A letter from Kashmir
Finding an old note of hope, and remembering Kashmir when it was not a cage
When I was young, I would eagerly wait for the postman.
I knew him by face, and I knew the time he would come. We, actually most houses, didn’t have a letterbox; he would walk in, exchange greetings and hand over the letters. Those letters, from cousins, pen pals, and relatives would come maybe once a month, every inch of the space filled up with comments (doodles too), read over and over again and then neatly filed away to be re-read on a lazy day.
Now I check the letterbox for water, electricity bills or to empty it of flyers, selling everything from home-cooked tiffin and full body massages to termite control. There are no handwritten notes ending with “eagerly awaiting your reply", “lots of love", or “we miss you". It’s just an inbox, empty on most days and filled with clutter on others.
Reading old letters is like tracing your footsteps back, discovering things that have slipped through your memory, and charting a graph of your own evolution. Letters also reflect the sentiment of the time, the pulse of a people, and your relationship with all those with whom you felt so connected. But there are also letters, which were written to someone else, but when you read them, you think they could have been written to you.
Recently, while going through my father’s papers, I found a letter, neatly folded and tucked between sheets of A4 paper, written to him, in Urdu, by another Kashmiri in Srinagar. It is dated 6 January 2004, i.e. 14 years after Kashmiri Pandits were forced to abandon their home out of fear and head into an uncertain future. But in that fear there was also hope that this is a temporary phase and that they would return soon. It’s been nearly 27 years since, that hope swaying and lurching like a ship on rough seas, but still managing to stay afloat.
This letter, posted on a cold winter morning from Srinagar to Delhi, offers hope, though there is despair and sadness too. The letter starts with the writer saying that he had heard the person in Delhi on TV and the absence of people like him is deeply felt (aap jaisay shaksiyat ki kami hamey zaroor mehsoos hoti hai).
The Kashmiri in Srinagar says a house looks veeraan (desolate, abandoned) in the absence of its inhabitants, or makeenoun . He says history is witness (tareekh gawah hai) to the fact that the “tehzeeb, uthna-baithna aur gird-o-navaah" (culture, etiquette and surroundings) of a place are because of its people. And a community/nation (quam) where its people (makhlooq) are scattered, cannot be called complete (mukammal nahin kehlaata hai). The Kashmiri in Srinagar is lamenting the loss of a composite culture, which gave the place its heart and soul, its essence.
If you have been drawn into the various debates over Kashmir on social media, you may have mostly witnessed noise. On both sides of the mountains which separate the valley from the plains, there has been much bitterness and pain, vitriolic outbursts and finger-pointing, to put it mildly. It would seem we never lived together, ever. And for generations that have grown up post-1990, this seems to be the new normal. People don’t speak of empty houses now, maybe of gated communities and special enclaves. The solution it seems is to build more walls instead of breaking down the cage that is Kashmir now.
The letter writer feels that migration is not the solution to storms and difficulties (toofanoun aur mushkilon). “Isay dharti se vafaa ki kami aur na janey kin kin baatoun say taabeer kiya jata hai (it may be interpreted as disloyalty towards the country)." But then nobody willingly leaves their home to live in a new place, many in the most inhuman of conditions, if they felt protected. Also, it seems nobody wants to remember the atrocities that were committed on the minorities, before they engulfed the others too. It was not a blip, it was the beginning of a downward spiral.
It’s difficult to say whether the winter of 2004 was as incendiary as the summer and autumn of 2016. From closing down of cinema halls, killing and selective hounding of the minority community, asking girls to cover up, to torching of schools, enforcing protest calendars and endless curfews.... how do you grade the erosion of basic human values and violence which started with the promise of azadi (freedom)? Because every year since has seen the shackles to restrain people get tighter. What is freedom? Isn’t it about going to the cinema hall with friends and downing a beer afterwards? Isn’t it about sitting at the window and watching the world go by instead of peeking from behind shuttered doors and getting blinded by rubber pellets? Isn’t it about feeling safe within, and outside, among your own people? Isn’t it about building bridges instead of creating islands?
If the Kashmiri in Srinagar feels that the Pandits should not have left and that they made the community complete, he also expresses sadness over what their own lives have been reduced to. It seems as if he is saying that “if the Pandits had it bad, they had it no better". But amid all this mayhem, he says, values and humanity are still alive. “Is doran hum logo nay zindagi ko bahut kareeb say dekha hai. Bayan karney kay liyey bahut wakht ki zaroorat hogi.Yeh kehna zaroori samajhta hu ki quadrein aur insaniyat abhi bhi zinda hai. Roz marna aur roz jeena zindagi ka maimoul ho raha hai. Gila kaun kis say karey (during this time we have seen life at close quarters. To narrate all that will take a long time. But, at the same time, I would like to point out that values and humanity are still alive. Dying and living every day has become like a routine. Who does one complain to?)
But the winter of 2004 thought that there will be spring. “... koshish ye ki jaaye ki ye umron ka tana bana phir se jodda jaaye, aur saddiyon ka ye ek wakht ka gulistan phir se abad ho." He says there is a need to work out a way by which this centuries old culture of living together can bloom once again.
The spring of 2016 also felt something similar. In April I got an email in response to a story I had written about my home in Srinagar. It said, in English: “...as a kashmiri I request my brother kashmiris to return back and live the happy & joyous life we used to live.... A humble request from your koshur brother, return back we are eagerly waiting for you." It’s short and concise, as emails should be, and does not dwell on tehzeeb, quadrein or gila. But then April would not have known that it was headed into a long-drawn blistering summer.
I will file away 2004, between sheets of paper, hoping to read it again when the noise lessens. It will stay with me, a reminder of all that has been squandered. And I hope that this winter will deliver fresh hand-written notes of hope by the time spring comes around.