Updated: Jun 24
| This is the 470th story of Our Life Logs |
I was born in free India in 1979 on the outskirts of Srinagar in Kashmir. My father was a Kashmiri Pandit, a Hindu in a Muslim-dominated area. But in those days, it was no real threat other than the normal distrust between the two communities, which was prevalent all over India. Father used to work as a Collector in the Jammu and Kashmir Government which was a well-respected job in the small community. My mother was also a religious person but not too staunch in her outlook.
We lived in a big house, just like most houses in the region at the time, with a huge garden in the front, a spacious sitting area on the ground floor, and five bedrooms upstairs. There were a lot of fruit trees in our garden, and anyone was welcomed to pluck off an apple or a peach to eat. I remember we had a swing and a slide, and the neighborhood kids would come and play. I remember my best friend Razak, a Muslim boy of my own age, and I would go to school together and play silly games all along the way. I remember those innocent laughs. But all that was in the good old days which now seems like another place in a dream, very different from reality.
The problems started one fine evening on February 6, 1990, when a group of elderly Muslims from our neighborhood came to visit my father. The political situation in Kashmir was getting crazy by the day, and they had come to warn my father that we should leave by the next day as Kashmiri Pandits were on the crosshairs of the fanatics. They left peacefully after a while, but one of them, Razak’s father, told my father to move out soon and not to take this warning lightly.
Father hurried us off, and my mother and I packed up with another family who had a car and was moving out in the morning under a similar threat to be safe. Father decided to stay back as he said the government job would ensure that he was not harmed in any manner. But we were all wrong in our assumptions.
It took us two days to reach the outskirts of Delhi to a refugee camp set for Kashmiri Pandits and other Hindus from Kashmir. We were assigned a bed in a large tent with four more families. When we tried to call up father on his office phone, we were told that all phone lines were down. There were no mobiles, emails, or internet in those days. Even the news channels were banned from entering the region as everything was under a clampdown. The only news that trickled to us was from similar groups coming into the camp. And, unfortunately, news from such sources was usually not good.
We had no choice but to sit and wait out the days in the ever-growing hot climate of Delhi that none of us were accustomed to. The conditions in those camps were pathetic at best with no cleanliness and no privacy of any sort. Many fell ill due to the polluted surroundings, and many more died due to a lack of even basic medical facilities.
After around six months of living in the tent, we got news from someone who had recently reached the camp that all Hindu’s who had stayed back had been butchered. Mother was completely depressed in the beginning, but then, somehow, she found the strength to carry on. She kept telling me that father was fine and that he would find us one day. I guess religion kept her hopes up when every news appeared negative. At times I wanted to scream at her to wake up and see the reality but would contain myself. I was the only thing left for her and it just didn’t feel right to fight her and her beliefs. While deep down I wanted my father to be alive, my hopes were low.
But, we had to move on, regardless. We had to leave our tears behind and face our future, even though it looked dim. Mother tried for a while to get a decent job in Delhi. She was a graduate of Kashmir University, but her diploma had been left behind in our hurry. When our resources started to run thin, she had no choice but to take up work in the nearby households as a maid, washing clothes and utensils. She didn’t allow me to work a similar job to help her with our finances, and instead, she made me join a government school in the refugee camp. Later on, I found work providing tutoring for younger kids. This got us a bit of money to continue our life somehow.
The government support was waning day by day in providing food or news or any medical aids. Their usual reply was on the lines of, “Cannot help as you have no papers to prove you were living in Kashmir,” and it hurt our hearts every time we heard this.
There was one thing, thank God, that was fairly easily available to us: education. Through the government school that Mother sent me to and the library at the refugee camp, I was able to read and learn and soak up all the goodness in life. And eventually, it led me to enough marks to get admission in English Literature at a decent college in 1999.
By then, we had moved out of the refugee camp as I was able to make a little bit of money through the tutoring. I also made Mother stop degrading herself any longer working as a maid. We found a one-room flat near the refugee camp so that Mother could keep in touch with the others and, maybe, hear any news of Father. Memories of what we left still stung to even remember.
It was during college that I first got introduced to the internet. I used to chat on Yahoo a lot and was a frequent visitor of Kashmiri Pandit chat rooms to learn of the situation, but never could find any positive news. All of this made me very much biased against Muslim people, and I would actively avoid them during college.
A few years later through the chat portal, I was able to connect with Razak, my childhood friend and the only Muslim friend who was still in Kashmir. By this time, I had graduated and was working as a part-time editor at a publishing house. In the beginning, Razak and I were not sure how to rekindle our friendship, but he did give me the best news ever: my father was alive.
Father had been staying with Razak’s family ever since we left Kashmir. He had changed his name and religion to avoid the radicals as he could not get away when he had time. Phone calls were out of question, as the lines were restricted to military and government use only.
My mother, when told the news, seemed to become younger right in front of my eyes. It was as if all those years of silence and sadness had aged her, and I realized the weight of the depression she had kept locked up inside her while she presented me with a normal face every day for years on end. I understood how strong she was and found the strength to thank God whom I had shunned in private for many years till then. It was like a miracle, both my father’s survival and my mother’s transformation.
Razak soon became the most important point of contact between us and Father. We would wait patiently for the slow dial-up connection at the computer shop in the neighborhood to connect with Razak. Father had no idea that we were alive as well but, once we found him, he found room on a truck leaving from Kashmir and reached Delhi in around a month.
May 17, 2007. The height of summer in Delhi. It was a sad day, yet happy day when we met our father, who now looked like a Muslim. I, at times, could not even make myself touch him due to his appearance, but I could not live without knowing that he was alive and well. I would run into and out of our one-room apartment, going close to him and then running away in disgust. It was only after he had shaved his beard and changed into normal clothes at Mother’s insistence that I was able to hug him properly and cry my heart out. Mother also made him promise never to set foot again in Kashmir.
Father had somehow been able to save a few of our papers before they burned everything down. Through these papers, we were finally able to register ourselves as Kashmiri refugees. This registration allowed Father a small compensation. He also had a decent sum of money saved in the bank from his earlier employment, so we moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Delhi. The new apartment seemed like such an open space that I remember running all day long like a small kid, just like I used to in our orchard.
In all our newfound hope, life continued. In October 2009, I got married. Father found me a man, a “well-settled” Kashmiri Pandit as he’d say, through his contacts. The political situation by this time was more or less better in Kashmir, so for our honeymoon, we decided to visit our old houses.
We first went to see my family’s old house which was much closer to the bus stand. We could see that things had completely changed in those years. Almost none of the old buildings that I knew were there anymore. New structures had taken their place. There was also a huge presence of the military in the form of barricades, jeeps, and so on.
My heart was pounding as we reached the corner where my old home would have been visible. But when we turned, there was no house. I could identify our property line only from the huge pine tree next to the gate. The rest of the lawn and orchard I knew in my memory was all gone, replaced by a few bushes and only one small apple tree in the distance. The house had been burned down long ago; only the cement foundation and one wall, each blackened by fire, stood at its place. Wild plants had taken over what humans had destroyed.
My husband’s old house, as we found, was still standing. Though, it was now occupied by a strange Muslim family who wouldn’t allow us inside and later on, threatened us to leave or else. It was at that moment that we both decided never to return to Kashmir. There were too many painful memories attached to the place, and it was better to lock those memories down and leave them behind. It was time to truly move on.
It’s been more than 10 years now. I am now a mother of two, living a peaceful and content life with my family in Delhi. Through my journey, I’ve learned that one cannot hold onto the past forever and that we should always look forward and stay hopeful. Being forced to leave completely changed my life, but I don’t have to let the difficult memories run my future. I have the power to leave the past behind and search for better horizons.
This is the story of Asha Kaul
Asha now resides in Delhi, India, with her husband and two children. Growing up during the tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, Asha and her family were forced to flee the area for their own safety. Her father was supposed to come but wound up getting stuck there and the family had little to no communication until 17 years later when an old friend, Razak, helped them finally get him out and home once more. Her father died on December 3, 2019, but he died a happy man surrounded by a full family and in his own house–no longer a refugee. Asha says she will be forever grateful to Razak for helping her reunite with her father. They are still in touch, though inconsistently as internet connection is still a problem in Kashmir. Asha is a hard worker who somehow finds time to balance her professional and personal life with seeming ease. She is always ready to help a teammate with added work on her table or a receptive ear and wise advice.
This story first touched our hearts on December 18, 2019.
| Writer: P. Kasturi Rangan | Editor: Kristen Petronio, MJ |