Srinagar: Moti Kaw, who perhaps worked in the health department, had two beautiful daughters, Anita and Hena. The former was my age and the latter a year younger. Since their house was close to ours, we would often cross paths, especially while waiting at the bus stop or on our way home from school.
At barely five feet tall, I was unusually small for my age and girls often saw me as a harmless creature. Even then, I had to wait for two years after I saw the sisters for the first time to gain access to the Kaws’ house. The girls wouldn’t let me in except for a particular reason: my brilliant performance in the matriculation examination. It was 1981. Kashmiri Pandits valued education more than their Muslim counterparts did for a variety of reasons and their exposure too was relatively broader. My performance in the matriculation examination served as an automatic ticket for friendship with the girls.
Living in tightly-stitched neighbourhoods, Pandits and Muslims shared not only a common language, but also a culture that earned them an identity distinct from those living in the other parts of India. The camaraderie between the two communities was so strong that a Pandit wedding was almost impossible without a separate feast for Muslim neighbours and friends.
A fetish in both communities for meat had forged a bond so powerful that it’s impossible to break even now, though they may be at loggerheads with each other. Wazwan and Kashmir are inseparable from the considerations of their culture and pride, regardless of their religious affiliation. Kashmiri Pandits’ fondness for halal meat was so ingrained in their psyche that meat for all occasions would always come from Muslim butchers. They had their own waza chefs, though. At weddings, it was common to see a Pandit eating off the same plate as his Muslim friends. At one such wedding, I ate with my Pandit friends without knowing the banquet wasn’t meant for me. Because both cuisines use the same set of aromatic spices and herbs, it was difficult for me to tell the flavours apart. For Muslims, asafoetida (hing) was taboo and Pandits didn’t like garlic much.
Once a ray of hope
Though religion was inseparable from ordinary life, it didn’t become a hurdle in enriching a composite culture that kept adding more chapters to it as education gathered pace in the Muslim community.
Schools and colleges where Muslims studied had Pandit teachers who taught with the same passion as they did with their own children. Those who have studied at Islamia High School, Rajouri Kadal, wouldn’t ever forget Narinder Nath, the bandmaster whose signature Tarzan yell would shake a tree from its root. With his remarkable PT skills, Naere Band, as he was known, has carved his name in school folklore forever.
Gopi Nath Ganjoo, principal at a higher secondary school in the outskirts of Srinagar, would go an extra mile. He had a tinge of hoarseness in his voice which he used to his advantage in commanding unruly pupils without having to impose his six-foot stature. He was built like a giant. There was no need for him to glower at the students because they were already terrified of his size. However, unlike his reputation, he was humble to the core. If I saw him today, my hands would automatically make for his feet in a display of obeisance. For the poor, he was a God-sent angel who would secretly extend assistance in various forms, sometimes monetarily.
This was perhaps the golden era of Hindu-Muslim amity in Kashmir which Mahatma Gandhi had said was ‘a ray of hope’ when, during the Partition, Hindus and Muslims were slaughtering each other like animals in India and Pakistan.
The cultural bonhomie between Pandits and Muslims reached its pinnacle during the 1970s and ’80s when, for example, Kailash Mehra would lend her golden voice to Mirza Ghulam Hassan’s Sahibo Sath Cham Me Cheyenne Wath Ma Aslich Hawam Tum (Usher me to the righteous path, O Muhammad, peace be upon him; I pin all my hopes on you). It would appear the Almighty answered the prayers of both Pandits and Muslims much quicker in those days; they lived in absolute harmony. Though the Hari Parbhat temple and Makhdoom Sahib shrine were located on opposite sides of the hillock overlooking Srinagar city, on which the Afghan governor, Shuja Shah Durrani, had built a famous fort, the muezzin’s call to the predawn prayer was followed by bhajans being broadcast from the temple. Pandits, after praying at the temple, would trek a narrow path to reach the opposite side of the hill to tie threads at the Makhdoom Sahib shrine.
In a show of solidarity, many Kashmiri Pandits would fast during the month of Ramzan, especially on the occasion of shab-e-qadr and on the last Friday. The practice is still prevalent among some Pandits. Noted jurist and former Supreme Court judge, Justice Markandey Katju, who has religiously been fasting on the last Friday of Ramzan, urges all Hindus to fast alongside Muslims to ‘fight the communal poison’. Sacrificial meat to Kashmiri Pandits was a sacrament (prasad) and they would happily accept it from their Muslim neighbours and friends.
I haven’t found a place more peaceful than some bookshelves at many Pandits’ homes, where the Bhagwad Gita and the Quran lived side by side without any problems whatsoever. Kanahya Lal Gadroo, father of my college mate, Sunil, who lived in Habba Kadal, would often quote verses from the holy Quran to make a point. Gadroo, who maintained a decent library, was an ardent fan of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Urdu was his favourite language and he himself wrote some poetry which he showed to me every time I visited his home.
When one of my friends, Mukhtar Kanth, who lived very close to Vicharnag temple, ran into some financial difficulties with regard to his sister’s marriage, his next door Pandit neighbour, Bulbul Kher, secretly gave him Rs 15,000 to meet the wedding expenses.
Predominantly inhabited by Kashmiri Pandits, Vicharnag is famous for its ancient Shiv temple which Pandits hold in reverence only next to the Kheerbhawani temple at Tullmulla. With crystal clear water gushing from some half a dozen springs, the temple attracted tens of hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits annually. The community had been living around the temple premises since times immemorial.
Shiv Jee, a wealthy landlord, owned a sprawling apple orchard stretching across many acres. We lived close by. Of the many juicy varieties, Delicious, Kesar, Maharaji and American made up the most precious produce. Those living in the vicinity would often steal the fruit. My cousin and I were no exception. A daytime recce to seek the best fruit would be followed by a daring raid after sunset in the most professional manner known to any thief. Away from the watchful eyes of guards, my cousin would lift the barbed wire and hold it to allow me to crawl into the orchard. Once I was in, I’d do the same for him. We would get down on all fours and creep towards the trees we had chosen during the day and patiently fill a pillow cover with as many apples as we could. On one fateful day, the guards lay in ambush and before we could execute our plans, we were caught. After thrashing us, they produced both of us before the owner, Shiv Jee. To our surprise, he gave us some apples and allowed us to go. We didn’t steal apples ever again.
A house divided
That day, the sisters, clad in the traditional check pheran (the long cloak that Kashmiris wear during winters) with the ends of their sleeves rolled up to reveal the dazzling white inner lining, noticed me walking past their outer door. A soft whistle from one of the two drew my attention towards them and I stopped.
“How many marks did you score?” The older sister wanted to know my grade in the recently declared matriculation examination. “Four hundred and forty-six,” I replied cheerily. At this moment I learnt that Anita was in the same grade as I was. Deep blushes coloured her cheeks, for her score was slightly less than mine. “Come inside for a cup of tea if you may.” She masked her embarrassment with a fake smile. “Are you sure?” I returned her smile as if I had won a prize or something. “C’mon, come over.” She grabbed the hem of my shirt and pulled me in.
Unfired bricks and clay with small beautiful lattice windows made up Anita’s house. This was classic Kashmiri architecture that welcomed visitors with a signature fragrance of clay. The house had a well-maintained lawn that enhanced its ancientness. The ground floor had two rooms and a small choka (kitchen) and the first floor two more rooms. It ended in a baer kaeni (attic) where the cats had made their home. The choka was a no-go-zone for Muslims.
Anita ushered me to her study straightaway. That would be the room to the right after ascending the dimly-lit clay stairs. “Make yourself comfortable,” she said in a voice laced with a warmth I wasn’t used to. I lacked a sense of etiquette as I came from an illiterate family. Hena came in a little later. We talked about a host of issues including our future plans, which subjects to choose, which schools to go to, etc. Anita’s mother came with a small steel glass held by the loose end of her pheran’s sleeve. Not used to drinking tea from a steel glass, I burned my lips every time I took a sip and the sisters laughed at my predicament. After spending half an hour there, I asked if I could leave. Both sisters walked me to the outer door. I promised I’d come again.
Television was a luxury in those days. One day, Anita told me her father had bought a TV and I could come to watch it any time I wished. My visits to the Kaws’ increased and I became a member of the house when, one day, the sisters decided to tie a rakhi on my wrist, declaring me as their brother. Anita’s parents and grandparents were happy. On many occasions, Anita’s mother would grant me rare access to the room adjacent to the choka, serving me the mutton her deft hands had cooked for the family. Her culinary skills spoiled my taste buds and I would often ask for more.
Thanks to my newfound relationship with the Kaws, I was introduced to many of Anita’s relatives and friends.
Word that the Kaws had bought a TV set spread like wildfire in the vicinity, attracting scores of Muslim boys and girls from the neighbourhood and beyond to watch feature films telecast from the local Doordarshan station on Sundays. Initially, the family would restrict their entry, but when the agitating boys rained stones on their house, they let in as many as possible. From Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Satyakaam and Anand to Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, watching TV at Anita’s unfurled the world of Hindi cinema for me at a very young age.
Both of Anita’s grandparents passed away much before we completed our graduation in 1985. The entire neighbourhood attended their last rites in great numbers. Her grandfather, Labbe Kaw, as he was known, was a hugely respected figure in the locality. In my faint memory, Anita’s grandmother was a graceful woman who wore colourful dresses with a pair of golden ornaments called daejehor hanging by a filament from her ears.
These graceful women would soon be threatened with extinction. The 1987 poll result, which Muslims believed were rigged in favour of a certain party, angered young boys who had expected victory for a newly launched party. Every adage that epitomised the century-old brotherhood between Muslims and Pandits turned on its head. The 19th century poet, Mehjoor, who wrote, ‘Hyend chhu shakkar dod chhu muslim saaf saaf, dod te shakkar milnaeview paane waeyn (Let Hindus and Muslims blend like jaggery and milk)’ was cast aside, paving the way for new ‘role models’ to lead young boys. Kashmir was never to be the same again.
Violence was never an option available to Kashmiris to vent their anger. They dreaded the sight of blood. One day, I remember, my father asked me to get a chicken slaughtered when some guests visited us, but nobody was ready to run a knife across its throat. Now, young boys drawn into violence created a bloody conflict between India and Pakistan that would consume tens of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, besides jeopardising peace in the region forever.
The seeds of discord between the two communities had been sown. The harvest would change everything Kashmir stood for. Temples and mosques became the first victims. The former no longer aired bhajans while the latter started playing some never-heard-before voices as if to pit them against one another. The worshippers followed suit. The ancient civilisation of Kashmir that had co-existing communities for centuries was heading towards a binary fission. The haze thickened by the day, rendering the air almost opaque. Empathetic eyes that had seen nothing but compassion before lost their vision forever. They couldn’t open again to see how fragrance had parted way with the flower, perhaps forever.
Hesitantly, I went to check on the Kaws. The creepy sound of the unbolted door quickened my breath, leading me to their vacant compound. From one window to the next, I searched for Anita, Hena and their parents. Frantically circling the house, I stopped at the window of the TV room where we had watched several movies together. There was not a sound. My gaze alternated between the empty house and a tree stripped of all its foliage that stood still in the compound. It answered my query. The Kaws too had left in the dead of the night.
Spring was round the corner. Fresh buds started waking the trees from a deep winter slumber that offered some hope of life to return. The swallow, after spending winter in the plains, came back to the nest it had made the year before. I waited for Anita, but she was never to be seen again. Spring vanished and it came back again 30 times more, but Anita didn’t come back. The Kaws had sold their house to a Muslim man. A palatial concrete structure exists where Anita had played hopscotch with her sister Hena.
In 1994, I caught a glimpse of Anita and her mother in Jammu. I rushed towards them. Her mother gave me a deep hug, but the moment I revealed my name, she looked at me with disgust and pushed me away. She had probably mistaken me for someone else. Anita stared at me with suspicion. The rakhi threads had lost all the meaning for her. “Why was Ramesh killed?” she demanded. I had no answer and I left.
Ramesh Peer, a postgraduate in electronics, was a handsome young man who Anita had perhaps wished to marry. A day after two Muslim boys fell to the bullets of Indian soldiers at Goph Mohalla, a gunman barged into his house and shot him twice. Those who knew Ramesh swore by his humble nature and cursed his killer, asking Allah to cast him in the severest of hells. The killing of Ramesh left his Muslim neighbours as appalled as the Hindus. It triggered the Pandits’ flight from their hearth and home.
The behind-the-scenes theatre was no less dramatic. The killings of Muslims that took place after the Pandits left the valley were unbelievably gory and continues to this date. Detailing those accounts is beyond the scope of this piece, but the experience of exile led many Pandits to speak only about their plight. Unfortunately most of them developed a mindset that undermined their own belief system – they will, for example, say, “marne do salon ko (let them die)” every time a Muslim is killed in Kashmir.
Like Anita, the melodious Kailash Mehra had a change of heart. She quickly announced her support to the recent revocation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution that dispossessed Kashmiris of their statehood. Under the new arrangement, a Bihari could be pronounced as much a Kashmiri as Kailash Mehra or Bhajan Sopori and they seem to have no issues with that whatsoever.
Would that make a difference? “Yes,” said Nitasha Kaul when I put this across to her.
“Kashmir is the boundary zone of India-China-Pakistan. But it is distinctively Kashmir. And its people – whatever their religion or national identity – are Kashmiris.” Kaul, a London-based academic, author and poet of Kashmiri origin, made this argument in a piece published by OpenDemocracy.
All the hatred apart, when two Kashmiris meet, regardless of their religious affiliation, they tend to forget their hostilities for a while, lending credence to the fact that history rules over petty differences.
Decades ago, Dileep Koul, alias Nitta, and I started school together. We weren’t even friends. Suddenly last year, we met in Delhi. From his office, he drove me straight to his home near Qutub Enclave. On the way, he bought meat from a Muslim butcher. (“We don’t buy non-halal meat,” he said.) At his home, I met his aged parents, wife and two kids. Suddenly, the house was filled with jubilation, as if someone had touched us with a magic wand. Dileep’s kids shared classroom stories and told me about their dreams for the future. His mother, in the meanwhile, prepared the meat with some vegetables, reminding me of Anita’s mother. Dinner was served. While eating, I found a long ash-coloured strand of hair in the curry, possibly his mother’s, swimming like a snake in a marsh. I cast it aside and finished an otherwise delicious meal. We had tea after dinner and before he saw me off, asked me to visit again.
Mothers have a way of cooking. They somehow leave strands of hair in the curry. My mother does that too at times. With the strand of hair I found in the curry that Dileep’s mother prepared for me, and another strand from my mother, I wish I could weave my past back.
But as Nitasha Kaul writes: “In the guise of crude nationalist narratives peddled by the surrounding post-colonial states for internal politicking and international leverage, their history is being stolen from the Kashmiri people.”
Anita and I will never meet again, perhaps.
Farooq Shah is a Kashmir-based journalist.