Two weeks ago, on a hot summer day, I visited Jagti along with my father. Jagti is a village near Nagrota town in Jammu province, which straddles the national highway connecting Jammu and Srinagar. At present, Jagti gives shelter to around 4,000 families; seeing the clustered structures, I couldn’t fathom how they must live. Families living in small two-room flats who once lived in large houses in Kashmir.
I spotted an under-construction temple to goddess Kheer Bhawani, the celebrated deity of Kashmiri Pandits. The original temple is in Tulmul, in Ganderbal district, Kashmir. Every year, thousands of Pandits still visit Kheer Bhawani temple on Jyeshth Ashtami, in accordance with the Kashmiri Hindu calendar. This year, it falls on June 12. The temple is a symbol of our uncompromising faith, which we would not give up on even after being rendered homeless.
In the ‘migrant township’, I was again reminded of my identity – a Pandit, a migrant, a refugee, an exile. One of my grandfather’s cousins lives here with his family. Among other things, my father and my relative talked about our house and the neighbours in Akura, a village in Anantnag district. According to legend, when Shiva was going to Amarnath cave to tell Amar Katha to Parvati, he told Ganesha to leave his vehicle, Mushak, at a place that came to be known as Akurath (the other name for Mushak). Akurath was distorted to the present name, Akura. In colloquial Kashmiri, our village is called Okur.
Until 1990, before the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, my grandfather and his family, and this cousin and his family, all lived in the same house there. The larger part belonged to my grandfather. My father tells me that ‘Om’ and ‘Vikrami Samvat 2009’ were inscribed above the front door. Built in 1952, it was a typical village dwelling of bricks, wood and mud with tin roofs.
Our house had three storeys. The ground floor would be called wout, the first one kuth, the second one kaeni and above it, there was the braer kaeni. The two portions of the house were segmented by an entrance hall known as the wuzz. There was the dub, a covered balcony above the first floor, protruding out of the entire structure.
In the courtyard, there was the gaan, the cowshed, on one side and daan kuth, a store house for grains, on the other. The whole area was enclosed by compound wall called dwous made of stones and mud, five or six feet high. The gate made of wood would be called baryen. Outside the house, a brook of the river Lidder would flow.
For me, it is an inherited memory. I often tell my friend Siddhartha Gigoo that at least you have your own memories – I don’t have a single one. Having never lived in Kashmir, I survive on inherited and borrowed memories, to which my Kashmiri identity is affixed. Sometimes, I wonder whether it is possible to inherit all the memories from my parents and relatives. I wish they were tangible so I could keep count of them. I fear the loss of memory; I fear the loss of my Kashmiri identity.
My cousin visited Kashmir recently and shared a picture of our home in Akura. It was his maiden visit, though he had been to Kashmir a couple of times since 1990. He tells me he identified the place without anyone’s guidance and was reminded of our uncle and grand-uncle who would take him to the river Lidder nearby. He met our immediate neighbours, who inquired about our whereabouts. Nobody asked him about coming back. The neighbours admitted that when Pandits used to live in Kashmir, their children were disciplined. From the photograph, it seemed like the conflict, the neighbours and time had all taken their toll on our house.
I heard from my father that our farmland was being occupied by one of our neighbours. That person was supposedly my younger uncle’s friend. He had sent a message, my father tells me, asking us to sell our land to him. We declined. Then we heard that he had built a school there.
A fellow Kashmiri, a friend, occupies our land and constructs a school. The betrayal that began in 1990 continues. I am told that we, the minority Hindus who were forced to exile in 1990, should move towards reconciliation with Kashmiri Muslims. What should I reconcile with? I fail to understand.
Still, I don’t feel any ill will against the person who occupied our land. Maybe tomorrow someone will take our house too. I have doubts about reconciliation in such circumstances. My heart says that reconciliation is the way forward but my mind says that I am being asinine. My neighbours in Akura should have kept our home and land intact, if they were concerned about us. Betrayals don’t lead to reconciliation.
On how many fronts am I, an exile in my own country, supposed to fight? I am fighting the injustice to me and my community which has prevailed for three decades. I am fighting for the right to a home in my own land. I am struggling to preserve a centuries-old culture. I am surviving, too.
There is a walnut tree in our courtyard which was sown by my father’s great-grandfather. That walnut tree is testimony to all that happened to my home and my homeland. I wish that tree could speak.
My cousin shared another photograph of him and his son, who is nearly three, inside the house. Will his generation, the progeny of our community, feel connected with Kashmir at all? If they won’t, what will become of us? Are some communities supposed to assimilate with other communities? Do some identities supposed to cease to exist and cultures supposed to vanish? I don’t have answers.
Two months ago, my grandaunt passed away in Jammu. She was the last of the old generation from my grandmother’s side of the family. We used to call her Byengash. She was not well in the months before and finally succumbed to her illness. While her pyre was being lit, a thought struck me. The older guardians of our community are dying. What will happen to the memories that they possess and we don’t? Who will protect us from cultural extinction in exile? Will the generation of younger Pandits be able to become the sentinels of the community? I hope we will. The optimist in me won’t let me believe otherwise.
I find solace in my favourite Kashmiri poet Dina Nath Nadim’s lines:
Wushun wushun, wazul wazul, wazul wazul, wushun wushun
Wushun wazul, wazul wushun chu khoon myon
Jawan chus, toofan hyu junoon myon
(Warm warm, red red, red red, warm warm
Warm red, red warm is my blood
I am young, my zeal is like a storm.)
Varad Sharma is co-editor of A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits. He tweets at @VaradSharma. The book will be launched in Bengaluru on June 11, 5.30pm at the Bangalore International Centre in Domlur Stage II.