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One autumn day in 1989, making my way home from school in Srinagar, Kashmir, as I reached Nawa Kadal, the bridge over the river Jhelum, I heard slogans blaring from a loudspeaker: “Set the time in your watches to Pakistan Standard Time." I looked at my watch.

Moments later, I got caught in a crossfire between militants and security forces. Smoke from teargas canisters engulfed the area. A bullet hit a bystander. Some youths hurled stones at the policemen. “Grab a stone and throw it at the police van. What are you waiting for?" someone said to me. I picked up a brick off the road. Then I heard gunshots and ran for cover towards a narrow lane. “Shoot the boy in the red jacket," someone shouted. In the midst of the frenzy, I saw a policeman aiming his gun at me. I never wore that red jacket outside ever again.

A few months later, in March 1990, we woke up to the news of the death of Ashfaq Majeed Wani, a commander of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. He was idolized by Muslim youths, who called him a warrior, a rebel and a freedom fighter. “Ashfaq has attained martyrdom; our hero has been martyred!" people shouted in the streets and from the rooftops of their houses. Our neighbourhood exploded with slogans; stories of Wani’s last encounter with the security forces were afloat. “Death to the enemy," women mourned. Wani was 23 when the paramilitary forces killed him in downtown Srinagar. Later in the afternoon, thousands of people attended his funeral procession and raised pro-freedom slogans. I went to our rooftop and watched the procession moving towards the martyrs’ graveyard in Eidgah. Militants fired in the air, as a mark of respect to their slain commander.

At the onset of spring, in 1990, my parents packed some clothes in a bag, took my 10-year-old sister and me to our neighbours, and requested them to take us with them in a truck to Jammu. We reached Jammu in the evening and took refuge in a dingy dormitory in a large decrepit building, part cattle shed and part barn. The owner had cleaned the dormitory and opened it up for the new arrivals.

Twenty families occupied that small space. For weeks, I had no contact with my parents and grandparents. In the dormitory, there wasn’t enough to eat. One night, my sister woke up and asked me for water. She was thirsty. The tap at the far end of the dormitory ran dry, and the vessels in the makeshift kitchen were empty. All I had in my possession was a bag full of clothes for the both of us.

Months later, when my parents and grandparents crossed the two-and-a-half-kilometre-long Jawahar tunnel in Banihal, the tunnel separating Srinagar from Jammu, the entire landscape changed. Four years after the exodus, my grandfather lost his memory. He lost the sense of relationships, of time, of the nature of things. He dangled from one hallucination to another. The journey through the Jawahar tunnel—the tunnel of forgetfulness—had shattered him.

Jammu stood for India, a safe place to be, while his homeland, Kashmir, had turned into a mini-Pakistan. Like my grandparents, many other elderly people, who had never till then stepped out of Kashmir, had crossed an imaginary border that separated two lands. A new map was drawn on the hearts and minds of the fleeing Pandits. Just the act of crossing over to Jammu, a province in the same state, gave them respite from fear and persecution.

In the summer of 1996, I secretly visited Kashmir. I had grown a beard to pass off as a Muslim. A stranger in my own land, I was in disguise. Going to my old house in Khankah-i-Sokhta, Nawa Kadal, was impossible. “Downtown Srinagar is a war zone," people said. “Even we don’t go there." Srinagar mostly remained under curfew. One evening, when curfew was lifted for people to stock up on groceries and essentials, I went to Lal Chowk, in the heart of Srinagar city. Army bunkers fortified the place. A stony silence prevailed. Gun nozzles were pointed at the pedestrians and people peeping through the windows of their houses. After a few days, I returned to New Delhi, knowing fully well that it was all over for us in Kashmir.

As the years went by, I visited Kashmir again and, like any tourist, stayed in a hotel.

In August 2015, I travelled from New Delhi to Jammu to conduct a story-writing workshop for a bunch of Muslim, Pandit, Dogra and Ladakhi boys and girls from Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. My brief was to teach them how to look for stories much before writing them. It was a daunting assignment because I was conscious of the conflicting political ideologies and nationalistic affiliations of the three different ethnic and religious communities these teenagers belonged to. But I realized that these youngsters were evolved in terms of their outlook towards one another and their immediate environment.

A displaced Pandit family in Garhi, near Udhampur. Photo: Vijay Dhar
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A displaced Pandit family in Garhi, near Udhampur. Photo: Vijay Dhar

I wondered what tips I could offer this boy when he was narrating one hell of a story—that of violence, of resistance, of revenge and of transformation. He said he wanted to become a writer and that his stories would seek to unite and not to divide. He said he had made peace with India and that the pro-separatist movement had become a sham in the hands of conniving and greedy leaders. “First we must be human and learn to accept one another, despite our differences. Then we must learn to comfort one another for the predicament we’ve endured individually and collectively," he said. “All of us have suffered in different ways. To hell with India and Pakistan and their petty politics." I had neither heard nor imagined a story like the one he narrated. I shared my own story of growing up in Kashmir. I had nothing else to offer them.

To work towards social reconciliation was one of the broader aims of the workshop. Would this be possible? I gave each of them an assignment to tell a story in 5 minutes. A shy boy from a remote village near Kargil recited a poem about his teacher, a Buddhist lama, who taught at a Gompa. In the poem, the teacher talks about the philosophy of life. A girl from Ladakh narrated a story about a girl who falls in love with a boy at a bus stop. Another girl from Kashmir narrated a story about her grandmother’s love for her husband. A boy from Srinagar’s Khankah-i-Sokhta read a poem in Urdu about a flood that ravages a city. He and his family had survived the floods which wreaked havoc in Kashmir in 2014. The boy cried while reading the poem. A Rajput girl from Gurah Salathian, a village near Jammu, narrated a story about a girl’s love of nature. A Pandit girl recounted her experience of growing up in exile. In the evening, we parted, promising to meet again the next year to share the drafts and to explore innate connections between the stories.

Back at my parents’ place, we shared memories of our early days in exile in Udhampur, a town on the Srinagar-Jammu national highway. My father and I flipped through old photographs in an album. I was transported to the day my parents had handed over my sister and me to our neighbours. Leaving Kashmir for a different town seemed adventurous initially. I was in my teens and didn’t care about many things. My parents and grandparents were the last Pandits to leave their locality in Kashmir. Some neighbours had come to my father and pleaded with him not to leave. They had given assurances, “We will protect you. No harm will come to you." Ironically, they had also advised my parents to leave if the situation worsened. It took me years to understand the humanity of it all. My parents chose Udhampur over Jammu, since it was less chaotic and one could see the hills at a distance.

The next morning, I went to meet Ramesh Hangloo, who operates Radio Sharda, a community radio service for displaced Kashmiri Pandits. He was recording a children’s programme. An hour later, some children came out of the studio. My gaze fell on a lovely golden-haired girl, who must have been no more than 6 or 7. She was holding the hand of a boy her age. They blushed when I offered to shake hands. Hangloo told me the programme was about the dying Kashmiri language, a language he wanted to keep alive among the next generation of Pandits, who spoke mostly in Hindi.

I was struck by the irony of it all. These children, born in camps, would grow up to be the most rootless of us all. What memories would these children inherit and what history would they remember? I wondered if they, at such tender ages, had any clue to their ancestry. I wondered what they thought of their “home", the camp. Years from now, some of these children will remember their lost stories.

Siddhartha Gigoo, a poet and fiction writer, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2015 for Asia. He has co-edited with Varad Sharma the book of memoirs, A Long Dream Of Home: The Persecution, Exodus And Exile Of Kashmiri Pandits (Bloomsbury India).

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