01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

Awakening: A Tale Of Metamorphosis In Kashmir

'Kashmir, my motherland, looks like a chimera to me... We are blessed and damned at the same time. But I didn’t have this understanding for a long time.'

Winter in Kashmir
Winter in Kashmir Shutterstock

“My grandfather was in love with a girl from another caste. His family was very against it. But my grandfather couldn’t leave the girl, my grandmother.” Muddasir Ramzan’s words tread on the sacred grounds beyond limitations. 

Events followed, Kashmir transformed into an unknown place.

… yes, moving out was a blessing. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have dreamed and worked this hard to settle in the first world.

… I paid a great price for it: I sacrificed the soul of Kashmiriness in me. I now realise that is the real wealth. 

Kashmir, my motherland, looks like a chimera to me. Yes, the place is far off from me, physically, but I have never let it off my heart. I long to feel again like I felt in my teenage who believed Kashmiris are special. We are blessed and damned at the same time. But I didn’t have this understanding for a long time.

When I was working in Tel Aviv, I felt an affinity with a local lab mate. When he heard me loathing my Muslim brethren for kicking my community out from their homeland, he said: “This anger is good. It gave you motivation. And a purpose. I am not saying that you should be thankful to your people, I know little about your migration and your people. You know best. Though I think people are the same everywhere. But for a community, you shouldn’t act selfish and think only of those who share your religion. As a Muslim living among Jewish settlers I am telling you this: try to understand common ordinary people, especially those who are on the other side of the divide. Whom you know very well. They are also the victims, the real ones.” His simple words didn’t carry any meaning for me at that time. I didn’t think he was any intelligent. But the way he said it, with those long silences in between and with that emotional tone, I felt something changed in me. Not immediately, but yes, I started embracing my people. The last time I had visited Kashmir was just after the attacks of 9/11 to bury my uncle’s last remains in Gangbal. And I could relate to what Muslims are doing to my homeland. 

However, I can feel the transformation within me. The tree of hatred which I had planted during my staying away from Kashmir began to burn, and I do not want it to rise again from the ashes like the phoenix. I could understand the words of my Muslim friend much better now. It uncovered my own blunders and ignorance, which had walked with me all this while like a faithful companion. It is part of me. I am an illusion. I have to stop this deceptive companion within me. While I am doing this, I am reminding myself of a part of my childhood: 

It was Thursday, 13th October 1983. Kashmir was scheduled to host its first international cricket match between India and West Indies. Uncle, Ram Dhar for others, had provided me with a pass to watch this first international cricket match at Srinagar. I was lucky to have been born in a family which had close ties with the people in power. Ram Uncle was open to the realities around him. He told me that people will remember this day. History will mention it. Everyone, like me, was excited. There had been a shift in the choice of sports in our people. I always thought our preferred game was football, not cricket, but the enthusiasm Kashmiris displayed for this cricket match between India and West Indies spoke otherwise.

It was dimly lit when I opened my eyes. Because of the excitement, I couldn’t sleep more. Lazily, I kept lying on the bed, thinking of the day, until it was late.

I arose with the thoughts of enthusiasm – no school today, only celebrations. Uncle asked me to get ready soon, he offered to drop me at the Sher-i-Kashmir Stadium. I wore my favorite jacket and jeans. I had breakfast in a hurry. Put on boots that I had polished the previous evening. As I came out of our house, followed by my aunt, I saw Ram Uncle was waiting for me to join him with Bashir Sahab, his driver. He teasingly said, “See, here’s our hero, you should join Bollywood.” I gave him a reluctant look, and we left. To strike a conversation, Ram Uncle humorously told his driver:

“Sameer has some message for me, his Aunty has whispered something special in his ears.”

A smile escaped my lips. I emphasized: “Uncle ji, it is what she always says – loads of instructions to be careful, and so on.”

His tone suddenly turned serious: “Yes, she’s right. I know you don’t fight, but don’t mess with city boys. Just take it easy. And if you won’t be able to find a bus or a taxi home, you know where to come, don’t you?” 

“Yes, your office.”

“Right. Otherwise enjoy. Here’s some money, take it.”

“Thank you, Uncle ji.”

“O come on. I am your father, stop calling me Uncle.”

I tried to respond, but I couldn’t find any words. “How can I call you my Daddy,” I thought to myself. I was a little silent. Uncle read my anxiety. He eased it with a joke, and we laughed, or we pretended so.

Unlike most Kashmiris, my family, like me, didn’t like cricket much. Because it was a special event in the valley, and everyone talked about it, Uncle arranged a ticket for me because he thought my friends would be watching it as well, and he never wanted me to lag behind.

We continued to talk. Uncle was in the mood of talking that day. Bashir Sahab had this incredible peace reflected on his face like his heart was happy whenever he watched Ram Uncle in a jolly mood. Bashir Sahab was like a father figure for my Uncle. He was always grateful to Uncle and would often mention how Uncle helped him in his difficult times. He was like our family member. Every time his younger daughter – who was in college, my senior – prepared some special dish, like Harisa or Halwa, we would get our share.

For me, his daughters were like my elder sisters. Bashir Sahab was relieved for his elder two daughters. He thought it was impossible to marry Saima Didi and Hira Didi (that is what I called them that time, but I don’t know where are they now!) without the help of Uncle. Bashir Sahab’s father had given my grandfather – Makhan Lal Dhar, first infamous and later very famous in the town – some portion of his land and a room from his home to settle down.

My grandfather was in love with a girl from another caste. His family was very against it. But my grandfather couldn’t leave the girl, my grandmother. They left their families and married in some temple in Jammu. They had to hide for several months from both the families, my grandfathers and grandmothers’.

My grandfather had thought that his family will accept him after some time, but it never happened. Instead, his father and uncles distributed the share of his property with their other sons. Their elopement story was very famous. They had to start from zero in this new town, among the new people who were different but sympathetic. They were the inspiration for many young lovers. Of course, my grandparents paid Bashir Sahab’s father when they started earning money, but money can never repay what they had done for my family.

Everything was going well with our family. My father was promoted to a senior lecturer in English at Gandhi College, and my mother taught social sciences at a local Government school. Shortly after Uncle finished his degree from the College of Engineering, he was recently appointed as a civil engineer. Bubb, my grandfather, was proud that his struggles in providing the best education to both of his sons bear promising results. I remember Ram Uncle’s wedding. It was a huge celebration. Because he was the last one left, Bubb had spent an enormous amount of money on his marriage as if he knew it would be the final such celebration for the family. Everyone was invited. There was an incredible Band Pather show too, and people from faraway places joined us to watch the play. The wazwan served in the marriage, the kind of shamiana adopted, the specific copper plates used in the ceremony, gold and money given to the bride, and every other thing – all of it made that marriage a subject of debate in our area. Many accused us of inventing many new customs and spending lavishly on useless things, which set a standard and made it difficult for the poor to marry. As time passed, the only worry that bothered my family was that Uncle and Aunty didn’t have a child. They had one who could survive only a few hours. Aunty had developed some infection, and the doctors removed the uterus from her body. And Moji, my grandmother, would accuse Bubb of his show-off and pompous celebration at the Uncle’s marriage has brought some evil for our family.

I cannot forget that dark day, which changed everything. I was studying in the 7th grade. While I was in the classroom, someone informed the teacher to send me to the principal’s office. I went to see the principal in fear and excitement, and I was amazed at how he treated me. “How could he be so soft and loving,” I wondered. He asked me if I would like to go on a picnic with him someday, to which I hesitantly said “yes.” He told me that my family informed him, “If he could leave Sameer a little earlier today.” He asked me if I would want to go to my home now, I said “ok.” He ordered a peon of the school to accompany me. It was so difficult to understand the situation at that time, and there were strange questions in my head: why was the principal trying to make me laugh, and why would he want me to go for a picnic with him, and why would he send a peon with me. We reached near my town with all these doubts inside me. I noticed people looking at me sympathetically. As we crossed the road, I heard women’s wailing. I remember I was received by Farooq Boejan, our next-door neighbour. He told me everything: that the taxi which carried my parents, who had gone to see my maternal grandfather in Jammu, had an accident, and they aren’t able to trace the taxi from the Khooni Nalla. The shock hit me like a stone, I was paralyzed for some time (or I believed I was), and I have a very dim memory of what unfolded next.

The next thing I remember is that I was in the lap of Bubb. He wasn’t letting others come forward to me. He guarded me against everything like someone would take me away from him too, like my parents. The one person who suffered most from this incident was him. Grieved because he thought my life would be challenging without my parents and because he could not cremate his son and daughter-in-law, he possibly acquired some traumatic syndrome. He couldn’t come out of that shock. Moji was pretending strong. She always narrated stories of hope, survival, profound loss, control, and their own struggles to start a new life when they had nothing. She was trying to infuse strength into our hearts so that we could move on. It helped us, but not Bubb. He never prayed after that incident and never cared if God really existed or not. He wasn’t religious anymore.

Along with the other things, like the equal portion of the property for me, Bubb has written in his will that there should be no religious ceremony followed after his death. He should be buried simply. Uncle tried his best to bring him back: he took him to Delhi, where the best doctors and psychotherapists treated Bubb. The treatment was adequate but not permanent. One day we roused from a night’s sleep and found out that Bubb couldn’t. “He died in peace,” that’s what Moji said.

Moji followed her husband after the third year of Bubb’s death. It was just after I was done with the CBSE part 1 exams. I was on a tour. I was informed about her death only when I was back. I was angry, depressed, sad, and devastated. That night, it was the first time Uncle talked to me like I was an adult. He expressed his love as a parent. He said he felt like a father when I was born. He always treated me like his own son. He said we should accept this reality – that my Uncle and my aunty are now my parents – and embrace life. They thought it is God’s will, and they happily adopted me as their son. It was up to me to call them whatever I wanted. I knew Ram Uncle wished I could call him Daddy, and Aunty would prefer to be called Mommy. They wanted me to replace my parents in letter and spirit. But they never enforce on me anything that could have made me feel uncomfortable. They are my parents, I have accepted that, but I don’t know why I couldn’t call them Daddy and Mommy. I’ve rehearsed it many times in my head, but my real parents’ pictures would stream on my mind every time I tried it. So I stopped it.

There was that void in the house, in the empty rooms, that silence followed by grief. Like, we had owed my parents and grandparents for the necessary crime of living on without them. We looked at each other to understand our sorrow. The sorrow wanted us to remember those who are not with us anymore; it also wanted us to move on.

I don’t think my own parents would have been so supportive and caring to me, and maybe I couldn’t have had the freedom that I had. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so sensitive to the world around me if I had my parents alive. Life would have been different. Yes. This life is different, as well. I am blessed. I should accept that.

When that accident happened, which killed my parents and the grandfather’s will to live, Bashir Sahab was the one who took care of us. He had great faith in humanity. He helped us to overcome the tragedies that had befallen us. It was challenging for Ram Uncle to bear all these tragedies, but what choice did he have other than accepting the reality and moving on. Of course, everyone in our village took our family’s deaths as a tragedy befallen the whole town. It was like everyone lost someone special. This sharing of grief by the entire community made it easy for us to accept that truth. Sorry, I forgot to mention what happened during the first international cricket match in the valley.

The jeep travelled on the road guarded by huge poplars, running with us in parallel lines, and in between were overgrown gardens, laden with all types of apples, where some were overtly empty and naked. The seasonal change had brought cold earlier that year, and in the morning, the freshness in the air had added more effect to the cold winds. Some older vendors selling apple boxes and corn to the travellers had already put on pherans, though it was not yet the season to wear pherans. And while reaching Srinagar, they drove, for me, on the main road, not onto any bypass. I was able to witness the peaceful Lalchowk in the morning silence. The shops were still closed. They dropped me at the entrance of the stadium. The people in droves were already present at the stadium’s door, waiting for the security personals to let them in.

I waited, like all others, in excitement. Soon there was an announcement, and I saw people making queues. And I let myself in one. In a few minutes, the line was so long that it stretched up to the Burn Hall School, making turns and curves. Finally, after the security persons at the gate examined me, my backpack, and my ticket and identity card, I made myself into the stadium. I looked for a familiar face to while away the waiting time, and I found one soon. Dar, my senior at SP College, with his friend Bilal, were standing in the front row. They were happy to see me there.

We sat on our chairs. Some people were trying to find a way to get into the dressing room to get a closer look and shake hands with cricket-stars; some wanted autographs from their favourite cricketers, but it was guarded with massive security. India elected to bat first. Shortly when the match started, people started booing and jeering at the Indian cricketers. I was watching, confused. “Should I stay here or leave?” I had always accused myself of thinking like a grown-up person and not celebrating life as it is for a teenager. That day I again felt like a child. I took part in those shouting and calling Indian cricketers with different naughty gibes. It was such a great amusement. I had experienced happiness like that after a long time. People were supporting the opposite team, not the one which represented our country, India.

During the breaks, some people went on to the main pitch. Though the pitch wasn’t tumbled down, they could have continued the play, but the disturbances created by the local people who tried to dig the pitch made them call more security into the ground. They couldn’t stop the large portion of the Kashmiri audience from insulting and jeering at the Indian players. There was nothing that could have prevented the public.

I didn’t wait for the match to end. I left the stadium during the inning break. I wanted to leave home with Uncle. But before going to his office, I thought it was better to stroll through the market of Lalchowk and eat something. Because of the match, there weren’t many people in the market, many shops were closed. However, I had a chola puri from a newly built sweets shop at Residency Road. The clouds started gathering, and soon there was rain. I boarded an auto that lifted me from Ghanta-Ghar and dropped me at Karan Nagar. Uncle Ji was happy to see me. He introduced me as his son to his colleagues and associates, who were discussing the match at Uncle’s office. They had heard about what happened during the game. Uncle told them that I came from there, and they wanted me to narrate what exactly happened. I expressed precisely whatever my teenage eye and memory could witness.

They’ve had heard more, which I had missed because I left earlier. It had started getting dirtier during the second inning. The people made it difficult for the Indian fielders to play, particularly those surrounding the boundaries. After a while, nature felt pity at the Indian players. It came down in the form of rain and saved the Indian players from further embarrassment. India lost the match, and with it, the dignity they had before playing the game.

Uncle and his associates were worried about this behaviour of some of the Kashmiris. They were talking about the impacts it could have on the valley. They were explicit about some points this incident would unfold. We were not mindful of our religious identities. We were not Hindus, Muslims, Christians, or whatever; we were only Kashmiris. But “this incident and the resentment in some of the valley’s Muslims could change us,” we thought. Maybe when I – a Hindu – thought about it, it forced me to think about these-like incidents because we were a minority in a Muslim-dominated valley but that doesn’t mean it’s not equally my home, I thought, “why don’t we resist foreign power which my Muslim friends have started identifying confidently”. However, I couldn’t dare to ask this to my uncle and his friends. 

I was becoming aware of my identity. I knew that my uncle would never ask me to stop being friends with Dar and his group, but I felt I didn’t belong with them. The rain had stopped. Bashir Sahab was waiting for us just outside the building. Smiling when he caught our sight. His round face, with a thick beard, which had grown white at his chin and on his temples, and his wearing a skull cap that covered almost half of his forehead and his sky-blue attire would never change for me, I promised to myself. He had bought some street food for me. We left. Uncle Ji told me that Aunty would be anxious for me if she would hear anything about what happened in the stadium. Aunty was relaxed to see me. She wasn’t worried, only for there were rains that could’ve caused some trouble. It’s not that she didn’t hear about what happened during the match. She was – like most Kashmiris – celebrating it. She hadn’t allowed other thoughts in her mind, which Ram Uncle and his associates made me think about. The evening news on radio broadcasted the winning interview of the West Indies captain, in which he mentioned that he felt like he was playing in his home ground.

Spending time in Dad’s library helped me a lot, besides expanding my imagination. He inspired me to think on my own. A few years later, Uncle felt a change in Kashmir, and it worried him. I was studying science for my intermediate, I had an interest in writing. Uncle made me prepare for film studies and scriptwriting. It excited me. Ram Uncle bought a flat in Pune, where I joined a local college. First, I left the valley, and later my (new) parents joined me. Shortly, we would be spending only summers in the valley now. My father continued to support Bashir Sahab. He gave him the responsibility of our land and home in Kashmir, everything we’d there. Aunty didn’t agree to leave her homeland and settle in a place alien to her. But when Uncle found a job as a senior consultant in a firm to the north of Pune, she happily agreed to migrate.…

The rest is desolation. I am like that lost lover whose beloved has left him in his adulthood, no sooner than they made their first love, disillusioned, who has lived most of his life staying away from her, realising later in his life that all his actions were only reactions to his unfulfilled love and he has lived all his life in her memory, and who is now ready to leave everything for her… but she is already dead. The memories of that syncretic culture are haunting me. I couldn’t be like my grandfather or my Uncle. I never bothered about Bashir Sahab. I don’t know if there is anyone alive in his family. I couldn’t keep my promise. I should have stayed in touch with him, or if he is dead, I should have found about his daughters, who raised me like their own brother. This is what anger and hatred could do to a human: it left me with nothing other than regret and an undefined loss. 

(Muddasir Ramzan is an emerging writer and a researcher who completed his PhD from the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University. His doctoral thesis focused on British Muslims and recent developments in postcolonialism and Islam. His research and creative work have appeared in prominent magazines and newspapers. Views expressed are personal.)