The stains of beedi are permanently imprinted on his lips, which get darker with every puff he takes. His big bright eyes float on his face under the blue skullcap that covers his forehead. The charm of innocence is apparent and yet permanent in his eyes.
His face is nothing but skin and bone with a long nose dividing it. His long, unkempt, salt and pepper colour beard together with a zebra colour muffler hides his long neck.
His teeth, a mix of a few colours, presents a smile that blooms like his name ‘Gulaab’ and warms every heart in this bone chilling cold.
Listen to skinnymalinky, more than half a dozen feet tall, Gulaab, and you would be stunned!
Now in Pheran, Gulab 46, left his home in Bengal wearing a yellow T-shirt and a trouser with just Rs 20 in pocket, to Kashmir in 2018. He had a verbal brawl with his wife, who wanted him to be a ghar jamai. Enraged, Gulaab packed his bag and got into a Jammu-bound train without a ticket. Yes, it is hard to imagine both literally and figuratively- Gulaab in rage leaving the home town and heading to his destination miles away, almost penniless. It is hard to swallow Gulaab’s big eyes dilating in anger as he is usually a cool headed guy lost in his own world and work.
And above all, it is hard to believe that a man can travel from Bengal to Kashmir in just Rs 20. But Gulaab did!
Gulaab had been to Kashmir in 2011 and worked as a laborer in a construction company.
The journey from Bengal to Jammu took Gulaab two days and two nights. During most part of this short odyssey, he managed to give Travelling Ticket Examiner a slip. But at one station, when a Travelling Ticket Examiner caught him without a ticket, the TT asked him to pay a penalty or go to jail. Gulaab choose the latter.
“I only had a cup of tea for Rs 10 and a lot of free water in 48 hours. So, I thought if they will put me in jail, I will at least get food,” Gulaab said in his Bengali dialect.
The TT had smiled at Gulaab’s quip, he remembers, and allowed him to travel to Jammu. With the remaining Rs 10, he bought a beedi packet for Rs 8, a matchstick for Rs 1, and a chewing gum to subdue the smell of beedi.
From Jammu to Shopian, he boarded a sumo vehicle. The driver had no idea that Gulaab was penniless. But luckily for him, Gulaab had already been to Shopian in 2011. He knew many people there who would help him immediately. He alighted in Sheikh Mohalla Shopian where he had put up in 2011 and requested his old landlord to lend him Rs 1000 saying, he had lost his wallet and needed money to pay the fare.
The benevolent landlord not only gave him the amount but also rented him a room for some days without asking for advance payment. Gulaab paid the driver Rs 800 fare and spent Rs 200 on food and beedi.
Expectedly, Gulab got work and in less than a week and paid money to his landlord that he had borrowed. A few weeks later, he paid the rent as well. Gulaab is loved by all for his work, cordial nature, smile and of course for his failed attempts to wear the Pheran perfectly. He is greeted as ‘Gulaab Singh’ after the first Dogra Ruler of erstwhile state Raja Gulaab Singh, who bought Jammu and Kashmir from Britishers under the Amritsar Treaty in 1846
He may have born and brought up in Bengal but southern Shopian district is home to him, he says confidently. “I am not a Bengali but Shupyanuk (Belonging to Shopian)”, he tells Curtain Raiser.
Gulaab can’t speak Hindi or Urdu properly but has learnt a few Kashmiri words. His dialect has also changed during past two years. The Kangri has left behind some permanent burn marks on his hands. He has learnt how to wipe the running nose with his Pheran. He has also learnt how to walk on snow and handle unrest in his own right.
What he has not learnt is how to mend relationships because it has been nearly two years Gulaab has not gone back to his home in Bengal. In fact, he has not even called any body he knows in Bangal during this time. Nor has his family ever bothered to search for him, he says.
Gulaab has learnt to live alone with beedi, Kangri, cell phone, Bengali music and of course broken relationships.