For 24 years, I fed on memories of a place and a people gone bad. A valley that had turned ugly, where blood was shed at the slightest excuse and where humanity had lost its way. I kept away from it. I was afraid, for myself and for my own.
In 2012, returning from a trip to visit my parents in Jammu, I boarded a flight to Delhi. It was full of Tamil tourists back from a holiday in Kashmir. Tamils holidaying in Kashmir? I was intrigued. Their children were chatting noisily and looked happy. I sat next to a Kashmiri woman and a man. They were lecturers at a college in Srinagar. We got talking.
“Will you return to Kashmir?” was the inevitable question.
I was blunt. “I live in London, there’s nothing in Kashmir for me and my family.” They took my reply quietly, perhaps sensing more to pour out. And it did.
“It’ll be hard to live among people who could not prevent us from leaving, couldn’t prevent our homes from being razed to the ground.” They kept quiet, and the conversation ended politely.
This summer, when we told our three children, who have been raised in London that we were going to Kashmir for a holiday, they were mentally geared up for the images on TV and the stories that had gone around in the families. I was prepared for worse. I had actually seen it crumble in 1989. I had first-hand experience of the violence.
We went anyway. And we took with us my parents, who have been living only 200 km away from Kashmir, in Jammu, for the last 24 years, not wanting to visit Kashmir. Because even the mere mention of Kashmir opened up wounds. I was mad to let everyone walk into a place where we had been wounded.
We organized our 10-day-trip such that our children could go over every bit of Kashmir. The rivers, the waterfalls and the mountains. The maddeningly zigzag road from Jammu to Srinagar that we travelled every winter of the 1970s and 80s, hoping there were no landslides and no treacherous ice. The journey from Jammu to Srinagar was uneventful, the road was surprisingly clear and well maintained. My spirits lifted.
As we entered the valley at Qazigund, a long bearded fruit-seller stepped into our van, shoving juicy yellow plums under our nose. “Buy them here, there’s a strike (hartal) ahead.” My mother couldn’t help waving him off. “We have eaten many such plums. We used to live in Kashmir too.” He retreated quickly.
When our van slipped into Srinagar and hit the boulevard, Kashmir’s beauty struck us. The majestic, blue mountains, holding the shimmering Dal lake at their base was a breathtaking sight. Tourists that we were, our cameras went click-click as we approached the bank to get to our houseboat. When I was growing up, it was fashionable to speak in Hindi/Urdu/English. Kashmiri was for the uneducated. I suddenly found my Kashmiri tongue unfurling when I spoke to the boatman and the shikarawala. My children stared at me in wonder; they had never heard me speak Kashmiri at home in London. I heard the shikarawala whisper, “Our Kashmiri brothers.”
We drew up a plan to visit all the spots a tourist should; we were not going to get sentimental, angry or sound victimised. We were not going to discuss the departure of Kashmiri Pandits with any local Muslims. That was not the purpose of the trip. I wanted to surround myself and my family in the beauty of Kashmir, absorb enough to give us a lifetime of beautiful memories. I did not want to know about the bloody 24 years.
The Dal Lake was clean, not red and dirty as I had been told. The shikaras that floated next to our houseboat sold Himalayan stones, papier mâché and walnut wood carvings. The young vendors displayed the most graceful etiquette and manners. I looked hard at them thinking how little they seemed impacted by the 24 years of militancy in Kashmir. They were gentle, respectful and genuine. Something was not fitting well with my images of Kashmir. This must all be a pretence, a show.
The shikarawala that took us to Char Chinar, the lonely island in the middle of Dal Lake put on Kashmiri duets at full volume. My English speaking children were a bit lost after a while, so I asked him to put on some Hindi music, which the children could understand. “We only listen to Kashmiri music, sorry,” he said politely. But he did turn the volume down.
In the evening, our houseboat owner Abdul Ahad, a man in his seventies, asked me where we lived in Kashmir before we fled, and then popped up the most popular question in the valley: “Will you not return?”
I answered mechanically. “I live in London, and who would want to live with neighbours who couldn’t step out of their houses and let militants burn our house down?” Abdul Ahad looked at me with a smile. He said, “Come sit here, let me tell you my story.”
The servant boy who Abdul Ahad had raised and fed for years had turned up one day in 1990 with 10 militants, and demanded 50 lakh rupees from him, saying azadi was not just his responsibility, the rich had to contribute too. Because Abdul Ahad did not have the 50 lakhs, the servant ordered him to hand over his four young sons to be trained for azadi . He would return the next day for the boys or the money. He had walked away with a swagger, jiggling a gun under his pheran . Abdul Ahad, the well-off houseboat owner, locked his houseboats and packed his bags and escaped to Delhi that night, with his wife and sons, to a life of homelessness and poverty.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” said Abdul Ahad.
“I understand homelessness too well,” I said.
He had unlocked the houseboats after 15 years. In the houseboat where we stayed were pictures of Pran, Ashok Kumar and the Kapoors from the 1970s and 80s. “Last year they shot an episode of Balika Vadhu in our houseboat,” one of Abdul Ahad’s younger sons said. I remembered my childhood. There were few Hindi movies then that did not have a song shot in Kashmir. In the 90s and the noughties, there were other kinds of shootings.
When they saw mountain bikes in Dachigam, which is the forest reserve recently opened for tourists, the faces of my teenage twin sons lit up. “Go for it,” encouraged the guide. I was not sure. On my own with my sons and a local guide — was this not risky? This is how people had disappeared in Kashmir, especially tourists.
“I will show you a part of Dachigam which very few have seen, trust me,” said Yusuf, the guide. I badly wanted my sons to do what I did at their age in Kashmir, so we all hopped onto the bikes and trudged uphill. I was the slowest and needed many stops to catch my breath. “I am too old for this,” I said to Yusuf.
“No, you think you are old,” he said laughing. “Look at me. I am 40 but I think I am young, so I feel fit. Come on, you won’t regret this,” he laughed.
There was something sinister about the way he said this. The presence of CRPF and other armed forces on the way up calmed me a bit. This can’t be that dangerous, I thought. The excited flushed faces of my sons following Yusuf took my fear away and I cycled on.
Right at the end of the climb was the most beautiful sight I had seen in my life. The greenest of pine-covered mountains stunned my senses. Yusuf was right — this was heaven. One of my sons snatched the camera from my bag. He had never clicked pictures before, he didn’t like taking pictures. I was amused. “That treeless peak over there.” Yusuf pointed to a mountain. “Do you know what that is?”
“No,” I said.
“It’s called Mahadev — it has a temple of Shiva at the top,” he said.
“And do you see that large boulder in the stream over there? It is called Shiv pall — Shiva’s boulder. It hides a cave under the water. Nehru and Indira Gandhi used to come here often.”
I wondered why the Muslim guide wanted to show me Mahadev and talk about Shiva temples?
As we went downhill, an official photographer joined us on his bicycle. He had been aiming his camera on an elusive Hangul deer flock for quite a while. He was the third person to ask me “Will you not return to the valley?”
I was getting annoyed with this question.
“No,” I said. “Our house was burnt down.” I was surprised at my own directness. “Our neighbours burnt it down. I don’t trust them anymore.”
I was ruthless.
He stopped when the CRPF man asked us where we were going. I stopped too. The photographer looked at me and said, “You have heard this story from others; you don’t know who burnt your house down, you weren’t there.”
“It’s not hard to guess,” I said.
“You know your half of the story,” he said. “It is hard to save someone else’s life when a gun is pointed at your own head. Your loss is immense, I understand, but think of the mother whose daughter was raped in front of her. This is what happened in Kashmir in the 90s. Every day.”
He continued, “You don’t have to answer this, because I don’t know you. I live in Dachigam, you live in London, our paths will never cross again, but I want to ask you something.”
He put his hand on mine and said, “I want you to come home with me and eat a meal with my family. Like old days. Will you?”
Something melted inside me.
We did all the touristy things in Kashmir. Those that we had never done when I was growing up in Kashmir. We bought shawls in Lambert Lane and we visited carved walnut wood showrooms. But we stopped being tourists when we went to Nishat and Shalimar, the Mughal Gardens. It was the third day of Eid and young boys and girls were out in the gardens. They were all having fun, splashing about in the water. None of them seemed touched by the death and destruction in the valley for over two decades. They had been born and raised in the middle of hartals , bandhs , encounters, raids, bombs, rapes and murders. However, they were splashing about as if these dreadful events had not happened to them. All of Kashmir was like this. Shrugging off a horrible past, desiring to live a normal human life. The young people were doing what young people do all over the world. They wore bright clothes, laughed, strolled around flowers and fountains, got photographed and talked on their mobile phones. I jumped into the pool in Shalimar with my son and daughter. I became the child I once was. A tourist no more.
Around Pahalgam, the Army and CRPF stood around the smallest cluster of village shops, houses and streets at every few hundred metres. They were protecting devotees on their long trek to Amarnath with the Charri Mubarak (Trishul), three days before Raksha Bandhan. I opened my hotel window in the morning to fill my eyes and ears with the gushing Lidder River below. I saw three army men across the river, their guns pointed at the hotel. I shut the window quickly.
Kheer Bhawani, the Hindu temple in Tullamulla was heavily guarded by the Army. My parents were astounded to see a Muslim man rush out to them with a pooja thali in his hands for them to offer at the temple. An unheard of thing before, when things were normal. I liked this abnormality.
My wife and I untied a thread that I had tied here 25 years ago, feeling a big sense of relief. It is said, if you have got what you asked for, you have to return and thank the almighty. Mata Ragnya devi’s idol looked serene in the milky blue spring in the shade of large chinar trees. I wondered if it would have still been around, if the army was not guarding the gates? If the Muslim man was not handing over pooja thalis to her devotees?
I had to untie two more threads — at the Dargah at Hazratbal on the banks of Dal Lake and at the shrine of Baba Shukurddin near Wular Lake. We went to Hazratbal. The men in our family wore green caps and the women covered their heads with dupattas . The men walked through the dargah. My wife and I together untied the thread that I had tied here 25 years ago. My 20-year-old Britain-raised daughter was not too happy that she could not walk through the dargah, and that she had to stand with her mother and grandmother and was only allowed to peer through a latticed wall.
“This is how some worlds are,” I tried explaining to her.
“But should not be,” she said.
When I saw the snow covered Al Pathri peak in Gulmarg, I told my sons about the frozen lake at the top.
“We want to see it,” they said. And I did want them to. Asif Khan, the guide climbed with us over the rocky mountain right to the top. We finally saw the lake, glowing like a blue jewel surrounded by majestic snow covered peaks. Asif Khan pointed to a Pakistani bunker in the distance. “That is the Pakistani side over there, and this is our Indian side.” I looked at him, wondering which side he was on. I kept the question to myself, ashamed at my own cynicism. I noticed it was just four of us at the top of the mountain. A place where hundreds of young men, the same age as my twin sons, would have walked around the lake, crossed the borders, holding guns and ideologies, many of them killed on the very spot where we were admiring the breathtaking beauty of the peaks, the glaciers and the blue frozen lake of Al Pathri. A heavenly spot like this would have seen death every day for 24 years.
I asked Asif Khan to take us back. He was 24 years old. He had never seen a Kashmiri Pandit in Kashmir. But he spoke to us as if he knew us. He lived in the hills of Baramulla, the town where I grew up. I wanted to hold his hand; I wanted to embrace him. I wanted to tell him that I was like him. That I was the Kashmiri Pandit that he had never seen. I thanked him for guiding us to the lake and the glaciers, to let my children see a part of Kashmir that few have seen.
At the base of Al Pathri, my daughter showed us a bunch of mountain flowers that she had collected.
I was already feeling at home when we drove to Baramulla, down the street where we once lived. We met the neighbours who had built a new house where our house used to be. We embraced. We cried. I showed my wife the house and the garden, which she had never had a chance to live in. I showed my daughter the river she is named after; it still runs at the end of the street. I showed my sons the river bank where we played in the sand all day long. My father and mother took a photograph in the garden that was laid out by them. Standing in front of a house, which is not their home anymore. New lives breathe in that house and new plants grow in that garden.
The Haji Sahab, whose granddaughter now lived in the house where we used to live, was remembering my father’s contribution to education in the town. He blessed me and my wife and said that God sends couples to this earth. His eyes were moist when he hugged my father.
The Muslim neighbours and friends that we met were emotional and happy to see us. They talked of old times; they remembered small details of our home, they remembered our garden. One of them remembered that I had gifted him a book, Gone with the Wind . I couldn’t recall this at all. It seemed they had talked a lot about us for the last 24 years.
Naseem Auntie said to my mother. “I built my house next to yours because of you, because of you. But you left me,” she burst into tears. Naseem Auntie was a teacher-friend of my mother. Her daughter Nasreen tied me a rakhi every year, and I used to savour firni at their home, every Eid. It was so ironic that we were visiting Naseem Auntie and her daughter, my ‘moonh-boli’ sister right between Eid and Raksha Bandhan. We had missed 24 Eids and 24 Raksha Bandhans.
My college time friend, Basheer took us to his home and his wife laid out a Wazwan fit for kings. Their entire family turned out to meet us all.
People filled us with sweet memories, reminding us of the harmony of the 70s and 80s. We were overwhelmed. It was hard to walk away from the street and its people.
My wife was amused that while the neighbours had so much to say, my parents and I were mostly quiet. We seemed to have forgotten the good times. The bad memories of Baramulla had clouded the good ones far too much. It was time to remember the good times again.
Our daughter has brought the 20 Himalayan rock flowers back to England, pressed neatly between pages of a thick book. Now she wants to match them to the Alpines that we grow in the rock garden in our home in London.
I have a third thread to untie; at Baba Shukurddin’s shrine near Wular Lake. Someday, I will return to that lake and untie that thread too. Until then, I will live by the beautiful memories that Kashmir and its people gave me on this trip, clearing dark clouds from the memories of my parents, introducing my children to the simple and hospitable Kashmiris that I knew, reminding me of a Kashmir that I had forgotten. I pray that I am given a chance to thank the gods of that land again, and untie the third thread. And be forgiven for forgetting.
Note: The names of people mentioned have been changed for privacy reasons.