A first-hand account of how a family of Pandits left Kashmir and were unable to return home. January 19 marks the 25th anniversary of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley
You must tell your story … You must write ….
For years I have been asked to pen “my story” of exodus and exile, of homelessness and refuge. I’ve been told to lay threadbare what happened all those years ago and how I feel about it all these years later.
My story is not the narration of how we left Kashmir; it is about being unable to return home. My story is not about death that stared us in our faces; it is about that one chance we got to live.
In my story, a gun-wielding monster was not at my doorstep; it was the fear of him appearing that scared me more. I did not watch my house burn; I saw what was left of it in the pages of a magazine. My story is not about the loss of material goods; it is about the pain of carrying memories.
It was in the evening of March 19, 1990 when an excruciating 12-hour journey ended and we set foot in Jammu. It was exactly two months to the day after the first batch of Kashmiri Pandits left the Valley. The drive from Srinagar to Jammu is dotted with hairpin curves that blurred all the pretty sights that nature has to offer. Exhausted by motion sickness, I was not happy to be greeted with a water balloon. We had arrived a day before Holi, unprepared for the festival of colours.
From a week to 25 years
We were three of us, my mother, my cousin and I, carrying two small suitcases and a warm blanket. We had left home in the early hours as soon as curfew had been relaxed. Before leaving, we assured our neighbours that we would return and, yes, the Army was not informed so there would be no crackdown. Being the only Hindu household in the area, we were perceived as some sort of an insurance against military action in the neighbourhood.
We were going to Jammu to comfort my sister; that message had been relayed to the area commander of the militant group active in our neighbourhood. Apparently he did not like people moving out without his permission.
My sister, then a student at Jammu Medical College, had been witnessing convoys of trucks and buses, crammed with families and their hurriedly packed luggage, arrive every day since January. Those arriving narrated stories of escaping death … of a burning Kashmir … of Pandits slaughtered and the Army taking over, as if it were war. She read about bullet-ridden bodies, of hate messages painted on walls, of bodies with eyes gouged out, and of women raped and butchered in the streets.
My sister was distressed. Assurances on the phone were not enough; she wanted to see us, alive. That is how the three of us landed in Jammu for what was supposed to be a weeklong stay, but which turned into 25 years in exile.
My grandparents joined us four months later, arriving in a black and yellow taxi with two suitcases and an olive green holdall.
We spent the next few years waiting for “normalcy”, for the convoys to return to the Valley and for us to be home.
We kept waiting and my ever-smiling grandfather began to lose hope; eventually he died of a broken heart.
“My story is not about the loss of material goods; it is about the pain of carrying memories”
He had worried every day about the house we left behind, and the home he built. He had worried about the gaps in its tin roof and about the weeds that would have destroyed his meticulously laid out garden. Most of all, he worried about us growing up, outside our home. But it was not the material loss that broke his heart.
A deep wound
On a sultry afternoon, sitting in the long, ventilated corridor of the Circuit House in Jammu, I overheard him tell a family friend that he felt “betrayed” by his childhood friends. That broke his heart. Where were they when his house — where they had gathered for years, sipping tea, discussing politics, worrying about the weather — was raided (we learnt the raiders even took away the stash of coal and sugar, stowed away for the harsh winter) and later burnt down?
Some letters and a few phone calls were exchanged; his friends shared their grief but the word “return” was carefully avoided.
Somewhere in his heart, my grandfather believed that the ordinary Kashmiri — the friend and neighbour — had the power to stop the armed militant who was from across the border. He read enough papers to know what was happening, yet, he chose to believe that his “friends” back home would guard what was his and be there for him when he returned.
He would recall how one of his friends had carried me on his shoulders to the bus stop because the road was flooded; how another had a treat for me each time we passed by his shop. It was not hatred, but pain that he carried in his heart.
Months before he died, my grandfather slipped a copy of his will in his journal, which I had insisted on taking with me to Delhi. “Immerse my ashes at Prang,” my grandfather, who did not believe in rituals, had written.
What I remembered of Prang was a river with gushing, icy water and round shiny rocks for a bed.
We could not go to Prang with his ashes. He was betrayed again.
My story of Kashmir is the story of his betrayal.
My story is not the endless argument about history, politics, economy and social subaltern narratives. We have trained guns on each other and drawn faultlines, we have added dimensions to suit our versions of the story.
We give our tuppence on Kashmir and Kashmiriyat; I refrain from commenting, I hide from venting. My story is not my version versus yours. It meanders through discourses, but betrayal exists as a continuum.
I find similarities with the stories of the homeless, from Afghanistan to Congo. I know the pain of the Myanmarese refugee who told me how his life fits into two boxes. I search their stories for signs of betrayal. I ask them how they deal with it, because my story of betrayal is a festering wound, and I don’t know how to make peace with it.