It’s been 27 long years. Some memories have become hazy, others remain etched sharply on the retina of my consciousness.
My father got me a beautiful olive green jacket from Umrika in 1982. I can’t remember what brand it was: what I remember is that it had four pockets like a military-style jacket and shoulder flaps that looked so very cool.
In my 17th year on this planet, I was more interested in reading about Che Guevara than the valency of carbon.
While the professor was droning on about the chemical properties of oxygen, I would be going breathless imagining I was wearing the olive green jacket and fighting for the liberation of Cuba. Thrice, I saved Comrade Castro from evil CIA plots to make his beard fall off.
It wasn’t just the aura of the jacket. I was convinced that I was Che reincarnated, quite simply because I was born the year he died, after which, trust me, his soul migrated from the place where he died, to the land where I was born.
I would occasionally digress in my fantasies, from falling in the battle field, while fighting CIA-funded assassins in Bolivia, to sometimes falling in love with a light-eyed Kashmiri beauty.
This was not because I was fickle, or my commitment to ushering in a revolution was half-baked, but simply because Che, before me, had walked the same path and you see, along with his soul, I had inherited his temperament.
The olive green jacket seriously reinforced my revolutionary credentials among fellow Kashmiris in my college and I never told any one that it was from Umrika.
When some bourgeois sod in my college would touch it gingerly and, and say, “Ba Khuda, this feels like down,” I would reply, “Yes, of course, Comrade, and by the way it’s from Cuba, tailored in the same factory where Comrade Castro’s jackets are stitched.”
One winter in the early 1980s, Radio Kashmir declared that the Dal Lake had frozen. I made a plan to cycle on the lake. But just as I was getting ready to leave, wearing the jacket of course, my father hissed in my direction.
He had to go out and he wanted to wear my jacket. I tried reminding him that it was mine, that it was a gift. He kept reminding me that he was my father.
I gave in, fearing that we might soon cross father’s threshold of democratic pretence and he might lay permanent claim to the jacket, by parental decree, or by threatening to tell mother that he has seen me smoking, after taking cover behind a Chinar tree in Tao Café.
That winter, that Chilla-i-Kalan, was seriously traumatic, because father insisted on wearing the wretched jacket everyday.
My style quotient took a steep nose-dive after this heartless, Stalinesque confistication of my only decent worldly asset.
From Che in a Kashmiri avatar, I went back to being a pleb in my old worn out pheran that had holes made by flying embers from my kangri. I was now a sad victim of parental oppression, rather than the dashing liberator of the oppressed proletariat.
The years passed by. Life was blissful in Kashmir, except for winters when there would be skirmishes between an autocratic father and a rebellious son over who would wear the jacket.
It was winter. Things were going from bad to worse in Kashmir. I mean on other fronts, apart from the jacket.
Loud, spine-chilling slogans from the streets began to make our windows rattle and our hearts pound.
Ayse gasye Asun, Pakistan; Batav roste, Batnaev Saan! “We want Pakistan, without Kashmiri Pandits, but with Pandit women.”
Kashmiri Pandits were being targeted and killed by the gun-toting henchmen of a cruel man, who today, claims to be a Gandhian.
An elderly poet and retired school teacher, Sarvanand Premi was kidnapped. He was found dead, after two days with his eyes gouged out. His son, Virender Kaul, met the same fate.
Girija Tickoo, a teacher, was raped, killed and then her body was cut in to two pieces on a band-saw.
Not just Kashmiri Pandits. Liberal Kashmiri Muslims were also targeted. Mainstream political activists. Leftists.
When the noted leftist poet 73-year-old Abdul Sattar Ranjoor was gunned down on March 23, 1990, my father decided it was time to flee.
I guess he realised that the olive green jacket wasn’t bulletproof.
The Kashmiri Pandit exodus of 1990 is arguably the world’s most silent, zero-decibel act of ethnic cleansing. Very few people know about it. Very few care.
Every person who ran away will have his or her story to tell. What triggered their decision to leave. Where they sought shelter when they reached Jammu. The last meal in Kashmir. The first meal in Jammu. The struggle to survive the heat, the waves of deaths due to heat stroke or snake-bites.
You will find tragedies lurking around every twist in every tale.
My tragedy is slightly complicated. It goes beyond dislocation and loss of home. It goes beyond the fear that struck the minorities, every night, that long dark winter.
In the confusion of running away from Kashmir, my olive green jacket got left behind. I blamed my father for the lack of clarity regarding ownership. He blamed me for lack of responsibility.
I was homeless, but the only thing I really missed was the jacket. I would shiver every time I thought of it. It was like I had lost my identity, like I had left my skin behind.
Some months later, a neighbour called with bad news. Our little-mittle home in Srinagar had been burnt down.
My father packed a small bag with his clothes and took a bus to Srinagar from Jammu to assess the damage and to see if something could be salvaged. He returned a few days later, seemingly empty-handed, with nothing except the bag he had taken along.
The atmosphere in the extended family that evening was like a dirge, it was as though father had come back from the funeral of someone very close to his heart.
I remember there was a power cut that evening. I remember a lazy candle offering weak solace in the darkness, accentuating the shadows that life has cast on our lives.
We were sitting together in a huddle, having chai in chipped glasses. Father asked me to get his travel bag. He opened the bag slowly, his hands trembling somewhat, took out something wrapped in newspaper and quietly handed it over to me, with a deep sigh, a deep Kashmiri vosh.
I opened the packet gingerly. It was my olive green jacket.
He tried to smile, “It’s yours, I will never ask you to share it with me.”
The fire that had burnt our house to ashes had somehow spared the jacket.
I wore the jacket and just then the power supply was restored. I stood in front of a mirror and realised that the fire had left its mark.
There was a small hole in the jacket on the left side with burn marks on the edges of the hole. It looked as though a bullet had pierced the jacket and found my heart.
January 19 is commemorated by many Kashmiri Pandits as ‘Exodus Day’.