Bai toth was a forest officer he used to go to work on a horse’s back in Kashmir of 1940s & 50s” that day, he came back home for lunch. I had cooked his favorite “Bumtchoonth Vangan”. He had a wholesome meal and wanted to nap for some time when a boy came running, calling for him. He left in a jiffy almost jumping on the horse’s back pulling along the boy, can’t recall his name, reminisced Ammaji while still looking at a scroll, from her kitab phutij, (Pothi as we call it in hindi) and again starting “ गॖगॖरि ग”, आदवॖ अ……, वाहय व……,” these mumblings used to sound very funny to me, I would peep into her scroll and follow her finger sliding over the words she read aloud. Looking at me bedazzled, She asked, “what are you looking at? you won’t be able to read it, this is Sharada they don’t teach this lipi anywhere” at 10 years of age, I would rather know from her about my Grandfather than let her read some alien looking document.
“That is the last memory I have of him in blood and flesh. “ Su Gav pazi vati, bu trevnas yeti”(He went on the path of truth and left me behind” continued Ammaji, He left his body, many say he had an intestinal rupture from riding a horse immediately after having a meal which proved fatal, but I believe his time had come, rest are all useless arguments”. All this while she never took her eyes off of her scroll, she again buried herself into her document.
Bai Toth was all of 48 yrs when he died. They had 6 surviving children in different age groups, either studying or still in the cradle. Bai Toth & Ammaji are my grandparents. My father has a faint idea of Bai Toth and Papa (dad’s younger brother) doesn’t even have a faint idea as he was still in the cradle when the tragedy befell on the family.
Ammaji was a beauty that would put Yemberzal to shame, she became a widow at a very young age, with 6 children to look after she was an epitome of strength, courage & self-respect. When Bai toth was alive, they were a prosperous family, living in Shalla Kadal, our ancestral home in Srinagar. In their village they had their land and orchards. The family, like most other Pandit families was very dharmic, philanthropy was a family tradition. Our family lore tells us that there used to be a “sada barat” (24*7 kitchen) where hundreds would be fed all day and night, but that is a story for some other time.
After her husband’s passing away at a very young age, Ammaji’s brothers offered to take custody of her children thinking she would not be able to raise her kids as a single parent, this hurt her self- esteem and she vowed never to take any help from any-one.
With some income from the sale of her share of harvest, selling off her own gold from time to time she managed to well educate all of her 6 children including 2 daughters. My Bua ji once lovingly narrated how she stealthily sold a “Kanastar” of mustard oil to pay for my father’s college fee, she was elder to him. Many family stories of siblings holding each other’s hand in times of adversity, gives us a sneak peek into the lives of our parents.Amidst such adversity my father left Kashmir in search of livelihood and higher studies. My father, like most of his contemporaries who studied in Kashmir is proficient in Urdu/ Nastaliq. He did his Ratna , Bhushan and Prabhakar in Hindi so is very well versed with Devnagri as well but unfortunately, none of my family elders know Sharada, the native script of Kashmir.
So, in our family other than my grand mother no one knew even basics of Sharada. Ammaji used to narrate the stories of how she was home schooled as a little girl as they were not allowed to go to school back then, but her father wanted his daughters to be well read.
Almost a hundred years ago! Girls in our community were being educated and that explains why Ammaji was such an empowered woman who did not give in to chagrins of destiny. She was a hard task master, my father fondly remembers how she used to wake all children up at 4am (imagine, in sub- zero temperatures of Kashmir) and ask them to study, hilarious as it may sound, she used to tie my father’s Shikha to the log of wood from the ceiling so that he wakes up with the jerk should he fall asleep while studying, in the meantime she would herself tend to the cows early morning.
Cut to 1992-94, during my Post Graduation days most of my hostel mates from different states received letters from home (those were the good old days when people were still using inland letters to communicate) mostly written in their languages and scripts, mine would invariably be in English, that would make me wonder if we ever had a script and if I would ever get a letter from my mother written in my mother script. That was the maximum provocation to know about my mother script. Wheel of time kept treading and the Quern called life kept grinding.
The Kashmiri couplet in the beginning happens to be my first in Kashmiri, written in Sharada Script, and it means:
“Childhood was spent in play,
youth spent in fending for family ,
to find out who I am, from where I came,
never occurred to me”
In 2015, after having spent almost two decades in the corporate Jagat that required me to travel within India, made me pick up quite a few Indian languages and scripts. I had an opportunity to meet people from different states not only proudly speaking in their mother tongues but also writing in their mother scripts. Now, in the middle age after having lost even the hope of returning to my motherland, I felt like a tree hanging in the air with no roots in sight with no tendrils to anchor.
Just Imagine, one day you stand in front of a mirror and you can’t see yourself there, I used to feel exactly like that, Ghostly. The thought of not being able to express myself in my mother script when a Bengali, a Tamizh, an Odiya, a Kannadiga could and I could not?
This feeling and quest for myself led me to frantically search for a teacher who could teach me Sharada. In the beginning it looked very pessimistic. I was told that my mother script had become extinct? I never let despair take over me.
As they say when the longing is deep and the efforts sincere, even the forces in nature show you the way. Social Media came handy, one day an encouraging tweet from a total stranger who loves Indic scripts and always advocates preservation of all native languages and scripts, (who I came to know later is a Polyglot), shook me out of inertia. simultaneously, I also found my guru, Vikas Veshist ji who taught me Sharada online.
The very first Alphabet 𑆏𑆀 was my Sakshatkar with Sharada Lipi. My passion to learn Sharada lipi was driven from within, I was completely engrossed in learning. In a matter of three months, I became Sharada literate. It was only a matter of time that my pride as a Kashmiri was resurrected. From being a cosmopolitan Corporate Junkie to being a “Complete Kashmiri” was like a journey which, as I look back, started with my grandmother’s early interventions.
Ability to read & write in Sharada uplifted my being, saved me from self-inflicted humiliation and sense of deprivation and emptiness. A small anecdote which I have practically forced myself to write as an after- thought warrants a mention here, even though it brings excruciatingly painful memories of my mother’s terminal illness back to me.
My mother was admitted to the hospital and was put on ventilator support, she remained in the ICU for two months, that was the time when my Sharada classes were going on. There was this uncertainty looming large on my mother’s health we used to sit on the edge of the chair throughout the days and nights dreading the announcement made from the ICU. Each moment spent in the hospital lobby waiting to have a glimpse of my mother twice a day in a hope against hope to get some positive news from inside the Intensive Care unit was like a never-ending nightmare. Long dreadful nights were spent with eyes wide open lying on the hospital recliner outside the ICU. Amidst all this chaos waiting for early morning Sharada lesson by Guruji used to be a momentary but much needed distraction from gloom and uncertainty. His encouragement and perseverance kept me sane and emotionally stable. I remember, on learning about my mother’s illness Guruji, who is a man of very few words said “Learning Sharada is like a Yajna and you are offering your Aahuti in the yajna by practicing even in adverse situations”. Completing my assignments by writing on pieces of Paper napkins from the café, and behind my mother’s medical prescriptions actually proved to be a stress buster.
Even today, writing in Sharada and transliterating old Sharada manuscripts, is as addictive for me personally as it is spiritually up-lifting. I can visualize a long flowing transparent umbilical cord still attached to me that connects me with the era gone by, through which flows the spiritual nourishment from my ancestors in the form of those manuscripts which have waited for centuries to be deciphered.
The beauty of Sharada lipi like the divine mother herself, is an instant source of inspiration to write stotras that I have chanted from my childhood, in Sharada. Sheer sense of experimentation brings out the child in me who has just learnt to hold a Kalam in her hand.
So now, when I see my friend Shumona Bondopadhyay read Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini in Bangla, I chuckle, look into the same mirror in which once I could not find myself, and say, “Hey! even I can read in my mother script Sharada”.