At his office in a western suburb of Mumbai, while sipping his daily cup of kehwa, Kashamendra Ganjoo recalls homeland.
Ganjoo, now 63, grew up in his five storey home in Barbar Shah, Srinagar before his family had to leave in the 1990s. He still harbours a desire to return to his home. “Kashmir is never out of my mind. It is always in my memory. It is part of every breath I take. It defines me. It would complete me,” Ganjoo says, poignantly. “But, it is impossible to go back. Too much time has passed, too much has changed. Kashmir has changed. Kashmiriyat has been shaken.”
My first introduction to this sense of longing was through someone who had never actually lived in the valley, but was a Kashmiri Pandit and felt a deep desire to keep going back to the valley; my grandmother. Being the maverick and daredevil that she is, she would often take off to spend time in the valley, with contemptuous disregard for her health. For as long as I can remember, visiting the Amarnath Shrine and the Kheer Bhawani temple in Ganderbal District, near Srinagar have been a part of her annual plans (owing to her health and thankfully for us, those plans seldom materialized).
In recent years, she has lost her eye sight, her hearing ability, has a serious heart condition and is barely able to walk, yet she harbours the desire to visit Kashmir one last time (plausible in her mind). Despite not having lived in Kashmir, she felt a sense of belonging to the valley. She would often say that she felt at home in the valley. For me, it was a strange notion of connection and belonging, one that I did not understand at all for a long time, and perhaps one that I will never be able to comprehend entirely.
That being the starting point, I spoke to Kashmiri Pandits outside of my family to understand their association with Kashmir as of today and their notion of home. During the course of a long conversation with Ravi Kemmu over a wide range of topics, I noticed that an otherwise strong and forceful voice would turn slightly brittle when he spoke about his ancestral home in Habbakadal, Srinagar.
While shooting for the popular TV series ‘Gul Gulshan Gulfam’ in 1989, he and the crew received a series of threats from militants which could no longer be ignored. His son, who was 6 years old at that time, survived a bomb blast next to their home. These incidents compelled the family to leave their home and move. After 26 years, his emotional connection has not changed, ‘Wo ghar aaj bhi mere sapno mein aata hai. Kann-kann se juda hua hun,” he exclaims poignantly.
It was in 2007 that Kemmu went back to his home for the first time since 1989 and it was at the insistence of his daughter. He had been to Srinagar a couple of times before this but could not muster the courage to visit his home as he knew it would be difficult emotionally. His daughter was born in this house and was 6 months old when they left. He showed her around the house, pointed out the various rooms; his room, the room where he used to study, his grandmother’s room. He describes to me the splendour of the 200 year old ancestral home, ‘purane zamane ke darwaze the, har darwaze mein se alag awaz ati thi. Nakkashi kari hui khidkiyan, tarah tarah ke partitions, wall paintings, khaas bartan’, pauses for a second and exclaims mournfully ‘Sab khatam!’ It was a painful experience, ‘Going back was tough, my wife cried. I managed to compose myself somehow,” he says.
Kemmu visits Kashmir regularly now, “I make excuses to visit Kashmir.” He like most other people, does not approve of Kashmiri Pandits being referred to as migrants. “Migration is voluntary and a migrant can go back if he so chooses. I cannot go back even if I want to, I feel like a refugee.” Despite all these years and the suffering, for Kemmu, Kashmir is still home.
A similar feeling is echoed by Chand Dar, a Kashmiri pandit who has been living in Mumbai for the last 30 years. He says, “I hope that I am able to go to Kashmir and spend my last years there.” He remembers the togetherness and Kashmiriyat fondly, “In my childhood, we used to live in harmony. Hindus and Muslims were friends, we used to eat together, celebrate festivals together. If there was a wedding in the house, our Muslim neighbour would offer all kind of help, including the use of their house.” But he is quick to warn, “Maybe the next generation will not relate with this connection between the two communities. They have never seen it and it would sound unbelievable to them.”
Siddhartha Gigoo, along with Varad Sharma recently co-edited the book ‘A long dream of home’, an anthology of memoirs and personal narratives of Kashmiri Pandits who had to leave their homes. Gigoo spent the first 15 years of his life in Nawa Kadal, Srinagar before his family had to flee in 1990. In his memoir ‘Season of Ashes,’ Gigoo writes movingly about his grandparents and the longing they felt for their motherland. He writes about this one time when he had gone to Kashmir in 2010, and had not told his grandmother.
When she found out, she spoke to him on the phone and said “you did not tell me that you were going home.” He was surprised that his grandmother still referred to Kashmir as home, after 25 years of exile and no real hope of going back ever again. During a recent conversation, I asked Gigoo whether he felt like he had gone home. “No way! It was like looking from a distance at something which is lost, helplessly. I felt like a tourist, walking around, clicking pictures and going back,” he responded.
For him, it is Delhi which has come to be home and the only thread that connects him to Kashmir today are the memories of his grandparents. “When people ask me where I am from, I do not say Kashmir,” he says. “I do not have that sense of belonging to Kashmir. But, my grandparents, if they were alive, would even today say that they belong to Kashmir.”
Another pandit, Sushant Dhar, was two years old when his family had to leave their home in Anantnag. During the last 26 years, he and his family have shifted from one ‘migrant’ camp to another in Jammu. They have lived and survived in sub human conditions of the ‘migrant’ camps. They lived in small one room tenements with make-shift bathrooms and toilets, the conditions of which were abhorrent. Dhar has recently secured a job under a Central Government scheme providing employment to Kashmiri Pandits and will be posted in Anantnag. But, he will be living in a separate colony for Kashmiri pandits guarded by the CRPF.
Going back to Kashmir does not quite feel like a home coming to him, “For me, Kashmir is not home and Jammu cannot be home either, because Kashmir is there. I know it is absurd, but that is how it is,” he says. Having grown up among Kashmiri Pandits but outside the valley, has perhaps resulted in him being torn between the strong sense of Kashmiri identity but a lack of belonging to a particular place. He believes that the sense of identity too will fade away. “One generation has lived in exile. Slowly, the culture and traditions will also fade away as we continue to live in exile,” he says.
Karn Kher, a Kashmiri Pandit who was two years old when his family left the valley, talks about the complexity of the notion of belonging for Kashmiri Pandits. “I don’t know what home is. When people ask me ‘where do you come from?’ I do not have an answer and I struggle to explain why I do not have an answer because it’s not even clear in my own head,” he says.
When I speak to Rishabh Kaul, who was born in 1988 to Kashmiri Pandit parents in Chandigarh and was brought up in Hyderabad, I notice a distinction emerging between the sense of identity and the sense of belonging. “I have been to Kashmir four times in the last ten years,” he tells me. “I love spending time there. The mountains, the lakes, the green apple orchards. It is scenic and refreshing.” But he does not feel that he belongs there, “I know that a very significant part of me is from Kashmir, but I relate to Andhra more than I can with Kashmir,” says Kaul.
Having been to Kashmir many times he knows the place quite well, but if he were to take a group of friends from Hyderabad to Kashmir, it would not be as if he had brought them home. “I would feel like I have brought them to a place which means a lot to me,” he says. “But, I do not think it will be like I have brought them home. Neither will I be like just another tourist. It would be somewhere in between.”
In many senses, ‘somewhere in between’ has come to define the Kashmiri Pandit predicament, in particular for the younger generation. Like most people do, they too feel the desire to be able to associate and identify with the place their ancestors came from. But, the complex politics of the region has made it difficult for them to actually go back and live in Kashmir even if they wanted to. At the same time, the hope that the ‘home coming’ will happen is kept alive. However, when they do return ‘home’, it is only for a few days and it does not feel like home.
For Sushant and Rishabh, in different measures a connection with the Kashmiri identity remains. But, their connection with Kashmir the place is not what it would be for Ravi Kemmu. The younger generation of Kashmiri Pandits has lived with a strong sense of identity passed down from the older generation, but they have lived outside of the place where the identity originated from. Their association with a sense of identity remains, but their sense of belonging to a place is slowly but irreversibly fading away.
Kabir Agarwal is a Mumbai based writer and researcher and can be reached at email@example.com.
From archives read our long interview with Siddhartha Gigoo: “Why unpack? We will return soon”