During this three-decade long conflict in Kashmir, many left Kashmir and moved on. I have often wondered, if after the loss, the pain, and longing, anyone ever had some sense of closure with just "moving on". My family also left Kashmir, with them first and later by myself I have called quite a few places home - Jammu, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Glasgow, London, and travelled in many more, and yet, I never actually moved on from Kashmir. For me, a point of closure never came, though, compared to people who were disrupted from West Punjab and "the other” part of Kashmir in 1947, I consider myself infinitely more fortunate – for that generation, the decision made, and "moving on” was irreversible.
On travels around Europe and Asia, I have visited many countries that started off in equally terrible - if not worse circumstances after the Second World War - but have been free and peaceful in living memory. Britain has been home for many years for me. England, the"green and pleasant land” is a country I have explored a lot on my bicycle and foot.
From my readings of English literature in childhood, it’s a place I felt nostalgic about even before having set foot here. Yet, it is still only a close second to the majestic mountains and valleys, rivers and alpine forests, fields and orchards of Kashmir that are always in my mind.
Kashmir was and still is the way the cliché goes – a paradise, no exaggeration, as Priyanka Mattoo put it in her recent piece in New York Times. It was that article that prompted me to write something, as our stories also diverge significantly at some point. I also made a home everywhere, among different cultures, but then, I also tried to go back.
I was seven in the winter of 1989 when we left for the neighbouring province of Jammu, carrying with us memories of life in Srinagar and of our ancestral village, its orchards, its greenery, the fragrance of its earth during rains, and its views of Gulmarg and surrounding mountains. I left with memories of the balcony where my grandmother would tell stories in the strong evening breeze that are characteristic of a particular spot that overlooks the Baramulla valley. She would often talk about the invasion of October 1947 that first disrupted the tranquillity of our paradise and swallowed my grandfather. After losing him, grandmother’s life turned upside down by what she referred to as the "kabailee raid” - she had had a harsh life, bringing up my father and his younger siblings. Within forty years of that invasion, we were back to square one, staring at another realistic prospect of a forced migration.
There are memories imprinted on my mind of the year 1989 –like how my father would check under the car every morning for "unidentified objects", of news of disturbances, and of frequent curfews. On an evening out to see a new showroom that had opened in the city, we heard a bomb blast, which we later learnt had targeted a busy, Hindu-owned sweets shop called Shakti Sweets.
Due to the violence, schools frequently remained closed, and my parents felt it was no longer safe to bring up a family or give a good education to me and my sister in Kashmir.At the onset of winter holidays that year, we left Kashmir like we used to every year, only this time, I didn’t get a chance to return for nearly a decade.
There was also opportunity elsewhere, and means, that possibly weren’t available to many.
a college magazine (early 2000s) - author's father with his students
But, unlike many other families, especially Kashmiri Pandits and some Sikhs who made a permanent move, my father continued in his job in Kashmir. He would travel back and forth every few months, so life continued like this for nearly two decades until his retirement. Phone calls in that era were rare and there were many anxious moments.
I vividly remember the morning we woke up to the news of the Chittisinghpora massacre splashed across TV screens. After only a few weeks of that, my father had to get back to work. My father never considered a permanent move, and community grapevine would inform us that Sikhs, unlike Pandits, were regularly discouraged from registering as migrants by governments of the day.
My own first visit back to Kashmir was in the late nineties. I definitely harboured a lot of resentment against those who had started all this violence and driven people away (many Kashmiri Pandit migrant accounts record explicit threats to their lives). Yes, we heard much about migrant camps or cramped rented quarters in which many of my Pandit classmates lived in Jammu.
The small, close-knit Sikh community in my village persisted - but they were always in a limbo, never knowing when they would have to suddenly move. Most with means to do so, made homes outside Kashmir over the years, but could not leave the place entirely due to various compulsions. There is something about old family roots, and this attachment to a homeland which you nurture with your sweat and blood. Many stayed because they either had jobs or small farms and orchards to tend to. Maybe, for many of the older generation, memories of 1984 were still fresh, when Kashmir had been an oasis of safety for Sikhs when they were targeted all over India.
On that first visit back in the late nineties, I first experienced a Kashmir transformed by extreme militarisation – full of barracks, barriers, sandbags, and checkpoints everywhere. Filmmaker Sanjay Kak, also from Kashmir, in an interview, shared a similar experience on his first trip back. It is comforting to read and hear about many shared experiences, and many shared realities.
There are also many experiences that diverge. Life in a conflict zone has many parallel realities; picking one of them is too hard and feels like an act of betrayal, an intellectual dishonesty. A hill close to my village that was visible from our balcony used to be full of trees when I was a kid, with only a road connecting a neighbouring village snaking over it. As a five-year old on weekend trips to visit grandmother in the village, I used to look forward to watching a 6 pm bus, one of only two a day, winding up that road every evening. Over the late nineties and first decade of twenty-first century,that hill was completely covered by a military garrison.
When Kashmiris speak of "occupation” it has a very real meaning – when the fortresses cross your orchards, you never know if the fruit trees you will plant and nurture until fruit-bearing age will be dismantled in a blink. People learn to live in an atmosphere which a visitor can only describe as "prison”. How many people know the reality of living through something called "crackdowns” – when all male members of a village are summoned and lined up, many never to return?Are there many places in the world where ordinary people pluck fruit from their trees with watchtowers and guns aimed in their general direction? On a trip back to Jammu (where I went to school), I saw my bus driver casually asked to pull over and beaten, humiliated, in front of his bus full of passengers, for something as flimsy as speeding. That memory is etched in my mind, but I never quite fully processed it for years and years. Surely, the "security” forces were always right, and surely, "they” deserved it.
As I went to college far from home in Mumbai, years passed between any trips to Kashmir.
There was a university degree to attain, and a career to build, which went reasonably well. Still, there was always this palpable lack of an anchor that one has with a sense of belonging to a homeland. I had somehow made my peace with the fact that I was of a homeland I could in all likelihood never return to.
As I moved to Britain, and travelled around, I could sense how people, especially outside big cities, had a deeper connection with their countries. That sense of walking over to the local parish church and laying flowers on your ancestors' graves. Of people having built and nurtured their countries over generations, a sense of continuity with the past. A Portuguese colleague working in London told me how he could live here for some years, but would never like to die in a foreign land. Much as I felt at home in Britain, I had none of that. I would read about Kashmir from different perspectives that I had blocked in my mind in the past. I learnt how the January of 1990 had seen a civil uprising, retaliated by firings on protesters. I learnt of Kunan-Poshpora and the thousands that had "disappeared”, just like thousands had "disappeared” in the 80s and 90s in East Punjab. I read the history of Kashmir and knew I had to visit again.
So, during the last five years, that is what I did - I visited very often. Staying weeks and occasionally months at a time, often either arranging my work to accommodate that or taking career breaks as I worked on my masters dissertation, I experienced life in Kashmir and its people, up close. I tried to look after apple trees that my father had planted, some nearly 40 years old, each telling a story. In my amateur way, on a borrowed tractor, I tried to till the land that my grandfather might have once tilled. The unbelievable peace and satisfaction I derived from that is not something I can describe easily, and neither what most people can understand. After all, why would one want to do this, throwing away a comfortable life in London?
I met and spoke to many local people, like an elderly Sikh relative who had been 16 at the time of the invasion of 1947 (he passed away this August, a few week after I left, and the news of his passing reached us after nearly a week due to the ongoing blockade). I spoke to a Muslim gentleman who had been my father's primary school teacher in the 50s and had been the chief guest at his retirement. I travelled around to far-off corners of the province, soaking in the valleys, the villages, archaeological sites, the Martand sun temple, and the many Sikh Gurdwaras of historic significance dotted all around. I met the nomadic shepherds with their herds, people who worked in the apple orchards, fellow-villagers whose generations past have known mine.
Whatever impression one might form of Kashmir from the news, it really is not a place that harbours sectarian hate or prejudice. In my ancestral village, Muslims and Sikhs live side by side, as do Hindus in other parts. I am rather surprised to read about the nature of sectarian divide in Northern Ireland – a physical wall separates the Catholic and Protestant parts of Belfast city! The people of Kashmir, despite what they have been through, are kind, simple, generous, and hospitable to everyone. No stranger you ever spoke to ever let you go without offering a cup of tea or an invitation to their home. Everyone I met in my village somehow knew who I was, like on a morning run, an elderly, saintly-looking Muslim villager who said he was happy I was back and should offer a lot of sewa at Hargobindpora (site of a Gurdwara marking Guru Hargobind Sahib’s visit, name fictionalised). I still don’t know who he was – just that he called himself the "Rishi” of Hargobindpora when I asked. Yes, I knew I was home. The bitterness in my heart was long gone, and I knew I was home.
Then, just like that, on a long evening walk with my father in the fields and orchards around my village, we came across a tall and ancient-looking chinar tree. It was under that tree that my grandmother had made her final journey from this world. Yes, I knew I belonged.
After the events of August 2019, I also know that this is going to be a long exile; home is still a long way.
Truth and reconciliation is hard work and needs a two-way effort. The political history of Kashmir is complex and needs honest analysis. I don’t understand how, in this enlightened era, where human mind has invented such complex technologies and structures, we have not managed to solve this conundrum. Genuine empowerment of the people, empathy, transparency, sincerity, understanding, and humility might be the way forward.
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