It wouldn’t be remiss of me to admit that until 1984 Grandmother was a peripheral presence in my life. She was a benign, affectionate, slightly detached, and much lauded presence in Grandfather’s lifetime, but not at the center stage of my existence. It was later that Grandmother and I developed a delightful, enriching, and volatile relationship. At times, she and I would give each other the silent treatment, but there were also times when she and I would have absorbing conversations as the day would fade and the twilight evening would dispel any resentment that might have been lingering in the air.
I remember her as a self-assured, articulate, politically savvy, and elegant person, whose social and political activism didn’t dwindle till very late in life. In the initial years of my coming to consciousness and getting to know Grandmother, she didn’t seem racked by self-doubt. She maintained a firm conviction in the ideological platform from which she and her husband had launched an irrepressible fight against iniquitous monarchical and nation-state politics.
After the death of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, her older son, Farooq Abdullah, much to the gratification of the indulgent mother, was made head of government. The investiture of Farooq, indubitably, allayed whatever anxieties might have gnawed at Grandmother at Grandfather’s demise. At the time, there was a genuine fear that the death of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah would create an abyss that would cause an unredeemable political bankruptcy in the state, and regional aspirations would be asphyxiated by the politics of the Indian and Pakistani nation-states. Although the National Conference did have a substantive ideology and a mass base at the time, I would argue that the organization had become increasingly reliant on the cult of personality, particularly on the iconic status of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Grandmother, who had been his comrade in the years of political exile, well knew that his dominance and clout couldn’t be replaced, but the strength of the mother-son nexus superseded her well-founded doubts. Subsequent to the formation of the cabinet under Farooq’s leadership in September 1982, she ceased to be first lady but she retained her position as patron of the political organization founded by the Sheikh, and her counsel was held in high regard by the party cadre.
In her several visits to Kashmir in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an astute Kashmir observer, Bilquees Taseer, carefully noted that Akbar Jehan was “given a share of the reverence which they [populace of Kashmir] always held for her husband. She was the person who could give him peace and solace in his tempestuous life” (250). Bilquees Taseer was the widow of the renowned educationist Dr. Mohammad Din Taseer, and mother of the late Governor of the Punjab in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, who was assassinated in 2010 by his bodyguard for having opposed the arbitrary and notorious blasphemy law of Pakistan. I remember Bilquees Taseer rather fondly as Aunty Chris, an imposing, voluble, and politically astute writer. I think of her as one of the last vestiges of the British Raj. She would affectionately call Akbar Jehan “Ruhi.” She would stay at Nedou’s Hotel in Srinagar on her frequent visits to the Kashmir Valley. Nedou’s Hotel was then owned and run by Salima Nedou, the widow of Harry Nedou aka Ghulam Qadir and sister-in-law of Akbar Jehan. At the time, Taseer was immersed in carving a sharply defined perspective of Kashmir for her forthcoming book.
She wrote about the unremitting dedication of Akbar Jehan to her husband in 1982, the year of the Sheikh’s death. Taseer poignantly writes that on closer acquaintance, she found Akbar Jehan an astute, discerning, and insightful woman, “with all the politics of the State and of the Union at her fingertips.” Akbar Jehan’s education, reading, and travel had broadened her horizons and having been immersed in momentous changes in subcontinental politics “for forty-nine years as a partner of an outstanding leader had all developed in her a sense of judgment, political intuition and wisdom” (112). She was affected with great wonder at Akbar Jehan’s calm demeanor and tactful diplomacy with visitors of all hues and from all walks of life during her husband’s illness. She, Taseer notes, tirelessly supervised the ameliorative care of her husband’s illness, “no light task when visitors were pouring in all day. . . . Always she had to show patience, good temper, tact. Her tirelessness was amazing, for after all she is now not a young woman” (89).
8 September, 1982, is a date that is indelibly etched in my mind for several reasons, some of which I have reassessed over the years. Grandfather’s illness had been causing a lot of concern to Mother and her older sister, who with the solicitude of dutiful daughters wanted to be by their father’s side at all hours of the day. So, a couple of months before he died, I would go to his house everyday after school where I would find Mother taking care of household chores, supervising the servants, and administering medications to her father. I would spend my time in the living room adjacent to Grandfather’s bedroom, where I would assiduously do my homework and study the Quran with the Maulvi.
One afternoon, exhausted and disheveled after a particularly tedious day at school, I limped into the living room to see Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, sitting there with Grandmother and my aunt, Khalida. Mother, who has carefully and very deliberately avoided hobnobbing with political bigwigs for most of her life, was hovering outside the living room. I, a ten-year-old glamour struck child, was overwhelmed to see the Indian premier exchanging pleasantries with Grandmother and her older daughter, Khalida, and sitting close enough for me to touch her.
I followed my aunt Khalida, who gingerly tiptoed into Grandfather’s bedroom and gently whispered in his ear that Indira Gandhi had flown from New Delhi to Srinagar just to call on him and inquire after his health. Grandfather turned away and cynically said that she was there to see how much life he still had left in him and to make sure that he, indeed, was on his last legs. His cynical response, however, did not deter the rest of the family from escorting Indira Gandhi into his room, where she tactfully expressed her concern for the stalwart leader against whom she and her father had deployed every stratagem in the book and the unbridled power of the state.
The air was thick with tension, and Grandfather was guarded in his responses to the Indian premier, suspicion writ large on his face. Grandmother was a gracious hostess and made small talk, all the while giving cryptic answers to questions asked by Indira Gandhi about Grandfather’s health and prognosis. Grandmother’s diplomatic skills were lauded by those who knew her. She had the discernment to receive visitors with the utmost charm and civility, while keeping an adversary at arm’s length. Little did anyone know that the Indian premier was already orchestrating a rift within the National Conference and the irreparable division of Akbar Jehan’s and the Sheikh’s family, which she engineered not long after Grandfather’s death.
A few days after that much publicized and impeccably diplomatic visit, I was taking Math tuitions, one afternoon, in the tiny and sparsely furnished room just above Grandfather’s bedroom, which didn’t do much to rid me of my Math dyslexia. I could hear an audible rattle through the window. Happy in my child’s fantasy world of fairies and elves that would vanquish the monstrous mathematical and algebraic formulae that my tutor was badgering me with, I didn’t realize that the audible rattling sound was Grandfather’s beleaguered breathing. Much to the chagrin of my tutor, I lost interest in my homework and looked through the window only to see everyone running helter skelter. Mother’s cousin, Freddy, came bounding up the stairs to tell her that “Papa” was asking for her. The newspaper that Mother had been reading flew out of her hands, and she ran downstairs in disarray.
I, not being able to navigate my way through the agitated crowd that had gathered outside Grandfather’s bedroom, made my way to the house of Grandmother’s younger brother, Benji, which was a stone’s throw away. I pushed, shoved, and elbowed to make my way through the main gate, which was thronged by a multitude of people. The evening air was laden with the stifling heaviness of slogans; the piercing keening of women; and the swishing sounds of young boys flagellating themselves, marking their bodies with visible signs of bereavement. The frightening roar of vehicles, chaotic screams, unbearably loud sounds of mourning, and the frantic patter of running feet around Grandmother’s brother’s house shook me into a startled wakefulness at first light. I learned that Grandfather had breathed his last on the evening of September 8. His corpse, subsequent to the ritual cleansing, had surreptitiously been taken to Polo Ground in the wee hours of the morning, where it would lie in repose for the next two days. Senior politicians of different ideological orientations and senior administrators feared that taking Grandfather’s body to the Polo Ground in full view of the already overwrought and emotionally agitated people thronging the gate of his house would make it difficult to rein in sentiments and could further destabilize the already fragile situation.
I recall spending that entire day in a disoriented daze, running in and out of the women’s pavilion, where Grandmother, Mother, and Mother’s older sister, who although distraught and utterly devastated, were forbearingly listening to the entreaties of the mourners to remain fortitudinous. Grandfather’s bedroom was denuded of his pain-filled eyes that had told thousands of stories of brutally crushed aspirations, his enchanting but melancholic smile, and his temperate presence. The defining presence of my childhood, much loved and just as much vilified, was no more! Death, the ever vigilant and cruel overseer had, once more, established its inevitability! There is no God but God! From God we come, and to Him we return!
The flags that flew at half-mast that day were symbolic of the diminution of the ideological underpinnings of a mass movement for Kashmiri nationalism, and of the mourning for an abraded Kashmiri identity. In that distressing, heartbreaking, and passionate atmosphere, Grandmother stood with her shoulders squared and employed religious rhetoric to remind the mourners in the front lawn of her house that even the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) could not escape the clutches of death, let alone an ordinary mortal. In a strong voice, she implored them to be patient and told them that the greatest tribute they could pay to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was to show the world that they were an evolving nation, capable of maintaining an enviable calm even in difficult times. I sat behind her on bended knees while she importuned the crowd of mourners to remain stoic, wondering, with the befuddlement of a ten year old child, how a sense of orientation, order, and clarity would ever follow the fluster and tumult of those few days!