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“Akh Daur”, a novel by Kashmiri author Bansi Nirdosh (translated by Qaisar Bashir as “Once Upon a Time”), is a historical fiction: it takes readers to an era which there was once, but is now seen no more. The novel can be divided into two parts: one, that depicts the beauty of Bandipora (fraternity, solidarity, love, peace, care) in general and the village where Nageena, the heroine, grows up in particular; second, when Nageena leaves everything behind and sets out to meet her destiny that changes the after part of her life altogether. This review is an attempt at projecting the struggles of a little peasant girl, who journeys from village to Srinagar, the city wherein she gets trapped like a bird in the cage of prostitution in general, and the women, who suffer like Nageena at every step, every moment of their life, in particular.

“Once Upon A Time” is a gut-wrenching tale of a peasant girl, Nageena, who leaves everything behind and sets out for Srinagar to see her father, Deen Mohammad.

Deen Mohammad had left his village for the city a long ago: he had tuberculosis. In Bandipora, he had consulted whatever Hakeems, dervishes, medical assistants there were available there then; but his health showed no improvement. Nageena could not bear seeing her father in such conditions, and therefore she said to him, “Are there no docders?” …There’s a government hospital in Srinagar… Mission Saeb’s hospital. Go, get some treatment from there. Don’t you love me? …Baba, I’ll be of no value if any untoward happened to you. Do I have mother you’ll leave me for? Do I have uncles to feed me? For my sake, why don’t you pray Almighty for your health, for life?”

Deen Mohammad had to agree, as his health was declining by every passing day. When he reached the hospital, Doctors there expressed awe. He was in a critical condition. They admitted him in a ward immediately. Asked him to take a warm bath. Nurses came. They give him fresh clothes; and then, asked him to lie on a bed.

Many months passed. Deen Mohammad did not return to his home. Nageena got worried. Villagers also got worried. They came and consoled Nageena (There was solidarity and fraternity in the village. Neighbour’s daughter was treated as one’s own). Ghan Bhat, in whose houseDeen Mohammad had been working, got ready to leave for Srinagar to look for Deen Mohammad.

After a lot of struggle, Ghan Bhat finally arrived at Mission Hospital where he enquired about Deen Mohammad, and fortunately found him admitted there. When he saw him lying on the bed, him in a worse condition, he at once realized that Deen Mohammad would die. They exchanged a few words. Deen Mohammad expressed his long pending wish: “I’m not sure as to when I’ll die… today or tomorrow. I’ve a wish that I’ll marry Nageena off to someone, otherwise this wish will wrench my heart even after my death…”. Ghan Bhat consoled him that everything would be alright, that he himself would take care of Nageena.

As Ghan Bhat arrived home, the entire village gathered at Deen Mohammad’s house to hear from Ghan Bhat about Deen Mohammad’s health. He told them that he was alright, that Nurses in the hospital were at his beck and call, that he was served delicious dishes. Hearing this Nageena wished if she were a crow, she would right away go and see her father. But, she hardly knew that Ghan Bhat was speaking lies and nothing.

Weeks passed. Months elapsed. Deen Mohammad did not return home. Nageena, though after many failed attempts, finally mustered courage and left for Srinagar: the city she had not been to before, a city that tricked her to become a prostitute, a city where she had to accept her fate.

Late in the night that day Nageena finally reached the hospital, but the gatekeeper did not allow her to walk in. She spent the night in a mosque, that was a few yards away from the hospital, where she met a man (who brings her food and water) who finally turns out to be a pimp.Here the novel gives a clear glimpse of how innocent girls like Nageena were hoodwinked to what they had no knowledge about; and at the same time, throws light on how in a city a stranger is/was treated.

From now on begins the new chapter of Nageena’s life. A chapter that leaves the readers stun, that makes even hard hearted people to cry, that explains what patriarchy actually means…

Early next morning, Nageena straight way went to the hospital. On seeing her beloved father, now a bundle of bones, the earth shook under her feet. Tears coursed down her beautiful eyes. All her expectations and dreams exploded into shards. There were nurses in the ward, but without giving it a thought as to what they would say, she walked in and clung to her father’s chest. Neither she spoke anything nor did Deen Mohammad utter a word; but they looked at each other and wept.

Later that day, Deen Mohammad suggested to her to head back to her home. Nageena agreed but half heartedly. From within, she was quite embarrassed and felt that her beloved father no longer loves her when he told her she must leave.

Tears in her eyes, Nageena bade adieu to her father. Outside, on the road, she met the same man who had brought her food last night. He took her to a house that belonged to Tout’a. She was a prostitute too. Nageena was happy that she would get another day to see and talk to his father. Hardly she knew that she was trapped.

That evening, Tout’a made her wear fresh clothes. She dodged her that they were going to attend a marriage party. Nageena reluctantly dressed herself up in new clothes. Tout’a expressed joy when she saw her in new clothes looking gorgeous. She hugged her. Nageena felt her hug so balmy that she believed it as the welcoming hug of mother when her daughter leaves or comes home. “Get ready”, broke the thread of her thought.

Outside, the gig was ready. Sideeq Joo sat in the front seat and Tout’a and Nageena in the rear. On the way to Fateh Kadal, a lot of things were shown to Nageena — this is the Polo ground. Golf is played there. This is Amira Kadal. There, it’s the counsel of Maharaja Saeb– till they finally reached to their destination.

At Fateh Kadal, Sideeq Joo owned a prostitution house. There were also a number of brothels around in the locality, but Sideeq Joo’s brothel was commonly visited. Because there was Tout’a there. Balbadur, a rich Hindu cloth merchant, was his regular customer. The following night, he was to come there. As Sideeq Joo, so Tout’a aspied to mesmerize Balbadur with the introduction of Nageena in the party. And same they did and succeeded in doing.

The act of seducing and smuggling women to prostitution and trapping them in this hell takes readers to mid-19th century Kashmir, when the reins of Law were in the hands of Dogras. In their reign, prostitution was legal. There were two prostitution centers in Srinagar, one at Tashwan and other at Maisuma” (Bodha, and Sheikh 43). And they were openly run till a brave man, Subhaan Hajam, took stands to close this evil once for all. Subhaan Hajam was a barber by profession. As he saw this menace growing, he started finding ways to put a seal on this plague. He worked at his shop in the frist half and met with the elderly people of the city in the second. He discussed this with them, got their support and eventually, succeeded in his mission.

That evening, the inmates of the brothel were very kind to her. Nageena was served delicious dishes. Given love. She felt save. However, at times, she reminded her father and the reminiscences of him would compel her to ask Tout’a: “Let’s go now.”(43) But everytime Tout’a paid no attention towards her words, rather said, “Don’t you feel comfortable here? For my sack, tell me.” Such reply from her would keep her mum, because in Tout’a she looked her mother, that made her believe the house as her sweet home, which actually was a hub where virginities were bid.

Some days later Nageena finally came to know where she had come. She abused Sideeq Joo. Sent obscenities to everyone in the house. “For a couple of weeks, she skirmished with all the inmates of the brothel. Many a times, she attempted suicide. Sometimes, she ate and on occasions, she didn’t. Doing so, Nageena turned weak and didn’t remain so healthy and brave that she would fight to live a life of virginity for a longer duration of time. At the last, being helpless, she was compelled to live like a top to be toyed at gestures and step into that chapter of her life which was, of course, a life but worth nothing. “Alas! Alas!” Nageena would mutter inside and rub her hands together in despair. The moment she would think that a woman would take many men in bed in a night, her body would turn shockingly numb. “Better is to die,” she would mutter “than to live a life of this kind. How’ll I wear that face and meet the gaze of man, a stranger? Those eyes of mine should turn blind, lightless.” (56, Once Upon A Time)

Nageena pleads Sideeq Joo to her utmost to let her go: “For the sake of Dastageer Saeb, let me go. My father must be thinking of me. His eyes must have tired looking at the door to espy me. For his sake, let me see him only once. I’ll come back. I won’t run away, not even to my village.” But her wails, tears, and supplications didn’t move him, rather infuriates him, “Let her stay empty stomach for some days. She’ll learn a lesson by it. Beggarly people don’t feel ease at rosy beds. She knows only to take so’ut chai, distasteful feasts… she won’t digest royal curries.”

When a human being becomes helpless before life, gets entangled in circumstances, finds no way to get out of it, that moment of time he becomes a fatalist and leaves himself at God’s mercy.

Nageena did the same. Sideeq Joo sold her to Balbadur for three hundred rupees. And thus, she was auctioned. She would no longer be a virgin now. All her aspirations, her dreams, her joys were exploded into pieces. However, she was a bit lucky because she was sold to Bulbadur, the rich merchant of his time, who fell for her at first sight though Nageena didn’t look at him.

Reading “Once Upon A Time”, one reminds of “Umroa Jan Ada” by Mirza Hadi Ruswa. Nageena’s struggles quite match to Umroa. However, Umroa escapes with the man who loves her, but Nageena does not. Rather she conceives a baby and weds Balbadur, who converts for her.

With the passing of time and days, Nageena came to know each and everything about the brothel: the women there, the men coming in and going out of the brothel, who is kind or harsh etc; and she faithfully did what she was asked to.

When Nageena didn’t return home, Ghan Bhat and his wife (Suna Bat’in) worried. Villagers thronged in his courtyard as discuss as to where Nageena had gone. He registered an FIR in a Police Station Sopore. And from there went straight to Srinagar. Along with a couple of policemen, he visited the hospital, the shrine, but got no clue. He returned home tired and empty. The villagers expressed sorrow. They didn’t eat anything that night.
However, police continued their search. They raided a few brothels. Interrogated the inmates of Sideeq Joo’s house:

“What’s your name?” Thanaidar asked.

“Atieeqa,” Nageena replied. She glanced at Balbader so fiercely that he felt quivered. Sweat soaked his whole being. Sideeq Joo hid his head under his pheran. Ali came with kangries. He handed them over to the policemen. “Have you come here from Bandipora?” Thanaidar said, in a low voice.

“No!” Nageena replied.

“Then?”

“I’m born here.”

“Whom?”

“My parents.”

“Where’re they?”

“They’re there where everyone has to go one day.”

“Have they died? When?” Thanaidar expressed sorrow. From his mouth, he produced a strange voice, as if he wanted to scare away a dog. Nageena didn’t comment. Policemen began gesturing at one another.

“Are you married?” he added.

Nageena smiled. “Do you think there’d be anyone unmarried over here?” she replied. (90,91 Once Upon A Time)

Nageena, like most of the women who are helpless before fate, accepts her fate as it would be. Because she could realize that there was an indelible mark, her body received, which no doctor or Hakeem on earth could wash away. And from here, her struggles lessen:

“These caprices would make Nageena wander through the jungles of her imagination. However, when she saw Balbader’s face in the glittering electric light, her pale countenance blushed red. Her heart palpitated. Her eyes gained a strange thrill. But this glare, on the other hand, vanished quickly from her. Balbader’s heartbeat had also gained speed. His confidant love had got exposed. He quietly paced towards Nageena’s bed. His daughter, lying close to her bosom in her bed, was playing with her teats. He leaned forward. Then, lowered further. There was silence in the Ward. A complete silence. Some women, in the Ward, were still asleep. Leaning forward, Balbader kissed the new born. He touched his face with hers. While doing this, his face contacted Nageena’s breast. Her entire body felt warmth. Every corner of her body turned alive. Her longings got satiated. Her pain evaporated. When Balbader touched Nageena’s warm and plump breast with his lips, a blush appeared on her face. She shut her eyes. Sealed both her lips. Nevertheless, Balbader could hear her calling: “Kiss me again, kiss me again, kiss me, kiss me, again, again, again…” Though at times she wonders whether or not Balbadur accept her and her baby.

Same premonitions strike Balbadur as well when he comes to know that he was going to become the father of child going to be born in a brothel. Because he had a wife, from her a daughter, already. However, for the sake of Nageena, he was ready to face any wind (because in the company of Nageena he found himself a real love bird, while at his home, he could notdare to be romantic). And yes, finally, he faced the wind when he left everything, his estate, his religion, his name etc; to embrace islam and accept Nageena as his wife.

To sum up, “Once Upon A Time” throws light on various aspects of the era it is set in: love and care for one another in the villages, feudalism, prostitution, patriarchy, corruption law. It connects indigenous readers to their glorious but sad past. It portrays the perfect image of Dogra rule and its devilish policies towards the people of Kashmir. And above all, the sad condition and struggle of women in general and of Nageena in particular. This, however, would not have been possible if Qaisar Bashir, translator, author and poet, has not translated “Akh Daur”. By his skillful use of words, the reader not only imagines but also feels everything. He has successfully got under the skin of Bansi Nirdosh and has created the same atmosphere as Bansi Nirdosh has created in “Akh Daur”. Therefore praise is due to him.

Anisa Tabasum hails from Bandipora, Kashmir. She’s a lover of English literature. Presently, she’spursuing Post Graduation in the same subject from the central University, Kashmir.

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