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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  A prayer for Kashmir

On Eid, this year, I wrote to Henna, a childhood friend in Kashmir. In the mid-1980s, we were taught by the same tuition teacher, Pyarelal Trisal. Our parents are friends too. Henna is now an English lecturer at a college on the outskirts of Srinagar. I sent her Eid wishes and enquired about her welfare, knowing fully well that the situation in Kashmir wasn’t good, following the violent clashes between protesters and security forces.

Curfew had been imposed in the city. Henna replied a few days later. Understandably. The Internet had been cut off. Her delayed response was terse, but heart-rending. “I’m in a cage," she wrote. “There’s no escape and I have to learn to live with it." The cage she described wasn’t metaphorical. I was tempted to reply in detail. I had a lot to say to her. But words betrayed me. They seemed hollow. I abandoned the idea of sending her a long message. Instead, I promised to visit her in Kashmir sometime in the future. Briefly, I expressed my helplessness and despair at my inability to be there to comfort her during these trying times. I hadn’t been able to comfort her in person when she lost her mother early this year.

Earlier, we wrote to each other on occasions and when there was something to say. We would reminisce about the old days. Our wonder years in Srinagar. Meeting each other at Fateh Kadal (the third bridge over Jhelum) on our way to our teacher’s house. He was more than a teacher to us. Our parents were close friends of his. We called him Trisal Uncle. Sadly, he died of a brain tumour in July in Bengaluru. I was lucky to meet him a few days before his demise. Chemotherapy had made him weak. His family was dangling between hope and despair.

For years, Trisal Uncle had battled another affliction. Unlike the cancer, the affliction—displacement and exile—is curable. But he didn’t live long enough to see the cure in his lifetime. His dream, of returning to his home in Fateh Kadal, remained unfulfilled.

He was an important part of our lives. Not only was he instrumental in ensuring that Henna and I did well in mathematics and science, he also introduced us to books like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.

Henna and I shared a deep admiration for stories and art. Once during a long, unending summer, as we walked through the lanes of Downtown Srinagar, we shared our longing for the fall. “I still fancy it," she wrote to me. “Hope it keeps its promise."

I wrote to Henna again, about the demise of our teacher and my last meeting with him at his son’s place in Bengaluru. I couldn’t describe his condition to her. The tumour had eroded his body. Strangely, it hadn’t been able to rob him of his memory. When I mentioned Henna, he said he remembered everything. It wasn’t a miracle that he did. Teachers seldom forget their students. Especially those treated as one’s own children. I knew others who could recall only one place when all other memories had faded.

It was because of our teacher that Henna and I became friends. We met every day from 1986-90. Our friendship blossomed during the long walks home. The walks came to an end in 1990. In the 26 years since, we’ve met only once. It was a chance meeting, in Delhi, in the summer of 2011, at a gathering of some common Kashmiri friends.

The gathering had been organized to understand the violence that had erupted in Kashmir in 2010. And, possibly, do something about it. Generate a debate among like-minded and not-so-like-minded friends. Share experiences. Inform. All of us were part of a Facebook group whose mission was to bring Kashmiris scattered across the globe together. The motto of the group, “Let us assemble and tug at the same rope, in the same direction," is a line borrowed from one of the vakhs of the great mystic-poetess, Lal Ded.

Photo: Dar Yasin/AP
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Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

All of us spoke about Kashmir. The usual refrain. Resistance. Militarization. Occupation. Imprisonment. Detention. Freedom. Human Rights. India. Pakistan. Hindu. Muslim. Exodus. Exile. Some people displayed art. Others performed art. I narrated an incident. Some blamed India. Others blamed their luck. Henna remained silent. That evening, we were more excited at meeting each other after more than two decades than about the discussion on Kashmir. Henna and I parted on a sombre note. We will meet again, in Kashmir, we promised each other. That is yet to happen.

Thereafter, we continued writing to each other. Inevitably, we painted Kashmir as we had always known it. The Kashmir of our childhood. The Kashmir that once was. The Kashmir of promises. For both of us, it remains hidden, unblemished and ineffable. We still inhabit it.

Hope you come out of the cage soon, I wrote to Henna. The cage I was referring to was metaphorical. I sent her a prayer. I prayed for the bad times to end and good times to return. It was a prayer I have been sending to her and Kashmir for the past 25 years. My prayer is full of hope.

The turmoil should end. Pandits should get to return to their lost homes. Muslims and Pandits should embrace each other, irrespective of their likes and dislikes, prejudices and opinions, affiliations and ideologies.

Muslims did nothing when Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes in 1990, made to perish in camps, year after year. Pandits did nothing when Muslims faced a military crackdown for years. Muslims still do nothing to get Pandits back to where they belong. Pandits still do nothing when they see Muslims trembling in a “cage". During the dark 1990s, commoners from both communities struggled to stave off insanity owing to deprivation and alienation. The state didn’t care for them. They were left to fend for themselves, and find ways to escape and survive. If only they had stood by one another, come to one another’s rescue, they would have been saved from ruin. But, sadly, they listened to history, not to their hearts.

It isn’t too late even now. Now is the time to defeat those whose sole purpose is to create further partitions. Can the two communities defeat the demons residing within? The demons of hurt created by history.

I imagine the friendship and estrangement between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims as a two-line play:

The cage

A Kashmiri Muslim: Imagine living in a bloody cage for 26 years.

A Kashmiri Pandit: Imagine living in a migrant camp for 26 years.

Both love Kashmir, their motherland, more than they love one another. Both have betrayed one another. Both have suffered and continue to suffer. Years from now, their descendants will have to bear the cost of this collective tragedy.

Kashmir does strange things to me. It makes me digress. These digressions are essential. Milan Kundera, in his Art Of The Novel, says, “Digression is the temporary abandonment of the plot." The story of Kashmir is incomplete without these essential digressions. These digressions hold the truth. The truth about the human condition. What happens to us in times of conflict and when love turns to hate. When human relationships are put to the test.

I see Kashmir only in photographs now. Blurry and faded like an old memory. German writer Winfried Georg Sebald taught me how to look at photographs. One finds solace in his repeated reassurances that it’s perfectly fine to misremember, especially when recounting stories from memory. After all, memory is not just what happened to us in the past and what we remember of it. Equally, it is what could have happened.

I imagine another two-line play.

Luck

A Kashmiri Muslim: Look at me. I am still alive. Nothing has happened to me yet.

A Kashmiri Pandit: Look at me. I survived too. Nothing has happened to me as well.

What both of them hide from each other is:

The Kashmiri Muslim: Ali’s son hasn’t come home for two days now. But my son has.

The Kashmiri Pandit: Kashi Nath’s son has left him at an old-age home. But my son hasn’t. He says he will take me to the US.

Over the last quarter of a century, all that has happened in Kashmir is archived not just in newspapers, but also in our collective memory. But the true history of the two estranged communities is not to be found in newspaper archives. Future generations will have to rummage through labyrinths of borrowed, fading memory to know what happened to their elders.

I have some more letters to write. To my friends in Kashmir and to those outside, whose near and dear ones are stuck in a cage there. To the blinded children who will be able to see only in dreams now. To those who don’t know what’s to come. To those who yearn for the cage door to open. To those who died while dreaming of a glorious future. And to the nameless soldier from Tripura or Bihar or Tamil Nadu risking his life, guarding the jewel state, away from home and family, unsure of whether he will live to see another day. Kashmir is his second home too.

I have nothing much to write to them, except a prayer.

Siddhartha Gigoo is the author of The Garden Of Solitude and A Fistful Of Earth And Other Stories.

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