“One flew east, one flew west; one flew over the Cuckoo’s nest.”
The morning brings forth the chill in my soul. The memories are numb with overuse and are stretched over my body like the cloak of dark brooding angel of death. This cloak, on which you can see the face of my ancestors, of migrants, who traced the lines written in an enigmatic script, they trace it with their index finger, afraid that the sacred words might take flight. My ancestors were Kashmiri Pundits.
When the shadows of swords danced macabrely over our people, everyone kept quiet. That was the winter of 90, my last winter in the vale. A remarkably quiet winter that was!
“Jaago Jaago subah hui,
Islam ka parcham lehraya
Roos ke chakke chut gaye, Ab Hindustan kee baaree hai
That song echoed from all mosques and newly brought Maruti cars. The hot selling cassettes of these songs were clandestinely copied and distributed to the masses. We were afraid of our own shadows; we walked close to the boundary walls of the houses in the streets, lest we may be noticed. Pundits meeting in streets barely exchanged glances, playing a peek-a-boo of who- breaks-first. The listless tired eyes hid little. The notes were exchanged at the bakers shop in the mornings. Who fled the valley in the middle of the night, who got the threat letter and who was killed?
The winter brought the frost of its eastern winds to my heart. My love had left the valley too. Every other day, I walked to their empty house, to their barren fields. The first snow hid the decay of the untended land. The snow looked pristine, promising a new beginning. The reality of our gloomy daily lives mocked the fresh snow’s promise. I walked back to the only phone booth in the city, I called a number which no one picked. I counted the rings and somehow felt connected to the home, the hearth of my beloved. A phone ring echoed in a forsaken house as I looked out into the overcast skies.
The steps leading to the roof are covered with pigeon droppings, the TV tower built over the twin hill of the Shankerchariya is painted in red and white colours. Behind the TV tower is the snow covered range of the Zabarwan hills. I sit at the steps, holding onto the thick poplar wood beams that support the roof. The neighbourood is nearly empty, even the airhostess who I watched undress from this vintage point is no longer there! The neighbourhood bakers have fled too, seems, the daily updates of unfolding misfortune got them. Their cabbage patch is covered with snow; a few brown stems still standing up in defiance. The bucket hangs listlessly at the end of a rope near the well.
Every pundit house is Kashmir has its own “Ghar Divta”, a resident deity that embodies the house itself. It makes the brick and wood house: a living entity. On an auspicious day every year, a feast is organized in the honour of the deity, fresh fish is cooked and many delicacies are on the offering. The large bronze thaal is taken out from the large wooden trunk and the food is laid in it. The pattern is typical Kashmiri: All dishes are laid in a circle and in the centre is kept a mound of rice, a depression is created and vegetable gravy in placed in that depression. The thaal is left under the roof, near the gable, on a straw mat. Every year I strained hard to hear Ghar Divta’s steps and in my sleep, I did hear some. I was scared every time; somehow, I always felt reassured when I saw a few spilled grains of rice and bits of fish the next morning when we went to fetch the thaal. We felt secure that there are blessed powers that secure our homes.
We heard the loud reports of the Enfield guns firing, interspersed with a burst of fire from AKs, the Kalashnikovs, as they are known in Kashmir. The Enfield 303s sounded like large snooker balls colliding and the AKs sounded like a chattering merciless typewriter typing out death warrants. 303 fires never lasted long. The brooding night was still young when a racket erupted. All houses seemed to come alive, everyone in the neighbourhood was on their roofs banging metal utensils or their tin roofs.
“Hum kya Chahte: Azaadi”, “Aye Zaalimo, Aye Kaafiro, humara Kashmir chod do”.
Kashmiri Pundits had no idea of the plan, every Kashmiri Muslim house erupted with this spine chilling noise.
In next few days, most KPs had fled the valley. We stayed on. Not because we were more patriotic than others; dad couldn’t believe it was happening! He had run down the orchard at Karan Mehal right from the Mehal to the Dal lake. He told me that he flew down, his feet hardly touched ground. He was staying with Laxman joo, the saint. Laxman joo himself blessed dad! Dad wasn’t going to be believe that we have been disenfranchised in a matter of weeks. He would sit by the window, in his pheran with a kangri between his legs to keep himself warm. He would keep looking at the Chinar branches as they traced the skies with tender, curvy white lines. He would watch snowfall for hours without blinking, or so I thought.
Our house was near a Shamshan bhoomi, it was the nearest one to the military station near the town. Any hindu/sikh policeman/armyman killed in encounter with militants was brought to the place to cremate. Every day we saw an increasing number of gun salutes and funeral pyres, sometimes quite late in the night as well. Brother was in Army, a newly inducted commando in the infantry, stationed in Kashmir. His best friend was an engineer at the local municipal agency. The engineer had turned to militancy. Brother would hastily visit us, mostly in evenings and I could catch his nervous voice when he said his byes to me and sister. His was to hope in face of despair.
The winter dragged on like a defeated man’s tale. Chillay Kalan came and went, Chillay Kharud froze us to bone and Chillay Bacche was not kind either. By the time last leg of the winter came, Kashmir was grey with frozen snow and dirt. My last visit to Dal Lake was in order, I knew that we’d move soon. I walked from my home to the lone phone booth, and, then, with heavy steps towards the point where Dal Lake meets Jhelum river, aptly called: Dal Gate! I walked to the Shenkarchariya ghat and sat on the green bench overlooking my Dal.
Do phones still ring in forsaken houses there?