8 September 2016
Mother and Father have come from Jammu to celebrate Vinayak Chorum, known as Pann among the Pandits of Kashmir. On this auspicious day, roth (sweet bread) is made and an age-old story is told. The day marks the end of deprivation and the beginning of prosperity. Mother cleans the kitchen, washes the utensils, kneads the dough and makes roth. Then, in accordance with the ritual, she does what all Pandit women do. She assembles us in front of a vessel containing the roth and recounts a story that has been narrated for generations: Once upon a time in a village in Kashmir lived a woman, her husband and their daughter. They made a living by working in the households of the rich. One day, while working in a house, the girl sees the women making roth. She has never seen such a beautiful sight. When she returns home, she narrates the incident to her parents. Her mother tells her about their past. Once we had everything, says her mother. We celebrated Pann, too. Then, our fortunes changed and we were left with nothing. Sensing her daughter’s despair, the mother goes in search of some wheat and condiments. All she’s able to collect are five grains of wheat. She grinds them, washes them and makes roth. She places the five pieces of roth in a basket and covers them with a lid. Then she offers a prayer for the good times to return. When she lifts the lid off the basket, the five pieces of roth have turned into five gold coins. You returned to us whatever we had lost, she says to God. From now on, we shall always observe Pann on this day.
Mother pauses. What happens next? I ask her. If Babi were alive, she would have told us what happens next, Mother says. May we always be happy and flourish. May we always be together.
A day in September 1989
Our house in Downtown Srinagar, Kashmir
Sept ’89: In spring, Kashmir will become part of Pakistan, a Muslim neighbour repeats. What will you do that day?
Babi, my grandmother, is cleaning the house and making preparations for Pann pooja. The thread she has spun from cotton wool is dangling off her right ear lobe and holding the gold dejhor. I am eager to taste the roth and listen to Babi’s story. She asks me to sit beside her. She begins: Once upon a time, in a village not far from here, lived an adventurous little girl with her mother and father. Once when she was collecting walnuts in a forest, a lion descended from a mountain and blocked her way. The girl wasn’t scared. Just when the lion was about to pounce on her, she raised her hand and gave him a smack. Stunned at the girl’s valour, the lion ran for his life. The girl returned home and narrated the episode about her encounter with a lion to her parents.
My grandfather, father, mother, nine-year-old sister and I gather in the kitchen for the ceremony. After the Pann pooja, Babi resumes narrating the story of the family who had lost everything because of bad circumstances. As always, she doesn’t finish the story. She ends by offering a prayer: “May the darkness dispel. May we never get to leave our beautiful house, our beautiful land. May we live and die happily here. May our descendants flourish.”
Elsewhere in the Valley, women across 50,000 Pandit households narrate the same story and offer the same prayer.
Some of our belongings are lying next to tin trunks. Utensils. Bedding. Babi is preparing for the inevitable. Shamboo Nath, our neighbour, has sent his granddaughters to Jammu. Pandit families murmur about fleeing. We shouldn’t leave yet, one Pandit says. We will be killed if we stay, says another. Did you hear what the militants did to Niranjan’s son? They won’t spare us if we don’t listen to their demands. Ismail and his two sons are dumping arms into a pit in their courtyard. These arms will be used against us. This is a signal for us to leave.
Father decides to linger on for some more days. The very thought of leaving home is unsettling. May we never be thrown out of our home, Babi prays. She tells the story of the brave little girl over and over again. I know who the little girl in the story is. Fear has forced its way into our house. Outside, a frightful night reigns. In spring, Kashmir will become part of Pakistan, a Muslim neighbour repeats. What will you do that day?
The clamour for the ouster of Pandits turns louder through the ensuing night.
A day in January 1990
Babi visits the shrine of the great mystic, Reshi Peer, at Ali Kadal and the Roopa Bhawani temple, the birthplace of Roopa Bhawani, the 17th-century saint-poetess of Kashmir, and offers a niyaz (prayer and an offering) for continuity and fortitude. At Ishbar, Swami Lakshmanjoo’s ashram, she seeks solace.
A day in September 1996
A rented house in Barrian, Udhampur (Jammu Province)
I am visiting my parents during my semester break. Grandfather is holding a pack of playing cards and trying to arrange the King, the Queen and the Aces in various orders. One moment, he doesn’t recognise me. The next moment, he mistakes me for his father. I am your grandson, I say. Which class are you in, he asks. Don’t opt for the sciences. Study humanities when you grow up. I am studying literature at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, I say. Jawaharlal is a good man, he says. Sheikh Abdullah and he are great friends. Grandfather goes on and on. Father and I read about Alzheimer’s. Is there any hope? I ask Father.
Babi asks us to gather in the kitchen. After performing the pooja, she recounts a story different from all stories she has narrated on previous occasions. We are in Tulmul, she begins. It is springtime and everything is bourgeoning. Temple bells are pealing. Children are swimming in the naag. Jigri comes running. Devi has given birth, she says. What shall we name the newborn? Evening falls. Jigri is still undecided. Ninety seven thousand, seven hundred and seventy seven names aren’t good enough for Devi’s newborn calf.… After finishing the story, Babi offers a wish. May the darkness dispel. May we never get to leave our beautiful house, our beautiful land.
Babi pauses. We sit still. She begins again: May we return home soon. May we live and die there. May our descendants live happily and never be forced to leave again. Till then, may we remain together.
I go to the migrant camp nearby. Six hundred families are huddled inside the tents. The women have finished telling the story to their families. Had it not been for the story, they would have perished out of despair. The story has kept them going through the dark times. It has kept hope alive.
Grandfather doesn’t wake up on time. He has been an early riser ever since his youth. A mysterious smile is playing on his lips. Father decides not to wake him up. Let him dream. The happy dream mustn’t end, says Father.
A day in September 2016
Raging mobs of Muslim youth pelt stones at transit camps set up in the Valley for displaced Pandits employed under the prime minister’s special employment package. About 2,000 Pandit youth, whose parents live in migrant camps in Jammu, live in these transit camps. A friend and fellow writer, Pamposh Dhar, working in a government department in Srinagar, informs me of his decision to leave Kashmir. For good? I ask him. My worst fears have come true, he says. Militancy has revived. Our camp was attacked by stone-pelters. What next? I ask. I will return home to Jammu, says he, and resume my research. Pamposh’s parents live in Jammu in the Buta Nagar Camp for the displaced Pandits. For a decade, they had lived in a one-room tenement.
What kind of a homecoming has the government thrust on us? Once again, we’re being forced to leave our homeland. We’re the twice-displaced people.
We celebrated memory and kept hope aflame. But are we to accept rootlessness as our natural condition, forever?
Like many other youngsters who spent their early years in squalid camps in Jammu, were later given jobs in Kashmir, and then, because of persecution, forced to leave Kashmir once again and return to the camps, Pamposh, too, dangles between two ‘homes’—a long-lost home in Seer, Kashmir, and the one in Jammu where, after the exodus in 1990, he spent his exiled childhood. His has been a life of strange departures and arrivals. In his camp lives a Pandit woman whose relatives were massacred by militants in 1998 in Wandhama. Carrying the burden of the martyrdom of her relatives, she has been suffering alone since then. It is this burden of history that all Kashmiri Pandits will have to shoulder for the rest of their lives.
A day in October 2016
Mother informs me of the fate of her cousin, Rattan Nath Dhar. Nowhere to go, Uncle Dhar and his paralysed wife have sought refuge in an old age home run by Bee Enn Charitable hospital in Jammu. Their children are residing elsewhere and are waiting to be informed of their parents’ final departure.
A Kashmiri Pandit camp in New Delhi
The question—what will happen to thousands of displaced Pandits who have been languishing in camps and old age homes for a quarter of a century—should haunt the nation. Who in India will help us in our quest for justice? For two and a half decades, we celebrated memory and kept hope aflame. But are we to accept rootlessness as our natural condition, forever?
The mendacious designs of the secessionists in Kashmir include obstructing our efforts to return. Successive state and central governments have failed and betrayed us. Human rights activists of India have ignored us. But we won’t let Kashmir slip off our existence and memory. We will rise and rebel against those who are hell-bent on preventing our homecoming. But our rebellion will be through our writings and activism, not violence and propaganda.
Bhatta Mazar (the graveyard of the Pandits) in Rainawari, Srinagar, still bears testimony to the brutal repression of Pandits by Muslim dynasties that ruled Kashmir in the 14th and 15th centuries. Ratnipora, a village near Pulwama where, until 1990, 20 Pandit families lived, is now inhabited by a generation of Muslims who have no clue of the Pandits. Laar, a beautiful stream, flows quietly through Ratnipora. The remnants of an ancient temple stand tall among 30 new mosques that have come up over the last 25 years. They bear witness to a history that’s been erased by the locals.
All efforts for the political resolution of the Kashmir conflict must take into consideration the history and current status of Kashmir’s original inhabitants—the Pandits. Their existence precedes the history of Kashmir. There can be no resolution without their collective concurrence. Until their ghar wapasi happens, India’s Story will remain unfinished.
I envision a Kashmir where multiculturalism, secularism and syncretism blossom. Where Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, agnostics and atheists live in harmony.
When we get to return to Kashmir, we shall reclaim and rebuild everything that’s been desecrated and destroyed. Our homes. Our temples. Our culture. Islamabad will be called Anantnag once again. Koh-e-Maraan will be Hari Parbat again.
The Kashmiri word ‘Pann’ means thread. The pann holding the story of our ancestry, our history and our future has started to wear off. Yet, our part in the story is not over. For centuries, in our ancestral homes in Kashmir, and for the last two and a half decades in migrant camps and rented tenements in Jammu, our grandmothers and mothers have recited the story to us. It is time the world heard our story.
My grandmother’s story will remain unfinished so long as it’s narrated outside of Kashmir. Will I be able to keep the story alive with the same hope, the same conviction, and the same compassion? My mother thinks I will.
(Excerpted from Siddhartha Gigoo’s work-in-progress memoir. In 2015, he won the Commonwealth Short Story prize (Asia region) for The Umbrella Man.)