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The Waning Mystique of Matamaal

The Waning Mystique of Matamaal

Sometime back, I saw a social media post, lamenting the loss of some of our childhood’s most iconic memories – those associated with our Matamaal (mother’s house or Nana/Mama’s house). Unfortunately, I do not remember who put out the post – it was one of the forwards that flood our WhatsApp groups, daily. Yet the post hit a raw nerve in me and sent me down memory lane for I too have very fond, very loving memories associated with my matamaal. In almost every Indian language and sub-culture, the word ‘Mama’ holds a very important place. Mama means a brother of one’s mother and is supposed to be one of the closest, most adorable relations.

Kashmiri poet Pt Dinanath Nadim has described a Mama very aptly:

‘Gaame Pyath yetchkaalye vothmut, traile hyeth zan maam hyu..Maaji hund mom daam hue’… loosely translated: 

From the far-off village, after a long gap of time, my Mama has come, carrying Trail (a sweet, apple-like fruit, probably called Treil Apple in English) - as sweet as my mother’s milk!

Life in Kashmir, right up to the 1960s, used to be pretty easy-paced and peaceful. Kashmiri Pandits were, predominantly, a middle class-lower middle-class community, living in community clusters and dependent usually on Govt service. Mostly, the family would have just one earning member and the wife used to be the homemaker. In my childhood, every family would have 2-3 children though having more was never discouraged! Since the entire KP community in Srinagar used to live ‘within the seven bridges’ on River Vitasta (Jhelum) that flows through Srinagar city, visiting relatives used to be rather easy. The social norm was that post-marriage, too, a girl was welcome to spend time at her parent’s home. I remember my mother taking us 3 siblings to Matamaal and the stay would rarely be for less than a week. Likewise, from Kashmir, my ‘poff’ ( bua) would come to stay with us during the winter holidays after we had moved to the plains, post-1965. And if, Matamaal were to be located in rural Kashmir, not only would the visits be more prolonged, the kind of freedom kids would enjoy in the open environment of the beautiful valley would be beyond description. I remember having spent one summer holiday in village Haal (District Pulwama) while accompanying my late grandmother (I would have been 5-6 years old then); the days spent climbing walnut trees, in apple orchards and corn fields, frolicking naked in the streams of the village, those scenes are etched in my memory, 6 decades down the line!

My matamaal was located at Khankahi Sokhta, between Nawa Kadal and Safa Kadal, and was a 15-minute walk from my ancestral house in Budhgir, Alikadal. Mama Ji’s house was bang on the right bank of River Jhelum (original name – Vitasta). Sometimes, my Mama Ji would send his older son to assist my mom in carrying us 3 siblings on his bicycle. Visiting Matamaal had several advantages - a lot of people to begin with. The entire clan lived in a U-shaped complex of 3 interconnected buildings of 4 floors each with two huge courtyards, housing an assortment of almost a dozen cousins of my mother, with their families. Times, then, were simpler, and walls less hostile! We had the privilege of entering any door and being treated with genuine love and affection. That my mom, affectionately called Nitchi (meaning young girl in colloquial Kashmiri)) was the youngest girl among all cousins/ siblings also helped!

The grand building of Matamaal was facing the river Jhelum and one could have a majestic view of the river with its transportation boats, luggage-carrying boats (water transport), and various mini-houseboats (dungas) that dotted either bank of the river; the opposite bank too boasted of equally majestic buildings. The ‘dabb’ (wooden balcony) was a perfect place to enjoy the sunshine while looking down the river. Some of the finest memories of my Matamal) are linked to the River Jhelum and the Daryaee-Juloos(River Processions) that were organized on it! The top floor of our Matamaal building was known as Dewankhan – a river-facing huge hall (60 x 35 ft?) with magnificent bay windows. Dewankhan was perfect for get-togethers, marriage feasts, and similar functions; quite often, neighbors, including Muslim families, would make ‘advance bookings’ for organizing their functions (without any charges, of course) in the facility!

Mama Ji was a very loving person, kind-hearted and caring with a wry sense of humor! Life had dealt him an unkind hand with more than his fair share of twists and turns, making him pretty stoic. The age gap between my mom and Mama Ji was almost 15 years so he tended to treat her more like a daughter. Even while he was bringing up four children of his own, his doors were always open for his two sisters and their families (8 kids) – at times the house used to have 12 children of different sizes and age groups, something incomprehensible in today’s world of nuclear families. And, we indeed were not the only people to visit Mama Ji’s house regularly! I remember we would spend weeks at our Mama Ji’s home and never felt that we were a burden on the family! My Mami was a fantastic cook and could make even regular vegetables taste unbelievably gourmet stuff!

Amongst one the most enduring memories, we kids have are the promises Mama Ji would make to us kids (8 of us, born to his two sisters) of taking us on a picnic to Nishat Bagh. We, kids, would be on the top tip of expectation, putting on our nice clothes, waiting for his return from the office, and then, he would invite us to join him over tea, in the garden in the front portion of the house, saying,” This too is a garden, what’s so special about Nishat?” We, kids, would howl in anger, and throw tantrums but somehow, he would mollify us. I believe once he took us to a huge ground called Eidgah – maybe 2 km from his house. As I look back, I now realize my Mama Ji’s limitations, his financial constraints – how on earth could he afford to carry a big team of kids to far-off picnic spots, given his moderate means? He was large-hearted enough to willingly keep his doors open for all the relatives. I salute my Mama Ji and his wife for everything they did to make us kids feel happy while we were with them!

I do not know if I am being politically incorrect but I feel that the mid-1970s saw the beginning of the end of that era of carefree living. Life then was less complicated with numerous occasions to celebrate and enjoy! With more women taking up jobs, everyone became busy; leisurely holidays became a daydream. Kids would still visit Matamaal but the availability of hosts became an issue. There also was a change in family structure to contend with; joint families started dwindling with families moving out of the old city to newly developed colonies. At times, working ladies would have to depend on their parents for babysitting or, for dropping kids at school. The old-world charm broke and the ugly reality of chasing prosperity took over! Chasing the mirage of ‘prosperity’, we lost something far more precious – our way of leading our lives in peace! Forced Exodus from Kashmir in 1990, shattered whatever was left of our lifestyle, as families got scattered all over the land!

Simple little events and gestures besides frequent family get-togethers that epitomized our Kashmiri culture are probably dead and buried now. Gone is that old-world charm, the true affection and genuine love that used to develop amongst cousins due to their growing up together! Camaraderie has lost out to razzmatazz, to ‘show’, affectation, and even rivalry in our social relationships. To some, these are hallmarks of progress – too old school romantics of my generation, it is Paradise Lost!

♦ Matamaal - A lost place ♦ Give a read 

♦ Gone are the days when children used to be at their matamaal more than their own house,

  • when playing with all cousins at matamaal used to be the best time,
  • when one used to wait for Zamutdodh & Choch from matamaal on birthdays,
  • when Naveed on Pann from matamaal was the tastiest,
  • when excitement was at peak for receiving fruits on Zarme-Satam,
  • when daughters used to wait for their Herath Bhog from their brothers,
  • when children waited to accompany their mothers on Zang trai and leaving matamaal was the saddest part.

Now that Matamaal has lost its essence;

  • separate houses,
  • once in a blue moon visit,
  • festivals without those small presents,
  • no excitement and no attachment.

For many of us Matamaal has become extinct. I wish that time comes back and love, affection and oneness prosper within our relations ♦


    • Suniel Kumar Dhar

      Mr.Sanjeev Munshi by his prolific writings always takes our generation on a voyage back in time and makes everyone feel and cherish those golden moments of our life spent in Kashmir Valley!

      • Mithlesh Dhar

        So true ... Gone are the days when cousins would plan for the future together. Now it is a treasure indeed if all are able to meet at one single place.


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