Raven’s Full Moon
By Deepak Budki
Translated from Urdu by Jawahar Lal Bhat
Kailash Pandit was feeling deeply anguished as a result of recalling an event of his childhood he was eager to relate to his grandson. It is usual with an old man that he desires somebody sits by his side, regards him as an active member of the family and listens to him attentively. Continuous isolation from nears and dears in this age is most sickening to the old. It may turn to be a cause of some ailments of head and heart in them and may also drown them into the abyss of depression.
He called his grandson Sunny.
The repository of experience in him was overflowing with eagerness to bring forth tales of joy and sorrow. More than a hundred tales of human barbarity, moral degradation, and human ruination were stilled in his psyche and hence ready to burst out.
Sunny came running and like a very obedient child sat cross legged before him ready to listen!
Kailash Pandit mentally traveled back into his past trying to dig his roots and recollect his distant childhood. Soon he was lost in the cool romantic ambience of the land of his birth which he had left regrettably about twenty five years ago. Now after a while his oral communication seemed to restore and he commenced the story of his life.
Those were wintry days. I had crossed the fifteenth year of my life. One day I woke up in the morning to find a strange hustle and bustle in our house. Preparations were on for observing a fast on that day. I asked my father if it was any festival on that day. He replied, “Yes son, it is ‘Kaav Punim’, the ‘Raven’s Full Moon’, today.”
I replied in astonishment, “‘Raven’s Full Moon’! What does it signify?”
“It is really interesting. Every year during this period thousands of migratory ravens come to Kashmir valley after flying thousands of miles from Siberia and other polar regions of the north. In order to welcome them we, the Pandits of Kashmir, celebrate ‘Kaav-e-Punim’ or what you may call ‘Raven’s Full Moon’. If you just look out, you can see these jet black birds everywhere in large numbers —- on trees, walls, house tops, almost every where. ”
My curiosity was stirred enormously by father’s revelation. Crows are ordinarily seen in Kashmir in all seasons including winter but their color is grayish black with a white ring around their neck but these ravens are different. They are bigger in size and black as charcoal from beak to tail. The voice of local crows is slightly heavier and hoarser than the ravens. During hot season these migratory ravens make their habitats near and around North Pole but in winters they fly out because of extreme cold and lack of food. They move out in large flocks to temperate areas far away from polar region.
After hearing about this interesting festival of Kashmir Pandits I could understand how the demands of belly compel not only human beings but birds as well to migrate from places of scarcity to places of abundance. These birds fly thousands of miles over hills and deserts, oceans and forests seeking better conditions for their sustenance.
Probably we would not have given heed to them if our ancestors had not seen these black birds flying into our land from distant lands at this particular time of the year. Otherwise crows are crows, whether they are faint black with white rings around their necks or jet black. But our ancestors have succeeded long ago in getting information about these migratory birds that for a few grains of food are forced to travel year after year huge distances on their wings. They probably kept waiting for them eagerly generation after generation till they decided to dedicate this day to these migratory angels. So it is the day that’s celebrated in the joy of the arrival of these ravens in the beautiful valley of Kashmir. It is just like various other days that are celebrated now globally—-Valentine Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s day, Teacher’s Day and so on!
In spite of severe cold my mother had got up early in the morning and busied herself in cleaning the house thoroughly. All pots and pans in the kitchen were cleaned once more. Looking at my parents, I too decided to observe fast for the first time in my life on this day and as a result my mother was seriously worried about me throughout the day. She fed me frequently with various types of fruit and fresh fried fritters made of waterchestnut floor permitted during such fasts.
Later in the afternoon just before lunch, father ceremoniously spread out food for the ravens with the expectation they will relish it. Two sticks, one long and the other short were placed upon each other at right angles in such a way so as to form a cross-like object and they were tied together with long stalks obtained from straw bundles leftover from paddy which are available in abundance in Kashmir. The straw was woven around the junction of two sticks in such a manner so as to make a platter for placing boiled rice and cooked vegetables over it. After placing cooked food on the platter the long stick was fixed to one of the beams of the roof in such a way that it was visible to the birds hovering in the sky. Then my father, in order to call them out, began singing a song in Kashmiri with the purpose of inviting these migratory ravens to have their favourite dish spread out for them on the cross which now looked like a gnat plane.
“Oh you crow, the Brahmin crow,
Crow that enjoys the medley,
Both of you, the male and the female,
Take a bath in sacred Gangabal Lake,
Put a Tilak of brown clay on thy forehead,
And come to the house, newly built by us,
To partake rice and vegetables cooked in oil”
All of us stood watching the father. We also joined him in singing the song aloud. Instantly dozens of black ravens appeared from no where and flew over the platter on which was placed the cooked rice. They hovered over it, sometimes darted straight on it and fought among each other many a time. Each of them wanted to replace the other in order to consume the food. It was really a treat to watch them and every one of us cherished it.
Time marched on and winter was about to come to an end. In the middle of March, when Shiv-Ratri, the cherished festival of Kashmiri Pandits, was round the corner, the cold was almost over and the spring was beginning to set in the valley of Kashmir. Daffodils and Narcissi had bloomed everywhere. Even willow inflorescences could be seen. But no ravens were seen anywhere. They had returned to their icy abodes covering thousands of miles yet again. I often thought with myself, “The nature has played very cruel on them. They have to travel such long distances every year in search of food and survival. Why do they not stay at a place like other crows? Has migration become their destiny?”
When Kailash Pandit finished his story, the grandson asked him a question, “Dada, why don’t human beings also change their residence like these ravens to escape extremes of heat or cold?”
“Human beings are homeothermic. Warm-blooded animals usually maintain their body temperatures slightly above the environment, so they need not shift places with the change of seasons. However due to lack of fur they take help of other things like warm clothing or heating appliances.”
“Then why do politicians, bureaucrats and the rich shift to Jammu in winters and return to Kashmir in summers?” The grandson poked the question.
“These are aristocratic idiosyncrasies . The British and the Indian Rulers had developed places like Kashmir, Shimla, Mussoorie, Nainital and Darjeeling for their pleasure and enjoyment in the hills. They shifted to these places to save themselves from the heat of the plains and returned to their homes in winter. The poor couldn’t afford such a luxury, so had to remain contented with a single place all the year round.”
“It means the human beings need not migrate from one place to another?” Sunder asked with an air of innocence and curiosity in his tone.
“That’s not the case, my son. He too is compelled to change places for filling his stomach, earning his livelihood, safety of self and family, fear of belonging to a particular race, religion or caste and many more such things. It is in his blood. Thousands of people shift residences to cities and metros from villages to earn a living. Large numbers of poor farmers are seasonal migrants. They go to cities to work and return to their farms only during the seasons of sowing and harvesting. Natural calamities like floods, earthquake, draught and wars also compel people to move out from their places of residence temporarily or permanently. Many a time they settle down at their new places and do not return. Armed conflicts, intrigues, desire to take control of enemy territories, religious extremism and greed for natural resources also become cause for displacement of people from one place to another. At times some people engage themselves in criminal activities never thought of before and those who get effected run away to safety.”
“My dear, twenty five years ago, we too had to leave our home and hearth in Kashmir because some religious fanatics created an atmosphere of hatred and insecurity for us. Many members of our community were killed in cold blood. Since we were a miniscule minority and unable to face brunt of the onslaught so we had no choice but to seek refuge outside the valley in safer areas. In a matter of days almost the total population of Kashmiri Pandits comprising some three to four lakh souls, who were dispersed in the valley, ran away and settled in plains wherever they could find shelter to lay their heads down. It was totally a new world for us. No cold winters here, no snow clad mountains, no mighty chinars and no flocks of ravens to feed on the ‘Raven’s Full Moon’. But we kept our traditions alive. Like other festivals we continued with this festival here too by spreading out cooked rice topped with vegetables in quarter plates on the roofs of our houses.”
In a moment Kailaash Pandit plunged deeply into the reminiscences of his past and continued immersed in a fit of emotion for long but soon continued to deliver his speech.
“I believe firmly that even now those ravens may be coming flying to the Valley during winters with hope and expectation. They may be perching on the roofs of our abandoned houses looking for their hosts. I feel they might be hopping from house to house in search of those traditionally prepared crosses with platters embellished with cooked rice and vegetables on housetops. Who would tell them that we too keep waiting and looking for them on this ‘Raven’s Full Moon’ day, not there but here far away from the valley in our new dwellings? Who knows if those little birds still visit the valley with the same anticipation and enthusiasm or not?
Kailash Pandit, overwhelmed with emotion, filled his eyes with tears of desperation and Sunny, his grandson, looking at him, slowly slipped out of the room knowing well that his grandfather didn’t like anybody’s presence at such occasions and it was always preferable to leave him alone.
For the last few years Kailash Pandit and his family regularly visited Kashmir for a couple of weeks during summers to have respite from scorching heat of Delhi exactly like those ravens who in order to escape the chilling cold of North pole visited Kashmir. While in Srinagar, the local people at airport, Tourist Reception Centre, Dal Lake, different Hotels and other tourist spots received them warmly and showered their affection and love without any hesitation. Sometimes they came across some elderly people who reminisced their past when Kailash Pandit was a part and parcel of their cultural heritage. On both sides, eyes welled up with emotions and tears and said a lot in the language of silence about the days of peace that prevailed in Kashmir before the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.
Last year, Kailash Pandit, surprisingly, insisted on visiting his ancestral house where he had spent major part of his life before moving out of Kashmir. Perhaps the thought that his days were numbered now teased him and he wanted to have a look at his ancestral house where he was born and had spent almost his whole life before his final journey. It was here he had heard lullabies of his mother in childhood, played gilli-danda and cricket with his friends in youth and cycled the distance from home to office and vice versa after marriage but destiny played its part and he was forced to live his last days in exile far away from his land of birth.
On reaching there he found his house had changed its look altogether though structurally it remained the same. For him the time had freezed the moment he had left his house in early nineties. Possibly he did not remember that time does not wait for anyone and such was the case with his old dwelling too. Twenty five years ago he had left with the hope of an early return to his home but the conditions showed no improvement thereafter. Time passed by, days turned into months and months into years and he lost the count. The house passed into the hands of his neighbour who had made some additions and alterations to suit his requirement.
The new owner welcomed him and his family. After sitting for a while and exchanging pleasantries he got up and examined each and every corner of the house that had buried in it the fond memories of his childhood and youth. The time machine once again seemed to travel back for him and his recollections came alive for a while.
“It was here in this room I studied during school and college days. Sometimes I used to look out from the window and sing my favorite film songs. Instantly, across the lane in the window opposite that of mine, Roopa would show her serene face and respond with a smile. God knows where she may be now! Our kitchen was exactly under this room. The sound of striking of pots and pans came alive early in the morning and soon there used to be a call for morning tea–the salt tea with rice floor bread. Our parent’s room was exactly above that room on the other side. The winter days would pass celebrating festivals one after the other. In the month of Magha by the Hindu calendar, we used to celebrate ‘Raven’s Full Moon’ by welcoming the migratory ravens and used to feed them boiled rice and cooked vegetables. We observed fast for them and called them by singing a song after keeping food under the thatched roof.”
Suddenly Kailash Pandit woke up from his day dream and desired to see that part of the roof where his father used to fix the cross made out of two sticks bound together with straw which took shape of a platter but soon Kailash Pandit realized his mistake and began to laugh on his foolery.
The owner thought that Kailash Pandit was looking for something precious which he now wanted to find. So after a while the owner asked him what was he searching for? Kailash Pandit replied immediately, “I’m searching for my childhood. I lost it here in these four walls. But I am aware that I can’t find it now.” He had a good feigned laugh after saying these words and his eyes continued to be reeking.
After a while he tried to get up from his seat but could not until his grandson held his hand and helped him to stand and walk up to the car which was parked outside the house.