Skip to content

My Father’s Places

A Time in the Writer’s Past and Present 

Mirza Waheed


I have been meaning to write a memoir of childhood for more than twenty years, all my professional writing life really, telling friends and family that I long to write about a specific period of my early life; yes, just those two to three memorable seasons, shine a spotlight on them somehow. 

I have wanted to begin this memoir in the middle somewhere; perhaps the middle isn’t too important, somewhere is.

We’re in Kashmir in a large, rectangular garden with at least three tall chinar trees presiding over the scene. A thin stream runs along the border of the garden. Cobblestones mark the stream where the grassy ground ends. 

The water runs easily and swiftly through wavy water plants that seem to flow with it. Steps go into the water at two or three places in the garden. My younger sister loves taking plates and cups here and washes them forever with her blushed red hands, her fascination with the free-running cold green water endless.

The Tudor-style guesthouse (called the Dak Bungalow even though it has nothing to do with the Dak, or postal service, and is considerably larger than a bungalow) sits elegantly near the Chinars, just escaping their all-encompassing shade. The entrance to the compound is past the maple tree cluster, a path marked by a slatted walkway from the metalled road that goes to the gates of Verinag, the deep spring that is the source of the river Jhelum whose waters come to fill the stream in the garden. If you walked upstream, you saw its waters branching off from the river that gushes out from the heart of the spring.

Behind this tourist guesthouse, at an oblique angle from the office – the last room in a row of rooms on the ground floor – is the kitchen and pantry set up. There are some staff rooms here, too – two painted wooden rooms at most. All of this is green, the rock plinth is green, the wood beams are green. Asgar Ali the caretaker lives here, his room so spartan and frighteningly clean that you fear your presence might despoil something. 

The guesthouse is the nicest house I’ve ever seen and lived in: we have a large suite of two rooms on the first floor, next to the curved stairway. Probably a family suite, it has a sofa and an internal window that opens out to the corridor. It even has a separate extra room at the back. A dressing room, my father says.

I remember the softness and the wintry warm smell of the government-issue blankets. They must have been expensive. I also remember the elegant crockery, thick white or blue ceramic plates with the iconic Jammu & Kashmir Tourism logo in one corner – the silhouette of a solitary shikara boat on the Dal Lake against the backdrop of triangular mountains – that used to mark all the properties and publicity materials of the tourism department.

My father is a staff member, he’s posted here, an away posting – my mother and my siblings, three sisters and a brother, have all come along with him to this small mountainside resort far from the city. He often wears crisply ironed pastel safari suits. He oils his hair. It’s the early 1980s, a long, pleasant summer in the memory, as vivid and fresh as that winter’s high snow. 

There must be a reason why those two years, two to three years is how I remember the period, pull me back again and again. Of course, there’s life before and after. We lived in the city before, in Srinagar, one of the world’s older cities, and went back to it. But those years in Verinag have for more than 30 years formed a centre, a kind of core where life is formed, informed, projected onwards from a place of beauty. Perhaps I have wanted to write about it so that I can find out the reason why I’ve thought of that time in our lives as life-giving, happiness-making… a freeing core of life.


In that summer, or the summers of 1981, ‘82 and ‘83, we cavorted in the long garden, rolled on the grass, dipped our feet in the stone-cold spring water, touched cheek to flower, while tourists from Kashmir’s main city Srinagar, or from India, visited or stayed in the rooms of the ‘bungalow’. Presiding over it all, the guesthouse with its own garden that would become ours for brief periods, was the Pir Panjal mountain – tall, conical, and dense as a forest should be, I thought then. It gave me my first taste of mystery and terror.

That summer, father was the master of the place, more so if his boss was away in the city, visiting the head office or his family. The boss had a large room directly above the luxuriously appointed office, the chairs upholstered in the most exquisite Kashmiri crewel work, the large desk covered with green wool in the middle, the embroidered curtains flowing against the windows.

The boss sat in this office as my father ran the place; it was the boss’s job to ask my father to run the place. And Papa loved it; he came into his own, beaming, walking here and there, spring in the step, instant wide smile given freely to everybody who came to see him. I assume that father rarely bossed the staff who reported to him, which must’ve been the reason they adored him no end, as if he were an everyday Father Christmas.

Kadir, the chowkidar, took it upon himself to guard and protect Mehdi Saeb (my father’s honorific), his family and every cousin, aunt or uncle who came to visit us. Kadir, he who escorted father home one night, a glistening axe on his shoulder, when Papa was accosted by the ‘flip-footed’ female spirit – a Raantas, Kadir said, at the gates of the spring. It was said the spirit lured men with a hypnotic call and plunged them into the freezing water. Many years later, at college in Delhi, I would be reminded of her as I read about Homer’s Sirens in the Odyssey.

Asgar Ali, the immaculately dressed, super tidy, forever clean-shaven caretaker, loved us, fed us, and deeply cared for my mother. Then there was the ‘orderly’ Rashid who walked with me like a shadow sometimes and bowled endless overs so I could bat for long unbeaten sessions. I went to his house one day and fell in love with the kitchen garden – it looked like it had been painted and then planted into the soil. And of course, there was the tall dandy Parvaiz who almost always carried a cassette player around his neck, playing popular melodies from old Bombay films. He wore flared bell bottoms and ultra-fashionable striped shirts. I wanted to be like him when I grew up. Twenty-five years later, he somehow found his way into my debut novel as a forest-dwelling troubadour who walks the high pastures along with his sheep. 

There was, of course, a class dynamic at play in the office, especially when the boss was present, but I do not recall an occasion when my father acted superior. It was, in fact, later said that he had the opposite problem, that he was too friendly, too equal, with the staff. 

Father attended to the visitors, asking Abdul Salam the main chef, Ghulam Nabi the melancholic housekeeper, Asgar Ali, Rashid, or someone else, to do this and that, to make life comfortable for the guests. That was his thing, I know now, to make other lives comfortable. Sometimes I worry that my father ran himself into the ground trying to make the lives of others, starting with his children, more comfortable.

Cousins and various aunts arrived from Srinagar from time to time to stay with us in that small idyll. We ran up to the wood-and-glass cafeteria on the hillside overlooking the spring. We had tea and hot snacks. He did his best to make everything available.

In that summer, he must’ve been a happy man, he’d secured the most comfortable accommodation for his family. The boss had agreed to let us live in the family suite. I do not know and perhaps don’t want to know whether it was an official arrangement or something the two men had agreed between them. I’m tempted to wonder what was the trade off – what did father agree to do in lieu? But that would be a lazy characterisation of the boss, too Manichean we might say. 

The boss may have been a more formal, even officious civil servant, I can surmise now, but I remember him as a kind man too – he gave us tuition sessions in his spare time but, more importantly, allowed us to watch TV in his cosy room.

Relatives who visited from the city marvelled at our plush rooms. Perhaps it gave us all a sense of pride that they were in some kind of awe: Papa could do stuff for them, for everybody. One day, Aunt F swung with wild abandon atop a sofa in our room, dancing to a disco tune. We laughed and tried to mimic her. She, and other aunts and cousins, would stroll in the manicured garden below as though they were on a film set, or perhaps they actually felt like film stars. 


I have remained in that glorious garden ever since, going back to it forever in my memory. As a friend said, ‘everyone has an elsewhere, somewhere, that lives and breathes with them in their lives here’. But it’s my father’s place, or it’s one of my father’s places, where, I believe, more than ever, he was the happiest because he felt satisfied, adequate to the tasks of his life. He came into his own, and didn’t feel cut down as he sometimes did in the city.

There he is on a wicker chair entertaining some ‘VIP’ tourists from India, a glass topped wicker or wooden table in their midst. Tea is served in a white ceramic tea pot, there’s butter toast, too (of the kind you’d only get in old government-run places or see in Merchant-Ivory films of the Raj, or in the 1960s and 70s Bombay films shot in hill stations). I hear some laughter. Papa always laughs, unrestrained.

I’m playing with the daughter of a visitor family; she’s fascinated by the many nodding flower stalks next to her. Priya or Piya is different, she’s from the outside, she brings with her my first sense of the wider world. Papa’s colleagues hover in the background somewhere, not unhappily as they know generous tips could come their way soon. These are father’s men, people he tries to help from time to time, getting Ghulam Nabi a permanent job at last and thus removing the source of his lifelong melancholy, arranging for Kadir and Asgar Ali to be paid a winter allowance, sorting out someone’s overdue arrears and, most of all, somehow organising rent-free staff quarters for the men. ‘They have families too,’ father says, then and forever afterwards, every time he wants to help those in need.

As my father lay on his deathbed last month in Kashmir, his previously alert body and mind ravaged by Covid and its attendant furies, and then as we buried him, as we prayed for him later at home, I thought of the Verinag years again. Then I talked about those summers with my sisters and brother as part of remembering Papa. It wasn’t the first time; as I said, I’ve always thought of that period as life-giving. As we lit candles on his gravestone a few days later, it suddenly occurred to me that the memoir I’ve been threatening to write all these years is about him. It’s always been about him; certainly more about him than me, and perhaps that’s both the reason I have wanted to write it and the reason I haven’t been able to do so. Something was and is unresolved. 

A few years ago, I went to Verinag again after nearly 35 years and found that both the guesthouse and the glorious garden around it have turned into rubble. A scene of utter desolation, painful reminders of the long war in Kashmir.

The tourists leave the garden, the sunlight slowly gives way to shadows from the large-limbed chinar trees, to the larger shade of the Pir Panjal mountain an arm’s length away in the photos. My father says his goodbyes to his guests, having shaken hands with them, having treated them well, gone above and beyond as a host, and there he stands by the wicker chairs in the cool evening light. 


Mirza Waheed is the author of the novels The Collaborator, The Book of Gold Leaves, and Tell Her Everything.