In 2020, my parents will complete three decades in exile of having gone through the unimaginable; of having tragedy thrust upon them and wearing it like the burden it was; of not having been to the movies for thirty years; of not having the choicest apples and apricots from their gardens; of not having seen the cows and calves they so lovingly named and took grazing after school; of not stepping into a life where their siblings and cousins – now dead – perhaps still run across the meadows, laughing;

of not knowing a life where nothing goes wrong; of not having the luxury of eating ice-cream by the Dal; of not having seen a single snowfall in thirty years; of not having made sheen mohnyuv, snowmen in three feet deep snow; of not knowing what it would be like to see their children running up the Hari Parbat hill; of planting haakh seeds in pots on a terrace in Delhi’s polluted winter air and rejoicing on seeing the leaflets spurt; of not having tasted the water from abshaar in the town named after the endless springs, Anantnag; of not being able to bow down at the Aishmuqam astaan of Zain-ud-din Wali but seeing Salman Khan do the same in Bajrangi Bhaijaan;

My mother fetching tea for her brother, now departed, at the rented room in Jammu, surrounded by her parents, uncle, and a Sikh colleague who had come all the way from Kashmir to enquire after her family

of being invisible – a ghost for twenty years and then being put forth as a de facto statement through the mouths drooling with power; of being reduced to a single question, “but what about Kashmiri Pandits?”; of having a singular memory of her brother – his cheeks red, standing behind the counter at the shop, showing shawls and pherans to the women customers who thronged for a glimpse of his smile and teased him endlessly for his good looks, mild manner and voice like Shashi Kapoor, Koshur nass, Kashmiri nose and a head full of curls – now just a memory of black smoke rising from the shop on fire; of breathing anywhere that is not Kashmir; of complaining about the weather that is not governed by the vaadi;

of their bodies in DTC buses filled with humidity – sweat stuck to the fabric as if added punishments in exile were mandatory; of walking endlessly to jobs, to schools, to markets because one never had the money to pay the rickshaws but when one did, at least they didn’t beat up the rickshaw walla over five rupees like the jats of Paprawat; of making friends with an Amma from Bangladesh who told everyone she was from Assam; of understanding why she was a refugee and hid the fact; of understanding my mother’s answer, “no one leaves home willingly, something terrible must’ve happened to her.”;

of having paranoid parents – more paranoid than non-exiled parents – who constantly worried, “what will these children amount to if they don’t get the engineering seat in Maharashtra?”; of the anger and resentment and shiqayat bursting out in the form of illnesses – high blood pressure at thirty-one, diabetes at thirty-seven and a paralytic stroke at thirty-nine – could I tell the story through hundreds of blood test reports gathered in thirty years?; of frantically cooked Kashmiri feasts on every special occasion;

of feeding crows in Delhi during their migration to Kashmir – the idea was to feed the tired crows when they reached Kashmir after crossing the Himalayas, but now we feed them before they cross the Himalayas – like us, their habits ruined; of feeding Yakshas, the spirits and Kuber who don’t show up on terraces and balconies in Delhi like they did during the freezing December nights from the forest to savour the meals laid out for them in the courtyards under the walnut trees;

of Kashmiri hymns being filled in cassettes and CDs, repeatedly played every morning at 6 am through the temple loudspeakers in a refugee colony as the priest Mathura Prasad from Vrindavan greets you in chaste Koshur, “kya sa mahra, varay?” (how are you, sir, all good?); where each house, meticulously built, is labelled unauthorised; of gyev chot, katlams and kulchas bought in bulk and lugged from Kashmiri Colony to Gurgaon, Bangalore, Mumbai as if every evening bite were a time machine;

A mulberry tree and my school on the horizon: the path from home to school

of parents’ parents, their uncles and aunts breathing their last in strange lands that no amount of time could turn into home; of ashes travelling to sea through Ganga; of a chatty grandmother turned mute by exile for the lack of people who knew Koshur; of the heat and the loo, hot summer wind; of sand sticking to sweaty faces walking back from school through fields that bore seasonal mustard, of finding mulberries that, according to my mother, didn’t quite taste like “the mulberries back home”; of mulberry trees on which they couldn’t teach their children to climb and pick the choicest fruit so they’d just shake the branches with newspapers spread below; of changing the rice brand every few months because no rice ever matched the taste of the kind planted by their own hands by standing knee-deep in water-filled paddy fields; of not tilling those fields; of not following a farmer’s seasons but a meteorologist’s;

of forgetting poetry and literature and music – all the things worth living for as John Keating famously said; of having a terrified brother who never quite recovered from the shock of it all, a geography major who hasn’t stepped outside his street in the last twenty years, around whom one must tread easily and speak of pleasantries, ask him where Georgia is, what is the capital of Sweden, the weather in Antarctica, so he forgets – momentarily – that he is still living each day as if the date on the calendar were 19 January 1990 and whose answer to his niece’s question, “Where are your wife and your children, Gasha baiya?” was always “They got left behind and walked over to Azad Kashmir. I have no address and have had no contact. Will you be mangta, my adopted then?”;

of spinning stories about Gasha being Gasha despite Gasha’s brilliance and believing that his fright is just a masquerade because perhaps, he works for the CIA!; of being parents-in-exile to children-in-exile with only burnt shops, empty houses and lost lives to pass on as legacies; of not being able to tell them why they are the way they are or where they are; of not having a single photograph from their childhood but seeing that childhood self in the face of the younger daughter every day; of endless night duties away from the family as the family waited patiently through candle-lit dinners in the only house on the street surrounded by vast mustard fields;

of children being put to sleep with a wawij, hand fan and stories of djinns and a witch whose family still lives in a village in Kashmir; of dodging questions and coming up with different answers through the endless summer night as to why the witch’s family lives in Kashmir and not ours?; of seeing children of your brothers and sisters grow up without any parents; of their perished sounds, voices and smiles that show up in a wedding video made in exile for a hefty sum of thirteen thousand;

of a baraat taken from an under-construction house in Sainik Colony to a two-room barsati in Sarwal, Tali Mod; of shopping for fruit from a vendor at Palam mod and recognising the apples from her own orchard in Shopian that continue to grow without her there, picked without her there, sold without her there only to be purchased by her as an RTV spilling out passengers swooshes past her – the sound of the street bringing her back from 1980 where the scent of the apples had taken her;

My grandparents, now departed, standing outside their rented room in Jammu in the early 1990s

of shaking her daughter’s arm in disbelief because she never thought she’d discover the same scent again; of spending every last penny on a crate of said apples without worrying about how the rest of the groceries and notebooks would be bought on an empty wallet; of rushing into the drawing room as DD metro played a Kashmiri song with Priety Zinta dressed as my mother had on her wedding day; a song forgotten, a melody buried deep within; of a grandmother whose handful possessions had a Mission Kashmir cassette – music to hum to because she couldn’t read – an old woman in a sunlit room, repeating after Sunidhi Chauhan, her voice overlapping with the one on the cassette – Bhumbro, Bhumbro, shaam rang Bhumbro – and then diverting from the lyrics to – bhumbro, kyaiz chukh ch yoot naadaano?, oh bumble bee, why are you so foolish?; of being repeatedly told by her granddaughter that she was singing it all wrong but only responding with a laugh and a louder timber– kyaiz chukh ch yoot naadaano?;

of seeing your parents get too old, too soon; of being robbed of their youth; of having met their children as ghosts of their former selves; of discovering that they have turned into distorted versions of the people they were in their twenties before the trath, the wrath; of having lives filled with hardships, deaths, illnesses and moments of fleeting laughter despite it all; of impermanence; of stability that never felt real; of always being prepared for the worst;

of looking back at the street in a Haryanvi town imprinted with the memory of your grandfather, taking out his folding chair, putting it next to the vegetable patch and flower beds outside the house, in a pheran, a karakulli cap and glasses at the tip of his nose, engrossed in an Urdu newspaper in the winter sun as you return home after an exam to his mah, a kiss and Benji’s nalmots, tight, warm and long hugs to Gasha tuning into the Urdu news on the radio and asking examining your question paper; of early morning walks that stretched to the end of Khaira village and ended with lassi glasses or sugarcanes; of losing track of your children with a wife on bed rest after a paralytic stroke;

Jawahar Chowk with a statue of Nehru in Najafgarh

of being a mother to pre-teen girls and being stuck in a paralytic body with a locked jaw, becoming more and more anxious at the idea of your girls growing up in the kitchen as you imagine lying on that bed for the rest of your life in exile; of seeing Gasha and the girls attempt to cook Dal and be equally terrified at the cooker’s whistle as the cooks in the kitchen; of showing your girl with failed gestures using the hand that you could still move – this is how you measure water for rice;

of finding your will-power and recovering miraculously from the said paralysis to relieve your daughters from a fate of cluttering utensils in the kitchen sink; of the sinking feeling that each new diagnosis brought in the family; of repeatedly wishing away the diseases by saying, “no one ever got sick in Kashmir, everyone there died of old age, nothing more” as if this remembrance could lift the curse of living and dying in exile, of seeing a tiny Riya run off to the kandur, the Kashmiri baker with every five rupee she could find to buy katmals as she called them, not katlams;

of knowing that memory fades, sooner rather than later, others will remember the good times too, but who will remember my night duties, my struggles, my loans, my life, as slow as my bicycle, receding into a 100 square feet house, my anger and complaints and budget and hospital bills and school fees turning into one lit cigarette after another; of two brothers, both living next door and hiding from each – the fact that both smoked; of a shopkeeper who sold cigarettes to both and knew what neither knew about his brother;

of the same shopkeeper, a non-smoker, who died of lung cancer having gathered dust in his weilij, his soul, from the kachcha road of the Kashmiri colony for twenty years as more and more loo blew into his shop; of a man who played the harmonium and sang unforgettable songs, becoming a raag in his children’s throats, leaving them with the gift of music and bills for oesophageal cancer; of children getting their heads shaved at Ganga ghat when they should’ve been learning algebra and reading the heap of Chacha Chaudhary comics bought by the father they were mourning;

of women widowed before even knowing, full well, what being married meant; of the childless, the orphaned, the widowed, of lives unfulfilled, of wondering constantly and consistently before sleeping, while awake, during a wedding, during a funeral, after each tragedy and miracle – migration gayi ayes, bod taawan ous suyi, would all this have happened had we not the calamity of migration not befallen us?

Of an eighty-year-old neighbour crying louder than you at your grandmother’s funeral, “she didn’t even get to die under her own roof!”, perhaps, he had peeked into his own future; of Garcia Marquez writing, “a person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground” and so, discovering, after losing your grandparents and a handful of relatives in this cluster of villages that masquerades as a town, that you finally belong to Najafgarh with its khadi boli, its Sehwag, its windy loo, its doodh-dahi, its buffaloes and their stench, its thorny flowerless bushes, its mustard fields, its mulberries that taste exactly like you’ve ever known them, a town nothing like the one with endless springs, but then you never really knew the town with the endless springs; of jotting down everything before this feeling passes, so thirty years from now, you remember it all.

The last photograph of my grandfather in Kashmiri Colony during a Janmashatmi procession in 2012