Summers Of Exile

A story about the struggles of living in exile and the longing for snow...

Summers Of Exile

In 2001 I visited my old house in Kashmir, the land of my forefathers. Mother and father took me through narrow lanes, showing me the shops and houses of their old neighbours. I was all stirred up and excited to see my house, the house my mother often boasted about; that it was big and had several rooms, one for everyone; there was a garden too. A brook ran adjacent to our house. We had everything; my mother never stopped talking about our house.

As we went nearer, my father pointed towards our house. 'Look,' he said. We were at a distance; the house was three-storeyed, standing firm and tall, the boundary hedged with firm but old wooden pillars. I looked at the house, and after a few minutes, I was standing at the wooden door of the house, the wood was still intact at the sides and so was the rusted doorknob; the windowpanes were missing though. I saw 'Aum' inscribed on the door and the front wall was visible. Trembling out of excitement, I went inside. The floor was filled with faeces, the wood of the ceiling was coming apart, the stairs to the first floor of the house were missing and a part of the roof was about to cave in. I saw devastation inside. Mother wasn't able to locate her room. The neighbours had converted a part of our house into a toilet, and the other part was used as a shed for their cattle and a garbage-dumping ground. Mother came out quickly, with tears rolling down her cheeks, and then she walked towards the backyard. The garden was a ghastly sight. It was flat and covered with nettles, garbage, filth and cow dung. People from the village came to meet us and hugged us; they started talking to my parents. A few minutes later, father's friend asked us to leave, telling us that it wasn't safe for us to stay longer. We left the place hurriedly.

What wrong had we done? Why were we forced to leave our land? My questions are very simple and for those who inflicted this horror on us (our old neighbours), the answers are as simple as this: 'You were driven out by the government and their conspirators. They are the ones responsible for your eviction. You should have stayed behind.'

'Stayed behind?' I ask. Stayed behind only to get killed?

I was one-and-a-half years old when we were forced to leave Seer Hamdan, our native village in Anantnag in Kashmir. In the beginning, I found it difficult to recollect the torment my parents and relatives went through. My memory takes me back to 1992. I was four years old then.

Some shreds of events and memories are engraved in my mind, the memory of suffering during the early days of exile. After the exodus, my family stayed in Garhi, Udhampur, a small town on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway. We survived there for three years. We lived there in a shabbily constructed room rented to us by a local resident. For three years we used a makeshift bathroom and a latrine. We lived in fear of the mosquitoes and other deadly insects like scorpions and centipedes. They had invaded the room and the toilet. The summer heat made our skin a pale yellow. My parents shrivelled. The toilet, which was around 200 metres away from the house, was made of sticks, pieces of wood, scrap and tin. The door was made of torn canvas. A dug-out was made to contain the faeces. It all remained there, the faeces, the dirty water and the urine in that little dug out area, faeces over faeces, water over water, all stacked, emanating a foul stench. Two bricks served as footrest; we used to keep our feet firm, steady and balanced on those bricks while relieving ourselves. We feared slipping and falling into the pot full of faeces.

At times, my mother would request the landlady to allow her to use their personal toilet, as she couldn't bear the horrible stench in the makeshift toilet. The landlord's toilet was at some distance from ours. It was terrible; we were bereft of the most basic things of life. Eight of us lived in a small room. A curtain and a sheet were used to create a partition in the room for privacy. It was a room not even fit for cattle. But this is where we lived. We had little choice.

In the mornings and evenings, all of us would carry buckets and small plastic containers to the tube wells to get water. The nearest tube well was half a kilometre away from our hovel. Rainwater was used to wash utensils; fresh water had an unusual earthy colour and odour to it. Rain bought misery and centipedes. Centipedes crawled into our room through the windows, and hid under the bed sheets, below the pillows, in the crevices along the walls. Grandmother called these creatures sunhari sarap (colourful snakes). During the monsoon, snakes and scorpions came out of the anthills and other crevices in the ground, and entered our room. The government provided 500 rupees every month as relief. Sahita Samiti, a Kashmiri Pandit organisation, distributed milk, blankets and old clothes. People were reduced to nothing. We lived in extreme deprivation.

I lost my grandfather in the early years of exile. He suffered from depression; his inconsolable longing for his house in his village in Kashmir took a huge toll on his health. His health deteriorated and on the day of Mahashivratri, he left us. My father, the eldest among his brothers, had to bear the responsibility of the entire family.

In 1993, we shifted to Jammu. We sought refuge in the migrant quarters at Muthi. These quarters had domes. There were no windows in the damp and dingy room. Perpetual darkness reigned inside our room. No more than three people could sleep inside. Yet we had to make room for one another. In an adjacent room, a dozen members huddled together. Some people constructed small ventilators in the walls to let the light into the rooms. The ceilings were very low and one could barely stand erect. We had to crawl. We lived for fourteen years in the one-room tenement at the Muthi Migrant Camp. The conditions were inhumane. The dark camp alleys leading to the quarters were frightening. Mornings were gloomy.

Each day was an ordeal; a fight every moment, a fight within. Survival became a struggle; living through the days became a nightmare. The living conditions, the dark locales, pallid days, scorching heat, constricted lanes, mobile water tankers, the din of utensils, long queues for water, verbal spats among the migrants, a tap of water for 200 families. These constituted our dreary days. People scrounged for things as if they had lost their minds. In the camps, the mornings were noisy with people gearing up early in the morning to collect water. Not a single day went by without a fight for water. It was as if everyone had gone mad. The elders looked dreary and burdened, finding their way out of the dark rooms, hoping to escape the appalling conditions in the camp. With each passing day, they grew weak, and pined for shade and cool breeze. They didn't get the comfort they craved, they were anxious, uneasy all the time. They would talk to each other during the day. One could see them on the streets, in the middle of the road, in the shade of a tree, in the community hall, organising meetings, preparing memorandums, thinking of ways to return to Kashmir, hoping for the militancy to end there and normalcy to return.

For years together, my parents woke up early in the morning to line up the buckets and containers for water; the water supply lasted for no more than 15–20 minutes. This extreme mental and physical routine weakened them; they looked as if they were suffering from a long-term illness, and turning into decrepit beings. Sadness engulfed us all.

My parents withered in the endless summers, inadequate spaces and the stifling heat. We slept in snatches during the night. Many of us didn't even have fans or coolers. The nights and the cries of distress were never-ending. Our bodies were drenched in sweat all the time. Hiding all day from the blazing sun was a routine game. Finding a corner untouched by the sun on the camp streets was a daily affair for the elders. A raised platform or the shade of a tree became places for the migrants to play cards and gossip. There was nothing else to do. They had nothing to do all day long except discuss the political situation in Kashmir. The elders with ashen faces looked frazzled and wilted as if they were carrying a permanent burden on their shoulders. Elders were often seen loitering in the camp vicinity, expressing their longing through inane soliloquies and monologues.

They were ageing rapidly; many collapsed and died in the streets. The scorching heat was unbearable; many succumbed to sunstrokes and snakebites. Deaths became a daily affair in the camp. The migrants lived through this tumultuous journey, battling desolation, toiling day after day.

The elders were the only connection to my native land. I longed to listen to the stories of the past, to connect to our native land. Their memories were what I depended on. I feared losing them all. I always carry this fleeting fear of losing our language. I fear losing our identity. Kashmir was always a topic of discussion; it never went off our hearts and minds. The elders still carry this undying hope of going back to their motherland.

We waited for the summers to end. Our cramped one-room tenement with the killer dome radiated with heat from the scorching sun. Evenings went by like a flash. Heat was our biggest enemy. The soaring temperatures in Jammu rendered us insane. We had nowhere to go. The rooftops and walls of our room went on baking us throughout the day. Evenings for the camp children, elders, men and women were spent in consoling one another and offering words of comfort. An electric pole stood on the other side of the road where camp people used to sit and discuss the affairs of the community till late evening. The discussions ranged from Kashmir to surviving in Jammu to relief and ration to the apathy of the government.

Everyone ignored us as if we didn't exist. As if we didn't belong to this land and to this country. The authorities didn't care for us as if we were not humans. We became a burden for everyone. Our exodus should have stirred the conscience of the government, both State and Central. But it didn't.

People went on waiting. We grappled with a deep sense of homelessness. They thought that the situation would become normal and that they would return to their homes. Little did they know that even after twenty-five years, their return to the native land would still remain a distant dream.

The children of exile had to bear the brunt of the exodus. Exodus had a major impact on their education. The makeshift room constructed using old bricks, wooden planks and iron sheets was our kitchen, drawing room, study, prayer room and bedroom. The kitchen meant everything to my mother; she had demarcated a part of the room for cooking. The cooking area was lined by a cemented slab, some space created for us to sit, an elevated space used to wash our hands and utensils. Father created a shelf on which he placed pictures and idols of our deities. We prayed.

This cramped little kitchen served us for fourteen years. We shared space with insects, rats and cockroaches. When the lights went off, these little creatures came out of the holes, scrounging for food. Our kitchen served as my study also. I never had the luxury of having my own room; the kitchen was all I had. I created a cave-like corner for myself by placing pillows around myself, and I studied inside this cave. I carved out a little world of mine in these cramped spaces. A friend's father ran a small shop next to his room. The dwelling was blocked from any source of light from the outside.

The toilets reeked and the horrible stench in the latrines made us curse our wretched lives. We were engulfed in a foul smell all the time. There was one latrine for the entire block. In the beginning, these were makeshift latrines, then after years, they were plastered with bricks and cement. One latrine was to be shared by 20 families living in a block. Before relieving ourselves, we used to throw buckets of water inside; the toilet was all stained black, and it was filthy. The toilets blocked every now and then and the municipal vehicles would come once in two months to empty the pit. The pipes of the vehicles leaked at many places, and, at times, the block would be covered with filthy water. For the camp-dwellers, it became difficult to stay indoors all the time; the air reeked of a bad stench all the time. The women folk of the block would clean the area and scrub the surfaces of the block, flushing out the faeces with water. My grandmother once aptly lamented: 'We are in hell, and every day is a struggle—for water, for space, for comfort, for fresh air.'

I did my school homework in our makeshift kitchen; it was so hot in the afternoons that nobody visited us during the day. The roof of our room caved in many times when strong winds blew. Summer storms and lashing rains would destroy our shelters. There were times when we had no roof over our heads. We had to sleep in the narrow alleys in the camp. Powercuts that lasted 12–14 hours a day became a routine affair. In the night, some people slept on the pavements along the roads, on the rooftops of the quarters, and in the narrow alleys between quarters. Our room didn't have a flat roof. The roof was dome-shaped. During the powercuts, children, women and men sat helpless in darkness. They would sit on the roadside and wait for the power supply to be restored.

Herath (Shivratri) brought with it hope and a sense of collective solace. As the most important festival of our community, it kept the camp residents busy for a month. The entire settlement would celebrate in whatever small ways they could. The shops on camp streets were decorated. Cleaning of quarters, washing of the floors of the camp dwellings, and whitewashing of the walls was done a few days before the festival. We always counted the days before Shivratri, waited for the arrival of the auspicious day. The most joyous aspect of Herath for the children was getting pocket money from the elders. The money lasted for quite a few days and we would spend it on our favourite biscuits, chocolates and toffees.

I remember trucks arriving with old clothes and blankets. People would line up to lay their hands on the relief material sent for us by the authorities. The men in the trucks would fling the relief material at us, as if we were beggars. Everyone would get hold of a few things. Some got hold of sweatshirts, old jeans and others pocketed utensils and coarse blankets. Men, women and children ferried something or the other on their backs to their rooms. The Government trucks distributed ration (rice and sugar) only to those who had ration cards. Without the ration cards, nothing was given. Those who didn't possess ration cards depended on others for food and groceries. Leaders from political parties used to visit the camps once a year to assure the displaced of better facilities, better living conditions, better accommodation. Many people believed the leaders and their false assurances.

Once in 1996, it rained for days, and the water from the drains overflowed into our rooms. One morning, we woke up to crowds of people on the roads. As we made our way outside, father was shocked to see our shop at the roadside flooded with filthy water from the overflowing drains. All the things kept inside were soaked in water. Many blocks in the camp were under water. Our household belongings were floating in water, people were crying, many hadn't slept throughout the night, people suffered huge losses.

It was in the summer of 1990 when a politician of the state came to visit the camps, offering promises and all. A month earlier, people had started talking about this visit, as it was normal for them to nurture hope and expect some major announcements about relief and rehabilitation. They were hopeful, ebullient, and preparations were in full swing. Memorandums were drafted meticulously, listing our concerns and demands. The community hall in the camp was decorated with string lights. The camp-dwellers pooled money to make sure the arrangements went as planned, possibly to impress the politician and his delegation. Food, snacks and tea were kept ready on the day of the visit. People were hopeful; they were desperate to hear words of hope from the leader. The day finally arrived, and the politician of the state was scheduled to visit in the morning, but he didn't appear at the stipulated time. People waited all morning, afternoon, and then towards late evening, the politician and his coterie arrived in a fleet of cars. We heard the clamour of vehicles from a distance; people started rushing to the spot of arrival, welcoming the politician, presenting him with garlands. Chaos reigned everywhere. After a few minutes, clouds of dust hovered around and it started drizzling, and people searched for cover in the tent. I made space for myself in the crowd, unaware of the seriousness of this visit. My friends were also keen to listen to the politician. One of the representatives from our camp carried with him a memorandum to be handed over to the politician. The speeches started, and the politician was thanked for showing his concern and agreeing to come over despite his busy schedule. The Camp President talked about the problems we faced, and even quoted a few lines written by an Urdu poet. The politician delivered his speech and there was loud applause; people cheered. I can still recollect his utterances:

'I am here to assure you that before the next rainy season you will be in your new flats. I can feel your pain. Next July, you will be given flats. I assure you.'

People became euphoric, happy and hopeful.

'And yes, take care of your health. You are safe now. We will help you. We will send you everything you need. And we will get the situation in Kashmir to improve so that you may return to your homes.'

The speech ended, and people became happy. Such moments of happiness were rare. During an exile, even a small thing spells hope, every little thing to cling on to means the world. And then began the waiting. The waiting for the promises to be fulfilled!

The years that followed brought mere dejection and anguish among the people. The government provided paltry relief and ration, while assuring us of building better shelters. Little did we realise that these were empty and hollow promises. Our condition was being pitied. We were not even a vote-bank. We were merely a liability for the authorities. We didn't matter. We were as good as the dead.

I became friends with the summer, despite the atrocities it unleashed. I parted ways with the winter; a year-long friendship came to an end. Then came more summers; terrible ones. Summers were devastating, ruthless, showed no mercy. We all looked withered. Years went by and my friendship with the summers strengthened. I faced the torment. I tried to be brave. I waited and waited. Perhaps this was one friendship I never desired, but endured through the difficult years. We became inseparable; we are one now. Though summers showed extreme hostility and tested our mettle in the beginning, we learnt how to grow used to them. Summer days gave me many sleepless nights, all drenched in sweat. My ancestors were the children of winter, of snow, of mountains. I was new to summer. We both were new to each other. The fight in those early years was always one-sided, as I had to wait the whole day to let the fury of my friend pass. A cool breeze would bring respite and scare away my friend.

I cursed the sun, I cursed the heat. I always dreamt of watching the snowfall. I dreamt of snow, of touching it, walking on it. Whenever I heard reports of snowfall in Kashmir, I would dream of leaving my quarters and going back to the distant land, the land of my birth, just to see the snow. I longed for snow. For many years, before sleeping, I imagined myself walking through a land covered entirely with tress and snow, walking through the fields and reaching the top of a mountain; this helped me sleep in the summers.

Sushant Dhar was one-and-a-half years old when his parents were forced to leave Kashmir because of militancy and political turmoil. He divides his time between Ludhiana where he studies and Jammu where his parents live in a camp for Kashmiri Pandit migrants at Muthi. His short stories have been published in the Indian Short Fiction magazine.