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A Kashmiri Pandit reckons with an irreversible cultural loss

In Suhas Munshi's travelogue, Kashmir comes across as a living, thriving place, in spite of all the adversity that scars its past and present

Kashmiri artists perform 'bhand pather', a form of street theatre, at Dal Lake, Srinagar, during Shikara festival in April 2016,
Kashmiri artists perform 'bhand pather', a form of street theatre, at Dal Lake, Srinagar, during Shikara festival in April 2016, (Hindustan Times)

In the introduction to his debut book, This World Below Zero Fahrenheit: Travels In The Kashmir Valley, Suhas Munshi talks about a cobbler who has been sitting at the same spot at Lal Chowk in Srinagar for the past 25 years, mending and polishing shoes. His brother-in-law sat there for 50 years before him. “What do we have to show for it? Just a two-room house in Batmaloo,” says Ali Mohammad, who has never travelled beyond Jammu.

Like Mohammad, Kashmir’s narrative is also stuck—everything tends to be seen through the lens of conflict and violence of the past 30 years. In his travelogue, Munshi, 35, has attempted to shift the gaze, focusing on individual voices from various walks of life: Madhosh Balhami, a poet in Pulwama, whose life's work was reduced to ashes in a fire during an encounter between militants and security forces; Basheer Ahmad Bhagat, who laments how the tradition of bhand pather, or street theatre, that flowed through centuries, "dried up" because of religious hardliners; Omkar Nath Bhat of the lone Kashmiri Pandit family in Hal in south Kashmir’s Shopian, who couldn’t leave because they didn’t have the means to do so; Aijaz Ahmad Bund, who works with the LGBTQ+ community in a place where their existence is not even acknowledged; playwright, actor and director Bashir Bhawani, in whose house, among the vast collection of books, the author spots the collected edition of plays by Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh.

Also Read: A Kashmiri pandit confronts the past and present in his debut novel

Delhi-based Munshi was four years old when his family, like other Kashmiri Pandits, left the Valley in 1990. An engineering graduate, Munshi says he always wanted to be a writer/journalist but his parents' reaction was: "Everyone doesn't become a Barkha Dutt." They advised him to finish his engineering course first and then decide. Munshi worked as a programmer for nearly two years before shifting to journalism 11 years ago.

In an interview with Lounge, he spoke about his own loss of cultural context because of not having grown up in Kashmir and the late poet Agha Shahid Ali drawing a line between "us and Kashmiri Pandits". Edited excerpts:

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How did the idea of a travelogue come about?

A few years ago when I felt confident enough to take on such a project (writing a book), I knew that it had to be about the subject that had been quite close to my heart. It is in the backdrop of the image, which I had picked up from the elders, of our home in Kashmir that I grew up. As a journalist, I visited the place many times to better understand the conflict and the people shaped by it. Once I decided on the subject of my book, I had to think hard about the form. Travelogue was the one medium, I felt, which allowed Kashmir to be looked at afresh; liberated it almost from a lot of deadweight.

By deadweight you mean looking beyond conflict? Instead, you are an observer, letting people speak for themselves. Was this deliberate?

It was deliberate to the extent that when I chose to write the book as a traveller, I had to work only as an observer trying to take my reader along in my journeys and not interfere between my interviewees and the reader. Though at some places I couldn’t help express my thoughts on the subject.

A paramilitary soldier poses for a photograph during the season's opening of Siraj Bagh, claimed to be the largest tulip garden in Asia, on the outskirts of Srinagar, on 25 March. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
A paramilitary soldier poses for a photograph during the season's opening of Siraj Bagh, claimed to be the largest tulip garden in Asia, on the outskirts of Srinagar, on 25 March. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan) (AP)

Tell us a little bit about the timeline of the book. You were in Kashmir on 5 August 2019 when the effective abrogation of Article 370 was announced. Had you already started writing the book by then?

This book is arranged geographically and not chronologically. I started writing the book somewhere around August 2018 when I made my first visit—to travel with the Bakarwals (nomadic shepherds who migrate from Kashmir to Jammu in winter). And since then I have returned to Kashmir many times, meeting people and writing about my experiences. The chapter on Gurez (4 August 2019) was among my final visits to Kashmir. My last visit to the place was in August 2020. So this book was written somewhere in this two-year period.

The one refrain that comes up often in the book is the loss of art and culture due to militancy. You also mention that growing up you did not speak Kashmiri at home, “the only vehicle through which age-old traditions and culture could be acquired, practised and passed on”? How big is this loss?

Not only did I feel the need to stress on the harm done to the arts and culture by the conflict but to also show how certain individuals had dedicated themselves to nourishing and preserving our cultural underpinnings. To suggest how, despite all the adversity, Kashmir was still a living, thriving place.

(left) Suhas Munshi; This World Below Zero Fahrenheit: Travels In The Kashmir Valley, Penguin Random House, 184 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
(left) Suhas Munshi; This World Below Zero Fahrenheit: Travels In The Kashmir Valley, Penguin Random House, 184 pages, 499.

The loss to the culture, specifically the language, which I could have effortlessly acquired but did not because of the exodus, is immense and irreversible. The childhood that I could have had, by which I mean hearing and telling of stories and folklore in the language, understanding our history and so on, is something that I have fully begun to realise only now. Just as painful is the thought that I wouldn’t be able to pass on a fraction of the cultural wealth that I inherited from the elders in our family. Most of it will be lost with me.

In the book, Khalid Fayaz, editor of a children’s magazine, talks about wanting to wean children away from “borrowed tragedies” of the past 30 years. Do you think it's time that adults also “outrun this plot”?

Outrunning the plot makes limited sense in case of the children living in Kashmir who are growing up seeing mind-numbing violence on a daily basis. As far as others are concerned, I suppose it’s an individual decision—to deal with and be subsumed in clichés or to try to have more meaningful engagement with the place and the people.

What does “zero Fahrenheit” in the title refer to?

I borrowed the title of the book from a poem by Agha Shahid Ali called The City Of Daughters (...for in this world below zero Fahrenheit/ it’s over: the Festival of Light:/ From the shore through her hair blown black/ a mother sees a fleet depart to sack /a city (a drum mimes the sunset wind:/In Iphigenia, it’s night and THE END... Will you watch as her blood soaks the altar?/ O too-late wind that did not save a daughter!)...).

You mention in the book that you used to memorise lines from his collection 'The Veiled Suite'. You also say that he was the voice of the despairing Kashmiri, "but that voice was not mine..."

To give you an example of what I mean, in his poem—I See Kashmir From New Delhi At Midnight—Agha Shahid Ali captures with such sensitivity and vividness the first wave of assault on Kashmir and Kashmiris. But then, just as remarkably, he draws a line between "us" and the Kashmiri Pandits, whom he notices sneaking out to the plains. Repeatedly in his poems, Ali keeps redrawing this line with bewilderment. Wondering why the Pandits left, why they keep blaming "us". That’s what I meant. When he’s obsessing over Begum Akhtar, he belongs to all of us. When he goes on to express hurt and pain, he leaves us behind.

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At a personal level, did your travels in the Valley give you a sense of connect and an understanding of what your grandparents/parents mean when they talk about exile and missing home?

I was both an outsider and an insider at different times. For instance, in the time that I spent with the poet Madhosh Balhami, I felt that I could sense a bonding with him and yet not fully appreciate the pain that he was speaking of (the loss of a lifetime of his work when his house was gutted).

You were again in Kashmir on 5 August 2020, a year after the state became a Union territory? Did you sense any change?

I found the people to be very angry. The restrictions of Article 370 had dovetailed with those of covid-19, which had impacted everything from education to health. Besides, one year of internet ban caused unbelievable hurdles in the daily life of almost every Kashmiri.

The chapter on Bakarwals migrating in winter from Kashmir to Jammu ends abruptly. They ask you to leave just when the reader is looking forward to arriving at their summer destination. In that sense, is your journey incomplete?

It was, yes. I was very much looking forward to seeing their homes. It frustrated me a great deal, this abrupt change in their attitude, this sudden end of our relationship. Though I was partly relieved to know that I was returning to the comfort of my home. But not all our journeys are rounded off with satisfying, fulfilling endings. There are places we plan to visit but don’t end up going to, conversations we hope to have that are cut short. Maybe this part of the book mirrors such unfinished travels that we all sometimes undertake.

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