….and an earlier time when the flowers were not stained with blood, the moon with blood clots!
- Pablo Neruda, ‘Oh, My Lost City’
Arthur Anthony MacDonnell, the great professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, once remarked, ‘History is the one weak spot in Indian literature. It is, in fact, non-existent.’
……Lal Ded, Kashmir’s revered poetess-saint:
Shiv chhuy thali’e rozaan
Mo zaan Hyon’d tey Musalmaan
God pervades every particle, every being
Don’t distinguish between a Hindu and a Muslim
In 1948, the Kashmiri political leader Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, who had been a strong proponent of Dogra rule in Kashmir, made his pact with India by standing next to Jawaharlal Nehru and reciting a Persian couplet: ‘Mann tu shudi, tu mann shudi. Ta kas na goyed. Man degram tu degri.’ (I became you and you became me, so nobody can think of us as separate.)
But this bonhomie was shortlived. The relationship …..soured…..Sheikh Abdullah would also direct his bitterness towards the Pandits, a community to which his own grandfather belonged, before he converted to Islam. He would tell Pandits: ‘Raliv, Chaliv, ya Galiv’ (Be one among us, flee, or be decimated)
Depicting the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats, Spiegelman asks his father how it felt to be in the Auschwitz concentration camp. His father startles him by producing a loud ‘Boo!’ and says ‘it felt a little like that. But always!’ That is how we felt on the night of January 19.
At the blue gate, Father stopped and turned back. He looked at the house. Looking back, there was a sense of finality in his gaze. There were tears in his eyes. Ma was calm. Satish stood next to me. Nobody uttered a word. Before we moved on, Father recited something that I remember well. The howling of a dog near one’s house was believed to be a bad omen. So if it happened, the occupants uttered: Yetti gach, yeti chhuy ghar divta (Leave from here, O misfortune, this house is guarded by the deity of the house.)
Women had been herded like cattle into the backs of trucks. ….In one of the trucks, a woman lifted the tarpaulin sheet covering the back and peered outside. There was nothing peculiar about her except the blankness in her eyes. They were like a void that sucked you in. Years later, I saw a picture of a Jewish prisnor in Auschwitz. When I saw his eyes, my mind was immediately transported to that day, and I was reminded of the look in that woman’s eyes.
Years later, I saw Father reading a report on the slain Ehsan Jafri, brutally done to death by a Hindu mob in Ahmedabad’s Gulbarg Society, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. As I sat next to him, I read how Jafri had nurtured a nest of barn swallows in his room and to protect them, he would not even switch on the ceiling fan. That day I realized that my Father had gifted me something invaluable. Something that enabled me to calmly face an uproariously drunk army general one night in a television news studio. We were there to debate human rights violations in Kashmir and I pointed out that there needs to be zero tolerance towards such crimes. ‘How can you say that?’ he barked. ‘It is they who have forced you out of your homes, turning you into refugees.’
I looked him in the eye and said: ‘General, I’ve lost my home, not my humanity.’
…We also counted the number of times we had shifted house since the day we left home.
It roughly came to around twenty. It may have been even twenty-two times, the same as the number of rooms in our house that Ma talked continually about.
‘You have had no source of income for months now,’ he would continue. ‘This is all I can offer you for your house. I know it is worth much more, but these are difficult times even for us.’
If you relented, he would pull out a wad of cash.
‘Here, take this advance. Oh no, what are you saying? Receipt? You should have hit me with your shoe instead. No receipt is required. I will come later to get the papers signed.’
He would also forcibly leave a hundred-rupee note in your son’s hands and leave. A few days later, a neighbor would come around and ask ‘Oh, Jan Mohammed was here as well?’
‘His son has become the divisional commander of Hizbul Mujahideen,’ the neighbor would inform you.
Most of us did not have a choice. By 1992, the locks of most Pandit houses had been broken. Many houses were burnt down. In Barbarshah in old Srinagar, they say, Nand Lal’s house smouldered for six weeks. It was made entirely of deodar wood.
Sometime ago, in September 2012, I meet an old Pandit scholar in Srinagar who never left Kashmir. He was abducted by militants three times but always returned unscathed…. He tells me about an incident that occurred in 1995…..he was stopped by a Muslim professor he knew. ‘What are you doing here? Go to Bae’bdaem, some very rare books stolen from Pandit houses have been put for sale there,’ he told him……in a shed, a boatman had put thousands of books and rare manuscripts on sale for twenty rupees per kilo. The shed swarmed with foreign scholars from Europe. The boatman spotted him. ‘You look like a Pandit, are you?’ he asked. ‘Then your rate is different; it is thirty rupees.’
….. The scholar picked up whatever he could, including a fifteenth-century Sanskrit commentary on the verses of Lal Ded and Maheshwarnanda’s Maharathamanjari.
I visited Talwindi Salem, where Paash had lived and were he was killed by Sikh extremists some years ago. In his house, I saw the table on which he had scribbled: Know what how why. That round mass of white light inside my chest turned brighter.
….Paash’s immortal lines –
Sabse khatarnaaq hota hai/murda shaanti se bhar jaana
Na hona tadap ka/sab kucch sehan kar jaana
Ghar se nikalna kaam par/aur kaam se lautkar ghar aana
Sabse khatarnaaq hota hai/ humare sapnon ka mar jaana
It’s most dangerous/ to be filled with the silence of a corpse
To not feel anything/ to tolerate everything
To leave home for work/ and to return home from work
It’s most dangerous/ when our dreams die
But I could never get myself to take that final plunge. I isolated a portion of my heart. I kept in it things I would share with no one. Like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s lines in Bandit Queen: Khud se kahi jo kahi, kahi kisi se bhi nahi (What I said to myself, I told no one)
…Ravi left Jammu with two other Pandit colleagues for Gool …..Just before Gool, the bus comes to a halt and armed men enter. They have specific information about three Pandits on board the bus. Ravi knows what this means. He hugs the other two men. They are asked to step out of the bus, which leaves without them. Ravi tries to fight the men. He is hit in the face. All three of them are shot. ……
….Ravi is dead. My brother is dead, my hero is dead.
After Ravi’s death, things fall apart. The family began to disintegrate. In a few months, Asha [Ravi’s wife] shifted elsewhere with Shubham. Ravi’s mother spent the hours endlessly watching television. She refused to take medicines for her diabetes and high blood pressure. A crazy restlessness crept into Ravi’s father. He would visit us sometimes in Deli, making an overnight journey, and after an hour or two had passed, he would get up and say he wanted to go back. It would take us hours to convince him to stay for at least one day.
[Ravi’s father says]
…Sometimes, when I am alone, I almost hear Arnimal sing her lines to me: Lass’e kami’e hawasay, maazas gaum basbasay. There is no reason for me to live, I am just withering away.
Mohini, my wife, lives with me in a refugee settlement. She deserves a medal for living. One of her kidneys is damaged. She is diabetic. She has lost vision in her right eye.
After Ravi’s death, I cannot stay in one place for long. I go and visit my daughter in Chandigarh. No sooner have I removed my shoes then I have this urge to run away. I go to my sister’s house in Delhi. But from there as well, I feel like running away. It is only here, in the one-room dwelling of this refugee settlement, that I accept my destiny.
….It is said that the heaviest load in this universe is that of a father carrying his son’s body. Ask me, I have carried it myself and my shouders are still bent……
…… ‘Everything has been reduced to ashes, Damodar,’ he cried.
The fire had spread in our locality after the invaders had entered and killed two sons of one of our neighbours. The boys had been asked to recite the Kalma by the marauders, but they had refused. The tribesmen had then shot them both. Their mother had then asked her husband to carry their bodies to the kitchen to be cremated. The parents chose to burn alive with their dead son. The fire soon engulfed the house and then spread to the entire locality.
My mother could no longer stand on her feet. She sat on the road and sobbed. ….. On both sides of the street, houses were reduced to burnt stubs…… And then we stood in front of what used to be our house. It had been devastated in the fire as well. ….All our belongings had been looted. ….My father walked slowly, as if he were walking in his sleep….he started rummaging through the debris. He was searching for something….. He upturned bricks, stones and burnt wood. Finally he broke down. After a while, he paused and looked at me. He wiped his tears, ‘I was looking for your grandfather’s chillum. That is the last thing he touched before he left us.’
‘…..Maqbool Sherwani is dead.’ ….When he learnt about the tribal invasion, Sherwani rode out on his horse, going from village to village, urging people, particularly the Pandits, not to leave ….when it became clear that the lives of many people were in jeopardy because thousands of tribesmen were approaching, he decided to sabotage their advance. ….Sherwani misguided the tribals, causing them to lose crucial time. But eventually ….they …..captured him. He was dragged to a hillock where nails were hammered into his hands. …… ‘Victory to Hindu-Muslim unity,’ Sherwani had shouted. A squad of invaders pumped bullets into his body……
…..The tribesmen converted Baramulla’s cinema hall into a rape house. Hundreds of women were taken there and raped. Some of them were later abducted and taken to Rawalpindi and Peshawar and sold like cattle. Many women had jumped into the Jhelum to save their honour.
…..The tribal raid of 1947 destroyed many lives…..
There had been mass conversions during the tribal raid. At several places, the invaders had herded Pandits to a ground where, like their ancestors from Afghanistan who ruled Kashmir once, they slaughtered a calf, cooked it and forced the Pandits to eat it, and then read the Kalma while cutting their sacred thread.
Conservative estimates suggest that thousands were converted forcibly to Islam. Most of them were later reconverted to Hinduism through the efforts of Pandit saints …..and social reformers….
A few in Sopore and elsewhere refused to reconvert to Hinduism. They had lost all hope. ‘What if the savages come back?’ they asked.
Dr Razdan looked at my father and said – I have bad news. Ma, he told us, was suffering from a rare neurological disorder called motor neurone disease. She would lose her voice completely, and soon she would be restricted to bed. Her muscles would weaken one by one and then she would even lose her ability to swallow food……
After she developed this condition, I thought it was imperative that we at least have a house of our own. So I booked a flat in a Delhi suburb and I took Father to have a look …..he checked everything thoroughly. The first thing he did, of course, was to turn on the tap. ‘Oh,’ he smiled, ‘running water.’
A few months later, we shifted house. On a wheelchair, I gave Ma a tour of the entire house. When we entered the kitchen, she was overcome with emotion. She cried a lot.
Over the last few years, I have often thought about exile, and about the exiled Pandit families…. I began to worry that the story of our community would be lost in the next few decades….It is people from my father’s generation who know how to consult an almanac and keep track of festivals and the death anniversaries of ancestors. They created mini Kashmirs wherever they settled. But after them, there will be nobody left to remember. We are losing our tradition, our links to the place where we came from. This is evident during weddings, or when someone dies. Tradition is like an embarrassing grandparent who needs to be fed and put back to bed in a back room.
‘The house was in very bad condition,’ the man says. ‘When we shifted the walls were crumbling; we had to spend a lot of money on renovation.’
Sir, quote a price and I will buy it from you right away. Bad condition! Do you, sir, even realize what it means for me to be sitting in this house? This house built with my father’s Provident Fund savings and my mother’s bridal jewellery; this house where my mother sat on her haunches and mopped the long, red-cemented corridor each morning; the house we left forever to become refugees and court suffering and homelessness.
In the 1941 census, Kashmiri Pandits constitute about 15% of the Kashmir Valley’s population. By 1981, they were reduced to a mere 5%.