Our car was just emerging from the darkness of the Banihal tunnel into the searing bright daylight of the Kashmir valley. It was at this point that my 10-year-old son sprang from his seat and asked the driver to stop. He got out, spread his arms and shouted, “Kashmir, main aa gaya!”
It was 2009, nearly two decades since I had left the valley, and ever since he was born, I had fed him with stories of my life there. He wanted to see what had once been my house in Lal Nagar, 5 km from the centre of Srinagar, to see snow on the nearby peaks, to feel the grass underfoot and breathe the air that sparkled.
In the event, we never made it to my house – it happened to be the day two unfortunate women were raped in Shopian, allegedly by the security forces – and the Valley went into lockdown.
It was the second coincidence that split me from home. The bigger one was on January 19, 1990, the day our lives changed for ever: It was also my birthday.
It was a cold night. I was at my study table, preparing for my final year exams, kangri or earthen pot heater nearby. Suddenly the lights went out. And from the broken window of my bathroom, I heard a voice asking, "Where is my sword? I will kill them."
The phone rang. It was our neighbour: Call your papa. No, I can’t tell you what it is.
My father, a professor who used to sleep early, woke to take the call and kept a carefully neutral face. There’s a problem, was all he would say. The phone kept ringing, from across the Valley.
That night, all across the Valley, out went the call from the minarets of mosques: Ralliv, czhaliv ya galliv. Become part of us, run away or die.
The next morning was bright and chilly. I opened the door to our milkman, Latif, who was also a friend. For the first time in the ten years we had been there, he couldn’t look me in the face.
My sister, whose wedding was just months away, left with me on the 21st, my parents the following month. My mother carried a cyanide pill tied in the pallu of her saree.
With no hope of going back, we sold our house a decade later. We got to hear that our ancestral home in Habba Kadal, ours for five generations, had been razed to the ground.
I remember as if it were yesterday the covered balcony overlooking the Jhelum river where we used to sleep, the song of fishermen in the river that used to drift upwards and lull us to sleep, and the fragrance from the rose bushes nearby.
What hurt Papa most? The loss of the 6,000 books he had in his home library, mercilessly ransacked. The death of his mother, who spent her final years in a small apartment in Delhi. The only thing she wanted was to die in her Kashmir home. We never told her it had been destroyed; it was the least we could do.
Read: ‘From tent to tenement in 20 long years’
(Ashutosh Sapru is Hindustan Times' national editor, design)