“History repeats itself, that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.” -Clarence Darrow
Memories of an Ordinary Man Who Lived an Extraordinary Life
Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.
20 October 2005
A remembrance of a man with humble beginnings whose vision far exceeded his geographically small world constrained by family traditions and Kashmir’s culture of sycophancy. The author recalls the life and times of his late father to an audience of young people in Kashmir.
One of the tragedies in today’s Kashmir is how little politicians, separatists and terrorists talk about Kashmiri youth and their development in an increasingly complex world. The only time children make news in the valley is when they hold symbolic marches for clean environment or when terrorists blow up a bomb in the vicinity of children resulting in casualties. Issues like quality of education, child development programs, child nutrition and health, youth sports and entertainment, parental obligations and value of role models is rarely, if ever, discussed much less debated. The youth of Kashmir see politicians glorify terrorists killed by security forces who are also lionized through sympathy demonstrations and hartals, and wonder if indeed these are the role models that they should emulate. As a parent, I shudder to think how many children in Kashmir took to militancy simply because they saw adventure, fame and easy money in taking up the “gun culture” in a society that is not putting enough emphasis on preparing their young to deal with real worldly challenges ahead.
The youth of Kashmir today need role models more than ever to teach them about life, its beauty and challenges. I believe such role models exist abundantly; it is just that very few have reflected on a need for such people as the civil society has done little, if anything, to promote this vital interest. I want to share with readers the story of my role model and a true hero in every sense of the word – my dear late father, Mr. Chuni Lal Sazawal (Tiku).
The death of a parent is always tough on a child – no matter whether the child is 5 years old or 50 years old. My father died under very unfortunate circumstances. Living as a tenant on the 4th floor of a house in New Delhi, he was walking up the cement stairs with a bucket of water from the ground floor tap at 5 AM in total darkness when he probably had a heart attack and slipped on the stairs resulting in a head wound and lost his consciousness. He died soon thereafter. He was 68 years old.
The date was 13 June, 1993. It was blazingly hot in New Delhi. There was enough water in storage in his small flat that my father did not need to have gone down to fetch another pail of water, much less in darkness at an odd time. But to understand why he did that you had to know the person who have lived all his life surrounded by waters of Kashmir and who never overcame his feelings as a refugee ever since he fled the valley in July1990. Even though my parents had visited America numerous times previously, my father refused to leave the country until he had returned back to his home in Srinagar before going on an overseas trip. Sadly, his wish never materialized and he became another casualty of the mayhem that has cut short the lives of so many other fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. Between Islamic warriors, militants masquerading as politicians, and high-handed security forces, every Kashmiri family has been adversely affected in one way or the other. In my case, it was the sudden loss of my role model and mentor.
My father was a self-made man who pioneered a new career path for Kashmiris. He had an ordinary childhood with his two older brothers and after the loss of their father, Pandit Zanaradan Sazawal, at an early age, his upkeep fell upon them. Following his graduation with a B.A. degree from the S. P. College, he went to the Aligarh Muslim University but had to withdraw from the University within 6 months as neither of his brothers was interested in paying his tuition and boarding at the University. One of his brothers, in fact, wanted my father to return home to assist in running the family pharmacy shop in the Maharaj Gunj (then the elite business district) in shehr-e-khas (downtown), Srinagar. To add to my father’s woes, the family married him off around that time. At an age when he should have been discovering knowledge and taking his new bride on outings to Kashmir’s fabled gardens and lakes, his main occupation and purpose in life turned out to be carrying a lunch box from home to his elder brother in Maharaj Gunj, assisting in the shop by unpacking and shelving packages containing newly arrived goods, and returning home with the empty lunch box after his brother finished his meals. He was 20 years old and dreams of higher education and improved lifestyle seemed remote and outside of his grasp at that time. He told me once that this was the most humiliating period of his life.
He stayed awake during nights thinking about his future and choices ahead of him. Lacking a professional degree like engineering or medicine, the other only “honorable profession” for a Kashmiri Pandit those days was to join the State service. However, he had developed a particular abhorrence towards the bureaucracy after noting first hand how even professionals like engineers and doctors in the J&K government service appeared to have very little pride and self-esteem in the work they performed and spent more time doing “hazuri” (sycophancy) to local politicians and senior bureaucrats. In other words, government careers in J&K were not advanced by hard work and good performance but by sycophancy, nepotism and subservience. He wanted no part of it. I came to know about his thoughts only when it was my time to make similar decisions, two decades later.
But he never gave up on his dreams. My father managed to secure modest loans from his brother-in-law and his brothers to start a modest business in pharmaceutical distribution when he was 24 years old. Within two years he paid off his lenders and, in his words, became “the master of his own destiny.” While he enjoyed the financial freedom from his entrepreneurship for the first time, he was however still unhappy because the daily routine seemed fairly non-intellectual and he did not find it mentally stimulating. My father had been a voracious reader all his life and loved to interact with intellectuals in traditional gathering places in Srinagar like the India Coffee House on the Residency Road. To him running a mundane business, though profitable, was intellectually very unsatisfying.
He decided to pursue a different profession that was not new in the rest of India, but was a novel career path for a Kashmiri, and that was to become a Pharmaceutical Representative. Every Kashmiri – Muslim or Hindu – who followed my father in this profession since has recognized him as a pioneer who broke new ground in bringing professionalism to this career. My father’s personality and demeanor brought new esteem for this profession especially for Pandits who had previously shied away from such a career out of the fear that it would not be deemed as “respectful.” He took great satisfaction in being a role model for others who followed him in the profession and was always helpful in providing guidance to newcomers in the field. Besides, this was a smart move on his part as the job had synergies with his pharmaceutical distribution business.
My father was not only a professional but extremely innovative in his style. He demonstrated the value of marketing, marketing techniques, training and customer satisfaction long before these terms appeared in the vernacular of doing business in the valley. He was easily one of the most well dressed personalities of his time, and his hand-made business suits (tailored in the earlier period by Excelsior on the Bund, and later in his life by N. H. Paul on the Residency Road) were marked for the quality of fabrics that he spent hours selecting from the finest clothing shops in Srinagar, Amritsar and New Delhi. To improve his people skills, he arranged, through the Kashmir Book Shop, to receive a monthly magazine, “The Psychologist”, published in London, as well as took the Dale Carnegie course in public speaking. He spoke English so well that those who did not know him thought that he had received his education at some prominent university in India. I only wish they knew that he trained himself (and later “forced” me as a child) to learn English the old-fashioned way – by listening to daily broadcasts from the BBC Radio – and he would insist that we discuss the content after each transmission. In 1955 he began his subscription to the weekly Time magazine, a tradition that has continued in our family ever since. I recall the early years with painful memories as my father would insist that I prepare a précis of the TIME cover story week after week which then he would grade as any hard nosed English teacher. Two cover stories from that period (when I was about 12 years old) are still vivid in my mind, one on Cholesterol and the other on Lasers.
In 1958, my father’s pharmaceutical company (an Indian subsidiary of a leading German company) offered him a promotion as the Branch Manager in New Delhi. However, it would have required him to physically shift to New Delhi. He and his family’s love for the valley made his decision of turning down the offer an easy one. My father did not wish to leave his home.
Four years earlier, in 1954, when I was in the fourth grade (and mostly home schooled until then), my father made a decision to enroll me in the CMS Biscoe Memorial High School in Sheikh Bagh. I vividly recall the debate that raged in my family regarding the exorbitant fees charged by the school, its over-emphasis on extra-curricular activities that most in my family saw as a waste of time away from basic education, and its distance from home. However, my father’s wishes prevailed. Years later he told me that he wanted me to go to the best school irrespective of the cost and for him there were only two choices then – either Burn Hall or Biscoe – and he chose the latter because it was relatively closer to our home. But his nature of seeking the best and demanding the best remained an over-arching principle for all his life. Two of my good friends in the School (Gilani, whose father owned a bicycle shop in the center of Lal Chowk and Arif, whose father was a dentist and lived in Gowkadal) were particular favorites of my father, and he would extol virtues of higher education whenever he would see us together, much to our discomfort. On the other hand, he would never bring up this topic when my best friend, Ashok Ambardar, was around. Ashok was a brilliant student (and the class valedictorian at matriculation in 1960) and served as our shield whenever my father showed up in our social gatherings.
My first brush with the ugly nature of valley communal politics came to the forefront in 1962. That year I graduated with F.Sc. degree from the Amar Singh College and applied for admission to the Regional Engineering College (REC) Srinagar. At that time, REC offered 180 seats in three disciplines (Civil, Electrical and Mechanical) and half the seats were assigned to non-J&K students. Thus, only 30 seats per subject (for a total of 90) were available to entering graduates of Jammu and Kashmir University. I did not see a problem in being selected in my discipline of choice as I was ranked among the top 50 students who graduated from J&K University. My father, however, was not very keen for me to go to the REC, insisting that it was a mediocre engineering college and national engineering institutions like IIT’s, Pillani or Banaras were a better choice. Indeed, he forced me to apply to other colleges in India even though in my heart I wanted to stay in the valley as did everyone else in the family except my father.
So when REC announced the names of local students selected for admission in 1962, I was shocked to note that I did not make the list, even though merit considerations should have automatically assured my admission. My uncle and other family members immediately sought connections to arrange for meetings with “higher ups” (REC administration, state officials, politicians) to “grease some palms”, but my father steadfastly refused to join this drama. He insisted that he had seen enough of corruption and nepotism in the State government and he did not want to be part of the charade nor did he wish that I would grow in such unhealthy environment. The reality about the communal politics of J&K hit home when a REC official told me that, “You can study anywhere in India, but where will a Muslim boy go?” I responded that I did not want to leave the State either, but the official was resolute, “Take your father’s advice and study outside.” And so I did, and moved on to a life which probably would have been greatly different had I stayed back and studied in REC Srinagar.
My father argued that no youth – Hindu or Muslim – had any chance to reach his or her true potential in the State that was so enmeshed in corruption and pandering to bureaucrats and politicians that it left no room for the merit and performance as deciding factors for advancing education or career growth. I recall long discussions between my father and my grandmother on this subject, especially after she accused her son of willfully pushing her grandchild away from home at a young age. I was 16 years old.
Since my father felt mostly responsible for having sent me away, he was acutely aware that I missed family and home during my college days in Banaras. He was not given to spending splurges, but he thought my college was too far and in order to minimize travel time, I always flew by air between the university town and home. The schedule is etched in my memory. On the very first morning after the college closed for a break, I would take the 6:30 AM Indian Airlines flight which reached New Delhi at 8 AM, and at 10 AM there was a non-stop “Viscount flight” service from New Delhi to Srinagar. Hence, I never stopped anywhere in-between and by noon on the first day of the college break, I would be eating lunch with my family and cousins. I would follow the same routine when the vacations came to an end – staying up to the very last day in the beautiful valley until it was time to catch the last flight of the day. The only exception was in winter months when my father would shutdown his business for a couple of months and my parents visited me at the University. They would rent a flat near the Banaras campus for their extended stay during which time I would visit them every now and then, and on Sundays and holidays we would take sightseeing trips to tourist spots in western U.P and Bihar.
Even though Banaras Engineering College required specialist summer training after third and fourth years at selected companies like Tata Iron and Steel, Dunlop, etc., I managed to get approval to receive my training at the Hydroelectric Power Station located in Ganderbal. It was interesting because no one had done any such training there previously and no one in the power station knew what exactly I should be doing – so I explored the environs around Ganderbal and filled my technical note book with details from Swedish hydroelectric booklets lying around in the power station. I was very careful to avoid my father during the summer break for the fear that he would probe as to how I was doing on my training and I know that he would have been very upset if he knew that I was goofing off by hiking to nearby hills and streams during the training period.
Several years later after I moved to the U.S for doctorate studies in engineering and eventually settled there, my father sold his business and decided to retire in his hometown. Even though he was rather a lonely man, he was sure that I should stay put in America as I would not have the same kind of opportunities in Kashmir, and to him being away from Kashmir 100 kilometers or 10,000 kilometers meant the same thing. His personal choice was to stay in the home that he had built in Srinagar and visit us in America once in a while to see his grandchildren. This serene phase continued until 1989, during which time we also visited the valley with our children a few times. In the post-retirement period, he took to astrology and became a leading authority on the subject, exchanging technical notes with other great Indian astrologers like Raman, etc. He also launched an unsuccessful campaign to convince the extended Sazawal clan to revert to our historical family surname of Tiku (which was usurped when our ancestor in early1700’s took a surname representing his profession), but the family did not oblige. However, my father started using “Sazawal Tiku” as his surname in public gatherings.
When militancy took its root in the valley in the late 1980’s and Jihadis started killing and harassing peaceful Pandits, Muslims and Sikhs in the Valley, most of our relatives started fleeing in fear and the future appeared bleak for the rest. I advised my parents to also leave but my father was resolute about staying. He said that he was retired and did not pose a threat to anyone and since he was never connected with the State or Central bureaucracy or government in any way, “why would anyone harm an old man like me.” He repeated the same mantra every time I called my parents to inquire about their welfare. But when I called him one day in late July 1990, the phone kept ringing and no one picked up the receiver. This caused us considerable concern, but he subsequently called from New Delhi. He told me a harrowing story of two armed local young boys stopping by our home and making demands for protection money, something that my father took offense considering that he was living in his own house and bothering no one. His confidence in public safety and security had steadfastly diminished since January, but the visit by the two armed thugs on this fateful day in July 1990 was too much to bear. My father and mother left the very next day with nothing more than their bare essentials. Lost in the process were all of my childhood memories – the books I read, the music I played, the photos that I took as a child and details of my of my school and college life. My wife and I were married in that home in June 1970 and everything that we received in the wedding was lost. My parents however lost everything, including their dignity and pride. Later we heard our house was looted and not too soon thereafter it was gutted by a fire.
My father was never able to overcome the indignity of fleeing from Srinagar under duress and wanted to get back to his home more than he wanted to visit me in America. He was bitter about inexcusable lapses of the J&K government to halt a deteriorating law and order situation in the valley. He was shocked by the indifferent attitude of the Central government towards worsening political and security situation in Kashmir. He was surprised how easily militancy had spread its roots in the Muslim majority community, and wondered if masses with increasing Islamic fervor would ever return to the composite Sufi-Rishi culture. He also observed that well connected bureaucrats and politicians in Kashmir were making so much money during the insurgency that it was hard for him to believe that these opportunists would ever wish to see the return of peace and normalcy. It certainly appears that way – at least for now.
My father was a very talented man. He was a humanist who experimented with novel ideas like socialism and communism during his youth and he stayed socially conscious even after becoming a successful business man. He was a member of the Srinagar Lion’s Club and arranged or participated in many community charity events. An avid golfer (belonging to the Srinagar Golf Club), he made sure that I joined him on the golf links every summer when I would visit home during the college break. He was also serious about the game of bridge which he played for hours over the weekend. But after retirement he mostly enjoyed making horoscopes and foretelling the future with planetary alignments at a person’s birth with interested people seeking his guidance or willing to listen. He personally made the horoscopes of my children and would spend endless hours going over horoscopes with even strangers that would seek his review. My father collected a large number of horoscope related books which were given away to his disciples after his death. Many of his friends and relatives would later tell me that my father had an uncanny sense to foretell the future and many of his predictions had come true.
All that, however, came to an abrupt end after he became a refugee. Other tragedies befell the family in exile in New Delhi and he never recovered from the initial trauma of the sudden loss of his home and hearth. His wish of dying in the land of his forefathers never materialized, and on that fateful day on June13, 1993 he departed from his present life into another. A truly self-made man, one who never sought a paisa from the government, he led an exemplary life but died of wounds that were inflicted on the soul and psyche of Kashmir. He is one of the thousands among law-abiding civilians who have paid dearly by their lives during this insurgency.
I asked him once, “Papaji, what do the stars foretell for me?” He opened my horoscope and spent an hour looking over the charts with utter seriousness. I felt good because I thought I was about to hear a true revelation. Finally he rolled up my horoscope and looked straight at me and said, “If you work hard, you will get everything that you are striving for.” I did not think that was particularly profound and personal then, but today after getting older and supposedly smarter, I know he spoke the ultimate wisdom.
The challenge for youth in Kashmir is to fully comprehend the degree of rot that has set in the Kashmiri society and its institutions. One can not get something out of nothing. People who have become rich and powerful by looting the Treasury and over the backs of the disadvantaged and poor citizens of Kashmir are slowly and steadily destroying our piece of the heaven. For those feeding on militancy and mayhem, only an enlightened community led by its emancipated youth can change the course of the future. Militancy in all its forms and manifestations must be rejected. Only hard work, honesty, integrity and dedication to preserve national resources and protect the environment will bring back the luster in the valley and make Kashmir a paradise. My late father taught me to believe in that and I am passing that message to you and other generations to follow.
My father was the featured distributor in his company newsletter in 1972 when he was 47 years old. That description can be accessed by clicking here
Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.