Stirring, bold and blunt

Pushp Saraf
During my frequent personal trips to Jammu after 2000 I met Dr Kulvir Gupta through my father Mr Om Prakash Saraf with whom he and his family —wife Rashmi and daughters Sonali, Shwaita (both medical professionals) and Sunanda (an academician) — shared a close bond. Soon I was to develop rapport with them and any mention of him at a gathering would evoke an identical remark about his being “the most competent and most expensive dental surgeon” in the city. I came across another side of his personality before long. Behind a tough and disciplined exterior — he had served in the Army Dental Corps for a decade before he made his mark as a private practitioner — there was an extremely sensitive and straightforward person. He desperately wanted time off his professional work to put his inner feelings in black and white.
One day in between his hectic daily routine he showed me a small write-up he had written — it was an exceptionally balanced description of his turbulent childhood in the prosperous Mirpur town of the undivided Jammu and Kashmir from where he and his family were uprooted in 1947 like million others in the sub-continent to undergo sufferings which put humanity to shame. I could clearly notice the fire in his belly to write his story taking a holistic view rather than being swayed by his own trauma.
The embers smouldering within him have finally found their expression in a stirring 157-page autobiography “Embers the beginning and embers the end of Mirpur” with his daughters successfully persuading him to relinquish his professional responsibility for pursuing his dream.
The outcome is that though a personal memoir Dr Kulvir’s is the telling story of perhaps every native of Jammu and Kashmir and of the sub-continent as a whole who became victim of genocidal retribution in 1947 when there was savage violence marked by raping and butchering.
As a reader, commentator and a journalist I have read and heard several shocking accounts of atrocities committed in the name of the religion on Hindus and Sikhs in Mirpur and Muzaffarabad and Muslims in Jammu seven decades ago. There are hair-raising tales which make one shudder in disbelief over the extent of human savagery. Whoever believes “barbarism is the natural state of mankind” must find vindication in these details of terror and vengeance. Almost all of them, however, are third-person narrations shorn of specific information as if to camouflage the writer’s own extremely painful personal experiences. The only common feature in them is the “Alibegh camp” which was a reality and where they were kept as refugees to be subjected to indiscriminate killings, rapes and kidnappings.
In sharp contrast, Dr Kulvir is bold and blunt. His description is unvarnished of incidents which have been firmly etched on his mind and disturbing him since childhood causing many sleepless nights. He does not brush unsavoury details under the carpet which lesser beings would have done out of shame or guilt or both. He is stoic as if stubbornly resisting tears enough of which he must have shed in the past. He has shown exceptional strength of character as a chronicler while talking about the forced disappearance of his father along with other relatives and friends all of whom were eventually discovered to have been killed in a cold-blooded fashion, and the indignities inflicted on women including his mother as they struggled to walk towards safety after being evicted from their homes (“Women have always been the reward for the victors since times immemorial… while men were massacred and taken as slaves,” he writes). It is the reader’s turn to squirm in his or her chair ashamed and embarrassed for living in the midst of depraved minds.
Dr Kulvir makes a special mention of his family’s Muslim friends and acquaintances who cried over their plight and tried to help to the maximum extent away from the preying eyes of their tormentors belonging to their own faith. One of them — Master Abdul Aziz of Datyal village, about “five miles away from Alibegh camp” — rescued kidnapped Hindu girls and women and ensured their repatriation to India staving off threats from predators. He mobilised the local youth convincing them “that whatever was happening around them was neither civilised nor Islamic and the victims were part of a society with whom they had shared their joys and sorrows for centuries.”
The agony of the people of Mirpur was prolonged because of the quiet withdrawal of the Dogra forces who were supposed to protect them, a delayed accession and the pre-occupation of Indian armed forces in the nearby Kotli, Rajouri and Poonch which checked their movement towards Mirpur. Dr Kulvir does raise the question: “For reasons, not clear till date, the Indian Army did not reach Mirpur and hell broke loose on Mirpur and its population.” He leaves it at that time as his focus is on the unfortunate land and its people. One travels with him all through — from a pampered childhood in Mirpur to the new abode in another corner of Jammu and Kashmir after a tough battle for existence in different cities of the country during which he studied ancient civilisations to understand why they had been chosen by history to endure a nerve-wracking ordeal.
Dr Kulvir shows solemnity and equanimity in reaching the conclusion: “Religions and faiths emerged to keep the strife away from man’s life but instead became the very cause of strife and wars…. Exploitation of the ignorant and the deprived by the religious preachers, who have nothing to do with the religion or by the propounders of extreme ideologies are the main cause of tensions around the world. Being an optimist I am confident that the collective wisdom of man will sail humanity through the present day chaos. It is a great consolation that the man has achieved so much, since the primitive days to the present times, in spite of the deadly wars.”
Incidentally Dr Kulvir’s was the last manuscript of a book which was seen by my father before he passed away on November 25, 2017 (by the way Dr Kulvir’s birthday and also the day of the fall of Mirpur). In his own hand father wrote in what has turned out to be his last comment about a book: “I had known Dr Kulvir for more than twenty-seven years but simply as a widely-acclaimed dental surgeon. It is only now when he is pleased to share his soul-stirring memoirs with me, I must confess I was not so much aware of his non-professional qualities of head and heart. As a migrant from his ancestral town of Mirpur, along with countless others in November 1947, in day and night search of shelter which was nowhere in sight when murder, arson, abduction and rape was the order of the day, Dr Kulvir’s memoirs cover seventeen years and ten months, commencing at the age of five. No wonder because of or maybe due to tragedies his faith in the ‘collective wisdom of the human race’ remains intact. Life has tested him at every step. In between, a romantic liaison was cut short by family responsibility and commitment, intellectual wanderings into ancient civilizations to find an explanation for his sufferings, human foibles and strengths. Millions of people in India and Pakistan especially would identify with him and see in his work a true reflection of their own life rise like a phoenix. His is a pioneering work that fills in an important gap in the historical literature of unique and controversial State of Jammu and Kashmir. Interestingly he is averse to begging anything from God, his Creator, and telling a lie! He has been the beneficiary of a sincere, strong and self-respecting family system led by a loving mother and caring elder brothers in his formative years. His faith in it remains unshaken though he is modest about mentioning his own contributions.”


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