What can I tell you about the women of Kashmir?
You, who read this, will already have a procession of images in your head.
Maybe you will think of the famous women poets, sages and mystics of Kashmir: of Lal Ded and Habba Khatoon, of Arnimal, of Rupa Bhawani. Their memory lives in their verses, born out of love and suffering. Renouncing the entrapments of convention, these women seekers have marked their words in the hills and shrines of Kashmir, and in the hearts of Kashmiris.
Maybe you will think of the women rulers of Kashmir, from a thousand to some hundred years ago; of Queen Didda, of Kota Rani. Women who led extraordinary lives, wielding power and making rules.
But these are the epic women of history books.
Perhaps you have visited Kashmir on a honeymoon or as a tourist, maybe you have seen famous Bollywood movies like ‘Kashmir Ki Kali’ (the flowerbud of Kashmir), or more recent ones like Mission Kashmir. In this case, you will associate women and Kashmir with beauty; heroines like Sharmila Tagore, Saira Banu, or Preity Zinta who played charming Kashmiri women on screen. Clad in pherans, wearing beautiful jewellery, carrying flowers, singing songs, and dancing on shikaras, these characters represent a desirable, innocent, irresistible beauty that stands for the appeal of ‘Kashmir’ as a place in the romantic imagination. This rosy-cheeked and fair beauty stereotype of Kashmiri women is one reason why many heroines in Indian cinema claim, or have, a connexion to Kashmir.
But, these are the wonderful women of the silver screen.
You may be someone who cannot help but see the women of Kashmir for who they are: the women in Kashmir. The women academics, doctors, artists, politicians, activists – the women who strive to make progress in their chosen fields. The ones who work alongside the men to address other people’s problems through their work. The women fighters of Kashmir have held guns and fought alongside the men in the struggles of the early 1930s, they have pelted stones against injustice in the more recent uprisings of 2008 and 2010.
You must know that the women of Kashmir today are also the women victims of mass rapes in villages whose names have become shorthand for un-investigated crimes. The women of Kashmir are the tens of thousands of widows and half-widows; wives of killed and disappeared men, as well as mothers and grandmothers of missing children. Vulnerable, often impoverished, the sorrows, struggles, and humiliation of these women of Kashmir are a catalogue of charges against the occupation of Kashmir.
What can I tell you of the women of Kashmir?
You who can pick up the kingly threads of antiquity in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, and open the chapters titled ‘women of kashmir’ in the thick volumes of country and people surveys written by European administrators, scholars and explorers in earlier days and by Indian pedants in more recent times. These chapters narrate the gathered facts in a ‘life of the natives’ style, and contain a survey of what the women wore, and how their births or marriages were celebrated.
I have no such claim to encyclopedism. I represent only my memory. I am a woman. I am Kashmiri.
So, let me tell you about an ancestor of mine: ‘Dedi’, the oldest real-life Kashmiri woman that I know of, but never met, and who is forever stored as an image in this one photograph that comes to my mind when I think of the women of Kashmir.
Today, it is a quiet wintry evening in the corner room of a big city. I am an entire continent away from Srinagar. Kashmir is on my mind.
I climb up on a large table to reach for a blue plastic bag which is carefully stowed away in a ceiling locker. A broken bone in my arm, I wince in some pain as I lift the torn dog-eared albums out of the bag stuffed with faded black and white pictures and find the one I am looking for.
As I said, I never saw Dedi in real life, we are separated by almost a century. I hold her image in view, peering at her, trying to glean something more from the only picture that exists of her. In my recollection, she is always old, always toothless, and always with a utensil. It is a strange pose to be photographed in.
I am struck by the difference between Fred Bremner’s well-known early 20th century photograph of ‘A Punditani (Hindu) Kashmir’, and the portrait of ‘Dedi’. Both the pictures date back to a similar era. The imperial British photograph has a rather well-dressed woman, her gaze averted from the viewer, reclining in a regal pose with her dezhors (hanging ear ornaments) in clear view. Dedi, on the other hand, is barefoot, looking at the lens, gripping a large metal utensil with both her hands. Of course, we know that ‘the typical’, ‘the average’, ‘the ideal type’ and ‘the characteristic’ are very different epistemological categories. What a subaltern flesh and blood Kashmiri Pundit woman was, in terms of her looks and her life, is often not the stereotyped image handed down to us through the grand narrative of official history; in other words, representation is also politics by other means.
Dedi’s photograph is undated. In those days, nobody remembered the calendar date or the numerical year when someone was born in Kashmir. Events like births, marriages, and deaths were recalled by older women who had an elephant’s memory; if asked about when something happened, they would think aloud and conjecture on the basis of what happened around that time, was it after or before some other event or something else that had happened to another.
This subjective time-keeping of these older women of Kashmir is related to the fabulous and peculiar way in which memory functioned in their universe. An elderly woman from Srinagar, a relative, who came to Delhi in the late 1980s/early 1990s and still lives in a mythic, if unchallenged, Kashmir that she has always carried around her – what she eats, how she dresses, the specific strong accent of her old style Kashmiri speech – has a sense of time that allows her to recall the specifics of ‘chillai kalaan’ (harsh winter period) and each detail of daily life in old Kashmir including every in/auspicious marking of the lunar calendar. As she sat on the charpoy in the balcony, taking in the afternoon sun in Delhi one December, I listened to her tell me about her Kashmir. She sang old Kashmiri songs with my grandmother, songs which mean little to the generations after them. Being semi-literate at best, they have a treasure of folk wisdom and oral memory that will die with them. The nostalgia of these old women of Kashmir who have not lived there for a time now, is of a specific texture – it is a quotidian yearning for a way of life, a smell of bread, a kind of cooking pot, a change of the seasons, a form of the family, a community, a familiarity. In a certain (always already problematic) sense, one might call it a ‘feminine nostalgia’. When I asked these old women keepers of bygone Kashmiri memory the political question of what they thought had happened to Kashmir, to the idea of Kashmir, their answer was one flat word ‘Trath’. A thunderbolt curse had happened to Kashmir. That was all.
I did not grow up in Kashmir. I grew up in Kashmir.
Kashmir was a place etched in my imagination, every morning and evening, by the stories, artifacts and rituals that surrounded me.
Melancholic nostalgia for a never forever homeland is an awkward inheritance for a young girl. Yet, this is exactly what my forbears bequeathed me. My grandfather left Srinagar for Lahore, my father left Srinagar for Simla, both ended up in Delhi eventually. These men, now dead, whom I loved immeasurably (if only because their love toward me was absolutely unconditional; I simply had to be, in order to be loved), and who did not see eye to eye on many things, never let me feel that Kashmir was anywhere ‘away’. They had ‘left’ Kashmir (there were several other relatives who ‘had to leave’ Kashmir) and like most in exile, Kashmir was central to their words, thoughts, memories, and dreams.
I heard stories: for every season, with every meal, at every festival, every time there was a power blackout, every night that I couldn’t sleep. These stories mapped a city that I physically remembered from very early childhood (and later went to as an adult), and what always stood out for me from among the ‘Srinagar tales’ I’d hear (which comprised of family relations, historical background, political incidents, local legends, folk beliefs, and other miscellanea of baked breads and mischief), was this one great grandmother woman figure: ‘Dedi’.
My mother was pregnant twice after giving birth to me; she miscarried once, and the second time my sister was born. I was excited to have the girl sibling I had been praying for, but also interested to hear that she may be ‘Dedi’ reincarnated (Dedi had promised that she would be reborn as a daughter in the family). Many Kashmiris would have thought us crazy, of course, to wish for a girl. Preference for the male child is quite a universal norm, moreover, there are specific customs that associate women with ill luck. It is, for example, seen as inauspicious to begin a journey or go out if there is a woman coming from the opposite direction (the ‘Zanaan Zang’).
As children we would recite the names of our ancestors, saying them in a sing-song tone like they were a multiplication table we were learning: so-and-so’s father was so-and-so. I would pause, in the manner of stubborn children, and ask my grandfather why we didn’t know any women? Who were these men’s wives? What families did they come from? What about their siblings? Well, the fact was that social memories followed the patrilineal norms. The names of male ancestors went back seven generations, if you took the women into account, I would know two generations, plus Dedi, because she was special.
I do know that the first adjective used about her was always ‘pious’. She went to the Hari Parbat to pray every morning, fasted frequently, coped with the demands of a forty person joint family household and a difficult husband. She awoke well before dawn, took a dip in the river, cooked and cleaned, sewed, stitched, and embroidered, and unfailingly, sacrificed for others. Steadfast to routine, in spite of age and infirmity, she insisted on fasting and going to the river, and caught her death from pneumonia.
Memory is not a tabula rasa, it is an active amalgam of sensation, experience, hearing and retelling, so I cannot be sure what part of my memories about Dedi belong to her son, and what to her grandson.
But, one image always stands apart. It is a longago time, in the kitchen of a large carved wooden house near a river in Srinagar, there is a row of men and boys sitting down to dinner on the ground with their backs to the wall. They have their plates directly in front of them, and each can observe the extra helpings to others. They are all served meat over the rice. The patriarch of the house will not tolerate any leniency or favours to the children. Dedi’s favourite child – son? grandson? – often finds that there is the secret treat of extra meat carefully hidden under the mound serving of rice on the metal plate. Having little resources of her own, this small generosity, a gesture of love, is all that Dedi could do on some days.
I really cannot tell you anything about the women of Kashmir.
Dr. Nitasha Kaul is originally from Kashmir, now living in London. She is a writer, poet, traveler, photographer and academic with previous publications in a wide variety of areas related to the central theme of identity. She has a joint PhD in Economics and Philosophy and is the author of “Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference” (Routledge India, 2008). Currently at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, her next book is on the democratic transition in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. Her stories, articles, poems are published in Times of India, The Guardian, Outlook India, Kulturaustausch, Economic and Political Weekly, Edinburgh Journal, UPI Asia, Cambridge Journal of Economics, Rethinking Marxism, South Asian Review among others. She has read her poetry in public and traveled to over forty countries across four continents taking pictures of quirky streetscapes. Her first novel is titled “Residue”. Can be reached at www.nitashakaul.com
Photos: Fred Bremner/Lahore (Top left),