As a school going kid in 1960s, I would invariably shift to Jammu during winter vacations, and stay with my aunt who used to live in Panchtirthi area of the old city. Srinagar during winter can get very cold. The impressions that I earned of the city of those days have stayed with me till date. The area had a royal look and feel. The impressive Wazir mansion was just opposite our lane, and the magnificent looking old secretariat was just 200 meters ahead. The city was neat and clean, and the air was fresh and pure. Days were sunny, and the stars lit the city at night.
Important places like Mubarak Mandi Complex, Purani Mandi, Old Secretariat, Hari Singh Palace, Library, Museum, various temples and shrines – though some of these are not in great shape – are a testimony to the city’s past grandeur.
For me the city always held a special charm. No wonder, the nostalgia and the memories survive even after five decades. Same seems to be the case with Balan- the protagonist of ‘Return To Jammu’- written by noted corporate executive, author and columnist, V.Raghunathan. He was till recently President of ING Vyasa Bank in Bengaluru.
Born into Tamil Brahmin family, Raghunathan spent most of his childhood in Amabala and Jammu where his engineer father was posted with Military Engineering Services (no one referred to it as Money Eating Services; at least not in those days).
We get to read the story of Balan who lived in Satwari cantonment area of Jammu during 1959-66.Though the book is a work of fiction but one can easily sense the author’s own life spent in Ambala and Jammu and, later at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. In the words of the author ‘all characters and the story per se are fictional. At the same time, I would be dishonest if I did not confess to borrowing liberally from many episodes of my childhood in telling a tale.
‘My first memory of Jammu is a kaleidoscope of many images, with a couple of experiences thrown in. As I alighted from the last step of the rear door of the roadways bus and looked around, I saw a concrete shelter corrugated tin roof, under which stood a number of skinny and naked horses….. About fifteen feet away was another embankment, the parallel counterpart to the one I stood on, and between the two was a canal with rapidly flowing brownish but transparent water.….and one of the sights in some ways the most astonishing and, to my bashful nature, embarrassing was dozen odd boys jumping and swimming in the canal.’
Images of the city are vividly framed by the author in the book. Jammu’s canals, in particular, seem to have left a deep impression on young Balan.
‘In the peak of summer, the belief went that jumping into the canal, when the ambient temperature hovered upwards of 40 degrees centigrade, resulted in paralytic attack of polio…..But there were other two occasions in the year when we would get to spend quality time at one of the canals. These were at Tilo Talab or Rajender Park. Both became our picnic spots in due course. Tilo Talab, also home to Gurudwara Tali Sahib, in the 1960s was a beautiful spot with sprawling mango orchard, through which flowed the lovely distributary of Ranbir canal, almost 15 feet wide.’
The book begins with Ambala where Balan was born but the major focus of the book deals with his stay in Jammu where he made friends and had a childhood crush on a girl. “I first met Jeevan Asha Kaul on the second day of our arrival in Satwari. For Asha was my best buddy in the whole world; and even better, I suspect, I hers. What is more, Asha, easily the prettiest girl in the world, had earned for herself the position of ‘honorary boy’. It helped that she was the best shot with the gulel and could pick her targeted raw mango off a branch. All anecdotes, as told, illuminate and linger.
He continues: ‘Another feature of Satwari landscape in general was an abundance of a weed called BHANG. In time, I would learn, it was the cannabis plant. At the time we were often amused to see so many workers of the sub-staff category rubbing the leaves between the palm of one hand and the thumb of the other and sniffing or licking the resulting paste.’
Few persons have the nerve to face up to the dirty little secrets from their past which they have consigned to some dark corner of their mind. But not Balan!
Towards the end, the author introduces an interesting twist in the story – when he encounters Asha at IIM. But she is not what he thinks she is- she says so herself. Balan though is not convinced and decides to return to a changed Jammu in December 1983 to reconnect with the family. This where the story takes a poignant turn – though the author is careful not to allow narration to slip into sentimentality. The family of Asha belonged to border town of Uri in Kashmir. One day on way to the sacred Kheer Bhawani temple, she was kidnapped and raped by the militants and the grandmother murdered. This changed the life of the family resulting in the early death of her father and mother. She herself suffered huge trauma and permanent loss of past memory. Her aunt took custody of her and nursed her back to life so that she could study and lead a normal life.
Those of us who have been witness to our sisters and daughters being kidnaped, raped and murdered when the militancy erupted in 1990 will relate to the novel. Towards the end, it turns into a heart-wrenching account of a family that is still processing the trauma.
Raghunathan writes in easy and readable prose. The book is a Harper Collins Publishers and priced moderately at Rs.399.
(The author is a noted management & media educator, and works for reputed Apeejay Education Society)