Sunday, February 23, 2020

On exodus day, a Kashmiri Pandit who did go back to Kashmir writes

Letter to the ones who tweet #AAPKASWAGATHAI

I am a 21-year-old Kashmiri Pandit who went back to my ancestral home for the first time back in June last year. It is important to mention the month and my age so you know, I was not alive during the exodus. I was born in Jammu. I did not visit after the dilution of 370 when things were already tense in the valley. I went when everything actually was normal.

Not surprisingly, it was my first trip to Kashmir itself. My parents had told me numerous stories of how beautiful the valley was, of my home surrounded by walnut trees. But after the exodus, they had never gone back to see what had happened to their home, nor had they allowed me to do so.

But I was curious and now, being a journalist, I had an opportunity to visit my actual home. If nothing, I just wanted to capture whatever remained of my home so I could show it to my father. My excitement way beyond words when I stood before the infamous Jawahar Tunnel. I had known seen, time and again on television that things on the other side of the tunnel were quite different. But for me, Kashmir was home. Despite not having seen it, I had always dreamt of it. I spoke the language, I had lived in the Kashmiri culture. Even in Jammu, the house my parents had made and raised me in was a replica of what I assumed Kashmir would have been like.

We still sat on the carpeted floor, drank nun chai, talked to each other in Kashmiri. It was like my parents had left Kashmir but Kashmir hadn’t left them. The moment I saw the valley for the first time, I was speechless. I kept repeating the same words over and over again because I was overwhelmed.

However, the real shock was a reality check that I got when I reached the heart of Kashmir – Srinagar city. I was a Kashmiri first, then if particular identification was needed, I was a Kashmiri Pandit. But for the people of Srinagar city, I was a Kashmiri Pandit first, and then perhaps, one of their own. I was expecting people to be so welcoming. I spoke to everyone in Kashmiri only. I did not want to miss out on a single thing. I did not want them to feel I was an outsider. I, myself, did not want to feel that I was there for the first time. It was my home.

But despite having told almost everyone that I was a Kashmiri Pandit, visiting Kashmir for the first time, trying to find my ancestral home, I felt like a guest in my homeland. People were nice, but not curious about me. They smiled at me but did not ask me to sit with them, talk to them.

Even in my hometown  Manigam, I had troubles finding my home because people would just tell me the directions. No one moved ten steps to show me where it actually was. All the images and videos I had seen of Kashmiri Pandits going back home and the residents of the place embracing them, being glad that they were back, hugging them felt so fake to me during that time. Because none of it happened with me.

It was another Kashmiri Pandit who had started building his house back again in the same place who took me to my home. It was right next to a stream. When I saw the condition of my house which had been turned into a cattle-shed by the neighbours, I had tears in my eyes. There was nothing left of the home my father and grandfather had built through their hard work. What could I show my father? What would I tell him? I understood, then, why he never came back to Kashmir. And I left the place thinking, that I will never be able to live in Kashmir again. I can go back there, stay there temporarily. Yes, it is still my homeland. But the home I should have had but never even got to see before it was destroyed will never be rebuilt the same way.

And so, this letter is to the ones who are tweeting today and say time and again that we are welcome in the valley. I came. You were accommodating, not welcoming. You were hospitable enough as if I was a guest. You did not treat me as if I was the daughter of the same land.

Or perhaps I met all the wrong people. My neighbour, the old chacha who knew my grandfather and father back when they lived in Kashmir, the locals of Manigam, the woman who told me the directions of my home after hearing my father’s name. They recognised who I was without having met me. But they did not care whether or not I reached the home I was seeking to find.

#HumWapasAyenge but not until the people of Kashmir convince themselves that they do want us to come back. Being a minority in Kashmir, and one that recalls the horrors of the exodus, we cannot tolerate a repetition of it. No government can send us back. Only a single united voice in Kashmir can bring us back.

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