When I left Srinagar on 22 January 1990, I was in my 20s. I was escorting my sister to Delhi. We had to leave because three days before, militants had given a call for jehad across the Valley. Kashmiri Pandits, soft targets, were reluctantly trickling out. There was no doubt in my mind that I would returning in a few days for my final-year college exams.
It took me 13 years to return. <b1>
Day 1- A decade of devastation
As the plane scissored over the Pir Panjal ranges pointing me home, a mist as wet as a December morning of my birthplace fogged my eyes. Naively, I tried to clean the window as we landed at Srinagar. Out in the bracing 8-degree wind, I ran straight into the warm arms of my friend Fayaz.
Everything went by in slow motion, cushioning me from changes wrought by over a decade of devastation and creation. From the car; I saw greenery had given way to a mushrooming of bright new yellow, red and blue houses. We passed the majestic bungalow of Jamat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Hordes of gun-toting security personnel crisscrossed the streets. Bunkers punctuated every corner and crossing. I rattled off names of roads, to show that for me, nothing had changed. Or so I wanted to believe.
"Can we Kashmiri Pandits come back home now?" I asked. Fayaz assured me everything was normal.
But was it? Is it?
We stopped at my college. The principal and teachers were all there-as if time had stood still, only adding grey to hair and wrinkles to skin. Masood sahib took me to his room and other teachers steamed in. Soon, I was weeping shamelessly in the arms of Aftab Ahmed, my drawing teacher, and his eyes mirrored mine. I collected the addresses of my classmates and friends, and left with a dinner invitation from Masood sahib.
Leaving my luggage at the hotel, I walked out to Lal Chowk for a cup of coffee at my favourite Shakti Sweets. College girls and boys, hipper than I remembered, chattered in Urdu, rather than Kashmiri, over snacks and music. Walking back, I saw a security guard push three boys out from an autorickshaw with the muzzle of his gun, for a thorough frisking. People here have got used to it, but to me it seemed they lived in a huge prison, moving within walls tightly guarded by the police.
That night at Masood sahib's house, a smouldering kangri and hot kahwa melted away the dark and cold. We began to talk politics--what could we blame the misfortune of my generation of Kashmiri Pandits on?
It was the reason I had come back. Had we left without the dignity of a memory? Had we left behind a vacuum irreplaceable by ideology or power games? Or had we been routed, like in any old battle, stripped of honour and possessions, never to return without the use of equal force?
"Do you miss us--the Kashmiri Pandits?"
Replied Masood sahib, "In our heart of hearts we feel your absence". He said common people felt nothing had been achieved by militancy. But undeniably, the chasm between Pandits and Muslims has widened irreparably.
Masood sahib and his wife dropped me back--it is now safer to go out with one's wife after dark. There is no middle ground to stop at here; people oscillate like pendulums, between work and home, safety and fear.
Day 2-House hunting
You might remember the Shankaracharya Temple from Mission Kashmir. As a schoolboy, I would run up and down the hill on which it stands. Now the cab hiccuped to a stop for three security checks. Even God is not safe here, I thought and went for a shikara ride on Dal Lake.
I lay in the shikara, watching kids rowing boats. A few tourists on a houseboat were having pictures taken in traditional Kashmiri dress.
Back at the college, my friends, more long lost brothers, waited for me for that special cup of camaraderie--drizzled with a hope that youth inspires, warm with the belief that the world can be changed.
A couple of friends came with me to my house in Lal Nagar. We went down the lane once lined with Kashmiri Pandit homes. The nameplates had changed; houses not sold off looked shrunk and dirty, like badly washed clothes.
Three new houses and encroachments encircled 'my' house. Our plot had been divided into two and a new house stood over 'my' badminton court. We knocked for long before a nervous lady opened the door. Soon, I was sitting in what was my study, the tea suddenly salty with my tears. "Don't lose heart." the new lady of my house said. "We are like your parents, too. Come and stay with us in the summer".
I went to see my Muslim neighbours--once the only Muslim family in our lane. The son, Maqbool, hugged me. His mother was soon wiping my face with her chadar, recalling how my sister used to give her medicines when she was ill. She loaded me with walnuts and almonds for my parents, asking me to bring them back for the summer now that things were "normal". Her eyes were dark wells, sad like the ruined temple on the river bank across the colony.
The day kept rewinding in my head like a nonstop reel. That night I could not sleep. We had saved our lives, but lost everything else.
Day 3-Temples as fortresses
A big blast split the morning, followed by rounds of firing. My friend said everything would be fine in 15 minutes. If that's all the time it took between war and peace! <b2>
The famous Kheer Bhawani temple is a pilgrimage for Kashmiri Pandits, definitely worthy of the full CRPF battalion I found guarding it. Swami Vivekananda had stayed here once. A Muslim was selling puja samagri because all the Hindu shopkeepers had left. The CRPF pujari performed the puja. Over a cup of tea, served free by the jawans, I listened to talk of protecting Kashmir and safeguarding the nation. On the way back, people stared at me--an unusual sight--red tilak on my forehead, in kurta and pajami.
There was another house in my mind's album-my grandfather's house in Habbakdal, once a Pandit area with busy, narrow lanes. The lanes looked deserted now, crisscrossing around the once-popular Ganesh temple, looking like a fortress controlled by the army. My ancestral house was a pile of debris. The army had done it, people said. Shops of Kashmiri Pandits were shut.
Day 4-Bitter truths.
I went to the Jama Masjid; it was Friday. The shops were slowly opening, defying a bandh called by a militant group. I was told these days shops closed only if the Hurriyat called a bandh.
We got talking to two kids in school uniform. One of them smilingly wished demonstrators would start pelting the army with stones--"what fun!" For kids born in the last ten years, the game of Cops and Robbers has been replaced by a gorier one- 'Encounter'. I don't need to describe it.
It was time to leave. My friends said they abhorred the existing situation, but they were not to blame. They were fed up; they, too, wanted a solution.
"Will I find work here if I come back? Will I be safe?" I asked. They had no answers, except that things would change. They wished I would return, and they sent me away loaded with gifts. Like a bride.
I was alone. I wanted to be. "Will I ever be able to return"?" This time I asked myself. This is the answer I got: When you pour liquid in a cup, it adjusts its shape to fit the cup perfectly. What might have been the contents last night or last week is not relevant today. When my community lived in the Valley, we were part of the liquid in the cup. Now, we have lost our relevance. Others have taken our place. Today, there's no trace of us there.
(The story has been reproduced from Sunday HT magazine, 2003)