Salam Kashmir: An artist on Noah’s Ark
Srinagar, Sep 15: Human beings tend to come out with their best or the worst in face of disasters. The current deluge in Kashmir is no exception. Here are two stories from the same neighbourhood, Jawaharnagar, once a posh locality in the uptown Srinagar. Both narrated by the most authentic witnesses who have been the central characters of these stories.
On Sunday, 7th of September I received a message from Dr Iffat shah the renowned dermatologist of the city that her parents living in Jawaharnagar were ‘drowning in their second story’ and asked me to do something. Her parents happen to be the legendary policeman Peer Ghulam Hassan Shah, now in his late eighties and his graceful and dignified wife. Peer saheb has been an inspiration for me in my formative years and continues to be the patriarch of my family as well. My concern was no less than that of Dr Iffat.
I had already realised the gravity of floods when my uncle Farooq Nazki called me with an SOS saying they were marooned in the attic of their three storied house at Shivpora. Anybody well versed with the city and its flood perspective could have imagined how dangerous the situation was.
Though our area was spared but one could at that point of time do nothing except try to call for help from anyone known or unknown in authority. I later realised no one actually was. I sent out distress messages to everyone in the police and administration after they failed to respond to calls. At least one of the messages was acknowledged by a police officer. I took it for granted that the police which should be well equipped for emergencies would spare no effort or resource to save someone who is credited with being the architect of its modernisation and social outreach. It would have been to its eternal shame, I thought, if any harm came to Peer saheb and fantasised how an internal emergency would have been declared by the department to save at least two lives with whom its image was so inalienably connected. As an additional measure I called the Governor house to tell them about the impending tragedy in Jawaharnagar, thinking in my naïveté that it could trigger a national alarm.
None of it helped even though a senior police officer had in one of his responses to a distress SMS said how it would be his ‘privilege to escort Peer saheb personally to safety’. And meanwhile a local initiative to save the ageing couple and their other neighbours from imminent death had started taking shape with two brothers and their inflatable small boat that proved to be the proverbial Noah’s ark which ultimately saved around fifty people including Peer saheb and his wife. A Samaritan neighbour offered his newly constructed four storied, flat roofed house as the transit point for the rescued.
Masood Hussein is no ordinary name. He is the current iconic artist who has presented Kashmir to the world in his inimitable style of painting and earned global acknowledgement. He and his equally grey haired brother live in the same locality and they went on the rescue mission without the least of safety gadgets at a time when water level in Jawaharnagar was between fifteen to twenty feet. They took out their small inflatable boat along with its plastic oar and set out on a mission while the state government submerged and completely drowned in the flood waters.
Hussein brothers even in that moment of crisis laid out a plan for themselves. Since evacuating to dry land was impossible in the small ‘ toy boat’ they identified the nearest house belonging to Haji Bashir Ahmed who proved generous host and a real captain of the team. Priority in evacuation was given to those who faced imminent danger to life. First to be saved was Dr Autar Krishan Kaul, his wife and son and daughter in law who had come from abroad to spend time with their ageing parents. The dentist lives in a small house with no attic and was gasping for his last breath when the artist pulled him out of water that was touch his mouth. The Kaul rescue completed Masood looked for the old, infirm Sikh couple to take them to Haji Bashir’s terrace. Next was Peer saheb and then the boat punctured. Somehow they took it back to their home, fixed it and did the next round.
Haj Bashir has in fact two terraced houses. The one he calls annexe is a shorter form of the larger one. Some including Begum Shah could make it only up to the annexe terrace. They had to spend their entire stay there under the sky for three days and nights till the helicopter evacuation was made possible not through state government intervention but by the exceptionally brilliant children of Peer saheb who have made a mark in medical field at global level.
Haji Bashir comes out as a modern day Hatim if one considers general standards of our society. Just one example: Pull out the khatam bund ceiling of my second story to make a bonfire and keep yourselves warm, he yelled to the group that was stuck on the lower terrace while his family kept ‘throwing’ phulka balls to them for sustenance.
Meanwhile, Masood’s artistic innovations continued. He cut the over head electric wire and made a trolley of it between four houses in the neighbourhood. Over it he would keep ferrying water and any eatables from other houses to the marooned group in a basket.
The entire story could be the subject of a book or a film. This however is meant only to be the ‘other side of the rescue story of Kashmir’. The side that it now appears is focused on the undoubted failure of the state government but which in fact could brand the entire Kashmir society as inept destitute which is capable of nothing.
Now the flop side. Just across the lane in which a heroic rescue mission was being carried out the opposite of it happened. A retired chief engineer and his professor wife, both in their seventies begged for being carried in a motor boat sent specially to rescue the relatives of a Congress minister. The motor boat carried just two persons whereas it could have taken out a dozen. The VIP lady has been the darling of the engineer and his wife who as a neighbourhood kid had grown up in their lap. They pleaded with her to carry them along. ‘Uncle I will send back the boat, Khuda Hafiz’ was the parting message to the abandoned couple. The boat never returned.