Thursday, January 20, 2011
It is cold in here. It’s chilly enough in April; January is pretty much a lost case. The rain joins in randomly from time to time... October was bright and red. Today is white, with amassed snow. But the rain overshadows it all; it is slushy and gloomy.
“Yi chu poore Kashir hyu”, Mumma had said, back when she was visiting.
It is cold in here. You need a strong wind-and-rain-proof jacket outside.
But, indoors, the pheran will do.
The one I’m wearing is my first actual big pheran. At least the first one bought in my name. It has pastel-coloured kadhai on a camel base. I didn’t like the look of it at first, aside from the small matter that it reached right until my ankles. My grandmother, expert tailor that she is, immediately took out a one-inch lad, out in the front. The pheran remains voluminous. I was also sceptical of bringing it here. This is as un-American as it gets. But a week ago, I took the bait of wearing it, feigning élan. It works. People like it and the other smaller pherans I keep on wearing. Though a friend did get curious, seeing me repeatedly wear these ‘traditional clothes’. “Is it by any chance because you hate the West and are making a statement out of it?” I clarified; this was traditional ‘winterwear’. I just like wearing it, I said.
But who knows if I was making a statement out of it? Kashir, and any connection whatsoever with it, has always made me feel special. It is entirely possible that I show it off. Knowingly and unknowingly; before Indians and Americans.
“Where are you from in India?” - standard question anybody mildly interested in you will ask. “Oh! That’s complicated.” “How so?” “Umm…so, I belong to one part, Kashmir; I was born and brought up in another part - a small town in the east called Ranchi, but I live in yet another part – Delhi.” “Oh Delhi!” “Yeah, Delhi.” “That’s so cool!” “Yeah.”
Few understand the ‘belong’ part. You don’t belong to places in America, in general. And certainly not if you have spent a grand total of 9 days in that place.
That fall night, there was a cool breeze, yet it was warm enough to sit outside. My favourite tree in the college courtyard was glowing. It was the tree, for me. In daylight, it was bright orange, shining above the humble green ones and making me smile. That night though, with the lamp shining right below its hood, it looked like it had been set on fire. The moon had long hidden itself; the sky was illuminated.
But the carpet of dried leaves at the bottom of the tree kept on growing, with every gust of the wind. There were beautiful leaves up there – most had a shade of the lightest green at the base changing into the brightest red at the tip - but slowly and surely, the dried ones were falling off.
The moon had long hidden itself; the sky was illuminated, but the tree was undoubtedly dying.
I didn’t understand what to make of it.
Or probably I did.
Then came nausheen. My dark and gloomy Yale suddenly metamorphosed into a white princess. Beautiful is a gross understatement.
People huddled indoors… I went walking out in the snow; I danced, out in the snow. I caught it with my lips…I kissed it, I ate it. Euphoria is a shallow word.
This was way too similar to the first time I had ever seen falling snow. But that was Kashir, right? This was America, for goodness’ sake.
The happiness persisted. It felt like a new dawn.
Perhaps exile begins when you start making new homes, outside home. As someone who values stability zealously, I doubt if I have ever been able to have it truly, or ever will. I left Ranchi midway while growing up; I reached Delhi too old to really grow up there again. Kashir I made up in my mind. None of them belong to me.
This place is different – I haven’t joined it midway; I will not leave it midway. This is real. Nobody can kick me out of here. These four years are mine to make what I want of them. I will belong to them. And they will belong to me, forever.
Above this hard, strong, reality however, I will make my castle in the air.
Because thankfully, castles in the air don’t need roots.
I will keep on thinking that I’m a Kashmiri, much as that Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote of La Mancha kept on thinking that he was a knight errant.
I will speak my language, till I am the last one left to speak it.
I will wear that pheran, with the lad taken out.
I will look at those orange elm trees in the fall as if they were the red chinars of Tulmulla.
I will look at the falling snow as if it were falling in Srinagar.
I will live what I can of my land. My grandmother’s stories and my own eyes have given me enough to do that for a lifetime.
Oh, I know it might be too hard for you to believe it.
Just like it was for the Kashmiri Muslim guy I met at JFK, traveling with his wife and baby.
“Toh chuv Kashir?” I had asked, imitating Papa, as soon as I heard my tongue in the melee of the airport. He was speechless for a few moments. But his eyes betrayed his disbelief, in me. He couldn’t believe that a Kashmiri-speaking Hindu girl, alone in America, could exist. Let alone the fact that she had asked him if he was a Kashmiri.
Delude yourself. I will live on.
Burn my pheran and call it ‘unfortunate’; I will keep the ashes. Shred it and call it ‘a thing of the past’; I will keep the threads.
Because these aren’t just any threads; they are the same ones that made my parents’ pherans, my grandparents’ pherans, my bhagwanji’s pheran. They are the same threads that root me, that root that burning orange elm tree. The winds will come and go, and winter will approach. But I will be the last leaf. I will burn and never fall.
Let the moon hide itself; the sky will still shine.
- Radhika Koul
Radhika is a freshman at Yale University. She can be reached at radhika(dot)koul(at)gmail(dot)com
Photos courtesy Eun Sung Yang, Yale '14.
"Yi chu poore Kashir hyu" means "This is just like Kashmir."
A pheran is a loose fitting woollen gown, reaching below the knees.
Kadhai is embroidery.
A Lad is a fold made near the bottom of the pheran to reduce the length. The fold was made on the outside among the Hindus and on the inside among the Muslims.
Nausheen is the first day of snow in the winter.
The chinar is an oriental plane tree, big, with maple-like leaves, indigenous to Greece and Turkey but very common in Kashmir.
Tulmulla is a shrine devoted to the Mother Goddess in south Kashmir, held extremely sacred by Kashmiri Hindus.