It is 18th of May 2013. A beautiful morning in Texas! I wake up to a message in my mailbox: “Hi! I must tell you this! Just a while back I was hosting you and your little girl in my Kashmir home. It was so real…. You are in a reddish sari looking really pretty and I bump on to you in our driveway. First, I pass by you without realizing that it is you, but in a few minutes we recognize each other and hug, etc. Then I see your cute daughter. I hug her too and invite you inside. My mother starts cooking [making] some nice snacks and then I wake up. I had to tell you this because the scene is still playing in front of my eyes.”
I read the message twice and respond: Oh! That is SO SWEET. Soon after I feel a strange kind of uneasiness gripping my soul deep within and my eyes burst into tears. Perhaps the dream would not have been as disturbing had I been the host and she the guest. I wish she hadn’t seen the dream. And why did she see me in a sari? That is not how I dress in Kashmir! I speak to myself. The message keeps bothering me, embarrassing me for hours before I sit down and grab a pen to write about it. The message is from a Facebook “friend” I have never met before; a “friend” who lives thousands of miles away and yet there is a strong and invisible connection between the two of us. I do not know a lot about her, but what binds the two of us together is a profound longing to reconnect with our roots, our homeland where we do not live any longer. Yet there is a stark difference that sets us apart. I am a “Kashmiri Muslim” and she is a “Kashmiri Pandit”. This religious identity, whether by personal choice or by default through inheritance from our parents and forefathers, is what makes us very different individuals when it comes to our personal experiences, our history and our connection with that dreamland, that “paradise on earth” we all, almost irrationally, continue to fancy about in great nostalgia — KASHMIR. It is that Kashmir which is so exceptionally “beautiful” and “serene” in our imagined reality that all the worlds’ beauties put together are rendered pallid in comparison.
Namrata lives in Delhi, only an hour long flight to Srinagar, and I live all the way across the globe in Texas in the United States of America. Yet she feels she is far more removed from the “homeland” than I am. While I visit Kashmir every year and stay with my family there, if Namrata wishes to go she must find a hospitable “host” or stay in a hotel like any other tourist in a place, which was once her hometown and where she grew up and spent her entire life until that fateful day when her family and her relatives had to leave Kashmir not knowing they would never return.
A friend of mine in Kashmir said one day, “Kashmiri Pandits should come back. We will welcome them wholeheartedly.” But the story on ground is quite different and disappointing. Only a week earlier, I called my father back home to arrange for a room for rent for another Kashmiri Pandit friend of mine. Ajay has a research project to work on in Kashmir. He needs to stay over an extended period of time. I try to look for an affordable place for him to stay before I arrive the following month. My father says to me on phone: I will do my best, but it is difficult. You know the situation here. If I cannot find a room, he is more than welcome to stay with us but at his own risk. This is Downtown, you know.
I am disheartened and decide to call one of my uncles who lives in another part of the city. The room is not a problem but the food, I mean….. I think my family may object to a Hindu eating with us in the kitchen. If he can cook his own meals……..ummm…… I tell him I would call again and disconnect. When Ajay finally arrives, like any other foreign visitor to the valley, he puts up in a guesthouse near Dalgate.
Ajay has an old ancestral house somewhere in Pulwama — a far-flung area in Kashmir. The house has been “taken care of” by some of his distant family who chose to stay back in those times of mayhem in the early 1990’s. Ajay and I visit the village, Sirnu (Siryun in Kashmiri) and his ancestral house a few weeks later and take pictures as souvenirs. We meet the Pandit inhabitants who tell us stories about their survival, their well-being and their times of struggle in what has become a largely homogeneous society.
Chuni Devi, an old lady of wit and humor, likely in her late 60’s, is eager to show us around. I take a picture of her standing in the doorway – she is defiant and confident. As Ajay meets some of his old family, Chuni Devi and I walk through a very narrow passage and cross over a barricade of jumbled outgrowth of bushes into her little vegetable garden across the corner. Fresh yellow blossoms adorn an array of huge green prickly leaves on the branches of squash hanging from over a prop. The witty lady shows me into the house of one of her close family and introduces me with the womenfolk. Most of them are housewives and spend their time largely at home. A young boy in his early teens comes in. I ask him about his school and his friends. “I don’t have many friends,” he tells me. He is probably the only Pundit boy in his classroom.
Later in the day, we are set to visit the village temple. Chuni Devi is the caretaker of the temple. She has also been actively involved in local village elections. Though there are only a handful of families there, she is steadfast in fighting for the minority rights in her area. As we move around, people of the neighborhood keep wondering, “Who are they?”
As we arrive near the temple premises, we see children of the locality bathing in a natural spring while Lord Shiva stays silent by the side in the muggy water. A small, old and dilapidated temple stands locked, facing the newly built mosque nearby. I ask Chuni Devi to open the door and she does. She shows us the remnants of the temple paraphernalia that had been vandalized many years ago and are still in the same condition. Mushtaq (another friend) and I exchange a few sad glimpses of embarrassment over the plight of the temple. We take some pictures and leave.
As I write about these experiences, I am deeply perturbed. It seems to me perhaps we have reached a point where cultural and religious harmony is a misnomer in Kashmir. Kashmiri society has become so homogeneous that it is hard to fathom a situation with a truly pluralist culture in the near future. This blatant fact manifests itself in more than one way. No doubt there are handfuls of Pandit (and other minority) families living in various neighborhoods, including some remote areas, but they live in considerable social isolation, with a degree of fear and suspicion. There is limited social and cultural contact even with neighbors and friends, and quite a few have sought police security. The only places where people of different religious backgrounds are to be seen in substantial “harmony” are tourist resorts, hotels and rental apartments, and some posh areas of the city, such as Rajbagh and surroundings. It seems the idea of cultural pluralism in Kashmir has largely relegated itself to memories and mementos as of now. Let’s hope it won’t stay that way.
© Sadaf Munshi