Men in tall black hats and black robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long sideburns and some long beards. It was a hot summer afternoon, and they were overdressed. I was visiting a friend in Golders Green in London and asked who these people were.
“They are our Jewish neighbours,” said my Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews have lived here since the 40s.”
I wondered about their costumes. Here I was, just landed in London, trying my best to assimilate.
We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan josh, yakhni, matsch. I was meeting him and his wife after many years. We chatted for a long time, reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed a small ornate candle stand.
“It’s a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles at Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights.” Until then I had thought Diwali was the only festival of lights.
The next day, I told Mike, my half-Jewish, half-Catholic colleague, about the costumes. He told me Jews don’t do anything on the Sabbath, not even switch on a light. And he didn’t know why. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian meals, cleaning and praying, and not much else. The fasts followed the moon’s wax and wane. Punim, aetham, mavas . Full moon, half-moon, no moon. There seemed much in common with the Jews.
“We are also good with money,” laughed Mike.
My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar in Kashmir. My mother said he was so rich he didn’t count coins, he weighed them out. But not my grandfather, and not us.
Years went by, in which grandfather died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept coming back. I now worked for another company, where I became friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.
On Persian new year, spring equinox, when the opposites balance out, I told Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How we filled a thaal or plate with rice, milk, yoghurt, a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. The bits that made up life.
“We do something similar on Navroz and we call it haft seen ,” he said, surprised.
I felt a sudden connection. We discussed Navroz and Navreh, in snatches, between meetings, across desks, at the coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and the origins of rogan josh. I even snatched a paper napkin and wrote my name in Nasta‘liq, the script that travelled from Iran to Kashmir.
“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.
I hadn’t known either, when growing up in Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather. His bold voice, his sociable manner, his rambling conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi. Grandfather would recite Farsi couplets when in a good mood, and his audience could be my reluctant father or a hapless neighbour. Grandfather rolled off Farsi couplets with the same verve with which he chanted Sanskrit mantras at puja every morning in front of an array of gods. The Farsi and Sanskrit both sounded magical to me.
I told Paymon all this in the office canteen. Then, for a Foodie Friday at work, I woke early and cooked rogan josh over a low flame for three hours. I packed it carefully in a large plastic box and wrote Kashmiri Rogan Josh on it in my wobbly Nasta‘liq. There were foods of all kinds on the table that day: Italian, Greek, English, Welsh, Indian, Iranian.
“So, you can read and write Farsi?” Paymon asked, looking at the sticker.
“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and write Kashmiri.
The rogan josh disappeared fast. It was declared the best food that Friday. I brimmed with pride.
On my last day in that job, Paymon wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Then he wrote in English, “Thank you for enlightening me about Persian Kashmir. It is sad to see you go but I wish you all the best.”
The card remained unread for years. I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nasta‘liq from my grandfather. I wonder why I didn’t. I recalled a faint conversation from childhood. I was reading two Kashmiri words written in Nasta‘liq on a Rs. 10 note. Currency notes had the value written in 15 official scripts.
“ Dah ropiye ,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls and whirls.
“It’s not dah , it’s duh ropiye ,” said my mother.
“What’s the difference?”
“Muslims say dah , but Pandits say duh , because dah in Sanskrit means cremation .”
My mother told me the ancient script for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.
Pandits and Muslims had other differences. My pheran, the long woollen garment we wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh , near its hem, while my Muslim friend Bitta’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My great-grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim women wore knee-length pherans, with shorter sleeves.
Many differences, all small. Until someone powerful outside Kashmir heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit? Whether its script was Nasta‘liq or Sharada?
When the powerful became more powerful with this knowledge, a powerless man in a Tempo bus, in a squabble over a seat, called my grandfather kafir , godless. I was with him in that bus. I had seen him pray every morning to many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid, his complaint a mumble. I remember the tremble in my fingers.
Not much later, a powerless young boy, just out of his teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s cousins, and their partners, in their homes. We fled Kashmir.
It’s been 29 springs since. This year, in London, I forgot to fill the Navreh thaal . When I was small in Kashmir, I would pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, from the garden. They had the sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to smell them; they were for the thaal . Forgetting brought nostalgia and guilt.
Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook. Rice, milk, yoghurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang or calendar said it was the year 5094 by the Saptrishi calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.
“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.
On the cover of the panchang , I saw a script that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.
I read long ago of the revival of Hebrew after the Jews fled Europe. How it was invoked to unite the scattered Jews. How, with a common language and a new script, they would all go home. To a desert.
I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran border. I grew up with snow and mountains, lush fields and streams.
What would I do in a desert? Would I go? Would my children go?
I thought about Iran. I remembered my conversations with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card with the Frasi quatrain he had written in flowing Nasta‘liq. Asking to be read.
I messaged the lines to Paymon, for translation. He did not reply. Not hearing back brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like a broken promise.
I asked an English friend to help. He sent it all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law. A week later, I received the transliteration and translation. Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:
Yari keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist
Dar maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist
Ma ra gham e on yar che bayad khordan
Koo ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist — Rumi
‘A friend who sees no difference between a flower and a thorn,
In whose religion the Quran and Zonnar are the same,
Why should we worry about him?
As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse are the same.’
Zonnar was a girdle the Jews once wore to distinguish them from Muslims.
Paymon had kept his promise; he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend, he knew me more than I knew myself.
A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from my cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader years ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it doesn’t have a Pandit fold near the hem. I’d never worn it.
That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up. I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes.
Now I knew why they were dressed like that. What they were holding on to.
Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a pound coin, a pen and an idol in the thaal . Some milk and yoghurt too. And pray. That I am not sent to a desert.
Note: Names changed to
The writer was born and brought up in Kashmir, and lives in London. He writes short stories about Kashmir.
Grandfather rolled off Farsi couplets with the same verve with which he chanted Sanskrit mantras at puja every morning in front of an array of gods
I read long ago of the revival of Hebrew after the Jews fled Europe. How it was invoked to unite the scattered Jews. How, with a common language and a new script, they would all go home.To a desert