*B. L. Dhar
(A short story of a native visiting his home in Kashmir)
fter twenty years of exile from the land of my ancestors I took a bold decision to return to my city of birth, thinking that enough was enough and I would probably not get another chance to taste the fruit of my seed. In total disregard to objections from family and friends I boarded the Airbus flight at IGI Airport at Delhi on a late November 2009 morning and landed at Srinagar. A taxi drive to Karan Nagar took more time than the actual flight time from Delhi, but I was there at noontime and no one would hinder my being where I wanted to be. I had all the keys to my house in the bag. Upon reaching there I found the keys were not at all necessary. There was a family of five living at the site and I had to introduce myself to them as the original owner of the property. Someone had in fact alerted me earlier about the existence of the intruders in my house and I was expecting to meet them there. I kind of welcomed the idea of their presence for at least they would keep the premises alive and clean. That my belongings were not visible did not perturb me for these had after all outlived their use and I had already replenished these with new and better stuff back at Delhi. I was still happy to be back where I belonged and more so at seeing that my intruders had not occupied the upper floors and had restricted themselves to the ground floor. Soon my intruder hosts prepared a room of my choice on the first floor, cleaned it up and furnished it with the best of stuff they had at their disposal. I was hungry and they got busy preparing a meal for me. After twenty long years I got to savor the real Roganjosh and Haak with rice and I felt satiated. After the meal I needed a nap, being tired after waking up early to take the morning flight.
Not much needs explaining and one would understand the aspirations of an old man to spend some time in his own home that he helped build even as a young boy watching his father set up the things brick by brick. It all happened some fifty-five years ago being the culmination of my father’s dream. He got me married in this very house as Sanjugta came into my life preparing to settle down for a lifelong companionship. I was in a job as an Assistant Accounts Officer with the AG’s Department and my father a renowned lawyer. My wife did not bear me any child but her elder sister had two sons and a daughter by the time we realized that life was a lonely road without one. When her sister delivered the fourth child, a son, Sanjugta asked her to give this youngest one to us folks so that there would be an heir apparent to the property we were building up. My father gave his consent to the arrangement and breathed his last shortly thereafter followed by mother dear within six months. They were both heart broken considering that their son Praduman had failed in letting the bloodline continue. Life would have progressed as usual but for a sudden change in plans when self-exile in 1989 became the only solution to save our souls. We joined the exodus to Delhi and I continued to serve the department in gradually elevated ranks there until my final retirement in 2004. That would be the time when I should have visited my home, but for taking up a consultancy job for a business house at a lucrative salary I still had to wait. So after all the obligations were duly met I finally hanged my boots and decided to take a look back at what I had left behind. The restless soul has now brought me to my roots. The timing of my visit was not an issue as I would be willing to go see my house at any time - now that I was still alive and active.
I was amused to learn that the intruders in my house were basically converts from my own faith some decades ago and they could easily trace their lineage. It was only the time and circumstance that brought them to my house. They probably intended to pay rent on the property but failing to locate the owners kept their plans in abeyance. I woke up from my siesta later in the afternoon and joined the family for a refreshing cup of Kehwa laced with crushed Kashmiri almonds. I dressed up in some woolens as the evening got pretty cold, wore my signature golf cap and carrying the cane as a newly acquired accessory, sauntered out in the neighborhood for a look around. Reaching the fork at the end of the road I stood undecided if I should go towards Habba Kadal or to Amira Kadal. Recalling that the usual Pandit crowd would not be spotted at Habba Kadal I turned instead towards Amira Kadal. I wanted to walk the much tread road and did not feel like getting onto a Tonga. Not much has changed in these twenty years except the new court building that has come up at the place where we once used to play cricket during summer and burn the Ravana effigy on Dussehra Day. In line with Badshah Bridge an unwanted flyover has been forced into space. With a better traffic management the expense to the taxpayers could have been spared as well as the original beauty of Hari Singh High Street. I had no particular destination in mind and as the darkness grew I decided to retrace my steps and get into the safety of my house. All I did at Amira Kadal was to talk to my son Mohit and wife Sanjugta in Delhi from a pay phone, my prepaid mobile not responding. I told her teasingly that she missed the air I was breathing. Not that she would not have enjoyed being with me, it was her ailing hip joint that forbade her to travel.
Rehman Mallik is a timber contractor and does reasonably well in his trade. He is originally from Anantnag and decided to establish his business in Srinagar. Looking for an accommodation in the city someone alerted him about a house that lay burgled and open at Karan Nagar and he decided to take a look. Not that he had any bad intentions, he desperately needed to settle down some place and took up his residence at my house and thought he may as well rent out the premises or buy it if the owner wanted to sell out. Not being able to trace the owner he decided to wait, but respected the sanctity of the house by not occupying it fully and lived like a tenant on the ground floor. Next morning when I woke up from a fitful sleep I noticed the bookcase in the visitors room still filled with the volumes of law books that my father owned. He had his home office established on one side of the ground floor. This was the only accessory left untouched as a reminder of my past besides a framed picture of Lord Krishna that gave me a “where have you been” look. No one had any need for the law books or probably did not want to get into trouble with the law. I thought I had a job to do and cleaned up the bookcase with help from Rehman’s servant. I found handwritten notes of my late father and a file containing some documents. I decided to study these later at my best convenience.
Many Kashmiri Pandits have taken courage to visit their land of birth after migration and have time and again relived their visit detailing their experiences verbatim to friends and family while many others got it in print in journals or on web sites. I reflected on what I had heard and read and decided I should be a part performer in the rituals that others before me performed on their short visits home. Going to places like the Moghul Gardens, Dal Lake and a look at my alma mater Sri Pratap College or a leisurely walk on the boulevard was understandable, but I had no doubt I should also visit the religious places like Hari Parbat, Kshir Bhawani, Zeshtyar, and the numerous temples within the city. Venturing out of Srinagar was not on my agenda. I decided to be careful for I still had to study the ground realities after being absent from the scene for twenty long years. The circumstances that made me leave those twenty years ago were dire and our migration at the time emanated from the actions of some murderers and zealots working at the behest of a foreign power. The best source of support for me was Rehman Mallik and I decided to put my faith in him. He may be of another religion and unwittingly an unauthorized occupant of my house I was his guest now and thought it prudent to let him take care of my needs. He was only too pleased to provide all the help I needed and even accompanied me to all the sites where he drove me out in a car that he managed to spare from his workplace. While out on these jaunts he confided in me that there really was no danger to any Pandit any more and that we people should seriously consider our return to the valley. Not that I took him at face value on that statement, we still need to assess our situation and find sincerity in their appeal of accepting us back where we belong.
It is not my intention to bring out a picture postcard of Kashmir as it stands today because everybody is familiar with the routine happenings there. I do, however, intend to bring out the salient point that needs a thoughtful consideration. I met many members of my Biradri at religious places and elsewhere in the city and some of them still live out there through all these years of turmoil. I found them surprisingly living a normal life. Yes, they feel threatened at times in exactly the same manner we do whenever there is a terror strike at places where we live today. Nothing is different about that. I only appreciate the manner in which these people stand for their rights and live their life in as normal an attitude as possible. They stand their ground and do not give in to terror like we did twenty years ago. They exhibited more courage during those days in December 1989 and January 1990 when multitudes escaped the wrath of terrorism and realizing this I felt small and ashamed of myself. If I had to relive those moments I probably would do again what I did then and I do not regret the decision of hundreds of thousands of people to save their honor and life in a situation prevailing at that time. What pains me is that we lost our roots that do not regenerate any more. May be soon we will also be classified as “Old Kashmiris” like our brethren who left under duress centuries ago and are settled at places like the Kashmiri Mohalla at Lucknow or at similar locations in Allahabad, Agra, Jaipur and towns in Punjab, Himachal or Maharashtra or farther in the south. The next generation of Kashmiri Pandits will rise from these few families in the valley who continue to hold ground now. They may number a little more than 11 families, which is what was left in the last exodus, but they will be the only Kashmiri Pandits who will carry forward our true traditions. Ours will dwindle in time as the future generations grow without a constant reminder of who they really are. It appears difficult for the Kashmiri Pandit families under migration now to return to their roots, despite the big noise we make and no one really out there to defend us. There will be lots of things to think of even when provided with an alternate solution. It is the economics that will play a major role in the decision to go back to our land, which under present circumstances no one is willing to experiment with. Those children of ours who are brought up in the new scheme of things and those who are born after the exodus will resist our best of intentions. May be that is why delays are induced to scuttle our efforts to find a solution.
I was witness to three major changes in the psyche of the populace living out there and I wonder how many have taken notice of this fact. Firstly there is no trust between neighbors; particularly the ones who got into the city from across villages when they bought Pandit properties at throw away prices in distress sales. Secondly there is no smile or happiness visible on their face. Perhaps the guilt for the savage and brutal treatment of Kashmiri Pandits haunts them. The only time when we see them united is when it comes to shouting for “azadi” that few of them understand. Lastly the city folk have grown a tendency to converse in Urdu rather than in their native Kashmiri language and that is a departure from normal. I have learnt that this is as per dictate from some foreign elements so that with the passage of time the original identity of a Kashmiri is allowed to rot.
During my preparation and planning of my impending trip to the valley, two events that occurred twenty years ago were highlighted in the print and visual media in great detail. One was about the 20 years of bringing down of the Berlin Wall after the fall of the communist regime and the final unification of the East and West bastions of Germany and the other story was about Sachin Tendulkar celebrating twenty years of cricketing excellence. There never was any mention of the plight of Kashmiri Pandits recalling their completion of 20 years in exile. No one seemed to compare that record with anything. That it was about people eagerly looking forward to return to their homes after being forced to leave their ancestral land in utter human rights violation was not an important event to comment upon. I believe nobody gives a damn to an occurrence of tragedy and perhaps what we faced then was a routine affair that stands forgotten and forgiven.
I soon made my travel arrangements with the airline for my return journey to Delhi. My pre-departure slumber was peaceful. When I woke up the next morning I was delighted to see a spectacle that nature had yet in store for me. The whole landscape around me was carpeted white with snow as I slept and I got transported to those good old days when such a feature would delight me immensely. It was still snowing pretty hard and I realized my flight would not operate in such weather conditions. For the first time I felt no remorse in unwanted changes to my timetable. I felt pretty good instead watching the falling snow. I became a little boy once again and in a silent song my lips murmured “sheena peto peto mama ito ito”. The eyes got moist at the thought of the games we used to play as kids and the making of a snowman that was such pleasure and fun.
I heard a knock at the door and found Rehman Mallik wishing me “Nausheen Mubarak”. Momentarily I got transported to old times and I found myself unostentatiously reciprocating his greetings with great enthusiasm. At that instant I got jolted into reality and decided I must agree to his proposal of selling my house to him. For long I had let my hopes ride the snowflakes and now I knew it was a dream. All my plans melted atop these snowflakes and I conceded I was not brave enough to deserve this paradise. Let the leftover “biradri” be happy and strong to carry on with the routine in the land that accepts the beliefs so sacred to us. On the contrary we may continue to live in make-believe ways we follow by recreating the magic of our ancestral heritage at places where we now live. Let our sacrifice be the hallmark of a new generation taking root in the land of our ancestors and we can all watch their progress with that Kashmiri pride so dear to us.
After all as the saying goes, the pain is temporary - the pride forever.
B. L. Dhar was born and educated at Srinagar. Did Master's degree in Mathematics. Took up appointment with the Civil Aviation Sector of the G.O.I. as a gazzetted officer and later joined the PSU, Airports Authority of India (AAI) from where he retired as General Manager in 2000.
At present residing at Delhi with frequent visits to the US and Europe where his kith and kin reside. Has interest in writing.
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