Game of the Name
K. N. KaulThe
game of inventing a name, a label for a particular person that sums up
in one word all that he stands for, his idiosyncrasies, his follies, warts
and all, is played to perfection in Kashmir. This appellation is usually
a funny word, crisp and tasty on the tongue. It is a compound of humour
and abuse, the ratio of the mix varying according to the reactions of the
person on whom it is plastered. It is not only his identification but also
his caricature, honestly and accurately conveyed in just a single word.
The epithet is inherited by the family of the person down to many generations.
If the family fortune is in the ascendant, this irritant attains a respectability
of its own kind.
How the name
gets coined is a mystery. But once in the air, it is adopted by the street
urchins who give it a wide publicity by shouting the name in unison once
they spot out the person to whom it belongs. God help him if he dare try
to retaliate by shouting back at them. Prudence lies in a quick escape
into some nearby lane. But the echo of the chorus pursues the hapless person
right up to the doorsteps of his home like a friend.
in his book "This Is Kashmir", has this to add:
"Even the wit
in the Kashmiri was not stifled and showed itself on many occasions. He
is fond of nicknames. In 1825 Kripa Ram was made the Governor. Of him it
is written that he was a mild self-indulgent man who was fond of boating-boatwomen.
The nickname he earned for himself was 'Kripa Shroin', meaning the sound
of the dip of the boat paddle".
One such victim
to this old Kashmiri pastime was one Mohammad living in the city of Srinagar.
His name was affectionately rounded off to mere Momma (a word which incidentally
stands for a woman's breast) by his father. Now this young boy was an odd-job
man for all the families living in the vicinity of his home. So long as
his father was alive, he never thought of learning a trade to earn a living
for himself. But now when he grew into an adult and a soft little growth
sprouted above his upper lip and a fine little goatee on his chin, he stopped
obliging those who had taken him for granted.
God had blessed
Momma with a keen sense of self-respect which did not allow him to live
off the leftovers of his patrons after his father's death. He started as
a coolie at the local vegetable market and graduated into a hand-cart puller.
But not used to hard work, physical strain involved in the work was too
heavy for him to bear. He thought of choosing some other trade, less cumbersome
but more profitable.
The local grocer,
at whose shop Momma used to have a few quick pulls at the hubble-bubble
now and then, was his chief counsellor. To him he confided all his woes
and secrets. The grocer in his eagerness to help suggested him to start
raising poultry at the backyard of his house. He offered his shop as an
outlet for sale till such time as he could own a shop of his own.
The offer of
the grocer was tempting and Momma started with a single hen with white
plumage. The hen proved to be the harbinger of good fortune, for Momma
was the proud owner of a Little poultry farm in about a year's time earning
a respectable living. In the mean time he had earned the ire of his neighbours
by describing to them the virtues of his hen and her antics. In his eagerness
to impress he had not observed the frown on their faces, their snivellings
and their yawns. His boorishness gave birth to a silly nickname. From Momma
he began to be known as "Momma Kokker" for all. The shock of being reduced
to the status of a hen while he was striving to gain a little social status
in his neighbourhood was unbearable. Shouts of the children following him
and their mirthful cries brought forth unspeakable depravities to his mind.
He could not shake them off no matter what he said or did to them. A numb
frozen loneliness came over him and overpowered him. He realised that he
had to live with the nickname for the rest of his born days. The euphoria
of the success in his new business venture evaporated and with that his
old habit of lauding his dear hen to his friends and acquaintances too.
The die had been cast and he was unable to do anything to save his name
which was already corroded and reduced to a minimum. In a fit of frenzy
he slit the slender throat of his beloved hen throwing the carcass away
for dogs to feast upon. He cursed both his luck and his friend who had
suggested poultry business to him.
Not being able
to face up to the onslaught of satires, sneers and sniggers of insensitive
people, poor Momma's days of milk and honey were over. He felt like a stranger
in his own neighbourhood. His entire being got buttoned up with anger,
despair and humiliation. Ducking into the lanes and byroads whenever the
urchins got hold of him was no permanent solution. The only way out was
an escape to some alien land where past regrets and future fears would
not assail him. How he wished to be far away from the reach of his persecutors
At last no
longer able to bite into life and tear it apart, he decided to quit. That
night all through and into the next dawn he was not able to sleep, partly
because of rumblings of distant thunder storm and particularly because
of leaden despair that had sunk into his soul. Unable to struggle any longer
with his gloom, he got up at dead of night and struggled into an old woollen
sweater. His life was not by any means over, he thought, while combing
his hair with his fingers. Gathering some of his earthly belongings into
a bundle, he came out of his hut straight on to the darkness and emptiness
of the night. Leaving the door ajar he looked anxiously around and walked
away with firm steps without looking back even once. Only the crisp breeze
whispered 'Khuda Hafiz' repeatedly into his ears.
flew by silently. The alien soil had granted many boons to our Momma, now
known by a respectable name of Khan Mohammad. He had in the mean time found
a wife for himself after settling in life with a comfortable income leaving
his past far, far behind. But not quite. Often when alone, he would close
his eyes with a sigh and find himself roaming in the good old dirty lanes
of his native place. It was some nameless sorrow, sharp and painful. Then
he wanted to cry and get it out of his heart. It took many shapes in his
mind depending upon the mood of his vagrant thoughts. Sometimes it brought
to his mind the heady fragrance of almond blossom and the smell of mint
and clover, and sometimes the taste of his favourite dinner consisting
of 'Hak' and boiled rice roused his tastebuds. Again, sometimes it brought
back to him the echoes of the shouts of those street urchins who now looked
playful and humless at that point of time. And then the image of his much
coddled hen with white plumage would materialise out of the dense mist
of the past. How heartlessly he had slit her tender creamy throat and how
he hated himself for that!
One day overcome
by a savage impulse of visiting his native place just once, he packed his
best clothes in a tin box and left for his old home on a pilgrimage of
love. Two days of travel by rail and bus did not wear him down. On reaching
his destination the familiar surroundings took hold of him and he walked
on as if in a trance, hoping to be received by his old friends and acquaintances
with the same warmth which he felt for them.
It was now
late in the afternoon when he came upon the old chinar tree near the crossing.
It seemed to have gained in girth and he sat at its foot trying to calm
down his heart which was fluttering wildly in his breast. He spotted two
young men coming along followed by an old woman. They passed him by without taking any notice of him, but a low
'pst' from the woman stopped them.
Her ancient eyes looked intently at him trying to respond to some impulses
"Who are you,
son?" she asked Momma, whose heart quailed for a moment at this unexpected
The old woman
continued hesitantly. "I think I know you but can't place you. Damn my
The woman looked
up at the waving chinar leaves and then out at the sky.
A longer pause,
and then she got it.
rascal, don't you recognise your old aunt?" she said. A mesh of wrinkles
like the bark of the old chinar broke into a smile and lit the face of
the woman. Coming closer she slapped out a hard one at his shoulder. Turning
to the two young men whose inquisitive looks seemed to strip off Momma's
clothes, she said, in a tone of irrepressible happiness those fatal words
which almost knocked him down.
know your old friend Momma? I mean, Momma Kokker, my old little one now
grown up into a man."
Momma she said," Where have you been all these years? Stand up so that
I may embrace you."
where to hide from shame, Momma looked pleadingly first at the woman and
then at the two young men who had by now recognised him. The mousey old
woman had unwound all that had taken him years to bury. With the alertness
of a fox used to being hunted, he gave out a forced smile, stood up and
hugged the woman wishing to break every bone of her ancient body.
I am Momma, your old son, having come to meet you all after all these years.
Shall see you in the morning," he blurted out with great difficulty.
Momma moved on towards the village trying to distance himself from them
as quickly as possible. His homecoming was in shambles and his heart empty like a nest deserted by a bird. He felt cheated and bruised by fate. He
walked on, barely touching the earth. At the nearest turning he waited
till the silhouette of the three persons melted into the distance and disappeared.
He retraced his steps to the bus terminus hoping to board the last bus
but not before casting a lingering, sorrowful look at the mighty chinar.
A stain of
saffron had by now appeared in the west lending a glow to the dying day.
Against this background the leaves of the chinar fluttering in the evening
breeze seemed to whisper final 'Khuda Hafiz' to Khan Mohammad, a scene
which he bore away in his heart never to forget.