Karachi-born Shahriyar Ahmad Dar was 21-years-old when he first saw the mesmerising Himalayas all around him; in hindsight, it isn’t a happy memory.
Days later, he had thought to himself: the horizon never ends in Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan, also called the city of lights.
It was February. The scenic landscape along the Jammu-Srinagar highway near Banihal, the gateway to Kashmir, was backed by the sound of the Muslim call for prayers. It was cloudy and the vegetation devoid of its foliage but spring was close.
At first Dar couldn’t believe that he had finally reached Kashmir — the land of his father that he was told was his as well. “We had heard that Kashmir is a heaven but now we were seeing it” It was unbelievable for him. “I can not express that in words,” recalled Dar.
Dar is unsure when, or if, he would get the chance to visit the city of his birth. He is wary if when he does visit, would the city still be as he remembers it, from three years ago. The 24-year-old still feels estranged in Kashmir.
But Dar had little idea that the winter would come sooner.
Having lived outside all his life, communicating with locals in Kashmir is still difficult for him. “I feel stuck in the middle of these mountains,” he said of living in Shumnag village of north Kashmir’s Kupwara district.
At times, the feeling of being left out was overwhelming. “Even though people were with us, they were not ours,” he said of Kashmiris. “I was unfamiliar with the situation of Kashmir. We realised that this sea was very deep only after we had jumped into it.”
Dar was born to a Pakistani mother and a Kashmiri father, who had crossed over to Pakistan after the eruption of the militancy, hoping to receive arms training but stayed behind. In 2018, his father brought the family of ten to Kashmir. Here, they remain stuck and confined to the identity as wives and children of former militants.
Dar was excited to meet his father’s side of the family for the first time. He felt elated initially — but reality hit him hard. “I thought our life was going to be better, in a way that can’t be described,” he said, “but everything turned upside down when we reached here.”
It was a warm reunion at first but Dar soon realised that his paternal cousin’s weren’t going to be as close to him as his maternal cousins in Pakistan, the ones he and his siblings grew up with. “Today it is just a relationship of greeting each other, there is no conversation.”
In Karachi, Dar was a final year bachelors student; in Kashmir, Dar had to start his bachelor’s degree all over again. “We can not go back there so we had to adjust here. If we knew things would be like this here, we wouldn’t come here,” he said, but added: “I didn’t know much about the world there [in Karachi] as much as I learnt here.”
The biggest learning for Dar, however, was the realisation that “the people they had come to Kashmir for”, his father’s family, “had abandoned us and left us to our fate.”
How does he deal with the lack of societal acceptance? “We have to learn to swim first,” he said, referring to understanding the local lifestyle in Kashmir, but “by the time we learn to swim, the world would have changed again.”
Dar doesn’t think of Kashmir as home, perhaps Kashmir hasn’t made him feel at home. To sum up his feelings, he recited a couplet from the south Asian poet Mohammad Iqbal: “Shorish se bhagta hoon dil dhoondta hai mera, aisa sakoot jispe taqrir bhi fida ho. I seek escape from tumult, my heart desires, the silence which speech may ardently love.”
Conned and trapped
A month after arriving in central Kashmir’s Budgam district in June 2016, 18-year-old Muniba Bhat felt caged. It was the first time that the family of six had witnessed a mass public uprising, when the Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani was killed.
“We were just at home. There was no human interaction with the world,” she said, adding that the internet shutdown had made it worse. “We got disconnected from our relatives and family [in Pakistan].”
Her old brother, 21-year-old Wasiq Bhat — sixteen when he arrived here — wouldn’t leave the house initially. He had been depressed by the difficult lifestyle here. “There is no freedom in anything here,” he said.
Like Dar, the Islamabad-born Bhat siblings also realised Kashmir wasn’t the heaven as hyped. “The people here are very different, maybe because we came from a different place and background, we feel different here,” said Muniba, who was fourteen when she left Pakistan.
Both siblings still struggle in speaking and understanding the Kashmiri language. “When the teachers teach here, they teach in Kashmiri. Then they have to be told that we cannot understand Kashmiri,” said Muniba.
The lack of belonging and rootlessness had sunk deep one day when Wasiq was stopped at a police barricade while he was driving alone. Even though he was stopped for not wearing a seat belt, he was numbed when the police personnel asked him a simple question: ‘Where are you coming from?’
“My legs were shaking. I felt numb and scared because I didn’t know how to answer him in Kashmiri,” said Wasiq, whose father had never spoken of Kashmir to him or his siblings. “He didn’t tell us, people there are fighting for freedom.”
Seven years after arriving in Kashmir, Wasiq felt his father had “scammed him” into coming to Kashmir. “Why did he leave the place if it was such a good place?,” he asked, and said that he was now trapped here.