground, scattering a strong smell. He was the one who got caught every time, his stained fingers gave him away. I closed my eyes and pried open the white kernels, soft and sweet. I savoured the taste of my childhood. And of Tariq’s friendship.
One day, my wife removed the lower three drawers and noticed my scribbled initials. This was the table that we had selected at the lake. The ramshackle showroom came to me in a flash. I saw the dreadful floods of Kashmir. The flooded night when Rafiq and his young help, Bilal, would have risked their lives to carry the dressing table to a safe place in the middle of the mayhem. I saw his family’s anguish when their other exquisite furniture would have been swept away by the furious waters. When their home would have been washed away.
I was safe and secure in my home in London, yet I felt the despair of the families in Kashmir whose homes were destroyed, their belongings swept away. I felt their homelessness, because I was once homeless too.
The walnut wood dressing table reminds me of my childhood truths. It reminds me of Tariq’s unconditional friendship; Tariq who would now be the same age as Rafiq. It reminds me that when a tearful Rafiq calls me in desperation again, I will remember to be responsible, not indifferent. I will not wait for six weeks, I will help.
It reminds me to be human.
I couldn’t have asked for a better present on Christmas.