Memories have a strange way of creeping up on you when you are least prepared, like the early morning snow after those dry gray cold days of Autumn in Kashmir. My autumn was always spent in Srinagar, as the days became shorter and people started deserting Kashmir for warmer Jammu. My valley was left alone for the chinar leaves, a gray sky and me. Often I would wear my duckback shoes, dress myself in multiple layers against the cold and start going up the Shankarachariya hill, I would stop at the point on the stairs where you could see the entire Dal Lake with its toy house boats and majestic hills at a distance. There, I would meditate and knowing that Vivekananda had perhaps meditated at the same place, I’d get goose pimples! My gaze would sweep across the expense from the serpentine Jhelum on my left, to Pari Mehal on my right; my mind was spread out in azure.
The walk down was actually a run, a flight, a soaring Johnathan Swift with duckback shoes! Even now, a few decades later, I still dream of that flight, a light hop off the rocks and a soft landing as I eye the roof of the Burn Hall School. I used to walk over to Shri Partap Museam Library and to the “elders section” where an elderly pious Muslim gentleman explained the allegory of “fever” in Tagore’s Geetanjali to me. I was a teenager with no friends, I was, as Naruda says, a soul clenched with sadness.
Dear reader, I was born and brought up in Kashmir and spent 20 long winters there... I was the pink-cheeked urchin you may have seen in the streets of downtown (ZainaKadal) with a torn “pheran” (a kind of winter gown) and the plastic shoes. It was me who jumped into the Jhelum for you to click a nice photo of the river, Shah Hamadan sahib’s khankhah (Shah Hamadan brought Islam to Kashmir in the 13th century / a common shrine of Hindu’s and Muslim’s in downtown Kashmir) and the old wooden bridge itself.
I felt one with the streams, the river at Pahalgam, the snow covered slopes at Gulmarg and those endless Shikara (a small boat) rides in Dal Lake was my temporal expression! I studied at the banks of Dal Lake and during the month of Ramazan, we’d walk down to the Hazratbal Shrine to idle away our time as our Muslim friends prayed.
”You are going to ask: and where are the lilacs?
and the poppy-petalled metaphysics?
and the rain repeatedly spattering
its words and drilling them full
of apertures and birds?
I'll tell you all the news.” – Neruda
So, my friends, one fine day we left our home, the home where I learnt my roller skating in the lobby, where my mother planted those Marigolds and I tasted my first icicle. I read my first Russell (“on Education”!), Gorky, Tagore, Marquez and Tolstoy. Those where the heady days! I fell in love and rose in unrequited desire. I wrote those long love letters in verse and smeared a few pages with the white rose and my blood. We didn’t have red roses in winter and I was reading Oscar Wilde. Those were the days of greatest hope and that was the winter of despair – 1990. It was a very plain “Leave within 24 hours, you traitors – Area Command - Hizbul Mujahideen” note. It was very economical in its expression, unlike our valley, which was overabundant.
Malyiva Nagar is a quasi slum in the southern part of multiple extensions of Delhi. A small service lane led to a heavy blue door with no door bell as you could knock at the window to draw the resident’s attention any time. A dented can of coke served as an ashtray and we discussed Darwin’s missive on love and our own interpretations of the glass bead game of life. Hesse or Plato, Neruda or Marquez, Naipaul or our own free verse, we were spoilt for choices to get drunk on... till we discovered Van Gogh ( letters/Irving Stone/prints..everything!)... a new bible was found for us Dubliners..
So I submit to you, the jury, an incomplete defense of our lives, you, the honorable ones! Of powdered wigs, authorized to judge and condemn with the shiver of a quill.
The prosecution has asked us the question: Why do u live? Kashmiri Pandits in exile...in nausea...
Honourable members, our case begs no mercy, but we beg understanding and warmth. It is not a cry for help nor a Abdul Gilanesque “Free Kashmir” slogan. Our split lives may have the iron of your warmth in our souls, as we bleed.... anywhere...