In mid-February, I travelled from Pune to Jammu to meet my parents and maternal grandmother. I visit the city frequently, having grown up there.

Jammu had become the base for Kashmiri Pandits after their persecution and exodus from Kashmir in 1990 and they sought shelter from Islamic terrorism in rented accommodations and refugee camps that were set up here. Over time, while some Pandits moved to other parts of the country, a majority, including my family, settled down in Jammu.

On my latest visit, I expressed my disappointment to my father at not being able to go to Kashmir – our family has not set foot there since 1990. When I asked him when we could visit, he said, “Soon.” The monosyllabic response captured his uncertainty and unease.

Repeat of 1990

Early last year, we planned a family trip to Kashmir in autumn, something I had been persuading my parents to do for a long time. I reasoned with them that the situation there was relatively normal now, though I knew in my heart that Kashmir has never been normal, at least not for Pandits.

The sojourn never happened, as mayhem and madness returned to the streets of Kashmir in the summer of 2016, after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani by Indian security forces on July 8. For the next couple of months, curfew would be imposed in the Valley and the streets would become the site of violent clashes between protesters and security personnel.

My father’s cousin and his wife, who visited Kashmir every summer to escape the Jammu heat, managed to escape the Islamist frenzy of 2016 and were rescued by the security forces. Horrified and shocked by the violence they witnessed there, they told me that 2016 unrest was a repeat of the 1990s. Even the transit camps in Kashmir for Pandits, planned under the prime minister’s return and rehabilitation package, were mobbed and attacked by Islamists.

Clashes between protesters and security forces in Kashmir. Photo credit: PTI.
Clashes between protesters and security forces in Kashmir. Photo credit: PTI.

Holding on

The journey from Jammu to Srinagar is not just a physical but also an emotional crossover, especially for my parents. The visit would be a reopening of old wounds that are buried deep under the daily struggles of survival in exile, but are still raw, entrenched with fear, insecurity, betrayal and loss.

Kashmir exists in our lives in bits and pieces. It manifests in our memories, rituals, food, language, and music. My mother remembers the home where she grew up, in Anantnag town’s Qazi Mohalla and the areas she frequented, like the shrine of Resh Moul, the Nagbal and the Lal Chowk.

My mother would reiterate that she has lost faith in Kashmir – the people, the society, and the government. My late maternal grandfather sold the house in Anantnag years ago in distress, when he and his family were trying to make ends meet in Jammu after their displacement. My maternal grandmother, who lives with her sons in Jammu, would talk at length about Kashmir, especially Anantnag and Bijebahara (where she was born and grew up).

In the wake of recent attempts to destabilise Jammu region (through echoes of the Kashmir unrest in certain districts of Jammu and the influx of Bangladeshi and Rohingya Muslims), my mother sometimes fears that there will be a time when they might have to leave Jammu too, indicating the distrust.

My father recounts his youthful days in Anantnag’s Akura village (our hometown), where he would swim and fish in the Lidder river. Each time we talk about Kashmir, I get acquainted with new stories. Fish was a staple in our home and our relatives and acquaintances, while travelling, would stop over at our home for gaad batta (fish curry and rice). My father’s love for fish curries continues till date.

Pandits also keep their heritage alive through the many ritualistic festivals throughout the year – Herath (Shivratri), the Spring festival of Sonth, Navreh (Kashmiri New Year), Zyeth Aetham (the annual Kheer Bhawani festival at Tulmul, Ganderbal), Kav Punim or Magh Purnima, dedicated to crows, and Pann, a 10-day-long Ganesh festival. Many of these festivals have geographic links and connotations and have lost their meaning outside Kashmir. Most of these rituals are still observed by Pandits wherever they live, though some have faded away.

My parents would emphatically argue about the meaning and symbolism associated with the rituals. They would say that these rituals are associated with the faith we practice and hence should be followed. However, I have realised that holding on to the rituals is a further reinforcement of our identity in exile. The rituals act as moorings that tie us to our homeland.

Still, I keep looking for Kashmiri songs on the internet and share them with my Kashmiri pals on Twitter. An exchange of songs and associated trivia follows. This exercise is repeated every once in a while – sometimes, songs repeat, but nobody minds that. These are small joys!

No route in sight

We oscillate between hope and despair – the hope of returning to home tangled with despair over the state of affairs in our homeland. A sense of insecurity prevails over the semblance of normalcy.

There has not been Kashmir for Kashmiri Pandits for the last 27 years. Neither the government nor the society has been able to restore Kashmir’s pristine state. In fact, certain sections of Kashmiri society are involved in making the valley gory. Home has been eluding Pandits as Islamism and Jihadism continues to proliferate. How many more years? I ask this question all the time. There are still no answers.

Varad Sharma is a Kashmiri writer. He has co-edited A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits for Bloomsbury India.