That Fable of Kashmiri Cultural Ethos

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



Why did I Leave Kashmir?

Remembering the Times of Darkness

Back in 1991 when militancy and the sentiment for freedom were at their highest peak in Kashmir, I took my Higher Secondary Part I (Class 11th) exams like many others of my generation amidst extreme tension and turbulence. My school, the Government Girls Higher Secondary School at Soura (situated a few blocks away from the majestic uninhabited house of the “Lion of Kashmir”) had been burnt down and many of our classes were held out in the open or in make-shift rooms which were never repaired until I passed out. I still remember the charred logs and wretched beams and the deadly cold winters. I also remember how my hands would freeze while writing for there was hardly any heating arrangement. Right before the exams, I was advised by a friend that there was “no need to study this time”. I ignored the advice and studied any way. I worked very hard and prepared myself for the exams. On the first day of the exams, when the question papers and answer sheets were distributed, one of the examiners came forward and said: taamath bihivu ithay paeth, pata bihiv raundas manz ikwaTa ‘Sit properly like this for now, in a little while you can make a circle together’ – words that resound in my memory in the same order even after literally two decades. My eyes almost popped out of my sockets when she instructed the girls to bring their notes and materials from their bags so that they could copy their answers in the answer sheets. A handsome young man was standing guard at the entrance to the examination hall holding a pistol. Tears fell from my eyes, perhaps not as much at the state of affairs that had unfolded but more because I could not bear the fact that the girls who barely managed to pass in the previous examinations might receive a higher score than I could possibly make without copying my answers. My friend turned to me, ‘You are stupid. Why don’t you do what others are doing?’ I kept quiet and wrote my answers reluctantly.

A couple years later, when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree at the Government Women’s College, M.A. Road (it took us five years instead of three to complete the degree, thanks to the “freedom” struggle), a similar incident took place which made an imprint in my memory all these years. While we were taking our exams, a supervising examiner came into the hall and read out answers for a bunch of questions; special privileges were offered to one girl sitting somewhere in the big hall. When I objected, I was threatened of expulsion. I had no choice but to mind my own business. A number of incidents happened in the following years where I stood at the forefront of opposition in the college premises confronting the principal at several occasions on issues that girls did not agree with and at which she would extend her “rustication” warnings to me as a ritual while the entire college would watch quietly. One of these warnings was based on my refusal to follow the dress code made mandatory by the “Daughters of the Millat”, who used to pay regular visits to the college to provide lectures on azaadi and shariyah. The college had to shut down on many occasions merely because some people from the next door men’s college – the famous S.P. College, were unhappy that girls were “not sacrificing enough”. Many hand grenades were hurled right outside the college entrance, at the girls on the pretext of not observing purdah, or for some unknown reasons. One of my friends got injured in her face while I managed to escape as I was still crossing the road. I found out many months later that one of my childhood friends too had been injured in the incident; she was paralyzed and remained indoors for several months.

It was during the second year of my college that I made up my mind to leave Kashmir for higher studies. I started writing letters to many colleges in the United Kingdom, sending them my writing samples and finally I received a response from the King’s College, London. I managed to raise some money for the application fees, got it converted to the British Pounds at the Grindlay’s Bank after much struggle explaining the reason to the high-browed bank staff and mail the application out. The next step was to get letters of recommendation from my English teacher and my college principal. While the English teacher was incapable of drafting a letter in correct English (so I had to actually write the letter for her), the principal got uncomfortable at the thought that how was it possible for a daughter of a not-so-affluent father to be able to send me to London – “What does your father do? How will you pay? Who will bear your expenses?”, she asked and I explained that I was applying for a scholarship and if I got it, it would cover my expenses. The Principal made various excuses until the deadline for submitting the letter was too close; finally she called me into her office and said: tse ma chey patah ba dimay tse letter? Kihin dimay na, gatsh kar kyah karakh ‘Do you think I will write a letter for you? I won’t, do what you want’.

The principal’s refusal to write a letter for me did break my heart but it did not break my resolve to further my educational pursuits.

© Sadaf Munshi. February 2, 2012.
(Note: This article was inspired by the “copying” controversy vis-a-vis our education minister for schools. Basically, since corruption is a part of our entire system, it has affected all of us in one way or the other. There is more to the story. I hope to be able to continue it.)