Tale of Cleopatra of Poonch

During my school days in the early sixties, I became a voracious reader of Hindi books, though I read daily newspapers in English. I was comfortable in both the languages. I read all kinds of books I could lay my hands on ; short stories, novels, biographies and poetry.
My reading habits were re-modelled and modified when the Indian pocket books were published in India, for the first time. Sometime in early sixties, a “Gharelu Library Yojana” ( Home Library Scheme ) was launched by Hind pocket books, owned by Dina Nath Malhotra, a pioneer of pocket books’ publishing in India.
They published books in Hindi and sold them at the princely price of one rupee a book. Only a few books were offered at two rupees a piece. Let me give you an idea about the value of money those days. The Indian Express daily newspaper was sold at 13 paisa. So you could buy four pocket books a month by not buying your daily newspaper. Incidentally, sugar was sold at 60 paisa for a kilogram.
I subscribed to this library yojana and entered the world of writers like Upendra Nath ‘Ashq’, Saadat Hasan Manto, Prem Chand and Krishan Chander. I read books by Laxmi Narayan Lal who wrote about yogasan and naturopathy. I delved into the poetry of Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, and ‘Firaq’ Gorakhpuri ; Gopaldas Neeraj, Jaishankar Prasad and Suryakant Tripathi ‘Nirala’.
These books transported me to a world of literary treasures, aesthetics and poetic joys ; the fantasies weaved by the poets versus the utopian realism of Marxism, social injustices and gender issues – all at the same time. My father, a post graduate from the venerated cradle of knowledge we know as Banaras Hindu University, himself was a voracious reader and acted as an encouraging catalyst. He would give me all the money to buy all the books I wanted to read !
The world of books kept me glued to the cherished values of life. I noticed and tried to imbibe nuances of writing good and crisp prose and meaningful poetry. The short stories of Manto and Krishan Chander enchanted me to no end.
Krishan Chander Chopra was the first writer I interacted with as a reader. I was barely 12 years of age when I wrote to him telling him how much I enjoyed reading his stories. I still remember he lived on 14th Road, Khar, in Bombay of those days ( now Mumbai ).
Krishan Chander sent me a black & white, postcard size picture of his, duly autographed in Hindi. That, in fact, was the norm those days. All the celebrities, mostly actors, sent their autographed pictures to their fans. I think that Krishan Chander was a rare celebrity writer who followed this practice and other writers did not.
From one of his letters, I learnt that he had once spent a few months staying in Poonch House ( a Dharmarth Trust property ) on the bank of Ganges, at Hari Ki Paudi, in the holy city of Haridwar. The man he shared his room for months turned out to be my father ! That brought me nearer to him and the two old friends were once again in touch with each other.
In the year 1970, I went to Bombay on vacations and connected with Krishan Ji. Those days, I was writing for Femina, besides other journals. We met in their favourite restaurant “Gazebo” on Linking Road, Bandra. Alas, this fashionable restaurant is no more in existence. Later that year, Salma Aapa ( second wife of Krishan Ji ) came to Jammu and stayed in Jammu Motel where I interviewed her for Femina. She was a writer in her own rights and some of her books did well, especially “Sikandarnama”.
Reading his stories I was introduced to Poonch in my home state, which I had never visited until late sixties. I was mesmerized by his selection of words. The flow of his prose was fluid like water. He had an endearing quality of using Urdu and chaste Hindi words in the same sentence with utmost dexterity. Let me give you an example or two :
(Zara si bhool par kruddh ho jaane Wale buzurg aur shuddh aachran Wale dadiyal iss garv se uss stree ki muhabbaton aur be- wafaaiyon ka zikr karte hain, jaise ve koii etihasik kaarnaame hon. Maloom nahin aaisa kyon hota hai, magar hota zaroor hai ki bahudha aisi aurat sabhyata ki garima se oonchi samjhi jaane lagti hai. )
To my mind no other writer has such command on both, Hindi and Urdu. His use of mixed language and diction pleased the readers immensely. He has employed many words of Pahari language spoken in and around Poonch. I have quoted the foregoing short paragraph from his famous story “Poonch Ki Cleopatra”. I recommend you all to google for this story and read it out. You won’t be disappointed, I promise. You will be fascinated by the flow with which he unfolds the story.
Krishan Chander was born to Gauri Shankar Chopra, at Bharatpur, present day Rajasthan, who was later employed as a medical practitioner with the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Krishan Ji spent some of his formative years in Poonch when his father was posted there. He carried the memories of the place all through his life and mentioned these often in his writings. Similarly, he had fondness for Kashmir too where, again, he spent a few years with his parents. Two of his novels, ” Shikast” ( Defeat ), and “Gaddar” ( Traitor ) are based on the turmoils and aftermath of the partition of the British India.
“Poonch Ki Cleopatra” is the tale of an extremely beautiful and charming damsel who casts a spell on the entire populace of the city, irrespective of caste, creed, religion ; or age, for that matter. The whole town was in love with her ; so was her husband. She was gracefully coquettish and the citizens had full accommodation for that too. Unable to control the extramarital indulgences of his beloved wife, the husband, finally, decides to quietly leave the city with his flirtatious spouse and move to Rajouri, to put a stop to her liaisons.
The tale ends when the entire population of the city turns up to stop their migration from Poonch. The couple is made to succumb to their entreatments. An endearing tale gleefully narrated by Krishan Chander that has stayed with me for the past nearly six decades. I invariably connect to Vasundhara, the enchantress, whenever I think of Poonch !
I consider myself lucky I met Krishan Chander in person. But, our family had a close and affectionate connect with his wife Salma Siddiqui, especially when she shifted residence from Khar to Versova, in Mumbai. She was a dear friend of Ali Sardar Jafri and his wife Sultana who were the closest friends to Krishan Ji. We, the Jafris and Salma Aapa ( that is how we addressed her ) had spent very many days, and evenings, together. She was so full of Krishan Ji and the Jafris.
Salma Aapa was in love with everything Krishan Chander liked when he was alive. That included love for his beloved city Poonch and his close friends like Sardar and Sultana Jafri, the entire clan of famed actor Aamir Khan, writer – politician Rafiq Zakaria and his wife Fatima, actor Nimmi and her husband writer Ali Raza and writer Rahi Masoom Raza of television serial Mahabharat fame.
Luckily, we too knew and liked all of these good souls. Therefore, it was easy for Salma Aapa to pick up the phone and fix the rendezvous with these friends. Thereafter, she will just call me up : “Anil, bhai hamne to Rahi ke saath tay kar liya hai ki kal raat ka khana ek saath khayenge ! Tum aur Seema free to ho na !” ( Anil, I have already fixed up dinner with Rahi Masoom Raza. I hope you and Seema are free tomorrow ). There were numerous such meetings she would unilaterally fix and decide. Those were the days !
All through his life as a writer, Krishan Chander enjoyed a celebrity status. To give you an example, he was very close to Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister and Inder Kumar Gujral who also donned the same cap much later. He was a Padma Bhushan recipient as well as an awardee of Soviet Land Nehru Award.
Body of his literary work is quite large, but the royalties were not enough. So, he had to write for the films to augment his income. He wrote 20 novels and about 500 short stories that are published in about 30 volumes. His works have been translated into most of the Indian and some foreign languages too.
His “Autobiography of a Donkey” ( Ek Gadhe ki Sarguzasht ) was a satire, which became hugely popular and ran into several editions. He followed it up with “Ek Gadha NEFA Mein”, which was equally popular. The third book in this trilogy is “Ek Gadhe Ki Wapasi”.
The Department of Floriculture, of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir maintains a beautiful garden in the city of Poonch which houses a bust of this renowned writer. The park is called Krishan Chander Park, in his memory.
The government of India released a 10-rupee denomination postal stamp in his honour in the year 2017. March, the 8th is the day Krishan Chander breathed his last. He suffered a fatal heart attack on that day in the year 1977, in Bombay, the city that made him what he was.
Let us recall that illustrious poet Jaan Nisar Akhtar who I have attempted to remember, in a translate :
ye ilm ka sauda, ye risale, ye kitaben /
iks shakhs ki yadon ko bhulne ke liye hain //
( The resources of knowledge,
these journals, the books /
I gather to forget memories
of an unforgettable one // )