The Kashmir I knew got stuck in time and froze like Dal lake in Chille Kalaan,
writes Aditia Bhalla

One of the earliest memories I have of Srinagar is my grandmother asking me to head over to the local baker’s shop across the road from our house in Jawahar Nagar to get the traditional Kashmiri bread, Girda, for breakfast. I remember a five-year old me counting the coins in my hand as I crossed over. In those special moments, fleeting as they were, I felt like a grown-up. The warm bread with butter and a hot Qahwa, my morning reward. That’s all I wanted. Life was so simple then. Kashmir was so simple.

In 1990 everything changed.

I turned six. We left Kashmir. I couldn’t go across the road for my bread anymore and I also experienced heat for the first time in Jammu. My mother told me nonchalantly that there would also be no more Qahwa. It was simply too hot for it. My new school had makeshift tin sheets for walls and a roof. There were no doors. The absence of doors in its strange absurdity haunted me. I became part of what some called the Kashmiri section. But I found classmates who loved Qahwa as much as I did. Although I just couldn’t understand why I had to go to school at 2:30 PM and why there was no river close to my house.

In between this transition, I started making sense of what had happened. I was told I was uprooted. We would often hear our seniors say that we had been thrown out of our homes. But I couldn’t relate to those words because my grandmother and mother had often assured me that we would soon be back and this was temporary. My father and all the other men of the family were still there, in our house in Jawahar Nagar, Srinagar. One of them would come to see us every two-three weeks and I wished fervently that this would be the time we would go back.

My family had been in Kashmir for three generations, my father was born there, at the Lalla Ded Hospital near Iqbal Park, as were my brother and I. It was my home. But as time went on, I got to know the difference between Kashmiri Pundits, Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Sikhs. I also got to know that I was neither. I was an anomaly of sorts, it made me restless, this not fitting into any of the mainstream Kashmiri classifications. Lots of fellow Kashmiri’s who fit these definitions would validate my restlessness when they said that it wasn’t the same. It was a confusing time.  Whenever I visited my cousins in Delhi, Punjab or even went to the local shopkeepers, they would refer to me as Kashmiri. Yet my diaspora belonged to nobody.

At 20, I wanted out. I had never related to Jammu, I didn’t like the city despite all its appearances and easily available nostalgia in the form of kashmiri food. It always felt less than and never the same. Ye sab hawa pani ki baat hai my mother would say and I would agree. Any discussion on Kashmir would get me excited, but I was never a radical, I never really understood what went wrong.

All I knew from experience was that one day my father came home and announced that we were going to Jammu. I thought it was the yearly winter routine, only this time there was no coming back. For fifteen years, the roles had reversed. Kashmir became for me summer vacations and Diwali. With each year, my interest in understanding my loss increased. I spoke to as many people as I could.

What happened has been documented, recorded, spoken about, discussed, and debated. Even as I write this today, the issue continues to fester. Everyone is an expert it seems. Everyone has an opinion. But the sad truth is, nobody really cares. It is fashionable to talk about Kashmir. It is exhilarating to romanticise it. Nostalgia is always comfortingly warm. But for me, the Kashmir I knew and experienced, got stuck and froze in time, like Dal lake in Chille Kalaan (coldest time of the year).

I make it a point to go there every year. After all, it is home. I have grown older; I am married, and have a daughter. But when we go downhill after the Jawhar Tunnel on the way to Srinagar, I get goosebumps, every single time, even now. I am grateful that I can share with them the experience of the river next to our house, the coconut ice cream, the mutton tujji by the side of Dal, the shikaras and houseboats, the Qahwa and Tilwar.

My trips are bifurcated, between immersing myself in all the familiar experiences that I can accumulate in the short span of my time there to carry back. And the insatiable need to observe and identify all the change that has accumulated in the lanes and by-lanes of my hometown.

Has something really changed – the place, the people, the problems? Yes, Jhelum has got a foot-over bridge and a nice walkway. Yes, there are stores reflecting the latest fashion trends, but other than that, in essence, it is still all the same. Four Square continues to be the most popular brand of cigarettes. And every holiday means a trip to Gulmarg. The Gondola is still considered a technological marvel. People still feel strongly about everything Kashmiri, from cuisine, to carpets, to weather, to politics. For now, that is enough. That is comfort.

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