30 years of Pandit exodus: A homecoming that felt empty
I kept alive the memories of summer afternoons spent on the deck of the peaceful Nagin lake; the smell of burning fire in the biting cold of the winter and the sight of the tall, fragrant army of daffodils announcing spring in our yard.Updated: Jan 19, 2020 06:46 IST
The drive from house number 88 in Srinagar’s Rainawari that was our home to room number 18 in Jammu’s Circuit House that became our refuge was 12 hours long, but our journey has not yet ended.
What began on a winter morning in 1990, set US on a course that became a 30 year-long epoch in which we have kept alive the memory of home, nurtured the hope of returning to it but also learnt to brace the unbearable truth that we’ve lost our home.
For years, I followed a routine. Every day, I reminded myself of who we are, where we came from and what we left behind. I traced and retraced my way home; home always being what we left behind.
I forced myself to remember flavours, sights, smells and sounds.
I kept alive the memories of summer afternoons spent on the deck of the peaceful Nagin lake; the smell of burning fire in the biting cold of the winter and the sight of the tall, fragrant army of daffodils announcing spring in our yard.
I admonished myself for forgetting how the snow felt against the skin.
Remembering home was therapeutic during days of despair. Remembering home, after we lost it, also brought its share of pain. Sometimes there was a trigger; sometimes it was just the stab of separation.
I struggled to recreate the home I remembered in the house we tried to build. But it is never the same; even the irises in the winter are not the same blue.
But memories are also ephemeral. They sometimes come to haunt and then simply vanish. It felt like betrayal when I struggled to remember names or faces or the tiniest detail of the home we left at the crack of dawn, never in doubt that we would return.
So I replayed, as in the movies, those last moments; taking a good look at the house, soaking in every last instant. Running up to my mother’s room one last time, where hidden behind wooden-lattice windows at night, we spied upon the voices that sang songs for Azadi (freedom).
Over the years, I began to include people in this mental inventory of routes, experiences and possessions. These 30 years have not only kept us away from home, but have also taken away some of its people.
Now, when I recreate home, as I remember it, there are missing people everywhere. My grandfather’s favourite spot by the window is empty, the family matriarch is not on her perch; many faces are gone, and with them the sound of their laughter. A home is not just an address, it is also the people.
Somewhere along these years — spent pining for home and fighting the urge to let go and set its memory free — I vacillated between the resolve of never going back to the house we lost to battling the fear of never being able to return.
How would it feel to be back in the old neighbourhood? How would it feel to find the home with its clunky metal gate and a winding pathway gone? How would it feel to see a new house there that belongs to strangers?
Would it be easy to walk up to the new owners and tell them who I am; would I ask them if they kept a relic to remind them of the people who lived there before them? I would surely ask if they kept the journals my father wrote; or the pictures of happier times, perhaps a piece of paper to documents our lives.
Would I be angry, despondent or jealous? I rehearsed what it would be to stand before that old house with its number scrawled in green, wearing its age and a certain snootiness that comes from having seen better days.
And, finally, there I was one August morning of 2019, at the cul-de-sac near home.
There was nothing left of it; not the tall trees, no clunky metal gate, no familiar face; just a cluster of houses covering every inch of space and blocking out the sky. I stood outside those houses that have erased our home, feeling no anger, no jealousy and no lump in my throat.
I walked away feeling empty.