Jammu and Kashmir today is a house divided. In 2008 as I write this review, there are processions in favour of land for Amarnath Yatris, being taken out in Jammu and counter-processions in Kashmir by Muslims. The shadow of violence has now been hanging over the Kashmir valley for nearly five decades. To those of us who would think twice about venturing into the beautiful but bloody State of Jammu and Kashmir even if we were offered a free ticket, Shivnath’s autobiography would be an eye opener. Shivnath’s journey started on 18th February, 1925 when he was born in a windowless room in the area of Ahaata Pratap Singh in Jammu. His home was sandwiched between two similar rooms, “one tenanted by a sitar-loving, meat-crazy, Muslim tailor master and the other by a saffron-robed, bhakti-mad, bearded, tilakdhari godman; dulcet notes of sitar and odour of cooking meat mingled merrily with bhajan-singing and smell of incense floating in through the door.”
The author’s stoic account of his early childhood is rooted in hardship and poverty. Drinking water had to be fetched from a long distance. But despite the grinding poverty, his narration is more like the song of a whistling thrush than the sad memories of a gloomy child. Shivnath talks about kite-flying, mango eating and watching Ram Lila and Dussehra procession with his friends. His inspiration to study hard came from their pet parrot which constantly urged him “Shive, Bache, Utho, Parho” meaning ‘Shiv child, get up and read’. The boy who stood first in his first primary class would study up to his post-graduation on scholarship. His family circumstances were such that no scholarship meant no education.
Shivnath was nearing ten and the undercurrents of communal tensions were already visible. Maharaja Hari Singh had annoyed the British regime by asking for the removal of the British Residency in Kashmir. The imperial regime responded by insidiously creating communal tension. This was not difficult in a state where Hindus and Muslims lived in close proximity. Neighbour began to suspect neighbour and the blue print had been drawn up for communalism. On 31st July, 1931, one Maulana Abdul Qadir from Uttar Pradesh who happened to be touring Jammu with a foreign lady, made an inflammatory speech from the Jama Masjid at Srinagar, issuing a fatwa “jo Haakim Zulum Karay, Ousko safaa-e-hasti say mitaa do” meaning ‘a ruler who oppresses his subjects should be finished off’ (p.14).