A gift from Kashmir

April 05, 2015 12:00 am | Updated 02:04 am IST

Another deluge now in Kashmir takes SANDEEP RAINA back in time when, seven months ago, the Jhelum broke loose and washed out everything on its banks, except the human spirit.

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, but 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. So we went.

The shikarawala 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 into a dodgy wooden showroom. I could hear the water lapping under the floor boards. Crammed into the small space were exquisite pieces of carving. It was hard to imagine flowers and creepers springing from walnut wood as deft fingers chiseled and carved it, bare hands transforming the wood into beautiful tables and chairs.

“Sir, it is all hand carved in our factory,” said Rafiq, the sales manager. He had a proud look on his face. My wife decided she wanted a dressing table.

The floor boards creaked and moved under my feet. The exquisite furniture housed inside the terrible, dilapidated showroom was an incredible contrast.

Rafiq, lumbering around the tiny space, did not inspire confidence. He 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 5000 miles away to London. I warned my wife, “We might as well throw the pounds into the lake.” But my wife’s unfaltering enthusiasm made me give in. Rafiq sensed my discomfort. He said, “Initial the table.” I should have said, “No, I trust you”; but I firmly planted my initials on the dressing table.

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. We used to throw stones at the walnut tree in our neighbourhood. Tariq came from a poor family of apple packers but 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 trip, we returned home to London. We were showing our friends pictures of Kashmir and gushing over its natural beauty when disaster struck. The Jhelum broke its banks and flooded the valley, the worst in 50 years. The Jhelum poured onto our TV screen, wiping out our Kashmiri stories. We saw streets submerged under 20 ft of water. I thought about our dressing table in the rickety building, just inches above water. The creaky showroom 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. “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.” The line disconnected. My heart sank. “I told you,” I said to my wife.

News of the horrendous devastation hit the world. Insensitive posts appeared on Facebook from those safe in their homes, while people in Kashmir battled for shelter, medicine and food. Those who had lost everything had no time to post vitriol and curse the authorities.

I calmly waited for the waters to recede. I waited for Rafiq to call.

Rafiq called on a bad line, “We saved your table,” he gushed. He was such a poor salesman. “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 missus will be delighted to see the fine carving.”

“I don’t pay until I see it,” was my final response.

“My brother-in-law is ill; we badly need the money,” 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 there. I did not remind my Kashmiri Muslim friends what homelessness felt like.

When my mobile flashed ‘Rafiq’ next time, I put it on silent. Six weeks later, we received an e-mail from the freight handlers in Felixstowe. Our consignment had arrived. Excited, 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 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, something stirred inside me.

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. I ran my fingers on the wood. I smelt it. It had faint traces of my childhood.

The dressing table slid out of the open crate, in all its glory. Lovingly, we put it together. Our friends admired it. I looked at the beautiful dressing table and remembered the walnut tree in our neighbourhood. Unripe green walnuts would thud to the ground, giving off a strong smell. Tariq got caught every time; his stained fingers gave him away. I closed my eyes and pried open the walnut kernels, soft and sweet. I savoured the taste of my childhood. And of Tariq’s friendship.

One day, my wife noticed my initials on the dressing table. It was the table that we had selected. The ramshackle showroom on the lake came back to me in a flash. I saw the dreadful floods of Kashmir. The flooded night when Rafiq would have risked his life to carry the dressing table to a safe place. I saw his family’s anguish when their home would have been swept away by the furious waters. 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. It reminds me that when a tearful Rafiq calls me in desperation, I will not be indifferent. I will help. It reminds me to be human.

I couldn’t have asked for a better present on Christmas.

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