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Going Back to Kali

ILLUSTRATION BY ANNA FEATHERLY

Breaking Bread

A long-awaited history lesson from a cousin turns into an education on religion and politics in post-partition Kashmir, in the seventh installment of his travel journal.

The day after the wedding ceremony, my relatives start to leave Jammu: back to England, back to Dubai, back to various places around the subcontinent. My sister Cara, her boyfriend Yonnas, and I are heading to Delhi for a few days before continuing on to Bangalore. On the drive south (punctuated by a Maharaja Mac at a McDonald’s somewhere in Punjab), I think mostly about an encounter that I have yet to describe in any of these preceding essays.

Before the nuptials, as I was standing with Cara and Yonnas outside the hall, a man came up to me. “Are you Pasha Malla?” he asked. He was a small man in a brown suit, square heavy-framed glasses, and a moustache. This man, it turned out, was my dad’s childhood best friend, Bhushan. I’d heard stories about Bhushan for years, and my dad had mentioned that he might turn up at the wedding—and not to miss him, because he was a treat. Bhushan appeared less invested in my cousin’s marriage than in talking to Cara, Yonnas, and me. Oblivious to the other guests filtering past us to their seats, we chatted on the steps of the hall: about Kashmir, about Canada, about my dad.

I had heard that Bhushan’s wife had died of cancer the year before, and that it had devastated him. Speaking to my dad’s old friend, though, I would never have guessed it; he didn’t stop grinning for our entire twenty-minute conversation. Later, my sister and I would guiltily agree that he—not any of the uncles, aunts, or cousins—was without doubt the most captivating and likeable person we met in Jammu.

Before he left us, Bhushan wrapped his arm around my shoulders and spoke to me in a way that seemed at once fatherly and fraternal. “Pasha,” he said, “you must in life cherish the good things, what we have now. Like good conversation, good food…” Here he paused, squeezed me tightly to him, and whispered in my ear, “Making love to a beautiful woman.” Inside, the ceremony was about to start. Bhushan pulled away, bowed, and was gone.

On the ride to Delhi, Yonnas brings this up and we all have a laugh. Anywhere else, at any place, at any time, a similar statement from a parent’s friend would only be creepy. But we agree that at that moment it was somehow OK. Here was a guy who had lost everything—his homeland, his wife—but remained hopeful, who found reasons to be content. I know this sounds lame and sentimental. Still, after Yonnas brings it up, the conversation with Bhushan—what would be my only interaction with him during my month in India—stays with me on the drive back to Delhi, with a Maharaja Mac churning in my gut and our lives in our chauffeur’s hands.

 

* * *


Once we are back in Delhi at my aunt Kanta’s house, I receive an email from one of the older cousins I’d met up north, a doctor in his early sixties. Over the past few years, this guy, reintroducing himself to me as “Dr. Malla,” has compiled a comprehensive Malla genealogy, a family tree that bloomed into a book-length narrative manuscript tracing our roots back—get this—5,080 years. When I met him in Jammu, he’d told me that our family name is not really Kashmiri at all, but derived from the fact that one of our way-back ancestors could have starred in a pre-Mughal version of the WWE: “Malla,” in Sanskrit, means “wrestler.” This was enough to get me to hand over my email address and express interest in learning more.

See, I’ve come to India hoping to figure stuff out about my family, and for the most part I haven’t been having much luck. I’ve just been floating through my trip as a sort of clueless witness to what’s going on around me, never really accomplishing much in the way of personal enlightenment. It’s gotten to the point that some hard facts might help. So the promise of five millennia of accumulated history seems a pretty good place to start. And, while the rest of my relatives are just happy to see me after 15 years, my cousin appears to be genuinely interested in being the one to provide some education.

Unfortunately, Dr. Malla explains in his email, the sole copy of this family history has been destroyed in a fire. The manuscript had apparently been finished and ready for publication—a few hundred pages of transcribed texts, compiled research and anecdotal information that traced the Malla clan back to the banks of a river in Nepal where apparently we wrestled our days away before migrating to Kashmir. He claims to be putting it back together from scratch, but the only scholar capable of translating the ancient Sharda documents has died, which means that much of the lost text will have to be recreated from memory. When I ask my dad for his take on the whole business, it comes out that he and this Dr. Malla have never been that close, and he is dismissive of the guy’s research. Still, the doctor seems knowledgeable about our ancestry, the supposed reason I’ve come to India in the first place, so I decide to write back.

The reply I receive contains an attachment titled, simply, “Malla Dynasty.” It is a Microsoft Word file of rough notes for the book, compiled as a numbered list. There are 88 entries, the first quarter of which comprises a baffling list of unpronounceable names. At around #20 they start to become more comprehensible—I even recognize a few, including my grandfather, Srikanth, who died before I was born. I appear at #41: “Ashok Malla, alias ‘Billoo,’ married a British and later a Canadian, has three children (two daughters) and a son named Pasha.” When I let Cara know that she has been glossed over in our family tree, she is less than impressed. “What are you, special? Loser.”

In a follow-up email, Dr. Malla explains his rationale for compiling the history: “I want our progeny should not forget their roots despite our exodus from Kashmir.” He also suggests that future generations should share the responsibility of adding to the history, a prospect that worries me—I can barely remember my sisters’ birthdays, and keeping track of my third cousins’ marital status is tricky, given that I can’t even remember their names.

The next email I receive from Dr. Malla is of a different nature. It is a forward of a PowerPoint presentation, and the original message makes reference to “feckless and supine Hindus” who “scamper for cover while the Muslims are having a ball.” Of the attachment the sender comments, “It is all true no fabrication.”

While the Mallas were progressive by Kashmiri standards, it was still forbidden to accept food from a Muslim—nor could a Muslim step foot in a Hindu kitchen. The slideshow itself begins ominously: “Are you a Secularist?” From this it proceeds to demand, for example: “Show one Muslim country where Hindus are extended the special rights that Muslims are accorded in India?” There are repeated mentions of a certain “Article 70” that I don’t understand, but the message is clear: Dr. Malla is a Hindu fundamentalist, a member of a group my dad has warned me about vaguely as a “problem” among exiled Kashmiri Pandits looking for easy answers and a sense of community.

Hindutva is a movement I’m only familiar with from news coverage. I know they are a goofy bunch of men who move chanting in mustachioed throngs, often waving placards—innocuous enough, until they find a reason to “act.” Fundamentalist supporters of the right-wing BJP government, which held power until recently, have been linked to communalist violence—including the 2002 retaliatory riots in Gujarat which left between 800 and 2,000 Muslims dead or missing, depending who you ask. But Hindu extremism is not something my dad, my usual link to what’s up in the subcontinent, really talks about, beyond deriding it as “stupid.”

I have always assumed that anyone involved in religious fundamentalism, Hindu or otherwise, is uneducated, underprivileged, in need of easy answers and as such susceptible to manipulation. So I’m stunned that someone in my family—a doctor, no less—has been sucked in. But I suppose it makes sense. It’s convenient to blame Islam, collectively, as the reason that Hindus have been driven from Kashmir. And my uncle’s investment in maintaining a connection with our family’s roots makes sense, too: Hindutva is heavily invested in history, often citing centuries-old documents to legitimize their present-day activities. So, while Kashmiris like Bhushan have learned to live for the moment, Dr. Malla clings desperately to the past.

 

* * *


On our last day in Delhi, I take my sister and Yonnas to Jama Masjid, the enormous, regal mosque across the road from the Red Fort. I feel like an expert, having visited less than two weeks prior, and I tour them around the courtyard and minarets before heading to the narrow streets of the Old Delhi market.

Here we move through the crowds, past stalls of bangles and paan, past sari boutiques and electronics stores. In the other direction flow women in full burkas or flowing shalwar kameez, men in prayer caps—everyone moving purposefully, resolutely. The human traffic becomes impossible to fight against and we duck into a shop doorway to avoid getting swept up in the tide. Where is everyone going? Then a speaker attached to a telephone pole nearby crackles to life, and the voice of the muezzin rings out through the static. The call to prayer echoes throughout the market as Muslims continue to flood toward the mosque.

When my dad and Bhushan were kids, the two of them were sent to fetch bread to go with the evening’s meal. While the Mallas were progressive by Kashmiri standards, it was still forbidden to accept food from a Muslim—nor could a Muslim step foot in a Hindu kitchen. Bhushan, however, suggested that they just get the bread from one of the Muslim bakeries. It was closer to my dad’s house than the Hindu one his family usually frequented, anyway. My dad remembers often wondering why where the bread came from made a difference: Bread was bread—and, besides, many of his school friends were Muslim, and none of them had ever done him wrong.

So he and Bhushan went with the halal bread and returned home just as supper was being served. My dad placed the bread he had bought alongside the other dishes and took his regular seat at the table, while his friend pulled up an extra chair. The bread was passed around; everyone tore off pieces to sop up their food. I imagine that the two boys responsible for the subterfuge were nervous; I picture them exchanging glances across the table, aware of the huge cultural indiscretion they had taken.

But the bread, everyone agreed, was especially delicious. “They must have a new recipe,” suggested a sister. This prompted a pause in eating. After some discussion, consensus was that the family had rarely eaten bread this good before. The meal continued, the bread was passed around again, and the family, with a grinning Bhushan as their guest, sat round the table as they always did, breaking and chewing the best bread they had ever eaten.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Pasha Malla is the author of four books. He is also the head of TMN’s informal panel of film critics. He lives in Toronto. More by Pasha Malla