Homeland after Eighteen Years



Homeland after Eighteen Years
(A 48-hour Travelogue in Kashmir)

Author: K. L. Chowdhury
Publisher: UBS Publishers & Distributors Pvt. Ltd. Ansari Road Darya Gung New Delhi
Year of Publication: 2011
Pages 132
Price Rs. 170
Book Review by O N Kaul :
The world’s wealth, O Ghani, can not wipe out one’s fault;
For all the gold’s scratching, the touch stone is still black
(Ghani Kashmiri.)

Dr. K L Chowdhury’s latest publication “Homeland after 18 years - A 48 - hour Travelogue in Kashmir” was released by His Excellency Shri N N Vohra, Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, on 25th April 2011. This travelogue in free verse is a compelling volume - a travelogue, a historical document, and a work of art, all in one. It is perhaps the most seminal work on Kashmir during the past two decades, and the author can be compared to Jonaraja, the last author of Rajatarangni, that monumental historical tome on Kashmir which provides graphic details about the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits and the destruction of their grand temples by successive Muslim rulers that started with the invasion by Zulqadar Khan in 1322 A.D..

History has been repeated after nearly six hundred years under the so called ‘secular, democratic’ dispensation in Kashmir after her accession to India, when nearly the whole of Pandit population was forced into an exodus of unparalleled magnitude in modern times by Islamic terrorists, leaving behind a transformed Kashmir that Dr. Chowdhury describes in four crisp lines in his travelogue as under:

The valley has taken on
A distinctly Islamic flavor,
And the many-hued garden that was Kashmir
Is no longer there ….
because the fundamentalists have created an ambience of religious bigotry and hatred, which, in the eyes of the physician-poet, is like an unremitting malady:

It is a chronic sickness that afflicts Kashmir,
A virulent virus of blind obedience to unreason
That proliferates in the tissue and organs
Of civil society.

In 2008, Dr Chowdhury was invited to Srinagar by the J&K Academy of Arts, Culture and Languages to receive a lifetime award for his best book in English, ‘Enchanting World of Infants’. He went to Kashmir after having braved eighteen years in exile, and stayed there just for two days (48 hours). He was so moved by what he saw and felt that, on his return to Jammu, he was impelled to write the book under review. In his familiarly unique style, he has written short pieces in delectable free verse, each pertaining to the place or person he visited, each complete in itself, each a comparison of the present with the past. In the process, a forty eight-hour travelogue turns out to be a journey of a life time spanning nearly five decades from the time of the author’s childhood to the day of writing.

In his spiritual rediscovery, the first place the author visits is the Shankaracharya temple, looking down at the city of Srinagar from towering one thousand feet, which was Dr. Chowdhury’s everyday climb before exodus. Then, he follows it up with a hurricane drive to different places where he grew up, educated, treated patients and taught medical students, socialized, wrote poems and sang songs, picnicked and roamed free.

On visiting the sacred shrine of Makdoom Sahib, the author is touched by the faith of Muslim devotees flocking there, but he is pained by the pathetic state of the Ganesha temple nearby; the gods inside ‘abandoned and forlorn’. Here in simple verse he reflects the irony of the situation:

I find many believers here / men, women and children
Praying, shedding tears, tying knots / their faces lit up in faith.
But I fail to understand / how one faith can thrive on the damnation of another,
How can love for one / nourish on the haltered for the other? …..
(Makdoom Sahib)

His visit to Vicharnag, once the spiritual and religious fountainhead of Kashmiri Pandits, evokes bitter memories of the murderous attack on the high priest of the temple that heralded militancy in the valley and drove the Pandits into exile, leaving their homes and hearths, temples and institutions at the mercy of the terrorists. The author cries on finding the place in utter ruin:

Now there is not a soul around / when it should have been a buzz with pilgrims
For it was here/ that the terrorists struck first
And murdered the high pries / way back in nineteen eighty eight.
Then, there was no looking back.
Alas this fount of knowledge / this ancient seat of learning,
This epicenter of discourse /is now like a blot in the landscape,
The temple that housed our gods / has now become their tomb.
When Dr. Chowdhury walks along the lanes and by lanes of his downtown ancestral neighborhood of Rajveri Kadal, he finds the school where he began studies burnt down because:

Education could wait
when freedom was at stake
and the boys were enjoined
to take the gun in hand
instead of the pen.
(My Primary school)

He finds all the old landmarks blotted out, no sign whatever of his acquaintances, relatives and friends or their homes. He feels that the Kashmiri Pandits have become history:

The Kashmiri Pandits are spoken of
Iin past tense here –
They were, they have been, they had been.
Who were they, anyway
They might ask one day?

The poet gives an eyewitness account how religious zealots and Muslim fundamentalists, after scaring away Kashmiri Pandits, wiped out their houses and their institutions. Here is a poignant account of the remains of his ancestral home:

All I see of my ancestral house
That had braved the tides of time
For nearly a century
and had birthed me
and five generations of my dynasty,
Is a small mound of earth!
Can loot be ever so complete?
(Rajveri Kadal)

Not content with having wiped out the Pandits, there is a relentless drive to wipe their history out as well. Dr Chowdhury rues the fact that even the historic places have been given new, ‘unnatural’ names:

Even the Hari parbat hill / has been renamed Kohi Maran
By the powers that be / that are on a name changing spree
That is how Shankaracharya hill / has been named Sulaiman Teng
And Anantnag of innumerable springs /as Islamabad.
How artificial and unnatural / the new names sound to the ears
Like naming London as Jeddah / and Paris as Madiana!

Not only were the Kashmiri Pandits uprooted, their dwellings and institutions looted, destroyed, or encroached upon, and illegally occupied during these tumultuous years of militancy, even the landscape of Kashmir, which has been described as a paradise on earth, is slowly and inexorably under a severe attack. Here is how he describes it:

New constructions come into view
Where paddy fields once held sway –
Private residences built in style
Shopping malls flowing over the pavements,
New mosques in green with crescents,
Their minarets spiking the sky.

And, at another place:

All else has transformed –
The lake Dal, once the city’s shining Jewel
Has sorrowfully shrunk to a sad pool;
She is dying, this fair maiden
a sign of the ominous times
we live in.

And, when he looks at the Vyeth (river Jehlum) he feels sad for the transformation in what was once the very life and soul of the valley, in his words, ‘on whose sacred banks a whole civilization took birth and prospered,’

Alas, what offers the sight / is a lazy, almost stagnant stream,
duckweed and refuse, / and an occasional animal carcass
floating on her sullied surface.
There is no evidence, whatever / of her youthful voluptuous sway
but bare banks sloping up to the bund, / and the river in deep depression,
bemoaning the valley’s transformation.

He compares the cutting away of Chinars with the hounding out of Kashmiri Pandits thus:
Yes, the chinar
the subject of poetic metaphor,
the legacy of a civilization in siege
the sentinels of the ethos of Kashmir
is getting extinct
like the indigenous Kashmiri Pandit..
At another place the author echoes the perceptions of every Indian about the Shylockian greed of the Kashmiris and their ingratitude to India, who has been showering all her generosity and benevolence on them, opening her coffers, trying to win them over with love; alas, without any success. Here is how he gives vent to his observations: Yet, nothing ever seems to satiate / the insatiable Kashmiri appetite-

No boons, no grants / no bonanza, no freebies.
And nothing helps to bring them / any closer to the India nation -
Neither the high altitude rail link / nor the international airport,
Neither the Kashur Channel / nor the Akash Wani,
Neither the special status / nor Article 370.
Alas, it is a one way love affair,
the Kashmiri heart is elsewhere!
(The Award Ceremony)

Kashmiri Pandits have always been secular from the core of their heart and gave shelter to outsiders seeking refuge. However, their syncretism and secular ethos was paid back in a bad coin by the Muslims through flagrant discrimination of their rights and through different means of persecution under the free and democratic dispensation of Kashmir after 1947. Dr. Chowdhury echoes this in his travelogue in the following lines when he passes through Eidgah:

It is on the land here in Eidgah / that Tibetian refugees were settled
and assimilated in the cultural milieu / because they were Muslims
Even as we / the indigenous people
Have been uprooted and cast away /because we are not.
I often fail to understand / how a religion that teaches compassion
Can truly bind people of an alien stock / when its votaries strive to extirpate
People of their own flock / because they belong to different faith.

Through his characteristically fearless and bold expressions and expositions, Dr .K L Chowdhury pours his agonized soul in the pages of his travelogue and speaks some bitter truths, both for those Pandit refugees who lull themselves into thinking that Kashmir is waiting for them with open arms and for the Kashmiri Muslims who still look towards Pakistan as their utopia.

Through the medium of his four anthologies, published during the last decade, Dr. Chowdhury has, in his inimitable style, taken poetry out of the realm of elitism and brought it to the common man, to our bedrooms and drawing rooms. Because of their universal appeal, his books are a must read for every one, especially for all the denizens of Jammu and Kashmir who will find in them a translation of their thoughts and sentiments, their frustrations and fulminations, their urges and aspirations.

Reviewer: O N Kaul (KAS) Retd.
Hon. Gen. Secretary, J&K Council of Cultural & Historical Research.
Journalist, Filmmaker.

About the Author
Dr. K L Chowdhury retired as a Professor of Medicine, Medical College, Srinagar. Presently he is the Director of a charitable institution, Shriya Bhatt Mission Hospital and Research Center, Durga Nagar, Jammu.

He is a physician and neurologist, a medical researcher, poet, social activist. He writes on diverse subjects – medical, literary, social and political and has numerous research papers to his credit, his pioneering work being “The Health Trauma in a Displaced Population” which was presented at national and international conferences. He was declared Shehjar's 'Kashmiri Person of the year' for 2007.
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