Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Kashmir: Nazar Lag Gayi

“If there be a paradise here upon this earth,
It is this!
It is this!!
It is this!!!”

Wrote the poet about Kashmir. He might as well rewrite the poem:

“If there be a hell here upon this earth…!”

Photo courtesy: Trend Updates

This the saddest thing that I have witnessed during my lifetime – the metamorphosis of Kashmir.

Kashmir was home to our family. Grandfather had built a great doubled-storied house in Srinagar. Rawalpindi used to be our winter home and Srinagar our summer home. But after the Partition we shifted to Srinagar for good and I spent my entire childhood there. We still own some land in Srinagar and I am still a State Subject.

Like Paris, which Hemingway called “a moveable feast”, Kashmir also gets into one’s blood and having lived there for any length of time, one carries it in one’s heart wherever one goes. However far away I might have wandered from Kashmir – be it to Mumbai or Delhi, Calcutta or Moscow, England or the US – Kashmir has always been with me and the longing to return to it has never left me. Kashmir does something to one’s soul. It beckons you all the time.

Photo courtesy: Flickr

Three of my cousin sisters, now in their eighties, who, after marriage, had to leave Srinagar and settle in Delhi and Bombay, are now in their eighties and have bought a plot of land just outside Srinagar. It is their wish to be buried there after they have breathed their last.

Dad’s heart was also in Kashmir. He often expressed a desire to chuck it all and settle in Kashmir for good. I am glad he is not alive to see what his beloved Valley has come to.

The Kashmiris were never a warlike people. They have always been artists. They make beautiful artifacts — paper mashie objects, carpets, they are masters of woodwork, they make excellent shawls and do marvellous embroidery work and like all artists, they are a sensitive and emotional lot. They are easily moved. They have a great tradition of philosophers, poets and writers. Kashmir has been the home of Sufi saints who preached secularism from time immemorial and Sufi thought has been one of the main components of what people call “Kashmiriyat” (“Kashmiri-ness”).

Photo courtesy: Alamy

I do not remember if there was any religious prejudice in Srinagar when I lived there as a child. In my school days. I mixed freely with the Muslim lads, spent a lot of time in their homes, shared food with them and even stayed overnight with their families. No one in our house objected to that. And they came over and spent their days with us. Diwali and ‘Eid were celebrated with gusto by both Hindus and Muslims. There was a lot of mutual embracing and back-slapping on these occasions. During the Partition, no Hindu Muslim riots ever took place in Kashmir. It was paradise indeed till the ‘invaders’ (a motley gang of tribal fighters from the NW Frontier provinces hired by Pakistan) attacked from across the border in 1948. They created havoc wherever they went. They looted, pillaged and raped (even some of the Nuns in the Convent in Baramulla).

Photo courtesy: Pinterest

And the Kashmiris rose one and all to defend themselves.

Photo courtesy: Search Kashmir

The Indian Army, when it arrived to save Kashmir from the ‘invaders’, was welcomed with open arms. And now? When I landed in Srinagar after a gap of almost a decade and a half in 1979 to shoot a TV serial there called “GUL, GULSHAN, GULFAM” I kissed the ground as I stepped out of the plane. Most people thought I had gone mad.

Photo courtesy: Hindustan Times

We had hired three houseboats on the Dal Lake and a hotel on the shore where the film unit could stay. But I chose to stay in the houseboat with the families of the boatmen. I spoke a bit of Kashmiri. I spent all my time with them so as to get my teeth into the character that I was playing. They cooked great meals for me. It was like coming home.

But it soon became evident that Kashmir was no longer what it used to be. An organization called the JKLF had begun to make its presence felt. There were frequent cross firings in the Dal Gate area and a bus was blown up on the road just across from where the houseboat on which we were shooting was moored. There were blackouts.

This was a Srinagar I had never seen before. It saddened me no end. We shot for almost a month on the Dal Lake till a letter arrived one day, evidently from the JKLF, asking us to pack up our bags and leave or they would kill the houseboat owners who had given us shelter.

Not everyone took the letter seriously till they cut off the cables on our generator, which ran along the bed of the Lake, more than ten or fifteen feet underwater. This alarmed everyone in the unit. Cutting those thick cables at such a depth was a gargantuan feat and required tremendous skill. It was a job for scuba divers.

The unit finally decided to leave. Some of the house-boat owners wept unabashedly to see us leave. They took me aside and said tearfully: “Sir do not go please. You are one of us!”

But I had no choice. I had to leave for their own safety. I wept with them. I had a feeling this was goodbye to the best years of my life. It was goodbye to home. Goodbye, perhaps, to the Valley forever. If Kashmir had come to this, then I had no desire to return to it.

I remembered Dad. I remember the days I had spent with him in Gulmarg and Khilan. I remembered the long treks we had gone on, I remembered the simple, honest, cheerful Kashmiris whom we had met and befriended on the way. I remembered the pines and the 'chinars'; but most of all I remembered the warmth, affection and love of the common people…  

We own a house in Simla. I go there when the call of the mountains becomes unbearable and overwhelming, when I want to see and smell the pines and the firs again; when I want to see the snow on mount tops. On my last visit to Simla, I met a Kashmiri, an elderly man, going up a steep slope dressed in a tattered salwar-kameez. He was carrying a heavy weight on his back. Evidently, he was a ‘coolie’. He was surprised when I addressed him in Kashmiri. He took the load off his back and smiled at me. “Kashmiri!?” he asked me. “Yes, I am a Kashmiri” I replied and then asked him: “What are you doing here in Simla, Brother, carrying this heavy weight on your shoulders?”

Photo courtesy: Himachal Live

He was silent for a while and looked long and hard into the distance. He then looked up at me ruefully and smiled stoically. “KYA KAREN, SAHIB?” he replied. “NAZAR LAG GAYI HAMARE KASHMIR KO!”

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