Rafi came to our household in the late 70s I am told. He was all of 15 when he arrived in petite London, as people in Sopore liked to call the town then [taking a certain pride in the fact]. I was born a few years later but the London connection always baffled me. Sopore was, and still is, famous for its rich apple produce. I was to learn much later that they grew blackberries, raspberries and gooseberries in England. Apples and plums too can be found around London but only as wild forms and barely edible - unless you're desperate. In Sopore orchard caretakers would often chase us over long furlongs whenever our desperation to filch an odd apple took the better of us.
So Rafi, the young boy in a duffle coat came to our home for work. His father thought Rafi could stay in a big town [Chota London], pick up a few social graces and make some money. My folks took a liking for the boy, who was actually named Ramazan. When my mom asked him about his likes, he surprisingly said singing. Apparently the sole transistor in his village belonged to a rich man where his father used to work and Ramazan would listen to it, when he accompanied his father, with veneration. He must have quietly begun rehearsing. Thereafter his father brought him to the town.
And he helped mom in scutwork, watering flower pots, tidying up the kitchen and allied little chores. Also he would sing to her. Songs of the village, Kashmiri folk songs and most enthusiastically songs of the popular singer Rafi, he had picked up from the old radio in his village. Soon mom had a new name for Ramzan: Rafi. Hence everyone in our home, my dad’s chauffeur, workers in our orchards, our neighbors and relatives started to call him Rafi. He took it well. The re-christening made him even perkier with a satirical sense of humor.
Years later I was born and Rafi loved me dearly. He would carry me on his back, become a horse for me and ofcourse sing for me. New songs he picked up from our Texla Black and White TV [It would take five minutes to start]. Since TV was a rarity in the 80s, even in Chota London, Rafi would often narrate, with much melodrama, the plot of last night’s movie to eager yokels in the bakery where he would go to fetch the hot oven-baked morning flatbread [Lawasa]. He got told off for getting late but Rafi was not the one to mind such mild admonition. So he continued to work, cut jokes, watch endless stupid Hindi films and live with us.
Then came a time when gunmen began to appear in our locality.
They were everywhere and carried real guns, inspiring awe. Rafi would dismiss our wonderment with his unique brand of humor. ‘That guy with a double magazine Kalashnikov, he once told me pointing to a militant, can easily cut throats of the enemy’.
How can you say that mama, I asked curiously? ‘Oh, he used to cut people’s pockets earlier’, came the prompt response with a mischievous grin. In all likelihood Rafi was speaking the truth. During those difficult militancy years, he used to close the lawn gates early in the evening and when dad went out for the final prayer at night, he accompanied him to the mosque, just in case. [He had overheard in the bakery that gunmen harassed the landed gentry]
Then there came a time when I had to go out for higher studies. It broke his heart. He had only seen the places, I was headed for, on TV. Rafi thought I would drink and date debauched women. He had these simple notions about life. On my last night in Kashmir I remember he had a long talk with me, filled with innocent, naïve bits of advice. Like a wide eyed babe in the woods. I soon took a flight to alien lands and never really went back in the real sense. My only date with Kashmir remains my annual sabbaticals.
While I was away Rafi went on to get married and raise a family. He left us but continued to visit, especially when I came from vilayat. Since there was no phone in his village, I had to drive to his village, to his tiny hut [he liked it there, found peace, he told me] and bring him over to our home for a week. Ofcourse he would ask me a million questions about the new world, since he had grown to be so fond of world news on his radio -- BBC Urdu. I had to simplify things for the guy, who helped me grow up.
Rafi, I am told, after he went back to his beautiful village [his hut was in the middle of a mustard field] learnt other crafts. He became a mason in summers and wove carpets in the winter. However Rafi found time in every season to come down to his first place of vocation – our home -- and rustle up great food for my folks. And he spoke with me on my sister’s cell phone.
Day before he clambered on the roof of his little hut, ostensibly to fix a leaking arch. It was raining outside in the mustard fields. A loose brick led to his fall. Rafi fell and he was dead. While it was still raining outside.
It feels like missing a step on the staircase of memory.
I hope he sings to my mom in paradise.
A God fearing, old school, loyal – Godspeed.