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.
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.
When our van slipped into Srinagar and hit the boulevard, Kashmir’s beauty struck us. 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.”
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. Something was not fitting well with my images of Kashmir. This must all be pretence.
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 whom Abdul Ahad had raised turned up one day in 1990 with 10 militants, and demanded Rs.50 lakhs from him, saying azadi was not just his responsibility, the rich had to contribute too. If Ahad did not have the money, he had to hand over his four young sons to be trained for azadi . He would return the next day for the boys or the money. 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. He had unlocked the houseboats after 15 years.
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. “I will show you a part of Dachigam which very few have seen, trust me,” said Yusuf, the guide. “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. 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.
“That treeless peak over there.” Yusuf pointed to a mountain. “Do you know what that is? It’s called Mahadev; it has a temple of Shiva at the top. 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 was the third person to ask, “Will you not return to the valley?”
“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.
“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 nineties. 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.
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. I wondered if the temple 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. 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 only 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 wanted them to. Asif Khan, the guide, climbed with us over the rocky mountain right to the top. He 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 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. 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 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, our garden. One 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. But you left me.” She burst into tears. Her daughter Nasreen tied a rakhi on me every year, and I used to savour firni at their home, every Eid. Ironic that we were visiting them right between Eid and Raksha Bandhan. We had missed 24 Eids and 24 Raksha Bandhans.
My college friend, Basheer, took us to his home and his wife laid out a wazwan fit for kings. Their entire family turned up to meet us.
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.
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 one more 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 with the beautiful memories of this trip. 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 thread. And be forgiven for forgetting.
Note: The names of people mentioned have been changed for privacy.
The Muslim neighbours and friends that we met were emotional and happy to see us. It seemed they had talked a lot about us for the last 24 years.
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.”