I was 20 when I left the Valley --- 20 years and one day old to be precise. Possibly that is why when I returned to Jammu, where I had stayed after having to leave the Valley, I was eager to talk to the youngsters in the Pandit refugee camp.
I was keen to compare: Were they as Kashmiri as I was then – and as innocent or as carefree? Did the longing for the Valley play in their minds like it does in mine, until now?
Sandeep Khera looks like any other 16-year-old urban teenager. Tall and well built with short cropped hair and a silver stud in his left ear. This eleventh standard student visits the temple (there is a replica of the Kheer Bhawani in the Janipur area) with his parents on ashtami, idolises cricketer Zaheer Khan, and does not know when N
(the Kashmiri new year) falls. "Isn't it 31st December?" he asks me.
There is another thing he does not know --- why Kashmiri Pandits had to leave the Valley. Ask him and he will tell you, "My parents never exactly told me why. And now I don't ask. But maybe we did something. That is why we had to leave." As simple as that.
But then for the youth living in the m
or the settlement camp in Jammu, the Valley is not even the memory it is for their parents or older siblings. Most of these youngsters were born in the camp and this is the only life they know. And those that came away made the transition as infants and have next to no recollection.
So shocked as I was to see the conditions in which these young men and women were growing up, that I knew there was no scope for pity. They had never known what it was like to live in one's own house, forget one's own soil.
I thought of the 'new house' my father had built in Lal Nagar in Srinagar's Channapura neigbourhood. It was one storeyed but spacious and nicely spread out. There was a badminton court and a garden where apple trees grew. In one corner of the house I had even put up my own little studio where I would paint in peace.
I asked one of the boys if the 'lack of space' was a huge botheration. "Everything happens in this one room. The TV is on, mother is cooking, grandparents are also there and this is where I study." Khera was not complaining, just telling it as it were.
And to think I still grudged the beast called militancy the canary yellow walkman I left behind. There had been no time to pack.
But most parents in this camp do not like to discuss their losses, at least not with their children. One father said it was the only way not to pass on the trauma and the angst.
And though one cannot be absolutely sure, no one is pressing for answers now.
Neither are these young Pandits wearing their religion on their sleeves. But then neither did we. I remember swimming with the other boys in Doodh Ganga, playing cricket --- Hindus, Muslims, it didn't matter.
It is nineteen-year-old Rajinder Sharma's first election as a voter. Even as I was asking him questions about his political affiliations it occured to me that I had never voted in the Valley. I was not very interested in politics but somehow so many years later I felt a bit cut up about it.
But this college kid, his casual tone notwithstanding, seemed to have thought his mandate through. And though he says he does not seem to think much about the electoral process he is pretty clear that religion alone can't get votes. "Vote is a formality. Nothing will happen. So many Hindus are fighting elections. If there is a right Hindu candidate he will get votes."
Again, frighteningly simple they made it sound.
Banerjee Raina (25) is older than Khera and Sharma. And unlike them his student days are over. Till the time of the Amarnath agitation he was working in the IT sector and was posted in Srinagar. After that, anxious about his safety, his parents called him back to Jammu.
It is from him that I learnt that thing like music bands are not unknown to the valley. His brother apparently had formed one such band and the group played at wedding and other functions.
There are a lot of things in my life for which I hold the migration responsible, but not my career. I was still in college when a senior left for Delhi, he was going to join a prestigious national magazine. Today I cannot rememeber what exactly he had told me but from then on that became my goal --- that job in Delhi.
I asked Khera what he wanted to do for a living. "Join the army. Protect Bharat," he replied simply.