About a kilometer away from the mansion there was a small valley with a two-storey wooden house called the “Mill”. It was only called that but was not actually a mill. It was not an old structure, and had been constructed recently by Badey Chachaa and Chhotey Chachaa. It was not very far from home, nor was it so close that household matters would interfere in its business. Otherwise, this building could have been built anywhere, as the estate around the house was so vast that if you tried to go around its boundaries riding a horse, you would still not be able to see all of it.

Business matters were discussed at the Mill and Munshiji also looked after the accounts there. He also taught the children in his leisure time, and in the long winter vacations the children spent school hours in the Mill.

The hunting guns were also kept at the Mill. There was no Animal Act till then, and hunting was not illegal yet. Only the two old guns, with very long barrels and not used anymore, were kept hanging diagonally on a wall in the Diwan Khana. The hunted animals were skinned and cleaned at the Mill and then sent to the home. They hunted birds, water fowl, rabbits, deer and some other animals.

Leopards, bears and foxes were mounted and displayed in the verandas or galleries of the mansion. If it was only the head and the neck, it was fixed on the wall; and if the skin was not damaged much, the animal was carefully mounted and fixed – standing on a wooden board. Decorated with painted dry grass and tree branches, it looked like a live animal. The men of the family participated in carving its features, as every member of the family had some artistic talent.

Cotton wool and multaani mitti were beaten together and kneaded. It was used in shaping the beast’s nose, jaws and so on, and became stone-hard when it became dry. Then it was painted with a special paint, to which certain chemicals were added in order to protect the mounted figure from termites and silver fish. Bhai Jaan was also allowed in the team working on mounting, painting and decorating it.

Expensive items, brought from the city or another state, were checked at the Mill first. Womenfolk of the kashtkars, sitting in long rows, would peel and shell the walnuts in the open space in front of the Mill. They had to do it carefully to avoid breaking or otherwise damaging the fragile kernels. They were happy getting a little money in return for their labour. Their slender fingers turned orange with the walnut peel, and it seemed as if they had painted them with henna, which turned even darker after working many hours at the job.

The walnut kernels were dried in the sun for many days, packed in wooden boxes, and then sent to other cities and states. Rice and corn was also traded, besides the dry fruit.

After Abbu moved to the house in the city, Chachaa was considered to be the Nambardaar (the village elder), being the eldest person in the family there. Sundry small complaints, disputes and other matters were also heard and decided at the Mill.

The children once had the chance to see an interesting hunt when Najam Khan killed a man-eating snow leopard. The leopard would enter the village at night and kill cattle and dogs. One night when Zaitoon’s father, hearing the goats bleating loudly, went out of his house to check on them, the leopard ambushed him and carried him off into the jungle. His screams awakened the whole neighbourhood. The loud barking of the landlord’s dogs woke up everyone in the house. The safety of kashtkars was also one of the traditional duties of the landlord.

The elders went out with loaded guns, accompanied by servants with gas lamps. The children felt that the biggest dog, Dabbu, had the loudest bark. Dabbu was like a friend to all the children in the house. He seemed to be saying “hanh-hanh-hanh” thrice, and then “hunh-hunh” twice. When Zaitoon’s screams were heard, the young children also started screaming and clinging to their mothers; the older ones were also crying and trembling with fear, and clung to their siblings under the warm cotton wool quilts.

Sheba’s heart was beating hard. While wandering through the orchards, children would often see Zaitoon walking barefoot, laughing and running on the grass. She did not mind the thorns which could prick her little, darkish feet. She lived closer to the jungle, a short distance further away from the Mill, where there were many pine and cedar trees. Monkeys hung upside down on the branches; some of them sat grooming each other, and some looked for lice in the fur of their young ones. They did not scare the children, nor were the children afraid of them. Even parrots were not scared of the monkeys. They flew about happily and fearlessly in the trees.

The trap in which the leopard was caught, stood near the jungle for many years, entertaining visitors and children alike. The four-by-eight rectangular wooden box had iron rods fixed in the centre, dividing it into two parts. Dabbu was led into one portion on the right, with his dinner. The children were not allowed to see anything after that; the others also returned home.

Early next morning, two gunshots were heard from afar. Later, the children found out that the first bullet had hit the leopard’s paw, making him growl loudly. Abbu then fired another bullet straight at its forehead, and it died. Sheba felt so sad seeing the leopard lying dead on the trap floor, looking at her with its half-open, unmoving and stony eyes.

The greedy leopard had entered the box to eat the dog, which closed like a rat trap. Had it not been so greedy, it would not have been caught in it – nor would it have died.

The leopard was mounted like some other animals, and the family members were photographed standing beside it.

But Abbu chose to wear a pistol around his neck and not the gun with which he had killed it. In that old picture, Sheba is sitting in front of its open jaws holding a bunch of marigolds. Farkhanda is sitting on the leopard smilingly, as if riding it. She, too, has flowers in her hand. Baaji is standing near Abbu and looking keenly at the bunch of flowers she is holding. Ammi is not in that picture, as she believed it a sin to be photographed. Abbu tried to convince her but she held fast to her firm conviction.

It might have been in the late summer when marigolds are in bloom. Who knows whether the trap is still there or if years of snows and the rains have caused it to fall apart! Abbu, too, is no more. Many long years have passed. Pictures, too, like works of art, become important with the passage of time. Sheba often thought about these things in later years.

There was not a single picture of Ammi in it, but there were many other interesting pictures in the family album. The first page had a picture of the Hazratbal shrine in the Naseem Bagh area. Its pagoda-like architecture looks like the shrine of Hazrat Khawaja Naqshband Sahib.

Like many other shrines built in the region, it has a wide square roof covering the whole building. There is a smaller square roof on top of it, which is covered with still another smaller one like that. This beautiful series of roofs continues, and the last one has a short minaret on top of it in the centre. The first roof has excellently carved wooden ornamentation attached to it in all the four corners. They look like lotus flowers hanging upside down.

Birds of the Snows

Excerpted with permission from Birds of the Snows, Tarannum Riyaz, translated by the author from the Urdu original Barf Aashna Parindey, Niyogi Books.