It was a Saturday morning. I woke up and noticed that it was snowing outside. I turned on my favorite ‘Posh Pooza’ CD (a nice collection of Kashmiri Bhajans). Listening to the soulful language expressing the many-splendored emotions of love for God is simply uplifting. I went up to the window to watch the falling snow. Everything seemed so serene and placid. I looked into the sky and had a feeling of levitation that reminded me of my childhood when I would look into the sky as the snow came down. One thought led to another and I started drifting into my past slowly.
I was born and brought up in a middle class Kashmiri Pandit (KP) family in Alikadal (Aeylkadal), Srinagar. While growing up in Kashmir, life was very simple and austere. Living in a joint family was kind of a treat for me. Among many other things, I particularly cherished celebrating festivals like Shivratri (Herath & Salam), Janam Ashtami, Baisakhi, and last but not the least, the death anniversary of our local deity ‘Reshipeer’. Things were going on just the way one would like them to be, until that dark night stood before us in its most ruthless form when our house caught fire. It was around 9.10 pm on Tuesday May 2, 1989. We were engrossed in watching “Lifeline” (a TV serial on Doordarshan) when a fire broke out in the third floor of an adjacent house. No sooner did we realize what was happening, than our house was on fire as well. We managed to escape unhurt but lost all our treasured belongings to the fire. I still remember we were all crying as we caught last glimpses of our cherished house and the treasured belongings in it – all of which vanished in the smoke and the blazes of fire in no time.
Starting afresh after this incident seemed unthinkable. But life moves on, and so did we. My father was employed at the University of Kashmir and it was very kind of them to offer us an accommodation in the campus within a couple of days of the fire incident. It was quite a challenging period for our family and we were trying to come to terms with the circumstances. We started working on the reconstruction of our gutted house. While we were eagerly waiting for the day to move back in, a different kind of fire gobbled up the whole valley.
There had been terrorist activities in Kashmir from time to time earlier as well but the insurgency this time knew no bounds. Hundreds of common people were killed and the terror could be seen and felt all over. All one would hear and see were the killings, bomb blasts, cross firings, kidnappings, curfews, and misery. The normal life was disrupted severely. The schools and colleges were closed indefinitely. The KPs were targeted and many of them ruthlessly murdered. A constant fear surrounded the minds - fear of not being sure of returning home after stepping out, fear that would make one’s heart sink if there was a knock at the door, a strange fear caused by the screams from the nearby mosque all through the night – the screams would resonate in one’s ears and mind endlessly. The situation worsened by the day and when the KPs could no longer endure the fury of the circumstances, they started moving out of the valley. Being peaceful by nature and focused on the education of their children, it was hard for them to continue living in a place that challenged their very existence and the future of the children. I remember very well that when the festival of Eid was coming up, the University Campus wore a deserted look. Some friends and colleagues of my father, who had earlier urged him not to leave Kashmir and assured him of our safety, came to him and asked him to leave as soon as possible. This served as a stern warning to us and with most of our relatives and friends already having moved out of the valley, we decided to follow suit. This was yet another incident within the last one year that rendered us clueless. This time, though, it was more brutal and definitely worse to tackle. With a couple of light suitcases and a very heavy heart, we bid farewell to our homeland on May 5th, 1990. The 12-hour journey to Jammu that followed was characterized by emotions running very high. Any word out of the mouth was accompanied by tears rolling down the cheeks. With no idea of what was coming ahead, the journey was full of melancholy and apprehension.
The temperature in Jammu was at its peak. To start with, my father managed to find accommodation at ‘Govind Lodge’ near the bus stand itself. The hope was to find a rental accommodation and make a move from the lodge as soon as possible. It did not turn out to be a simple task after all. Since we arrived in Jammu later than the other KPs, most of the decent accommodation was already taken up and the remaining available, was either not suitable or available at exorbitant prices. I remember my father would leave in the morning, and return at night only with a dejected look on his face. The lodge was expensive on a daily basis and we could not afford to spend so much money living there. One day, my father got in touch with an acquaintance, a professor from Jammu University. And thus our destiny hooked us up to Akalpur – a village about 12 kms from the Jammu city. The professor was from Akalpur and assured us a decent accommodation in the village. He offered us to stay in his house for the first couple of days till we could find something else.
Next day, we moved to Akalpur. In contrast to what I was expecting, the professor had a small house of two rooms and a kitchen. Without much delay, I figured out in my mind that we would occupy one of the two rooms. The thought brought some respite but it did not last long. I was thoroughly confused when I met his family of five members. Two rooms with five of them and four of us – didn’t make any sense. Though they had a small place, but sure had a big heart. They were very amiable and cheering. We had dinner together. When it was the time to sleep, I got uneasy thinking about how we would accommodate ourselves. But for them, it was nothing much to think about. While some of them went into their rooms to sleep, others quickly got their ‘charpais’ (bed made up of ropes) out in the compound. They offered us charpais to sleep on, but we had some jute rugs and decided to use them instead. The night felt like never-ending. I had never slept in a compound before and that too on the ground. Trying to give an impression that I was asleep, I closed my eyes. I started recollecting the moment when we moved out of Kashmir and what we had gone through since. I was scared. I opened my eyes and saw the stars glaring like never before. I moved closer to my mother and tried hard to get some sleep. The morning unfolded the unexpected. I was taken aback to see innumerable dots all over the faces of my brother and my father. It was difficult to believe that it was from the mosquito bites. It took almost a fortnight for the two to get rid of the marks after applying a skin cream regularly.
On the same day, we started a relentless search for some suitable accommodation. The village was really small and the people had just enough accommodation for themselves. The only house we found with a capacity to rent out was that of the ‘Sarpanch’ (head of the village). Without wasting any time, we moved to his house. The room was good enough in size and had a few slabs that we used as a kitchen. We started settling in but the days ahead didn’t get any better. The drastic climatic change in the form of constantly rising temperature was taking its toll on us – we started having regular headaches and stomach upsets. All we had to fight out was a table fan, which obviously did not help much.
Not overlooking one of the most important reasons to leave Kashmir, the next thing on the plate was to get me enrolled in a school. My brother had completed his 12th in Kashmir and was deciding what to do next. We found out that not all the schools were open to granting admission to the KPs, especially in their regular shift. Evening shifts were started in a number of schools for the KPs. I was enrolled in the evening shift of Jagriti Niketan, a fairly good school in Jammu. My commute to the school was the cause of our next problem. The buses from Akalpur to Jammu city ran only four times a day and had the same frequency back from the city. While I managed to reach the school in time, getting back home was a big hassle. On many days, I would miss the last bus to Akalpur that started at 6:30 pm. The only option was to take a bus to an adjacent village called Poni Chak which was a couple of kilometers away from Akalpur and connected to it via a frail bridge made from some logs of wood and stones. Though the frequency of transportation to Poni Chak was much better, it was not safe to use the desolate route between the two villages, especially late in the evening. As a result, it became a routine for my father to pick me up from the school or at times, wait for me in Poni Chak. It used to get worse during the rain when the connecting bridge between the villages would rupture. We used to take off our shoes, socks, and fold the trousers to the knee level to traverse through the water.
Continuing in Akalpur was unsustainable. We started looking for an alternative accommodation. Since we were a little conversant with Poni Chak by now, we started looking there. After a few days, we were ready to make a move to our new one room accommodation. We hired a Tonga to transport our luggage to the new village. When we got to the bridge, the Tonga simply lost its balance and the whole luggage almost fell into the water. We panicked but with some help from the driver of the Tonga managed to get it back on track with the luggage in tact. The commute to my school from Poni Chak got better but it was still not optimal. Additionally, we did not have any of our relatives or acquaintances in the area. We stayed there for less than a month before we moved to another place called Channi, which was closer to the Jammu city.
Life started stabilizing from then on, though very slowly. The pain of leaving the beloved home remained fresh for ever. The hardship of studying, eating, and sleeping in just one room was not easy at all for people who were used to living in grand houses. Tolerating the scorching heat of Jammu with minimal resources was simply beyond belief. The depression that took toll on the health of the elders was just not quantifiable. Nonetheless, we all moved on. And the credit for it solely goes to the generation of our parents who obstinately worked towards one and only goal – the betterment of their children. The adversity helped us children grow stronger and mature quickly. I remember how hard I would study during those days. Nothing else mattered. It did not matter if I did not have a separate study room or if I had to study on the terrace in the hot Sun when we had a visitor. The aim was crystal clear – do well; not just well, but very well. And as they say, the hard work paid off.
I now live in New York. By God’s grace, life is good. When I look around, everything seems as if things have been like this always. But not true - I will never forget the journey from Alikadal to New York via Akalpur which was full of hardships for me and my parents. This is just one story. I am sure a large number of my fellow KPs were in a similar situation. The beauty lies in the fact how we as a community rose above the basic issues of survival and marched ahead on the path of progress.