When Kashmir, my lost home, welcomed me as a visitor
It was memorable. But it does feel awkward when you are received as a tourist in your homeland.
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Every summer, my wife plans a vacation and I have the same excuses - can't afford so many days off, a big project is coming up, we should head to the nearby hills for a couple of days, the tickets are not affordable, hotels are sold out, et al. The list of excuses is endless.
We fight, tease, banter and then she wins - and we head to an unexplored destination only to return with some incredible memories and experiences, minus the stress and worries of urban life.
I owe it to my wife to have followed this regime religiously for more than 15 years now and making me see people, places, cultures, geographies, landscapes which I would have missed otherwise.
In 2010, I was looking forward to my wife picking a destination so I could surprise her by replying to her suggestion in the affirmative without our customary squabbles.
However, fate had other plans, and she said she would adhere to my long-pending suggestion of visiting the mountains. I thought it would be really easy this time and it could be Kulu, Shimla, Dharamshala or some such.
On a mild note, she said, "We will visit Kashmir this time." I just couldn't believe it, she had heard personal traumatic accounts from the early '90s - of how my parents and I had escaped in the dead of night, forced to leave everything behind.No Kashmiri Pandit ever misses a visit to the revered site of Kheer Bhavani in Tulmul. Photo: Reuters
My response was a direct "No" in a harsh tone and, for the next two days, we barely spoke.
A singer, choreographer, performing artist, actor and sportsperson - my multi-talented wife - isn't one to give up easily. The next three days, she counselled me, reasoning with me that the situation was much better and a lot had changed. She told me about her visits to the Valley as a performing artist after 1995 - and how people welcomed her.
After a whole week of counselling and with great reluctance, hesitation and fear, I booked tickets to visit the place where I was born and brought up. It had been 20 long years since I had left the Valley.
We landed at Srinagar airport at around 3pm. Mushtaq was waiting with his white Sumo for us - we would check ourselves into a hotel near Dal Lake.
The moment I sat in the front seat of the cab beside Mushtaq, a strange fear returned. The familiar air of grenade attacks, crossfire and ice cold weather. I was suspicious of every child on the road - as if the children were waiting to stone us. More than anything, I was worried for my seven-year-old son.
Fifteen minutes of driving on the streets of Srinagar brought me back to a world where fear, terror, and murder were the norm - the world I had celebrated my miraculous escape from.
"Pakistan us gav Dakistan, kus trath chenke," Mushtaq's words brought me back to the present. It was he who had taken the lead in starting a conversation with me.
Mustaq was wishing devastation upon Pakistan, which has brought such despair and hardship to the people of Kashmir. I was taken aback. Mushtaq told me that he lives with his elderly, ailing parents, wife, three daughters and a year-old son. I avoided speaking about Pakistan, militancy or about me leaving the Valley.
By the time we reached the hotel, we had bonded like childhood friends; it seemed as if I had known him for years - we spoke the same dialect, shared jokes, had the same perspective about people, places, situations.
After spending a couple of days in Srinagar, we decided to go to Pahalgam. Mushtaq, like a typical Kashmiri, had developed a friendship with my son and was showering him with love and affection. My wife had told Mushtaq that our son was feeling lonely as he had no one to play with.
The next day Mushtaq came to pick up us for Pahalgam. I couldn't believe my eyes, the rear seat had three beautiful girls aged five, seven and nine. Mushtaq, lifted my son up and said ,"Gobrah, vaen ma gachek kunizun, vuch beney ayee," which means, "Son, you won't feel lonely now, see your sisters are here". It is difficult to put in words the expression on my son's face: he was delighted. The cab was full of laughter and it looked as if one big family was on a picnic.
No Kashmiri Pandit ever misses a visit to the revered site of Kheer Bhavani in Tulmul. My wife too wished to visit the place. As pilgrims, we couldn't have had the food served at hotels - which included preparations with onions and tomatoes as well as non-vegetarian fare. Mushtaq was listening to our conversation keenly. At once, he said, "Kehne parvai, be anah, mauj aes vaise te vanan ghare anuk batas peth (My mother was already keen on inviting you home, I shall ask her to prepare meals for you.)"
Now, I didn't know how to respond to Mushtaq's offer. My grandmother, an orthodox Hindu, would have been annoyed at the possibility of eating in a plate touched by a Muslim. And Mushtaq wanted to cook a meal for us pilgrims as well as visit Kheer Bhavani. Saying "no" to Mushtaq would have made even God unhappy, so I obliged.
Now, it was a rare sight: Mushtaq with his daughters in tow, my wife, son and I - all relishing a meal cooked by a Muslim woman, at a sacred Hindu temple. I still can't get over the taste and the warmth with which he served the delicious meal to each one of us.
The last place we wanted to visit was Sonmarg as my son wanted to watch the snow and ride a sledge. He was running a mild fever and refused to eat anything. It had become a habit for Mushtaq to reach on time with his lovely daughters, and soon we headed for Sonmarg.
The children were beside themselves with joy and rolled all over in the snow, not bothering about the cold. Sledge rides and snow fights, the children couldn't get enough of the joy. I was very apprehensive about my son's health, as he had not eaten anything.
All that was being served at the tourist haunt was Maggi and tea - and so we sat near one of the shops and ordered for the meal. My son refused to have anything. Mushtaq's elder daughter asked my wife to hand over the plate to her and to our surprise, she made feeding him look so easy.
We visited several other places - Hazratbal, Jama Masjid, including our abandoned house in Chanpora.
A week's visit to Kashmir was memorable. Yes, even though it does feel awkward when you are received as a visitor in your own homeland. However, as long as people like Mushtaq live in Kashmir, the feeling of being home will not fade. We are still in touch with Mushtaq and call each other on festivals. He is and will remain a part of our family.