Monday, January 27, 2014

A Tourist in my Own House

I looked at my suitcase again, wondering if I had missed something. I had the best of clothes and cardigans packed. My new jacket was placed next to the suitcase. “kyoho soori kurtha pack, Ini kehn travak (did you pack everything. Don’t leave anything important behind” was the voice of my Uncle. “What time is your friend coming, are you sure that he will pick you up” he was asking again. I just replied “yes” and picked up my Kangri, placed it under my pheran and went to my grandmother asking for breakfast. With the flight at 3 pm, I still had ample time. “Shraan kurtha. Muth hu gazzi ne kehan (did you have your bath. Don’t go like a dirty mad man)” asked my grandmother. I said first breakfast then everything else. She smiled, and served me some hot rice bread and kehwa, the traditional non milky Kashmiri tea.

I lived in a joint family along with my uncle and cousins in a fairly large independent house, which had been constructed recently. My uncle had one son and two daughters and I had a younger sister. The Kashmiri joint family roots were very strong and it was practically impossible for an outsider to figure out who is a cousin and who is not. I used to call my Uncle “Papa” and my father Kakaji, his pet name. Infact it was quite common for Kashmiris to call their parents with their pet names. One of my cousin’s still calls his mother, aunty, because that’s what all his cousins call her.

It was the month of December, and my exams had just gotten over and new classes were going to start after a few weeks. I was 15 years old and with us stepping into the 10th standard, the senior most class in our school, I was eagerly awaiting to go back to school to be treated with awe and respect by my juniors.

In school, we were a bunch of unique friends, a very unusual combination in Kashmir of those days. It was a combination of a Pandit, Muslim, Sikh and a Punjabi. I was a Kashmiri Pandit, supposed to be studious, serious and intelligent. I was all except for serious and studious. Mohinder was a Sikh, Iqbal a Muslim and Gauravjit a Punjabi. I, Iqbal and Gaurav studied in the same section and Mohinder in a different one, but still we were inseparable. We went to same teacher for tuitions, flirted with same girls, and skipped school together.

We also had a brush with death together. It was the September of 89 and we all friends were walking on Residency Road, when suddenly we heard an explosion and before we could react, we see Mohinder lying on road with blood all across. Luckily timely medical help saved his life. The other time we all were coming back from a swim and wanted to have some coffee. We decided to go to India Coffee House (ICH), a cheap but decent place. The ICH was on the first floor. The moment we put our foot on the first step, a bomb exploded on the first floor and we all had a lucky escape. All these incidents infact brought us more closer and in spite of being an act of Islamic terrorism, did not evoke any hatred towards the majority community, the Muslims of Kashmir.

“Zang phutravey (will break your legs), if you even think of going anywhere in your vacations”, my father had warned me. 10th standard exams were always taken very seriously in Pandit homes. They were the first board exams and more than the exams, I think it was an opportunity for Pandit families to show off. Pandits in Kashmir were an educated community with literacy rate at 100%. Almost all Pandits were into service, middle class and I think the only thing they could show off was the education and the marks. Thus, education was placed above anything else. Infact Pandit, means a learned person and Hindus of Kashmir have been addressed Kashmiri Pandits for many centuries now. 10th or Matric as it was known was seen as the first step towards getting a good job.

So with no chance of any vacation, I was wondering what to do as the tuitions still had some time to start. “Manu, phone chui” I heard my aunty calling. It was Iqbal on the other side. “Bijapur Chalega”, asked Iqbal. Iqbal prefered to talk in urdu than in Kashmiri. “che shui kaid dalmit (you have lost your brains)”, I said. “Sunn to saley” and he started talking. Suddenly it all made sense and but then who was going to make Hitler at home understand. Iqbals’s sister was in Bijapur and the plan was very simple, to leave in the next 2-3 days, spend a few days in Delhi and Bijapur and be back in a fortnight and join the first batch of tuitions.

I had to work on a plan. My father was in no way going to agree. No logic would work on him. He behaves like Salman Khan “ek baar mene commitment de di, to mein khud ki bhi nahi sunta”. The only person who could make it possible was my Uncle. His word in the family was final and even Salman Khan and the Hitler had to listen to him.

My uncle was a reasonable man and rarely used to lose his cool. But if he did, no one on this planet could save you. Although he had thrashed me only once, that thrashing was enough for my life time. It was not thrashing, it was a third degree torture. Influenced by a cinema ad in my 7th grade, I had purchased “chewing tobacco” and he had caught me with that. He took me into a room, removed my trouser and smeared my sensitive parts with red chilly powder. I had never seen him so angry and after that punishment I even today refuse to look at the chewing tobacco. But I knew, if I have to go for the vacation, there is only one person on this planet that can make it possible and that man was my Uncle.

It was a Sunday; he was out in the garden, having a smoke. Gathering all my courage, I went to join him in the garden. I knew he will raise the topic of my tuitions. And he did the same. “When are your tuitions starting? Who are going for math, which have you decided for Science. Go to Durganath for Science, he is good and a friend of my mine. He will take care of you”. I diligently answered all his questions and I said I have a request to make. He looked at me for a moment, and I don’t know why, I still believe that he knew what was in my mind. I cleared my throat and started “the tuitions are not going to start for the next 20 days. And it is going to be hard work with no vacations for the next three years, till I complete my 12th. Iqbal is going to Bijapur for 15 days to meet his sister and he wanted me to accompany him. He will not be alone; his mother and younger brother are also going with him. He wanted me to join him, as he says that this is going to be the last and only vacation, for the next 3 years. Please, can I join him?

Papa, my uncle looked at me for a long time, and then suddenly smiled and said when do you guys want to leave. For a moment, I could not understand what he was asking. He again repeated “kar chuv nerun (when do you guys want to leave” and I said in next 2-3 days. He said ok, inform Iqbal you are coming and I will also call Kaul sahab of Indian Airlines to ensure that you get confirmed tickets as all flights are going full.

I called Iqbal to give him the good news. He informed me that even Mohinder is coming along. He had also spoken to Gaurav, but then Gaurav had to attend the marriage of his cousin and hence could not come. I immediately took out my cycle, and started riding towards Iqbal’s house. It was a good 10 km distance from my house. We sat and planned the whole trip. Next day we met at Indian Airlines Office to book our tickets. The rush was unprecedented with all flights full. We got a waiting list of 685 (yes it was 685 as waiting list number for a flight). Luckily my Uncle had made the call, and Kaul sahab, immediately converted the waiting status to ‘confirmed.’

Finally d-day came; it was 8th of December, 2009. The flight was to depart at 3.00 pm but I was up by 6.30 am. It was a cold winter morning but then my excitement was good enough warmer than any of the best woolens available. My grandmother gave me my breakfast, rice bread and a big mug of kehwa. I rechecked my bag again and again. I had packed best of my clothes, new tooth brush, cologne that was gifted by my cousin in US last year and I had not used it, looking for an opportune moment.

As my house was on the way to airport, Iqbal had promised to pick me up. He arrived around 12.30, and my father, uncle, cousins, sister and grandmother came to see us off. Not in my wildest imagination, did I know that this was the last time I was seeing my house.

We had moved to Srinagar few years back from Lucknow. After my mother’s demise in an accident, my uncle and my grandmother persuaded my father to move to Srinagar so that me and my sister who were small could be taken care of. My father was to be promoted that year but family situation forced him to give up the promotion and take a posting in Srinagar.

As the move was planned to be permanent, we sold our house in Lucknow, liquidated all investments and built a large big house along with Uncle in Srinagar. Who had known that we would be homeless in just 3 years?

At the airport Mohinder joined us and we reached Delhi well in time. My dad’s sister and her husband had come to pick me and Mohinder up, while Iqbal, his mother and brother were staying at Guest House in Chandni Chowk.

Next day we three friends met at Connaught Place, enjoying our just recently confirmed status as grown-ups. We ogled at girls, were mesmerized by the bright trendy clothes in an air-conditioned underground market, known as Palika Babzar, a must visit for all tourist to Delhi in those days

In about two days we left for our final destination Bijapur, travelling by train to Sholapur and then by bus to Bijapur. We had a great time at Bijapur, and even visited the famous the Gol Ghumbuz .

After spending a week at Bijapur, it was time to return back. We returned back to Delhi and were supposed to take a flight 2 days later to Srinagar. But then something unexpected happened. Beginning of the 1989, Kashmir had seen sporadic acts of terrorism. There were bomb blasts, although most of them had not done much damage, some targeted killings, but then no one had even thought the things will turn worse in just few months. Suddenly there had been an increase in bomb blasts and cross fires in Srinagar. Infact just the previous day there were 12 bomb blasts in a single day and many Kashmiri Pandits in last few days had been killed as part of targeted killing. My aunt was very clear that it is not safe to travel back now and my ticket had already been converted to open ticket. Mohinder and Iqbal was also advised the same. Mohinder stayed with us, while Iqbal and his family again went back to the hotel at Chandni chowk.

Days turned into weeks and there was no sign of things improving in the valley. Infact they were turning worse. My dad’s brother-in-law who was a public prosecutor had to represent state against Shabhir Shah, a known terrorist, who had been arrested few days back. To ensure that he does not object to bail hearing, some terrorists had paid a visit to my uncle’s house, put a gun on the head of my 6 year old cousin, his only child and warned my uncle, that his objecting to bail application will result in more dreadful consequences. The very same night my uncle moved his entire family to Delhi and he moved to an unknown location. Next day after completing his duty, he quietly fled in a pre-arranged car to Jammu to join his family.

It still did not occur to us that days of the original inhabitants, the aborigines of Kashmir are almost over in the land of their fore fathers. Bad news just started flowing in. Few more Pandits had been tortured and killed in the most barbaric ways. My uncle called to inform my aunt that terrorists had visited our house and other Pandits houses in the neighborhood, and were insisting that they buy guns including AK-47 and pistols to join the jihad against India. Pandits had resisted and complained to the local Muslim leaders. While the leaders had assured them the Pandits will not have further visits, they did not seem convincing.

Next day my advocate Uncle and his family moved to Delhi as they wanted to move far from the state of Jammu & Kashmir, as there were intelligence reports that his family may be attacked in Jammu. Now my Aunt’s 3 bedrooms had 8 family members living there. No one even at this stage knew that this number would continue growing in the coming weeks.

Bad news was becoming a habit. In few days, another bad news came. My Uncle who had a restaurant on Residency Road had been attacked and burnt to ashes. Infact the restaurant was located in an area where almost all establishments were either owned or run by Kashmiri Pandits or Hindus and it was clear that this act of arson was well planned and the area deliberately chosen.

Things were turning from bad to worse in the valley. Anarchy was replacing governance and terrorist were ruling the roost. Posters had started appearing on houses of Kashmiri Pandits. Posters threatened the Kafirs with dire consequences. Many notable Pandit personalities like Tika Lal Taploo, Justice Neelkant Ganju had been killed. Then came the most heart chilling and fearing poster. The poster read “We want Kashmir without Pandit men but with Pandit Women”. Along with that came news of many Pandit women being kidnapped and raped by JKLF of Yasin Mallik. An Indian family can face and suffer any hardship, including the threat to life. But what it cannot bear is the threat to the dignity of its women folk. While many Muslims did condemn the posters and the act, the condemnations seemed more political in nature than sincere. While Pandits were still wondering what to do with this threat, the situation in valley was going out of control.

The mosques were broadcasting non-stop threats to Kafirs (infidels). Loudspeakers were on full volume, asking Muslims to join the jihad, kill the Kafirs and take their property and women as booty of Jihad. Pandit houses were attacked with stones, petrol bombs and gun fire.

There were protest marches every day and Pandits and Sikhs were forced to join these anti-India marches against their wishes. Pandits were forced to be in the first row of protestors so that in case of firing by the security forces, Pandits are the casualties. Pandits & Sikhs were used as human shields.

News was flowing out in bits and pieces. Communications lines like letters, telegrams were almost inaccessible and telephone lines functioning was erratic.

On 19th morning, my uncle called my aunt and said that things are going out of control; two of our neighbours, one Pandit and another Sikh have been killed by terrorist in an attack at their homes. Our muslim neighbors have advised us to move out of the valley as soon as possible. But getting out was not easy as the government had placed the entire state under curfew and not a single transport was available.

Cars in those days were a luxury and very few families had it. Meanwhile my Maasi (mother’s sister) who lived in down town had decided that moving the girls was a priority and had to be done the same day. The family had a car and driver was instructed to be on stand-by. She then called my uncle at Srinagar and told him that they have arranged a curfew pass and the driver will pick-up the girls at 3.00 pm. My other uncle who was an army contractor had managed another pass and sent his car to pick my other girl cousins from their homes. It was agreed that all girls will assemble at my maasi’s house and two cars will leave the same day with all girls to Jammu, at midnight. All girls’ cousins, except for one with one small incident of stone throwing assembled safely at my maasi’s house. It was 6. 00 pm and it was decided that they will leave at 9.00 pm non-stop to Jammu. One car was to be driven by my cousin and other by the driver.

At 9.00 both cars were loaded with goods, the drivers instructed on the route to be taken and tea and food packed. Total number of passengers were sixteen, 14 girls and 2 male drivers Instructions were clear; the journey to Jammu has to be non-stop. Nonstop driving through narrow, curvaceous road for minimum 8 hours. Then something unexpected happen, one of the cars, an ambassador broke down. It just refused to start. The situation with it brought in more complex decisions, decisions which could scar your relations, your sub conscious and capabilities of making decisions all your life. Someone recommended we move ahead that the elder girls need to leave first, some others said that at least one girl from each family goes. Some said let’s mix the age because it will not be easy to travel next day with little girls.

While in traditional Indian families, women do not generally take decisions, my maasi by virtue of being the eldest daughter-in-law, had more say than other women in the family. She stepped in saying that all will go. And all will go tonight. With the situation in the valley being unpredictable, anything could happen. And a house with so many women, it surely will be the most targeted house next day. So all elder girls were made to move in the car and sit tightly. In the front seat, three girls sat and in the rear seat, five sat. Then the smaller girls were to sit on laps of these elder girls. Total girls that sat in front seat were 5 and 9 were forced to fit in the rear seat. Even a pack of sardines as a phrase can’t describe the passengers of the car.

My cousin was nominated as the driver. Everyone was emotional, the ladies cried, the India men who think they are above all emotions cried more. And then the car left. It traveled non-stop to Jammu with just one stop of five minutes at Ramban for the girls to freshen up. I still don’t know and still can’t figure out that how fifteen people fitted in one car. But that is fact that can’t be denied.

Meanwhile things at the valley were turning dangerous. The state government had resigned; Jagmohan had to be recalled as the Governor of state. He was a successful administrator with an impeccable record and a successful stint as governor in Jammu Kashmir earlier.

On 20th January around few lakh people gathered from various parts of Kashmir and decided to march towards the central business district of Srinagar. The terrorist and Pakistani insurgents had a clear agenda and using the innocent people as shield they wanted to attack All India Radio, Cental Post Office and Doordarshan. Their plan was to take over these centers and declare independence. This would have been a great symbolic victory.

Jagmohan was a no nonsense administrator. His quick action prevented what otherwise would have been the biggest shame on our nation. Swift action from what was an ineffective government just few days back shocked the terrorist and they retaliated by attacking security forces at many places. And in the cross fire many protestors, some innocent, some guilty died. Around 50 protestors died in the cross fire on that day.

The militants were so sure of the success of their plan that the failure of the same made them act like they were possessed by the devil. Hindu homes were attacked, many burnt, and many Pandits were dragged from their homes and killed.

The fear psychosis gripped Kashmiri Pandits. Lack of communication made things worse. On the night of 20th Jan more than 50% of the valley’s Hindu and Sikh population just left the valley. They traveled on any form of transport that they could lay their hands on, carrying just necessities and some clothes. Even then no one believed they will never be going back home. Every one believed that once things improve and the government is in control of situations they will be back.

My father, my uncle, aunt and grandmother also fled the same night. Just carrying a suitcase my father reached Jammu and then he along with my sister and my paternal cousins, my grandmother traveled to Delhi. Suddenly the 3 bedroom house in Delhi was accommodating eighteen members of the family.

Many Kashmiri Hindus were not as lucky as us. For many this was the first visit they had ever done outside Kashmir valley. With no relatives or friends outside Kashmir, they were left to find a shelter for themselves. Camps were set up by Jagmohan to accommodate these refugees in their own country. NGO and Hindu organizations stepped in to help in the biggest migration post partition.

The deaths were innumerable. Many died of snake bites, heat, lack of sanitation, infections and of diseases, which most of us had never heard of. Some estimates put the death toll to more than 50,000.

Slowly my aunt’s house in Delhi had 30 people living in. Most people still hoped and believed that things will improve in valley and all will soon be back in their homes. But the inflow of refugees was telling different things. More horror stories were coming in. Hindus were now being openly targeted and many well known and unknown names had been brutally killed. Sarla Bhat a nurse in a prestigious hospital was raped and then cut into pieces alive with a saw by the terrorist leader Yasin Mallik. Satish Tickoo was killed in the heart of the city in front of his entire family by his own neighbours.

Meanwhile my father had managed to get a transfer to Chandigarh. By end of April, I along with my sister and grandmother moved to Chandigarh. My father was sure that even if things improve in Kashmir, he is not going back. He did not have any faith on majority community of the state and he was not willing to repeat his mistake twice.

For the first few days we stayed at Yatri Niwas, meanwhile my father searched for a house. Finally a house was located and thankfully it was quite close to one of our old family friends who had settled in Chandigarh long time ago.

With all belongings left in Kashmir, the house acted more as a Shelter of four walls than home. Our family friends provided us with beddings and few utensils. My poor grandmother in an age where she should have been resting was forced to work in the kitchen again. For many months we slept on floors with no beds or furniture in the house. Summer had started; the temperature had started crossing 40 C. My grandmother, who had spent all her life in valley where people had seen fans just in movies, was now hoping that the same fan will help her survive summer. While she never complained, she started keeping unwell. Her whole body had rashes and she seemed de-hydrated. My father, who had little savings to bank on, borrowed some money from his colleagues and purchased a cooler. While a cooler was surely no replacement for the wonderful climate of Kashmir, it did help.

New sessions were starting; my father was now focused on getting mine and my sister’s education back on track. And the fool in me still believed that same is not necessary as we will be soon going back to Kashmir and I will be joining my old school. Two slaps from my father made me see things his way.

Slowly and steadily, my father rebuilt the entire home. We got beds, TV, refrigerator, gas connection. It took us few years to be a fully functional home. The unexpected migration brought miseries to three generations at once. The senior citizens suffered the most physically and mentally. At an age when they should have been resting and enjoying the services of their children, they were coping with the brutalities of nature. They were now experiencing heat, which they believed only, existed in a baker’s oven. Most of them could speak only Kashmiri and with the community now scattered into pieces they had no one to talk to, no one of their age they could share their happiness, pain with. Many died ill, bed ridden, with broken hearts and pain which they never shared but their eyes clearly expressed.

The second generation to suffer was our parents. Most of them had invested their savings in Kashmir and spend half of their life building their homes. And now when it was the time to start enjoying the fruits of their labour, they were forced to restart their lives again, that too from scratch along with responsibilities they had not faced when they started their career. Now they had children, wife and retired parents to take care of.

The third generation of was our generation. We were neither children nor adults. We were a generation who was still dreaming and had started working to make those dreams come true. And suddenly we see that the entire karma bhoomi, the conditions, the battle field has changed over night. Yes, I agree these conditions trained us to handle crisis better in life, made us strong, but then I am sure no tree can grow really strong away from its roots; The Roots in Kashmir.

For years I longed to go back to Kashmir, I wanted to meet Iqbal, see my house, meet my neigbours, visit Mata Kheer Bhawani and do endless things. Finally my grandmother’s body could not handle the summer of Indian plains anymore and in the year 2000, she died a painful death, with rashes and boils all over her body. How much I wanted to take her ashes to Kashmir and immerse them in river Vitasta, but could not. And I don’t think I will be able to forgive myself for that.

I got married in 2003 and my job had taken me to a city in South India. And in Oct 2004, I and my wife decided to visit Kashmir. She along with her parents had migrated in January, 1990 and had not traveled back after that.

My travel agent booked our tickets. On d-day, we landed in Srinagar. My father-in-law’s friend, Bhan sahib, who had recently been transferred back to Srinagar, came to the airport to receive us. He straight away took us to his house where he lived on rent. He was now a tenant in the same house which he had owned pre-migration and was forced to sell it to manage the financial crisis post migration.

The journey from the airport to my father-in-law’s friend’s house was nostalgic. This was the same route I had taken 15 years back to go on a vacation. It took me 15 years to take the same route back. Tears started flowing from eyes. It was an outburst of emotion which I could not handle and neither wanted to handle. My wife and Bhan Sahib understood and did not try to stop me. The let the pent up emotions come out.

Next day, I woke up early in the morning and thanked God that there is no call for strike or protest. I wanted to see the house. Iqbal who was living in Srinagar, had promised to take me there. He arrived at After customary wishes with Bhan Sahab and my wife, he drove us to my house in his car.

15 years is a lot of time, things had changed. There was a new Rambagh bridge, many old buildings had vanished. The route seemed right but not the surroundings. A couplet from the movie Umrao Jaan was ringing in my ear “ye kis makaam par hayaat muz ko leke aa gaee, naa bas khushee pe hain jahaa, naa gam pe ikhtaiyaar hai’ (to what resting place has life brought me to, where I have neither command over joy, nor power over my sorrow?)

Finally I reached my house and raised my hand to ring the bell, a thought came to my mind “Who would believe I left my home as a traveler and returned back as a tourist”