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Kashmiri Pandits and stories of the state of exile

‘Rupture’, a collection of short stories by Rattan Lal Shant, captures the trauma of the first generation of Kashmiri Pandits who left the Valley in 1990

Old, traditional houses on the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar.
Old, traditional houses on the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar. (iStockphoto)

Last year, on a weekday in September, I watched a movie on Kashmiri Pandits at the City Centre in Salt Lake, Kolkata. In the near-empty hall, I could hear the conversation between two young women. One of them said, “Did these things really happen to Kashmiri Pandits?” She was referring to the gruesome violence shown in the film.

It has been a little over three decades since Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) were forced to leave home but it has very little recall in the public mind. The pain, trauma and mental anguish that the first generation of migrants suffered subsequently is even less talked about. Rupture: Stories On The Sorrows Of Kashmir, a collection of 12 short stories written by Kashmiri and Hindi writer and Sahitya Akademi winner (for his short story collection Chhayn, 2017) Rattan Lal Shant, captures that state of mind.

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Translated from the Kashmiri by Javaid Iqbal Bhat, assistant professor, department of English, at the University of Kashmir, 10 of the stories—written between 1994-2005—are set in camps in Jammu, where many KP families took refuge in 1990. Removed from their cultural context and living in an alien environment, the image that comes up is one of cramped spaces, blazing heat and a state of delirium—people wandering home in their imagination.

In Measureless (written in 1996), the narrator often wakes up shrieking, dreaming of his old mohalla (neighbourhood) in Kashmir, disturbing the sleep of his entire family. Asha, his wife, says, “You used to keep yourself to your room in Kashmir and you are doing the same here.... Shake Kashmir out with all your heart as I have done.”

When you read these lines, you understand what Bhat means when he says in his Translator’s Note: “The state of exile is a tragic inward condition.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Prof. Kapil Kapoor, chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, says in the Foreword that the plethora of books on Kashmir are usually written by non-Kashmiris not equipped with the lived experience of the situation. Shant’s stories, he says, will draw the reader “into a world of ruptures, gaps, silences and alleys of desolation”. I had to pause several times while reading Rupture, feeling a tightening in my chest. For, Bhat has been able to get the tone right and convey the pain.

Rupture—Stories On The Sorrows Of  Kashmir: By Rattan Lal Shant, translated and edited by Javaid Iqbal Bhat, 144 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,595.
Rupture—Stories On The Sorrows Of Kashmir: By Rattan Lal Shant, translated and edited by Javaid Iqbal Bhat, 144 pages, 1,595.

In Separation (1994), Roshan Lal has fallen silent on his mother Arni’s death. As people in the camp offer their condolences, he suddenly mutters, “She (the mother) told me to bring snow for her feet. She wished to extinguish the fire of her soles.... In blistering heat, I went up to the city. How could I get snow in Jammu!” The next time he speaks, he has wandered off to his village in Kashmir and is talking about the death of his father 20 years ago. A visitor says: “Your father had only seen the cool shade of his village in Kashmir, your mother saw both the cool shade of the village and the fiery wasteland of Jammu. Today you are free of both! Your separation is complete!”

The stories led me to revisit a chapter on the Mishriwala camp in Jammu, which my late journalist father wrote about in his book, Barf Mein Aag (1996; in Urdu). He likened it to a concentration camp; one without concertina wires and gun-wielding guards. He visited in 1993, three years after families had started living there. The tents had neither been replaced nor repaired. When it rained, the tents would get flooded, the inmates’ meagre belongings floating in the water. The camp was surrounded by prickly weed and brick kilns spewing heat and pollutants. At the entrance was a desi liquor shop; the air was filled with the stench of common toilets. Young couples had no privacy—there was no place for latiif jazbe (delicate/subtle sentiments), he writes. Men waited outside when women had to change clothes. There was no school for children, though one existed on paper. One resident said they lived in a non-man’s land, forgotten by the government; they had lost their home and were now losing their culture, language and muaashara (society).

I have a vague recollection of visiting our relatives in a camp set up for Kashmiri Pandits in a community centre in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, a large hall where several families lived, their tiny spaces partitioned by bedsheets. The head of the family died of the heat that summer. For a people who had fled to escape violence, misery came in all shapes and sizes.

Kashmiri in essence

A non-Kashmiri reader might miss the cultural context of some of the stories. Take, for instance, Snow (1979), one of the two stories written earlier. There has been no snowfall for three years in Kashmir. Mohan Lal is back home in Srinagar after a trip to Jammu. Everyone wants to know one thing: if it had snowed on Banihal Pass, the link between the Valley and the rest of the country. The next morning, there’s much cheer. It is snowing and his wife has made taehar (rice cooked with turmeric and spiked with mustard oil). This custom of offering taeher as a way of expressing gratitude is common to both Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims. The first snow of the season is welcomed with “Nov sheen mubarak”— Kashmiri life is centred on the seasons.

Similarly, the conversation between Mohan Lal and his friend Mohi-ud-Din, on the way back from Jammu in a bus, is an example of how Kashmiris consider everyone living on the other side of the Banihal Pass as “outsiders”. Being surrounded by mountains can make you insular.

Interestingly, every story in the collection starts with a one-paragraph abstract. It’s like Bhat is giving you a road map to what is to follow. The academic and cultural critic mentions in his Translator’s Note that the syntax of the original stories was meandering, “perhaps deliberately so, to convey the intricate emotions embedded in the experience of the Pandit community”. In some cases, I found myself rereading the abstract midway through a story for clarity.

Past is ever present

In Gauri’s Div Gaam (2005), the residents of the village left before the thokur (god/idol) could be installed in the temple they were building. In the refugee camp in Jammu, the heat claims protagonist Gauri’s father-in-law and then her mother-in-law; her husband is bitten by a poisonous insect. Before dying, he tells Gauri—who carried the thokur from home with her—to use his savings to build the unfinished temple in Jammu. The village had shrunk into Gauri’s thokur. In the Afterword, Shant explains it as an indication of “the unique cultural behaviour of Kashmiri Hindus living in keep alive the community outside the native land”.

Traffic jam triggered by heavy snow in Banihal.
Traffic jam triggered by heavy snow in Banihal. (iStockphoto)

I don’t know if the woman in the cinema hall found her answers or promptly forgot about it after stepping out into the light. But then violence was only one part of the story. Sit with a first-generation migrant from 1990 and she will talk of the old days, before the rupture. She can vividly describe the shape of her house, the jaffer (marigold) in the garden, the walnut tree in the backyard—even if the house now no longer exists.

In his book Our Moon Has Blood Clots (2013), Rahul Pandita writes that his mother had got into the habit of telling anyone who would listen that “our home in Kashmir had twenty-two rooms”. “It had become a part of herself, entrenched like a precious stone in the mosaic of her identity,” he writes.

My father used to call Kashmir vatan (home/land of birth), one he missed deeply every time he felt utterly lonely/desolate in “ajnabi sheher” (alien city) Delhi.

Come summer, memories start to fester.

In the Afterword, Shant writes poignantly, “The attempt of my stories is that they evoke this truth of pain and suffering purely on the humanitarian plane so that the reader does not only remain a spectator but also carries a little of their pain.” Shant’s stories do not touch on the violence, nor is there any bitterness or rancour. It is an intimate look into the mind of a displaced Kashmiri who is deeply connected to their land. The stories serve as a reminder to the younger generation “that our present continues to flow from our past”.

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