Memoirs of a Pandit

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"The Captains of Change (Gaia Star)"

Memoirs of a Pandit
Memories; the name we give to a random collection of actions and after-thoughts that leave a lasting impression.

*Rishi Razdan

Shiv Sutra Painting by Gokal Dembi

It was a bright June afternoon and the 9-ry-old boy lazily stepped onto the school bus; in the way that little school children pampered at home and tested at school do. It was his first day in fourth grade, this was going to be a big year his parents had told him; in the way that elders do. And so with a hint of regret, a few drops of hair oil steam rolling his hair to the left side (an epitome of the Indian academician), and the first few mathematics tables rot learned, he head out, knight in shining black hair; in the way that rebellious young kids, subdued by the temptation of making a good impression at school do.

So, ready to take on the world, with his urban accent and math tables he head to the end of the bus. It is here that he was encountered with a question that was beyond the jurisdiction of Math and English. “Kem cho?” the two words that no living creature of the Mumbai middle class can escape, meaning “how are you?” in Gujarati. The sprightly young 11-yr-old Gujarati boy had no intentions of making the young fair be-spectacled boy uncomfortable. It’s just that Gujarati has the same linguistic bearing on Mumbai as the Dollar has on the global economy; the pound may be costlier, Hindi may be more widely spoken, but it still is the age of ‘Dollar/Gujarati Imperialism’. After a moment of silence the Gujarati boy asked “You’re not Gujarati?” and continued with “What are you?” not where are you from. It is at this juncture that I should add that this young be-spectacled, lazy boy was me. ‘What am I?’ maybe it was a grammatical error that brought about self introspections like this, maybe Gautama Buddha and Kabir too encountered this question, when they should really have been asked ‘where are you from?’. “I am a Kashmiri” I said, with a hint of apprehension myself. There were many reasons for the hint of apprehension, I knew as much Kashmiri as I did Gujarati, I had a rough idea of where exactly Kashmir was (except knowing that it was the crown of India), I barely knew what a Kashmiri was or what I was for that matter, besides vociferously being taught that I was a ‘Brahmin’. But I had to be something, as my interviewer had asked me “what are you?”- It was a question of identity; a question of considerable magnitude in a metropolis both ruled and ruined by diversity. The boys eyes widened, his face wore a blank expression, then in a manner of pity towards my lack of knowledge he went on, “No, no, but what are you?” sensing my aversion to his questions he prolonged it “What is your name”. “Rishi” I replied “Rishi Razdan”.

The young Gujarati boy suddenly was unsure, his knowledge of names and cultures had failed too, and thus I received a courteous smile of alienation, I would always be there, but there was always going to hence be a barrier of cultures between us. The conductor overheard, a man of no more than 25yrs of age-“Terrorist” he said, not so much a reference to me, more a reference to all his knowledge of my native place and ethnicity. The fact that the movie ‘Mission: Kashmir’ had released (which had as much relevance to Kashmir as Border did to Allan Border) just a while ago didn’t help, where the hero was a Muslim terrorist, and the side hero was a Muslim cop, the only way in which justice was done to the community was by the fact that the gorgeous Preity Zinta played the Kashmiran (thus appraising our cultural stock). So this was going to be the fabric for National integration-The Kanjoos Marwari, The Baniyaa Gujarati and the Terrorist Kashmiri.

My surname had ‘z’ in it, ‘z’ is the acid test of culture, ‘Zaffar’ ‘Zaman’ ‘Zara’ ‘Zahid’ ‘Zaidi’, it is the symbol of Urdu, and Urdu is the mark of Islam in India for the masses. The resonance of ‘z’ in a name can lead to the process of cultural alienation, especially institutes dominated by a single community (like my school in 4th grade). Maybe this is a budding sign of Islamophobia, maybe the simple fear of an alien. It is from this day onwards that I never used the word ‘Kashmiri’ as an epitome of my identity without the priceless suffix-‘Pandit’. Saying Kashmiri Pandits had its distinct advantages; one-in-fifty young boys sometimes even knew that Kashmiri Pandits were migrants from Kashmir, in contrast, the first visuals of a Kashmiri (thanks to Indian cinema) is a heavily bearded man, wearing a loose, dirty, crumpled Pathan suit, with an AK-47 perpetually adoring his right hand. Also the word ‘Pandit’, kind of like’ Kennedy’ in the USA adds much credibility- Pandit Nehru, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Ravi Shankar or more recently Vikram Pandit.

But the identity crisis continued, I was after this instance, immediately enthused by the word Kashmir, I learned most of what I could of the language, the history, the culture, and I took part in many conventions, debates and even started following national politics at 13, a subject treated with utmost disdain by the urbane youth. It was not until the summer of 2004, when I finally visited Kashmir that this identity crisis seceded.

It was a self-proclaimed homecoming for me. I looked at each sight as a place of worship and was more than glad to associate myself with this gorgeous valley as an eternal part of my identity. Maybe, that’s why it wasn’t hard for me to find my roots, because they were so beautiful; and every flake of snow, every chinnar, every peak, and every garden became a source of pride. What if peace wasn’t meant for paradise, its children can never disown it. Finally, I found a place where people drooled over kebabs and not samosas, much to my satisfaction. For the first time I felt that I could fall in love with land, water, flora, fauna, air, food, sounds, names, and then I realized that this love came from something deeper; belongingness. Motherland. Mother; the most unconditional lover of a being. And Land; the very means of man’s sustenance, his most prized possession. Imagine the emotional affinity of these two words put together.

On the note of love for motherland, let me state the words of Bahadur Shah Zaffar, the last Mughal, who died in Burma-

“Kitna hai badnaseeb Zaffar, Kabr ke liye,
Do gaz zameen bhi na mili, koo-e-yaar mein.”

“How unfortunate are you Zaffar, for your grave,
You could not find two meters of land, in your motherland.”

And thus to Kashmir I say; for you, in you, with you I live. And with this I grant myself the mile-long-to-myself-smile smile, a smile of self recognition.

*Rishi Razdan is a 16yr old student of economics at St.Xavier's college, Mumbai. He is also an active member of an international NGO, called Seeds of Peace, which deals with conflict resolution. The author also enjoys drama, literature, politics, music, cricket and economics.
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