Even though Rasool’s favorite rooster died of old age but his death wasn’t natural. The biggest virtue just before death he could acquire was patience. Yet he remained curious as a crow. He was a fighter cock and the last fight he will be remembered for was with the biggest cat who would swim every crossing Dal from the main road. She would come and eat the chickens. He injured her in the stomach but in fight lost one of his shoulders. In the following days, four other cocks came from a nearby farm and almost killed him. He was blinded in one eye and eventually lost all his confidence and started walking strangely due to the absence of an eye. But he will live through the summer and the moment he started looking like getting healthier. He was found upturned in lake one morning. Rasool had six sheeps, twelve ducks and six hen and their hundreds of children, and twelve swans. The swans who were loved by all, and who had acquired many names from children and the visitors alike lived to find and fight for the food on land and water alike, started dying mysteriously, one by one once I left Rasool’s bird park just before the arrival of winters.
I had come to Srinagar to work on an ongoing project with a channel. Rasool had been mentoring and guiding them while walking around the city, and above all he cooked for them in the evening before leaving to feed his birds back home. It was very late in the night when I arrived from Delhi. I went into the kitchen succumbing to my hunger and found a man fast asleep sitting, his mouth open and his artificial teeth almost hanging out of his labium. He couldn’t leave for home that night.
Thus I met living Rasool the next winter morning. Hurriedly making sugar tea. Leaving everything to allah he took more sugar then I, even though he had diabetes. He was born under the oldest bridge on Jhelum few months before the independence. They eventually left that place as the water in Jhelum reduced and finally for the first time came to Dal. But it will take me another one year of understanding the ways of Ghulam Rasool. As I kept coming back and forth from Delhi to Srinagar. By the time my work finished with the organization and everyone else left I decided to stay longer and started living at Rasool’s Bird park in Dal.
Rasool never ferried like other boatmen. Many a night we rowed deep inside Dal somewhere where there used to be the floating garden before the floods came, ozzola and aligator grasses had come up making the journey arduous. We rowed through narrow old by lanes and past four wooden bridges that join only houses in the older Dal. Rasool was quiet even when talked. And slowly on that moonless night as we rowed past the deep waters of Dal he was opening up to me. In the 1960s I along with five other boys left Kashmir and travelled to Goa. You know Rashid right? We were the first Kashmiris who set shops at Arambol. It was a beautiful time. We sang and roamed with foreigners. We saw firangs opening to Kashmiri arts, carpets, shawls other Handicrafts like a treasure. Women loved us. We were tall and heavy and promised each one of them to give a boat to stay if they come to Kashmir. Also it was the time of drugs. We made so much money then that one bag was kept aside filled only with cash while going back home to Kashmir. Goa was magic then, and everything changed just like music did.
It wasn’t very easy to row. I kept trying and moving in circles but once I got a hang of the technique, I started rowing long distances. Rasool would now sit and direct me as i would row to char chinar. It must be ten nautical miles far. By the time we would reach, my lungs were filled with so much air that they gave me feeling to register for a marathon. My arms slowly getting stronger felt like punching in the air. It was one of the longest route and on one such night when the moon was absent and the only sound came was of water being pushed behind, Rasool opened. From mid-70s to late 80s I was one of the only guides who was walking across Kashmir Valley, exploring, finding making newer routes to Zanskar Valley and further deep in Ladakh. It was not easy in that temperature and altitude. It was also the time when Ittr(Kashmiri hash) was legal. I never walked without it. You know what people used to call us who smoked! Shoudh, meaning the one who is pure. I always kept it in a small leather case. In the 70s I remember on a trek once it took me more than a month to reach Leh from Zanskar. It could be the hardest exam I gave. I somehow forgot the whole lot(ittr) at the previous stop and what followed was horror. It was almost a full moon night I remember, we were sitting alongside the Zanskar river I saw two bodies one after other slightly bloated, coming floating from far. I managed with the help of my Japanese team to get them out. The moment of happiness and calm turned into doubt and eeriness uneasiness in the winter diamond light. It was the body of my childhood friend who had left a month before him with an expedition team, searching for a new route and slipped away into the river. There used to come many such stories back then.
Now imagine exploring knowing that there will be no help coming. It was the time of exploring the land, like today it is the digital land inside one’s mind. Once while trekking around the same route I found a frozen dead body, the sheer cold had cut it into two from the middle. But these were only few instances that I saw upfront, else it was a glorious time. People would come, walk anywhere they wanted to and row all day long, almost naked in Dal. Many Europeans who had come from Britain via bus would come to Kashmir and stay here for months, some families would come take their personal house boats, they would row it towards a remote part of Dal and stay there for months in nature. I met my wife like that. She too had come on a bus from France, I think it was 1986 when we met. She was German. My parents were against our marriage but she was very nice. She would behave with such respect and grace with my parents like they were already hers, so by the time she was leaving my parents agreed. But I told her that I would never leave Kashmir. So, she stayed against her parents’ wishes but who knew the future then, in a few years when terror hit Kashmir she declined to stay here even for a day. She could not take it and I had to leave everything I loved.
I went to Germany even though I never wanted to leave my family. Even though they did not stop me but I felt my father needed me. All my life I had been a water man, born, lived and slept each moment on water. There in Germany everything was good but too much of organization kills feelings. I couldn’t keep birds or animals as I liked. But I used to walk a lot and there were forests around. I had found a big lake where I had started feeding local ducks and other water birds there. There came a time when I used to give a whistle and hundreds of birds would come out from different parts of that lake. Some came from top of the trees to where I was. They became my inseparable life in Germany. But just as things happen a car accident killed my wife and after about forty days I think I just took a bag of mine, took a flight and came straight back home to my land in Kashmir. I did not even stop at Delhi.
But the change was radical. My father had died, I could not see him off. My mother had taken to bed and had completely stopped speaking since his death. Kashmir was burning throughout. There were killings and people were going mad. Dal had reduced, new roads around it had come, corrupt politicians and pollution was visible to the naked eye. There had come so much tension and stress due to all these years of militancy. Like this Months passed without any work and there was this one day suddenly when I got up, collected all what I had and decided that I will build a Bird Park in the heart of Dal.
It wasn’t easy even though we were boatman, just that working with wood was an inherent skill. I decided to create a channel and bring water so as to make an area for a pond, where at least one boat can come. And around it I built big cages for big as well as smaller water birds. It took a long time as wood was not easy and cheap to get. But in a year things developed and slowly visitors started showing up. Children often came after school to play, men came with fishing rods and sat for a few hours. It took some effort but It made me happy. I also started a small tea place later. So, it helped me sustain for some years till that fateful moment arrived in 2013, in minutes water rose to such a level that nobody got time to loosen their boats and offload things or to take them to a higher land. That was a calamity. Many boats sank, and many birds and animals died.
But after it was all over I started building it all over again. It was the only thing I could call my family. Even though I am angry at nature, also I was angry in general with the life but only birds kept me going. But Now it has harder for me to take their care. Earlier people used to come with some offerings for them, some food but newer generation is mightier in their minds and care less for the people ahead and in front. The birds cannot go hungry even if we can, that’s all an animal want. Your food. But no one wants to spend money on emotions anymore. All just want.
Once I and Rasool had gone to attend a wedding. It got late in the night but instead of sleeping he proposed walking from Bemina to Dal. That was a memorable morning because I realized Rasool does not look at people. Under his trademark black ray ban, his natural gaze goes over others head. He is always looking at a wall or, towards a tree, in the sky, some forms. He would tell me about the colors that sky was taking, some beautiful forms of the clouds that Srinagar sky allows for one to watch. On one such turn he stopped me and asked me to look up. Far above on a roof lied three kites, all three of them together, sun bathing with open wings towards the winter morning sun like Jesus hands towards the sky. The same day late in the night Rasool took me to see an injured kite whom he had saved. She fell down suddenly, one of her wing had got a deep cut. Rasool bought some lamb intestine from a nearby butcher shop for. I similarly remember another incident once when we were lying, facing sky after a bath in the river lidder, very near to where lidder meets the river Jhelum. There were these two birds whose sounds were piercing our hearts. I do not know if he was emotional but his voice was low and had a variation, when he asked me, Narayan, do you know which bird is it? This is hazaardastaan, elders used to say that she knows a thousand languages and one of them is of humans.
Last week I got to know of his extreme ill health. Rasool is fighting for his life. He has completely taken to bed and has been complaining of chest and abdominal pain. There are many other ailments that have been catching up with him but he has been prolonging it forever. And what he needs is help.