The Ghosts of Exile

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A Kashmiri filmmaker visits his homelessness through the story of a schizophrenic refugee

Whenever he can, award-winning filmmaker Rajesh S Jala visits a building in Delhi’s South Extension area. He has been doing this for 13 years now. Earlier, he would make these visits at least twice a week. Now, he is unable to visit so frequently.

Rajesh usually takes along a packet of biscuits. These he offers to the five or six dogs that live in the building compound. It is a community centre that served till a few years ago as a camp for Kashmiri Pandit refugees. Rajesh lived here for almost a decade—he was the last person to arrive here in the early 1990s. It was at the time home to 27 families consisting of their 104 members. Though Rajesh was registered as a resident of the camp, he says there was no space for him there. Space was precious and often the camp inmates would fight among themselves if a family moved its bed as much as an inch. So, for about a year, Rajesh would take out his folding bed to a park within the complex and sleep there.

Rajesh visits the camp to remember those days, which, he says, shaped him as a filmmaker. But he does not visit the camp on his behalf alone. He also does it on behalf of Sushil Kumar Kaul. Or Bota, as he is called in Rajesh’s most recent film 23 Winters.

Masjid Moth, named after Moth ki Masjid, which was supposedly built with money raised from a harvest of lentils (moth), is a rambling world behind the miasma of Uday Park, a posh colony in south Delhi, quite close to South Extension. It is like a snapshot of the chaos Hollywood filmmakers sometimes portray India as: Honda cars competing for space with rickety autorickshaws and bulls in heat, vendors selling hair pins and cloth clips and lemon squeezers on wheel carts, housewives in their nighties haggling with vegetable sellers. In between a line of shops, there is a turn and suddenly one enters a square-shaped compound where the outside chaos almost comes to an abrupt end. It is dark here, and as you look up, all you can see are facades of narrow apartment buildings and their water tanks and electrical wiring and dish antennas. It is the sort of place where pigeons will come fluttering out of crevices if you shout at night.

On the top floor of one such building is a small flat that Rajesh uses as his office. In one room, there is a computer on which he rough edits his films. The other room is occupied by some of his friends—struggling editors, cameramen or filmmakers like him. There are no fixed responsibilities. Someone will get up to make tea. Someone will open a cupboard and take out a homemade snack. A friend may bring over a bottle of rum, and if Rajesh is in the mood, mutton will be got and he will make rogan josh. Like most in exile, he is deeply attached to dishes from back home.

Rajesh has made a few films in the past, including the critically acclaimed Children of the Pyre. But 23 Winters is as much a film about his meditations on exile as it is about Sushil Kumar Kaul aka Bota, the film’s protagonist, a middle-aged Kashmiri Pandit refugee suffering from schizophrenia, picking up shards of mirror on a rooftop and throwing them one by one up to 23, signifying the number of years he has been away from home.

When Rajesh made the refugee camp his home, Bota was already living there with his parents and two brothers and a sister. The Kauls came from a village in Bandipore close to the Line of Control in north Kashmir. Bota’s father could not bear the uprooting and died not long after they came to the camp. Bota continued working his small job at the J&K Handloom Department till one day he could not do it any longer. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

It was a tough time for Kashmiri Pandit refugees. Medical studies revealed that many had fallen prone to depression and stress-induced ailments like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. A majority of them, especially in refugee camps, suffered from anxiety, panic attacks and sleep disorders.

While Bota battled with his inner demons, his brothers decided to move on. They built a small house in an upcoming Kashmiri colony in west Delhi and shifted there in the year 2000. Bota and his mother moved there as well, but mother and son soon returned to the camp. It was hard for the brothers to cope with Bota’s illness. Bota’s mother took care of her son till she passed away at the camp one day in 2004.

By 2006, there was only one family and Bota left in the camp. Everyone else had left, including Rajesh. But he kept visiting the camp and looking up Bota. Rajesh says he felt some kind of affinity with Bota. “In a way both of us had been discarded by our families,” he says.

Rajesh has had a difficult childhood himself. He grew up at his maternal grandmother’s house, among other places in Kashmir Valley. Around the time Bota took ill, Rajesh had decided to learn filmmaking, but his family was opposed to it. Rajesh was just 18 months old in 1971 when his father crossed over to Pakistan and was arrested there. This was his sixth or seventh trip, but this time he was caught. Roshan Lal Jala was a spy, sent by Indian intelligence agencies to gather information in Pakistan. Rajesh’s mother did not take her husband’s incarceration well. After a decade of heartbreak, she passed away in 1982. Rajesh had no memory of his father.

By the time Senior Jala returned from Pakistan in 1987, Rajesh was 18. There was a lot of pent-up anger in him. Both son and father tried their best to salvage what was left of their relationship, but it was hard to mend. Roshan Lal Jala left for Delhi to spend some time there. Meanwhile in Kashmir, the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits was about to begin.

In February 1990, on the day of Shivratri, Rajesh’s paternal grandmother was standing at the main gate of her house in Rainawari locality when a Muslim mob passed through the area shouting anti-Pandit, anti-India slogans. She rushed inside and collapsed. “Her heart was beating fast. She kept mumbling that the mob would come and attack us,” recalls Rajesh. Before they could think of anything, the old woman died. She had had a cardiac arrest. Roshan Lal returned for his mother’s last rites. But on the advice of a neighbourhood milkmaid, the Jalas left soon after. Roshan Lal’s name had appeared on a militant hitlist.

Roshan Lal went elsewhere, while Rajesh landed up at the refugee camp in Delhi.

In 2006, Rajesh finally held Bota’s hand and brought him to his Masjid Moth office.

The only remaining family at the camp had been complaining about his behaviour. It is here that Rajesh renewed Bota’s treatment. With the help of a doctor at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Rajesh made sure that Bota had his medicines on time, that he ate well and that he was looked after.

It was not an easy task. As a doctor told Rajesh, for a schizophrenic, his caretaker is his biggest enemy because he insists on keeping the patient at an optimum level of ‘normalcy’, which the patient utterly dislikes. Every three or four months, Bota would go to his brothers’ house, but he would return to Rajesh’s office within days.

In 2010, Rajesh was making a trip to the Kashmir Valley. He asked Bota to come along. “I told him vehemently that he should come with me since I was going for long,” says Rajesh. “But Bota said he couldn’t because his name was on the militants’ hitlist—he was hallucinating about it.” It is around this time that Bota began to insist that Rajesh capture him on his camera. “He would say that I film the whole world except him,” Rajesh recalls.

In the summer of 2012, Rajesh finally took his camera to the rooftop of his office building where Bota would spend time with his radio. He began to shoot Bota while he smoked, or just lay on his belly mumbling to himself, or counting the years he had spent in exile. There is a poignant scene in the 32-minute film where Bota intones poet Nida Fazli’s lines:

Doh aur doh ka jod hamesha chaar kahan hota hai / Soch samajh walon ko thodi naadani de Maula

(Two and two do not always add up to four Lend some ignorance to the intelligent, Maula)

In September, Bota left one day to visit his sister. He stayed there for two days and left to return to Rajesh’s office. He left in the morning and should have reached in a couple of hours. But he didn’t. For ten days, Rajesh looked everywhere he could think of, but Bota was not to be found.

About 15 days later, Rajesh received a call from a Kashmiri Pandit in Bandipore who had stayed back. Bota had reached his village and was staying in a temple there. Rajesh says he felt that finally Bota would be at peace with himself.

But that was not to be. At Bandipore, Bota’s mental health deteriorated. He had stopped taking his medicines. Since his brothers did not care, the Pandit families in Bandipore called up Rajesh. They said they were finding it difficult to handle Bota. But more than that they felt he might be putting them and himself in grave jeopardy. “They called up and asked me to take Bota back. They said terrorists might think he is a spy feigning mental illness,” says Rajesh. This was December. Rajesh immediately packed his bag and left for Bandipore. He took his camera along.

In 23 Winters, the first shot of Bandipore shows an exhilarated Bota bathing in the temple compound in harsh winter, steam rising from his body. He addresses the temple priest, asking him repeatedly to open the temple gate for a darshan. Then with a few neighbours and Rajesh and his camera in tow, he walks hurriedly to show them his house. It is falling apart, the windows secured with planks nailed to the frame. Unable to pull them out, Bota picks up a stone and breaks a plank to enter his house.

There is nothing inside except rubble. Who knows what gems Bota collects here? He lapses into English, like old eccentric professors would long ago in Kashmir: “This is my motherland, after all. I was born here.”

Rajesh took Bota to Srinagar, where he was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric diseases. He stayed there for a month and when he stabilised a bit, Bota’s sister and brother-in-law brought him back to Delhi where he underwent another round of treatment at AIIMS.

Bowing to pressure from neighbours and relatives, Bota’s brothers are currently letting him stay with them. Rajesh keeps in touch.

Rajesh and his father have been talking to each other a lot. Recently, Rajesh tried to record some of his father’s experiences in Pakistani jail, but after a point they had to stop. Roshan Lal Jala couldn’t go on. But Rajesh says he will try again.