When a KP family visited Kashmir
Rakesh Roshan Bhat
We had planned, well in advance, the Kashmir trip in the month of May this year. I have been to Kashmir earlier too, a few times between 2000 to 2005. But this time I was really looking forward to the visit as my 7-year-old son also was going to see his real native place. I have had this sense of obligation that besides the material possessions that we would pass on to our children, it is our duty to also inculcate in them love for Kashmir. Not just that, more importantly also transfer the sense of loss of our home and roots that our generation has been carrying. Our exile didn’t reverse in 26 years. God knows how many more years or decades will it take; will it get reversed at all or not? But, if we manage to transfer the exile consciousness into children, our job is done from moral stand point.
I was accompanied by my wife, son and a group of my colleagues and their families from Mumbai. We were going directly to Srinagar and the rest of my family (my parents, brother and his wife) who were coming from Jammu were to join us in Srinagar.
Through a known contact in Jammu we had arranged a tempo traveler vehicle for my guests. I was very anxious as the experience of my guests would depend entirely on how this driver would be as a person and how he would treat them. I was relieved when I met him at the airport. His name was Gulzar and he received me and other guests very warmly. He was in mid-thirties and of very calm disposition. He assured me that he would make our trip safe and great. The driver of another vehicle, an Innova, which my parents were travelling in was a young Kashmiri Pandit from Jagti named Ravi.
As soon as we came out of Airport, we could breathe fresh air. Coming from Mumbai even my guests could tell the difference. The recent NIT row and Handwara firing episode had made me think even about cancellation of the trip but all those anxieties waned away once we came out of Srinagar airport. Everything looked normal, life as usual! I asked Gulzar the same and he said, “the media shows as if the whole Kashmir is burning. Even during Handwara episode, the rest of the Kashmir was normal”.
As we starting moving out of Airport towards Hotel Heemal in Dal Lake area, I asked Gulzar about the route we would take. “Of the many places, we would pass through, there would be Hyderpora too”, he said. I told him to show me Geelani’s residence. He did show me the same when we reached there. I was imagining going inside his home and confronting him. I asked Gulzar many questions regarding these separatists. Even though Gulzar might not have liked to answer all the questions, he still responded. He told me that each of these Separatists have a strong hold in their own respective areas only. Like Geelani has in Hyderpora, Yasin Malik has in Mysuma and so on. They have a specific set of followers who are at their beck and call. He said, “it is painful for them too (the ones who are not their staunch followers) during the days of protest”. “Mysuma”, he said, “becomes almost inaccessible for everyone. It is so unpredictable when the protests will erupt there. Normal people avoid going there”.
We reached Srinagar in the afternoon and my other guests checked in into Hotel Heemal near Dal Lake, I was amazed to find a liquor shop inside the Heemal hotel premises. There was a long queue to buy liquor which included mostly locals and it was just afternoon.
I thought “Since liquor is being sold, things seem to have really improved since last time”. But Gulzar was quick to add that terrorists have attacked this place thrice. I immediately corrected myself!
It was late afternoon and after some rest, we went out for a Shikara ride in the Dal lake. The shikara guys were quoting exorbitant rates for a short ride. Then I told them “B hasa chus batta t yim ch me guest.. Aissi t lagavvi yimai rate yim touristan chiv lagavan (I am a Kashmiri Pandit and these are my guests.. Do we also have to pay these exorbitant rates as you charge other tourists?)”. The expression on their faces was to be seen when they heard the word ‘Batta (Kashmiri Pandit)’. They did reduce the rates by half, almost. I decided to proclaim to everyone that I am a Batta, not for the discount but to see that expression of shock and amazement. I started chatting with one of the guys during the ride and got to know that he has two houses in Srinagar and a flat in Goa. Goa has become second home for many Kashmiri Muslims.
I thought, “They are free to roam and live anywhere in India but I cannot go to my original home which is just a few Kilometers from here in downtown Fateh Kadal”
When my rest of the family arrived in Srinagar, we went to Zethyar. We had booked a room there as my dad didn’t want to stay anywhere else except Zethyar. When I entered the room in Zethyar my eyes were moist with respect and gratitude for the people who have worked to make such facilities available there. It looks and feels like home in those hostile environs. Kudos to all those who managed to keep this place secured and built up all these facilities over these years. There was a huge group from South India continuously doing Hawan and chanting mantras. I was told by the Pujari ji that this group was from Kanchi Ashram and they come there every year for Hawan. They stay in Zethyar for 12 days for hawan and on last day then they go to Shankaracharya temple and from there itself they leave for their destination.
I thought, “Removal of Article 370 can make a lot of positive difference to Kashmir because of such cultural and spiritual exchange”
Coming from the concrete jungles of Mumbai, my son felt like Alice in wonderland as soon as he arrived in Kashmir. He was jumping and frolicking around in the lawns of Zethyar. Some elderly people watching him having a ball commented, “Voss gav yalla”. Watching him, I remembered my childhood, those early Thursday mornings in summer when I used to visit Zethyar with my parents. While I was lost in my thoughts, my son suddenly came to me and asked innocently, “This place is so beautiful. If you say we belong to this place, then we must have had a home here. Can we go to our home? It must be as beautiful and big as the houses we saw on the way from airport”. That question hit me like a bullet. I had no answer. I diverted his attention by throwing away the ball he was playing with.
I thought, “Home is not where one feels at home, home is what one believes is home. And, I still believe Kashmir is my home, so I have never felt at home anywhere else”
Next day, we started for Gulmarg. I chose to travel with my guests to show them around and also tell them more about Kashmir. I was loving the feeling that I was getting to flaunt my ownership of this place, though deep down I knew the ownership is not complete.
We passed through Lal Chowk, Batmaloo, Jahangir Chowk etc. and I was reliving my past. Gulzar was attending very well to us. We all were feeling very safe in his hands. From his conduct he appeared to be a moderate or so called secular Muslim who still believed in clichéd Kashmiriyat. I started narrating the story of Kashyap Rishi and origin of Kashmir to my guests. I told them about the rich and grand legacy of Kashmiri Pandits. Suddenly, I noticed a change of expression on Gulzar’s face. He was certainly not liking the fact that I was indirectly telling these non-Kashmiri guests that Kashmiri Pandits are the original inhabitants of Kashmir.
I thought, “If this is the reaction of a seemingly nice guy like him, how would other Muslims treat us if we ever return to Kashmir. Would we get to live freely as Hindu’s as we have been living in other parts of India post displacement?”
Our vehicles were moving almost together. I noticed our Innova was stopped every now and then for checking by traffic police but Tempo traveler was not. I asked Ravi the reason and he told me it was because Innova had Jammu registration number. He further added that vehicles from Jammu are always stopped and drivers are harassed whilst Kashmiri ones are not. So, as I had decided, I started telling the cops every time they stopped us, “Hey, aiss hassa ch batta.. Aiss ch yetki (We are Kashmiri Pandits and we are natives of Kashmir only)”. Surprisingly, after a quick inspection of our faces, they let us go everytime. I also made it a point to play Bajans loudly all through out. It gave me a high. For some reason, I felt a sense of triumph.
On the way to Gulmarg, my father remembered that there is Baba Reshi shrine nearby and he wanted to visit the place. I initially rejected the idea but then I thought it would be a good opportunity to see the reaction of people there. I told my family that we can go there only on one condition that we would not hide our Hindu identity and proudly display tilak etc. Surprisingly, they all readily agreed. When we entered the place it seemed everyone was watching us with shock and awe. We experienced no problem though. Some people talked to us nicely.
We soon reached Gulmarg. I had never been to Gulmarg earlier. So, I was awestruck when I saw the place. It was incredibly beautiful. The lush green meadows with snowcapped peaks in the background looked like a dream.
On the way back from Gulmarg, we stopped at tangmarg to return the snow shoes which we had rented from a shop there. My brother as usual told the shopkeeper, “ We are Kashmiri Pandits, Won’t we get any discount?” The reply of shopkeeper shook us. He said, “What discount? You guys should be penalized instead. You people have to pay the penalty for 25 years”. My brother is hot headed and he was about to retort back strongly but Ravi requested him to keep quiet and we left the place.
I thought, “Even if I assume most of the people are tolerant towards us here but what about the minority of extremists. They would always hate us. Even in 1990’s, not everyone was a terrorist but we were still thrown out”.
Because of the frequent disturbances in Lal Chowk many of the traders have shifted their businesses to the stretch before Tangmarg area. There are big and lavish showrooms around that place.
We then reached Pahalgam and spent 2 days there. Gulzar kept telling me that situation is now conducive for Pandits to return to valley. I realized that people in general have great regard for Mufti Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad for the work they have done during their respective tenures as Chief Minister of state. They like Modi but they don’t like BJP.
We met a wandering masseur in Pahalgam. He was from Bijbehra and had been working as a masseur in and around Pahalgam. I had a long chat with him and Gulzar. During the chat Masseur told Gulzar that Pandits have been getting cash relief all these years. Although Gulzar tried to hide but it was obvious that he was shocked. He said to Masseur, “I was never aware of this, Pandits have then hardly suffered. Displacement has been then a blessing in disguise for them”.
I thought,” I have travelled quite a lot by now and have seen no traces of poverty or misery anywhere. I could not find even a single old house. Everywhere there are new bungalow type houses. I had enquired with Gulzar and found out that even in hinterland it would cost anywhere between 30-50 lakhs to construct such houses. I thought of Jagti and other camps and our match box sized flats. Blessing in disguise, really!”
We went to Mattan also, infact twice, on the way back too. I was very curious to understand what happens to the fish when they die. What I came to know was a rather disturbing fact. The dead fish have to be removed manually. And, recently around 600 fish died due to some disease and the management had a tough time removing them. They were then buried in a nearby forest. The management was feeling very bad about it. They have strong attachment with them. Even we felt very bad. They appear to be more than just fish. There is definitely some divinity about them. We also saw the transit accommodation of Kashmiri Pandit employees near Mattan. Didn’t get any positive feeling about that place as well.
Next we went to Achabal. The road from Mattan to Achabal is majestic. There are walnut trees all around. We found some bee farming clusters. We also saw poppy fields. There were groups and groups of kids in Achabal who had come for school picnic. I could identify many spots when I dug into my memory, of those childhood picnic days.
Next stop was Nagdandi Ashram. I felt the same gratitude and respect for the management of this Ashram as I had felt for Zethyar. This is no mean feat having maintained this sacred place all throughout the years of turmoil. Sometime after we reached there, a big group of school children entered the Ashram. They started playing some games. I got talking to all the teachers and got to know they were from a nearby Convent school. They recited some pledges and prayers in English which were universal in nature.I felt relieved that there are still some schools like these left in valley. I also played games with the kids and then told them about the history of Ashram and Swami Vivekananda. Surprisingly, many knew lot of details about Swami Vivekananda. All the teachers and even some students too requested us to come to their homes for a cup of tea. I saw my wife who was talking to some female teachers crying while saying good bye. Even those teachers were crying.
I thought, “It is the right education which is the panacea for all the ills humanity is ailing with. And, by education I don’t mean only what is taught in schools but what is taught at home too. World would be such a wonderful place if we get educated in real sense. Education is not just degrees and certificates”
How can I not mention anything about the food? My Dad wanted to have food only at Hindu Dhabas or Hotels. Those were really hard to locate but somehow we managed. We can never forget the awesome food we had at Dana Pani in Pahalgam and Sharma ji ka daaba in Pampore. There is one very interesting thing that I noticed. Many hotels and dhabas owned by Muslims were offering pure veg food and were named as Jai Mata Di Hotel, Vishnu Hotel, Shiv Shankar pure veg dhaba and so on. Pure business, you see!
We came back to Zethyar in Srinagar and left for Jammu the next day. The Lower Munda and Qazi gund area is very beautiful
I thought, “This whole belt including Verinag could be a good alternative for a Homeland for us. The place is closer to highway and railway stations. It is very scenic. Sparsely populated, hence minimal displacement of existing inhabitants.”
Throughout the trip my son kept asking me, “Will we go to our home in Kashmir. When will we go?” I kept avoiding his questions. He was enjoying every bit of Kashmir. He was loving every part of Kashmir. I didn’t have heart to tell him, “we cannot go”. But when we started for Jammu in Zethyar, he confronted me and demanded from me, “why are we leaving Kashmir without visiting our home”. I had had no answer. I hugged him tightly and told him, “We will visit Kashmir again”. He looked at me and with divine innocence and said, “Forget the old home. Let us build a new home at some other nice location in Kashmir. Every part of Kashmir is so beautiful”. I said, “Tathastu. Till then we will keep coming to Kashmir as tourists”
Rakesh Roshan Bhat
The writer is a playwright and has written successful plays like Gaad Bateh, Ateet Ke Sakshi and Ek Aur Birbal. He can be reached on email@example.com for any feedback and comments
Dear Rakeshji, Really enjoyed reading your trip experience.After your visit I was part of the large group to Maej Kasheer alongwith the Acharya Abhinavgupta Millenial Sandesh Yatra, all the way from Tamil Nadu(South) to Srinagar after passing through various cities spreading message of our great ancestor Acharya Abhinavgupta & Kashmir Shaivism.
Added By ajay pandita
Very nice write up especially showing our presence and identity as Kashmiri Hindus.Also 20% muslim extremists decide the fate of all the 80% muslims and also the life of minorities.In 1990 if we people would have settled in Verinag(I belong to verinag) and adjoining areas,then we would have automatically got HOMELAND.
Added By Vikas Bhat
Homeland and only homeland is the answer.
Added By Tej Nath Kachroo
No way we can still live with Kashmiri muslims ever again. We all must get united and demand our homeland within Kashmir but ball must start rolling.
Added By Raj Ambardar