In the autumn of 2013, I went to Aharbal in South Kashmir to take pictures of its beautiful and famed waterfall. The road was dotted with blazing poplars, willows and chinars. A riot of colours lit up the surroundings. People gathered apples, cherries, pears, peaches, plums and pomegranates that had fallen off the trees in an orchard. Young girls stood by the roadside selling the produce to tourists and passers-by. Men and women sang mirthful songs of harvest while working in the paddy fields.
In the evening, I stopped by Haal, an idyllic village where once Pandits and Muslims lived in harmony. A Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) camp fortified the road leading to a cluster of abandoned and dilapidated houses that once belonged to the Pandits who lived there. The houses were in a ruinous state. The ruins stood like mute witnesses to the tragic happenings of 1990, when Pandits fled the village in horror. The ruins were homes once. Now, they are nothing but rubble.
An accursed hamlet, I thought, as I surveyed the desolation around. At the CRPF camp, I got the Commandant’s permission to take photographs of the houses.
Among the ruins stood a deserted house with a wooden door and latticed windows. The nameplate on the door bore the name: Madhusudhan Bhat. I wanted to go inside but the house was locked.
A strange sight caught my attention. The vestige of a mud-brick façade that once was a house. Defiantly, it stood steady upon the grassy ground. There was no sign of the rest of the structure. As if it never existed. I took a photo, thinking that even this remnant might not survive the coming winter. Nothing of it might remain. It had one last story to narrate. The story of a family that once lived in the house. The story of how they lived and how they left. No one knew the family’s whereabouts. No one knew whether the family members were dead or alive. I wished they were alive somewhere and dreaming of their home. I wished they would return to their house to save it from complete annihilation. The remnants of the house stood mute and bore a testament to the history of a forgotten clan. Not without reason did this fragile structure continue to exist. Year after year, the structure had summoned up all its remaining strength and might to withstand rain, hail and snow. It stood tall with dignity, waiting perhaps for its old inhabitants to return one last time.
Etched on the vestige was a fading memory of a home, of a family, and of the family’s fortunes and misfortunes.
Behind this vestige was another decrepit house with no door. I went inside through the dingy corridor leading to what was once a kitchen. The floor, paved with debris, was uneven and cracked. A vision flashed past: Women washing utensils and preparing dinner. Smell of cooking. Children playing pranks on their grandparents. Sound of laughter. A beautiful girl with dark lustrous tresses holding her brother’s arm and leading him to her room full of treasure. They climb the stairs. As they climb, the stairs collapse one by one. They fall through a crack and crash against a floor full of glass and potsherd. A shriek.
The half-broken staircase led to nowhere. A large wooden slab that once supported an entire floor stood on three wobbly columns of decaying wood. An earthen oven was strewn with broken bricks and clumps of hay. A shrub peeked through a crevice. A streak of sunlight entered through the ventilator and lit up a portion of the wall. On the wall, faint impressions concealed other stories.
I counted eleven such decrepit houses in the hamlet. The locals had spread cow dung and vegetables for drying around the houses. I tried asking them about the abandoned houses and their owners. Two Muslim families claimed to have been close to the Pandit families prior to 1990.
They sighed and reminisced about the times gone by. ‘The Pandits were our brethren. We celebrated and rejoiced during their festivals. They did the same on Eid. After their exodus from this village, we lost a part of our lives,’ said one person. Has anyone returned? I asked. ‘Many sold their houses. Some came to see what’s left behind. They hugged the trees in their courtyards and left teary-eyed,’ said another man.
Pointing to some houses, the two men told me the names of the Pandits who lived there. ‘Some Pandits returned to either search for their lost existence or to give it all away because it seemed impossible for them to resettle here and rebuild their homes,’ they lamented. Who looks after the houses now? I asked. ‘The houses in a better condition were taken over by the army for some time. Now the CRPF is keeping a watch.’
Seeing me take photographs of the houses, an elderly Muslim man came out of his house and stood next to me. Sensing my curiosity, he said, ‘The people who lived in these houses left but we are still living in this hell.’ The man seemed to be the lone witness to the once-glorious history of this village. I asked him if he remembered the day Pandits started leaving this village. I wanted to know what all had happened in the winter of 1990. How was life here back then? ‘There is nothing I have to say,’ the man said somewhat morosely and walked away.
I spent some time amidst the ruins. I sat next to the mud-brick façade and looked around. The ruins looked back at me. The remorse, the loss, the wait, the lifelong earnings and dreams of a people now gone… Everything that belonged to the Pandits was on the verge of obliteration.
The sun started to set. The yellow rays of the dying sun pierced through the broken windows of the mud-brick vestige. There wasn’t a shadow. What lurked around were shadows of a people who were far away from their homes, yet desirous of return. I didn’t want to leave the house that once was. It screamed: Tell my family that I’m waiting for them. Tell them I don’t have much time left. Tell them to touch me one last time before the snow buries me.
I took a last photograph of the house, hoping that some day its old inhabitants will chance upon it and retrace their journey home. I fear going back to the village now. What if the House of Shadows is not there any more?
Muhabit ul Haq is a Delhi-based photojournalist.
Excerpted from A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits (Bloomsbury India, 2018) Edited by: Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma.