A shelter can never be home.
But just off the Akhnoor road running towards Poonch, lies Mutthi phase I, one of the many clusters of “shelters” for thousands of Kashmiri Pandits. They came here like I did, fleeing their homeland after Kashmir's unrest first began in the 1990s.
The people are real, but I found make-believe houses here.
Make-believe because each house has one room in all functioning as living, dining, kitchen — basically everything that a room measuring nine feet by fourteen feet can possibly be.
Make-believe because whole families are packed into them. Make-believe because there is hardly any space to lift an arm, and privacy is a strange concept.
Eight families share between them one toilet and only one bath. And most residents have a problem with the roofing which heats up in summer when temperatures cross 45 degree Celsius.
The Pandits are tired of the media; so when we met them courtesy former camp resident M K Bharat (he has built his own two-room set two kilometres away) they seemed such a sullen bunch.
In one room were we were listening to their pain, three-year-old boy Nausheen — whose name means “new snow” — was playing around me. He told me he had recently gone to Kashmir with his parents to Bandipora, their native place, and he had visited Mattan. He said he liked the mountains and rivers and had asked his parents to build a house there.
Grandfatherly Mr Raina, a retired police officer, does not have bitterness; he seems resigned to the current state of homelessness. “The Government has some compulsions. And it does not want Kashmiri Pandits to return,” he said.
But Raina tells an interesting tale of his escape from the valley. Apparently, it was the mother of a terrorist who warned him in advance and requested him and his family to move to a safer place.
While the elderly seem dejected, the younger generation seemed to nurse hopes of return. Surender, who is in his early 30s, works in the private sector and travels 70 kilometres to and fro every day.
“I will settle there one day — at least the hope will never die,” he said.
When I took my leave it was already dark. As I walked away the clusters turned into little dots of light. The voice of a woman singing a Kashmiri song wafted through the air. It seemed just like yesterday, the day that those women had left far behind — and forever dreamt of.