An Indian in Kashmir

  • Manjiri Indurkar
  • Publish Date: Jan 23 2017 7:55PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 23 2017 8:03PM
An Indian in Kashmir

                                                         Photo: Kashmir Ink

Seeing Kashmir beyond the landscape demands a lot of learning – and a lot of unlearning


My grandmother who died in February this year wasn’t a travel enthusiast unlike the rest of my family. After her death when relatives and family members started the mandatory reminiscing of the dead, my mother had her two bits to contribute. Whenever, said my mother, we asked her if she’d like to come with us for a holiday, she’d say, take me to Kashmir when you go there, that’s the only place I want to see. But, she died without going to Kashmir. And, as fate would have it, four months after her passing away, we found ourselves clicking selfies and posing next to the impossibly beautiful mountains, noisy rivers, and smiling children of Kashmir. 

The first night that was spent in the houseboat, I clicked a picture of a man who had come to our boat, selling flowers and seeds of local plants. With the correct lighting, the reflection of the morning sun on the green water of Nigeen Lake, I managed to get a decent enough picture to be uploaded on my Facebook profile. I titled it “In Kashmir, doing Kashmir things”, and a friend was quick to point out, “you mean Indian things”. A little embarrassed of myself, and a little defensive, I corrected him further by saying, “you mean touristy things”. He and I both ended the conversation there. 

A week later my holiday was over, and I was back in hot and humid Delhi, with all the art and craft, the shawls and the small dibbis of Kesar, and bottles of Kahwa for friends in my suitcase. My mother had pictures of herself in the traditional Kashmiri costumes. Some of her friends commented that she looked like Sharmila Tagore from Kashmir ki Kali. We all laughed about it. We showed our friends the 1,500 pictures we had clicked of the Valley. We gave everyone their small share of Kashmir in the form of the gifts we bought for them. And then, eight days later, Burhan Wani was shot dead. 

Before all of this, before Burhan Wani was a name I knew, before I read up about Kunan Poshpora, before I learnt about the Kashmiri Pandits and their exile, before Kashmir became one of the world’s biggest conflict zones, Kashmir was all about Shammi Kapoor songs for me. It was the place where Shammi declared his love for Saira Banu singing, Chahe koi mujhe jungle kahe. It was wild, indeed, this declaration of young, rebellious love, with the snow covered mountains of Kashmir in the backdrop, that paradise on earth where falling in love seemed so easy. 

Kashmir was a fairyland. It was poetry. It was about apples and beautiful people. And one day, just like that, it all changed for me. There is a scene in Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja. Arvind Swami who plays the role of Rishi, a government employee who gets posted in Kashmir, is asked by his senior if he feels comfortable going to Kashmir. In a moment of immense patriotism he says, why not, sir, “kya Kashmir Hindustan ka hissa nahi hai?” I was four when the film came out, and unaware of the Kashmir conflict. By the year 1992, however, the women in Kunan Poshpora had already been raped, the Pandits already on exile, the demand for Azaad Kashmir already at its peak and the Indian army’s reign of terror already unleashing fire. But, I was oblivious enough to not realize that Kashmir wasn’t a part of Arvind Swami’s Hindustan. 

Roja was an important film that changed the way I looked at Kashmir. It was shot beautifully, it had A.R. Rahman weaving magic into his music, it had stellar performances from the likes of Pankaj Kapoor and the vulnerable Madhu, and it had a more than a generous dollop of patriotism. What was there to not like? That powerful scene when Arvind Swami jumps over a burning Indian flag to save it had all Indians reaching for a tissue. Towards the end, he obviously managed to convince the militants that their future was with India. Remember Hariharan’s deeply moving voice singing Bharat hum ko jaan se pyara hai? Remember Madhu and Arvind Swami lost in love in Yeh haseen wadiya? Remember Arvind Swami singing Roja jaaneman, as he sat in the house of the “terrorists”? This was love in times of war. And we were supposed to be on love’s side. Mani Ratnam painted a picture compelling enough for a young me to say that I, an Indian by birth, was on the side of humanity. That this is what Kashmir needed, even if it did not ask for it. 

It was a Tuesday, I think. I used to frequent a local library in my hometown Jabalpur. It was wonderfully and quite aptly named Universal Book Depot, and it was here that my universe began expanding. It was a time when I was reading a lot. Almost one book a day. And because we were allowed to rent only two books at a time, I would often find myself at the library every second day. It was on one of those Tuesdays when I was looking through the bookshelves, having read most of the books there, that I picked up Paro Anand’s No Guns At My Son’s Funeral. I picked up this book because the librarian uncle had told me he would soon be getting me Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and till then I should read whatever is left. It has been eleven years since I read the book, I don’t remember most things about it. I don’t remember liking it, or disliking it. All I do remember is that the book made me start a dialogue with myself. I started asking questions. And I started listening. 

Growing up in small town India, in an age of jingoistic cinema that openly professed its love for violence, Kashmir was always so present in mainstream discourse that it was rendered absent. It was the piece of jigsaw puzzle that never seemed to fit anywhere. I grew up singing patriotic songs in school competition without realizing that Ae mere pyaare watan was a song sung for Afghanistan, and not Hindustan. Where did Kashmir fit in this scheme of things? 

This was the connection that Paro Anand helped me arrive at. The book talked about Kashmiri children and their want for peace. It wasn’t a story of an army man, it wasn’t about an Indian hero; it was a Kashmiri child whose life she was talking about. If the recent attacks on the children of Kashmir, or those of Syria, have taught us anything, then it is this. In times of war, we aren’t just destroying human lives, or properties, we destroying childhoods, and therefore a whole generation is being lost in this war against humanity. Anand put that child in the forefront, and it became easy to understand who was losing out more in this war. Not the soldier who was being pelted with stone. But the child who had that stone in his hand. Anand’s book, however flawed, helped me see the people of Kashmir and not just its mountains. It triggered a process that is still at work. It demanded a lot of learning. And it demanded a lot of unlearning. 

When I was in Kashmir last June, I went about asking everyone I came in touch with about their views on the demand for Azaadi. This wasn’t the first time I was meeting a Kashmiri. But this was the first time I was meeting Kashmiris outside the safety of campus life in Delhi. I wanted to hear what the Shikare wala, the guide at Gulmarg, the hotel staff at Srinagar and Pahalgam had to say. They all, unequivocally, told me that they just wanted peace. They told me about the change in situation since 2008. They said that 70 per cent Kashmiris worked in the tourism industry and peace was intrinsic to their line of work. They wanted food on their plates and nothing else. Their polite responses came to me as a rude awakening. What business did I even have asking them these questions? What had I done to earn their trust? I was an Indian tourist. I was their oppressor. They weren’t going to tell me about their plight. They weren’t going to give me anything but their hospitality. They weren’t even going to give me their hatred. 

So then I stopped asking and started looking. When a driver at Pahalgam rather rudely dismissed a film crew, telling them about this being the last month of the year for making money so they better get out of his way, I noticed his frustration towards those filming in Kashmir and those sitting in his car. His life was in the hands of India and its holiday mood. When a hotel manager in Srinagar, who couldn’t contain his happiness on hearing that I was a writer, asked me to write about the flowers of Kashmir, and its art, I found urgency in his voice. An urgency to move beyond this season of hatred that travelled from India and never left. This hotel manager who also worked with a local radio channel and made documentaries, wanted me to carry back all the wonders that Kashmir had to offer. Between that frustration and this eager warmth lies the irony of Kashmir, perhaps the most loved and most hated piece of land for Indians. 

When I started formulating a central theme for this essay, I realized I didn’t have one. I just had a few experiences and a few images. I kept thinking of the flowers of Kashmir, the ones our hotel manager had talked about. I thought of the scent spread across the valley, in its trees, in the grass that grows on its hills and mountains, and in the lakes that travel within the veins of Kashmir. I thought of the apples that were waiting to ripen. I thought of the Chinar trees, and Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry. I thought of the man whose despondent face looked out of a window, whose picture I have in my laptop. But most of all, I thought of those children whose childhood is spent coaxing Indian tourists into clicking pictures of their pet rabbit. And those children whose childhood is spent preparing for a war they never chose. That is leaving them maimed and blind and dead and scared for a lifetime, exactly in that order. 

On our last day in Srinagar, as I sat in the lobby, a hotel staff member told me about his family and an apple farm he owns. He showed me photos of all the friends he had made in this hotel, all guests, and said that his house is an hour’s drive from Srinagar. He said that everyone has a house in Kashmir, no matter how rich or poor you might be. I do not know if this is true. I have no wish of verifying it either. All I can think of is this: for the past several decades, we Indians have ensured that the Kashmiris don’t get to call their homeland theirs. We have turned their houses into waiting rooms and raided their space so many times, their privacy is up on exhibit. And here is a Kashmiri man assuring me that he has a place to call home, he has the moon that peeps inside his window and keeps him company on nights when curfew and loneliness are the only two realities. So, I have to say this before leaving this disjointed chain of thoughts unfinished like the story of Kashmir: this moon belongs to Kashmir and Kashmir alone. 

 Manjiri Indurkar is a poet and writer from New Delhi. She is a co-founder and editor of the literary webzine Anti Serious