Based on true life events of those who did schooling in Srinagar in 1950s and 1960s.Reported by Team RK
24 Aug 2020
His name was Avtar but we would call him Nika. Nika was not nika, as the name would suggest. In fact he was more robust than all of us, but the nickname coined by his parents for him in his childhood, became popular. We would also love to call him Nika. We were in all four bosom friends, Nika, Raja, Vijay and me. We would call Vijay by his nickname Toja. Why was this name given to him, we did not know. His grandfather, an army man gave him this name. Toja was very good at mathematics and was able to do even toughest calculations on his fingertips. We were studying in the same class and in the same school. We would also do our home work collectively.
Nika was our undisputed leader. In fact, the question of not accepting him as leader never arose. We obeyed his orders without a fuss. Keeping his physique in view, no body ever dared question his authority. Initially, I did not succumb myself to his authority, but in due course of time, it was clear to me that Nika was a born leader.
Nika was a leader in the real sense. He would feel very uneasy, seeing any one of us in trouble. If anybody at the school ever dared to snatch our book or threaten us, Nika would beat him black and blue. This was true in our mohalla also. If some one from other mohalla came to tease us, Nika would confront him even before we could flex our muscles.
Results of the 7th standard were declared. We had all passed. Those days, only two categories mattered, ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’. Who would bother for ‘Division’ and ‘Percentage’? Such things were to be given priority at 8th, 10th and higher standards only. Normally, all hard working students would get second division. Those with first division, were considered fortunate and worth praise. If one got higher percentage in second division, he would be called a high-class second divisioner, or so to say, equivalent to a first divisioner. Nika and I would generally get the high-class third division. I was always amused to look at my marks, because only such marks would guarantee me leadership status after Nika. And this, every one of us accepted with pride.
It was an early Sunday morning. Nika called out to me from his window. I left my breakfast and reached his home. All my friends were there. Nika, on way to his maternal uncle’s place the pervious day, had witnessed large crowds at Habba Kadal. People in thousands, were buying and selling second-hand books on the spans of the bridge. Nika was very eager to tell us this story yesterday itself, but could not return home, for, his maternal uncle had invited him to dinner as he had passed the 7th standard examination.
We were glad to hear all this. For long, we had been thinking of picnicking at Nishat and Shalimar gardens, but could not, for lack of finance. After all, we needed money to pay at least for the bus fare. We could not go on foot. Our parents hardly managed to pay our school fee of seven and a half annas. Actually the fee was only seven annas, but each of us would, on the very first day of the month, fondly relish half an apple for one half anna, and it would keep us going for the month. That was all. There was no question of thinking about anything else, more so about a picnic. Now there was some hope of our dreams being materialised.
We decided to take our old books along and reach Habba Kadal. My books would be kept separately from others and sold last of all. My books were as good as new. I had not even opened these books in the classroom for the whole year. But yes, two of my classmates had imprinted their names on the front and back covers of the books respectively. Our teacher, Mahi Kakh was very particular that all the boys had their own set of books. These two class mates of mine would show him my books to escape punishment as both of them had sold their books to Rasul Karawol*, long back.
All of us took our books and walked a mile to reach Habba Kadal.
It was really a scene worth watching. Boys were shouting at the pitch of their voice, “Teesree Jamaat Ke Liye, Chhatti Jamaat Ke Liye, Chothi Jamaat Ke Liye …” and so on. There was a sea of people. Prospective buyers were going through each and every page of the book to arrive at a price. ‘How much for a book and how much for the full set?’ was being discussed. People around, were also giving their opinion. Books in good condition fetched half the original price. And those in bad shape were priced lower. Nika whispered, as if sharing a secret, “Don’t open your books. We will first take a round of the entire area to ascertain the standard price, and only then offer our books for sale.” We kept going across the bridge from one bank to other, ascertaining the trends, when we came across a group of people offering higher rates. We took out our books from the bag. There were 18 books in all, except mine, six in a set. We had purchased them at four rupees and eight annas a set, and it could fetch us two rupees and four annas per set at half the price. But it was not to be. The condition of our books was pathetic. One of the books was fully dyed in blue-black ink while the other had first three pages missing. Two of the books were without cover pages and yet another was retrieved from a pond of waste water. The condition of rest of the books was also pitiable. We sold three sets for five rupees and thanked our stars.
It was time to sell my books now. Some customers around, were demanding books in good condition like that of mine, but Nika was not in hurry. A turban wearing old man, knowing that we had a good set of books in hand, followed us for quite some distance. But Nika ridiculed him in a manner as if Nika was a renowned wholesaler and he, a menial retailer. Old man pleaded, “ Hey, why not sell your books to me? I offer you two annas more than the half price.” Nika retorted, “Oh, don’t show me your two annas. We will not sell them for less than three rupees.” Old man left disappointed. A boy in the crowd, who was accompanied by his father, was in look out for 7th standard books. This boy was just one like us but his father had a beaming stature. He wore a Karakuli cap and by his talks, looked well like a ‘Sahab’. There was a man selling look-like-new books at the other end of the bridge. He would grab as many books as he could in the first instance at a lower price and sell them at exorbitant rates later. Sahab was not interested because the books he showed him, still carried marks sufficient to put them in the older category. Sahab was ready to pay a higher price but would accept only the best stuff.
Nika was impressed by this customer. He liked the language and the tone Sahab used. Sahab talked to us very lovingly and referred to us as his dear ones. “He will be a good pay master”, Nika told us in confidence. “We do have a set of books of your choice Sir,” Nika told Sahab, “ But we must get the right price”. Sahab was quick to answer, “Then what are you waiting for? I have got enough money to pay you”. Nika took Sahab aside and asked us to show him the books. Sahab was amused and said, “Look, my dear ones! There are so many enemies here and they are jealous. In no time will they get around and start giving lectures. Why don’t you all come to my home and settle the deal there. You can also have a cup of tea with me”. Nika nodded in affirmation, as if Sahab was doing exactly what Nika had wanted. He looked at our faces in a manner, telling us, “Look! This is called the art of choosing a good customer”.
Sahab tightened his grip over the books and said, “Come on, follow me”. A little further, he called for a tonga and whispered into tongawallas ear. We could not hear what he said. We boarded the carriage. It was a pleasure to take a free ride. I asked Nika in a low tone, “Where are we going?” He retorted, “Don’t behave like a fool. Why should we bother for that? Let him take us anywhere.” I kept mum. Our other two friends were shaking their legs in a manner as if they only were pulling the tonga. I befriended Sahab’s son and started talking to him. He was fond of playing football but would not know technicalities of the game. I told him not to worry and assured to train him in the game. I had once watched Sultan’s team and Majid’s team play football at Dewan Bagh. When Majid’s team scored a goal over the rival team, Majid shouted, “Oh goal!” Sultan slapped him hard on his face, saying, “You ought to have whistled to register a goal. Where is your whistle?” But Majid had no whistle with him. I asked Sahab’s son to arrange for a whistle first and I would take care of the rest.
Tonga stopped. We all alighted and Sahab paid the fare to tongawalla. We followed Sahab. After a long trek through the narrow lanes and by-lanes, we finally reached Sahab’s home. His house was a big one, five windows wide. The courtyard was cemented. Sahab asked us to be seated in the drawing room and he himself went into another room. We were all eager to have a cup of tea along with a crisp Bakirkhwani. Sahab returned a little later, followed by his servant carrying a Samavar. Sahab’s son placed cups in front of us and the servant poured Kashmiri Kahwa into them. We waited for a long time but there were no Bakirkhwanis. Nika was about to open his mouth when Sahab commented, “Why don’t you finish your tea? Look, we have to then sit and finalise the deal”. We concluded that no Bakirkhwanis were coming and sipped the tea somehow. Sahab arranged the books on his table and started going through their pages, one by one. This took him about half an hour. We were worried as it was getting late and moreover, we had left our homes without informing anybody. At last, Sahab raised his head. He handed over all the books to his son, placed his spectacles on the table and with a long sigh, said, “Everything is fine with the books, but there is a problem.” We could not get him and instead gazed at him with abated breath. Sahab explained in detail, “Look here. A new set of books costs four rupees and eight annas. Half of it would be two rupees and four annas. But two other boys have also read these books and their names are inscribed on the books. Hence the half price will further be halved twice, reducing the net price to nine annas.” Toja immediately calculated the price on his fingertips and nodded in confirmation. Nika’s face turned red with anger and Toja hung his face down. I pleaded with Sahab, “Sir, I have never read these books myself, how could the others. These inscriptions have been made by two of my classmates, just to escape masterji’s wrath”. Nika confirmed my explanation but Sahab would not listen. He said, “Look my son, this is the established method of accounting. If you talk of sharing love and affection, I am for it. Whenever you happen to pass this way, you should come in without any reservations. You can always treat this house as your own.” Nika went pale. I was almost paralysed. Nika said, “ Well sir, in that case, please return us our books”. Sahab replied, “Oh yes, I would have done it gladly, but see, Guda ji has already written his name on the books”. We turned back. Sahab’s son was writing his name on the books with a thick bamboo pen. We had no choice. We kept looking at Sahab pleadingly, but it had no effect on him. Meanwhile, Guda ji picked up the books and went into the adjoining room. Sahab called out to him and said “Come on. Don’t we have to get your note books?” He began preparing to leave again. Looking at us, he asked, ” So, what have you decided now? I am getting late”. Our condition was very pitiable. I whispered into Nika’s ears, “Better accept whatever he pays.” Nika asked Sahab to pay the price he had arrived at. Sahab said, “Oh yes, why not?” And Sahab took some money out of his pocket and handed to Nika. Nika counted and exclaimed to Sahab, “But Sir, how is it, you are paying me only five annas”. Sahab smiled and said, “Well, did not pay you any less. You know, I paid your tonga fare of four annas. That much I have deducted. Did I do anything wrong?” We were all dumbstruck, looking helplessly at Sahab. Sahab continued, “Well, you are like my own sons. Take one anna more”. Sahab handed one more anna to Nika. We felt we had no legs to stand upon. It was 2.00 O’clock now.
There was a tonga on the road. Nika asked the tongawalla, “Bhai, which area is this”. “It is Zaina Kadal”, he replied. We looked at one another’s face, “So far from our homes, and how do we go from here”. Nika gathered some strength and asked him, “Bhai, will you take us to Bal Garden?” “Why not?” Tongawalla replied. We boarded the tonga. Tongawalla mushed his horse and the horse galloped quickly. Several thoughts crossed my mind. How to enter home and what do I tell my parents? My mind was busy, drafting various explanations I would give to my parents, when the tonga halted with a jerk. I heard the tongawalla asking us to alight. I looked around. We had reached Bal Garden. Nika asked him, “Bhai, how much do we have to pay”. “You are like my own sons. Pay me only six annas”, replied the tongawalla, patting his horse with affection. Nika paid him six annas, the amount Sahab had paid for my books.
Before parting our ways, we rested a while, on the roadside parapet wall. I still had the jute rope with which I had tied my books, in my hand. I was heart broken. I looked at Nika. He was pale and expressionless. I held his hand and said, “Whatever has happened, is past. But take my advice now. Don’t sell books to a sahab next year”.