Footprints on a Timeline: Gayatri Ugra
Guest post by GAYATRI UGRA; photographs by JAYANT UGRA
“I travel so that people will lose track of me. Then I write, so they can find me again.”
I read these lines by Pierre Foglia, and I know nothing else about him. I do know more about why I travel: to retrace lost tracks. And why I write: not for people to find me but for me to find my own self. The last journey I made was just that. A long walk back into my past, and from there to the present in Kashmir, a living, growing, tense reality that I had to visit.
Facebook never served a better cause than ours when we planned our trip last June. On the spur of a moment of nostalgia, I posted this message on my page: “A family holiday in Kashmir. Any takers? All we need now is a travel agent and a motivator.” I could not have anticipated the response: so many of us wanted to come, hoped to come. My brother Gopal took up the task of making travel plans, reservations, bookings for accommodation, and ultimately made it happen for the eight of us that finally went.
June 5: In Delhi, I boarded the Srinagar bound flight with much trepidation. Excitement is too dry a word to express what I felt. A strange journey, for I would return not to our own house, where my Grandmother ruled, but would stay in a houseboat, and various tourist bungalows. For the first time in my life, I had to count myself among the tourists in Kashmir. The young man in the seat next to me said, “You are going to Kashmir for the first time?” I smiled, “I am going for the 25th time, but the 24th trip was 23 years ago!” The quizzical expression remained on his face, so I explained, “We left, to our great good luck, in 1988, before the fasaad began. And we did so because we were fed up of battling encroachers on all sides, foremost among them our so-called brethren — Kashmiri Pandit neighbours who had in fact built their homes on plots of land bought from us. The problem proved to be a blessing, but that is all in the past now.” This young man, a trader in handicrafts travelling back to Srinagar from Delhi, was curious to know how I felt about returning to my own land. We talked about the Kashmir I knew:
Land of my forefathers, in the distant past, we remember…
Memories of childhood, green fields, chenar leaves in autumn,
Golden orioles, golden lilies, and songs of the bulbul.
Snowfall, magnolias, a thousand flowers, cool streams,
Brothers and sisters, friends, no enemies, nostalgic dreams.
That is what I remember,
That is all I want to remember.
Jaan, that was his name, insisted on paying for my cup of coffee. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers; he told me that he owned a houseboat, and should I need a place to stay, I could contact him. I thanked him profusely, and we bade each other “Khuda Hafiz … God protect you.” Landing at Srinagar airport, the first thump of the aircraft wheels on the ground, and I can still remember the shiver of relief, the gratitude I felt, just for being back in Srinagar. Stepping out of the aircraft, a deep breath of fresh air scented with a million unseen wildflowers, exhilaration that I cannot describe, Kashmir is old and beloved, and yet, this time, new to me.
Gopal picked me up from the airport. He had travelled ahead with the rest of our party. We took a long route back to the city, and it was a new Kashmir I saw. Expanses of paddy fields in various tints of green, shimmering with water, hedged with poplar and acacia, have given way to brick houses, new and freshly plastered, invariably topped with galvanized iron sheets painted a flashy red. All the walls used to be stone to shoulder height, and above that wooden trellises laden with fragrant pink and white and yellow briar roses, and creamy honeysuckle. These have been replaced by forbidding six-foot tall boundaries of galvanized iron and brick, cemented into the roadside. No more mud pavements that sprouted forth white irises, and the less common purple ones that had escaped from the unfenced burial ground to the left of our house in Barzulla. Few gravestones ever marked the raised earth that indicated a grave, but always there were purple irises.
I must have been ten one summer, when I came home with a bunch of those purple blossoms, picked unknowingly from the graveyard. My grandmother explained gently that those irises were not to be picked. “These are mazaarposh, grave flowers, you must never disturb them,” she said. Why did the irises not turn blood red over the past years? I pushed that thought away from my mind. Even as far back as 1988, the graveyard land had been taken over by a tailor and a small teashop, owned by Shabaan Khan, where we sat on rustic benches — wooden slats roughly nailed together — and sipped hot tea from glass tumblers, just for fun. The first time I heard, around 1990, that there had been a terrorist attack on air force personnel waiting at a bus stop in Barzulla, a short walk from the house, I believed neither eyes nor ears. How could this have happened in Kashmir, in what was then remote suburban Srinagar? I simply could not believe it, despite the past reality of terrorism in Punjab.
The car came down Residency Road, and Gopal’s voice shook me out of my daydream. Shall we have lunch at Shakti Sweets? He knows just what I would like, a plate of steaming hot chhole bhature, just off the fire, at that old haunt of ours; after an early morning climb up Shankaracharya hill we used to descend on this eatery for brunch. The man behind the counter bears a faint resemblance to the boy I remember, and there is a garlanded image on the wall behind him. It is too soon for me to start talking… I have barely got over my great good fortune at just being in Kashmir.
The second evening in Srinagar, we were out in shikaras on the Dal. The sky suddenly darkened, turning deeper by the minute. Within moments the stiff breeze turned into a squall and the shikaravalas all headed back to their houseboats. Even our shikaravala, a cheerful, inveterate optimist, became serious and put all his energy to rowing. Gopal picked up a spare paddle, and rowed along with him, and to my amazement, it was all they could do to keep us from being blown off-course … the boat remained practically static for what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, with much pulling and pushing, we came alongside a houseboat, and used it as an anchor to propel ourselves landwards. Stepping onto solid ground was a major relief, and mindless of the fact that it was the neighbours’ backyard, we scrambled over vegetable patches, and reached “home”. The neighbour, in the meanwhile, roasted the shikaravala for risking the lives of the “visitors” — what curses he brought upon the fellow’s head we could well imagine. Due, it seems, to the bowl-shape of the valley, a storm on the Dal can be sudden and fatal, and on the choppy waters I kept thinking of my grandmother all the time. This wasn’t the first time we had been close to such a situation, and she had always insisted that we just do as the shikaravala said, for they knew best.
Back in Srinagar from Gulmarg, after the others left for the airport, my son and I moved to our room at the Tourist Reception Centre, another old haunt that was unrecognisable after the fire that razed it to the plinth in one of the many bloody encounters between terrorists and security forces years ago. All our day trips from Srinagar to Pahalgam, Daksum, Wular, used to begin here, at the foot of a hill called Takht-i-Sulaiman, or Shankaracharya, from the ancient temple that can be seen on the peak from the lawns of the Tourist Centre. Hospitality has always been a tradition in Kashmir, but there was more — a silent affirmation of our identity, a warm concern for our safety and comfort.
By then I had begun to recognize that affirmation which I had first seen in Jaan’s eyes. Each conversation ran along more or less the same lines: “Aap kahaan se aye hain? Where are you from?” I was recognized as a Panditani even though, for reasons of my own, I wear none of the distinguishing symbols of a Kashmiri Pandit married woman. I would reply, “Aap ne toh pehchaan liya. You have already guessed.” Invariably, the questioners expressed regret that the Pandits had to leave Kashmir — they are nostalgic about the old days and remember friends, neighbours, teachers, doctors, accountants.
In Pahalgam, we took a walk to the far side across the Lidder, a glacial torrent that flows through the valley named after it. At night, when all else was silent, you could hear the rush of white water over massive boulders, that lulled you to sleep.
We walked along in search of the place my grandparents had built. One large cottage and three small ones, which included one for Swami Premanand, their spiritual mentor, and the smallest — a simple two-room affair that served as my grandfather’s office. We reach Aksa Resort which, I realized, used to be a private residence, Aksa Lodge, way above our huts. The gentleman who runs the place asked us what we were looking for. I hedged, saying I wanted a cup of tea. He sent off a man to fetch us some kahwa, while we sat down and began to chat.
Obviously, my son and I had come in search of more than a cup of tea. He listened as I told him where I had come from, why I was there, and he told me that he was overjoyed to meet me and my son. This gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair must be my age, and we could relate to each other because we both grew up in the same years. Over cups of steaming saffron kahwa, he continued “When I tell my children all this, they say they cannot understand what I am talking about.” “Likewise,” I told him, “my son knows only what he saw on TV all these years. He does not understand either, and I have made this trip with him because I want him to know what Kashmir was really like.”
We rued over the ill-conceived, ludicrous plan to build an amusement park on the banks of the Lidder that is likely to spell the doom of what remains of Pahalgam. I mention Akbar, the younger son of our Gujar watchman Lavai Mohammed. “But of course, Akbar is a watchman right there,” he pointed to Ghori Cottage, a property on the banks of the Lidder, that we could see from the Resort.
“Akbar is an old man now, he has had hard times, and he will be glad to know that you asked after him. And I will earn savaab if I get him in touch with you.” He used a mobile phone to contact Ghori Cottage, brushing aside my feeble protest that we had already imposed on him too far. Then he handed me the phone and I heard Akbar’s voice. A painful layer of time dropped away, and I found myself overwhelmed when he said that he must meet “Hari Sahab’s daughter”.
Akbar, who made a living from his ponies, ferrying tourists and pilgrims to Amarnathji. The last time, I remember, we were children, and he a handsome, cheerful young man in his twenties, who took us to Chandanwari, the snowbridge on the trek to Amarnath. What bond drove us to seek each other, so that when I stepped out of my bedroom at six o’clock next morning, I found Akbar waiting for me? All the intervening years fell away, and this old man squatting on the ground outside our room, who still cared enough to have come to see me, suddenly caught his breath, put both hands on my shoulders and broke down in tears. I hugged him and patted his shoulder, fighting back the tears in my own eyes. A Bengali family and a Punjabi couple staying on either side of our rooms stared open-mouthed. Who was this fifty-ish woman, apparently not a local, hugging a seventy year-old Kashmiri in a shabby pheran? I remembered my Dadi as we fell into the old feudal roles that were assigned to us by tradition. He was about to sit down on the ground, I made him take a chair, and sat on the sofa myself. He handed me a huge bag of walnuts “My wife said — you are going to meet them, you can’t go empty-handed.” I pressed into his hand a small sum for sweets to give his grandchildren, which he at first refused to accept. We talked awhile about his family, about the old days, about his near fatal accident. He was lost in his own memories, and I was so glad that he had come to meet me. I promised to convey his salaam to my parents, and carried the walnuts back to Delhi and Agra, to share them with all those he had remembered, my parents, my brothers, even recalling by name my mother’s sister and her children, though they had made just one trip, and that too ages ago.
Memories of Pahalgam — freezing cold mornings, when I would leave my warm quilt, hastily pull on my day clothes, and walk down the hillside along a path that led to the Lidder. I would take a solitary walk across the old wooden bridge to the village that was then Pahalgam, find myself a teashop, sit there sipping steaming hot tea and amuse myself with the pictures on the walls… the teashop owner proudly posing with Shashi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Sanjay Khan. Then walk back all the way home, to spend the day under the shadows of the pine trees, absorbing the view from across the Lidder valley, collecting wild flowers and insects, and pebbles that shone in many colours, so pretty under the cold torrential waters on the banks of the stream, but dull once they had dried. Is that what happens to displaced people too? How much water has flown below that bridge, and how many years have passed. Our growing years, the excitement of the first trip we were allowed to take unescorted by adults… Memories flood back and overwhelm me, I remember the little “saddle” between the trunks of two towering pines where we sat with our legs dangling over a precipice, the innocent pleasure of secretly smoking a cigarette… how wicked and wise we thought we had become. I laugh to think of it now.
Moments will stay in my heart always. A visit to Ahdoo’s, the gigantic Chenars on the Bund, and the azaan from a mosque that I registered for the first time. Then Mahatta’s, where old Mr Mehta and I had a long conversation, and he said “You made my day”. One of the many people we talked to admitted that he was a student then, young and easily swayed, and had also joined the ranks of those whose cries of Allah hu Akbar struck terror in so many hearts. He was exceedingly gracious to us, as though he felt he had to compensate for a past wrongdoing, to drive the guilt out of his heart?
The day before we were scheduled to leave, we finally went to Barzulla. The huge Chenar far right of the house stands taller, and is covered in cool green foliage. A pear tree in the front garden is still there, tall enough now to be seen above the huge iron gates from the road. Shabaana’s teashop is closed, the shutters down as it is just past lunchtime.
We left Kashmir after selling our property, packing up an entire household from the lavish days of my grandfather. Furniture, carpets, curios, clothes, linen, crockery, books, even glassware. But we had left voluntarily, giving away a small plot of land to the watchman Ghulam Muhammad, Mahmdu as he was called, who had served my grandparents since he was a boy of ten. He first came to tend the cows, and stayed on to the end in various roles as watchman, gardener, cook, and general help. I could not bear to stay long enough to find him, and a part of my self ended there. Closure at last. The conscious hankering and the uneasy heart laid to rest in the finality of this sight. This house was not mine any more, it was not even the same place, because it is people who make a home your own, not the Chenar, nor the Magnolia, however beautiful they may be in the solace they bring to your torn feelings.
At the airport, we go through the most rigorous security checks I have ever experienced in my admittedly limited travels. At least three x-ray screenings for both luggage and passengers, and three physical friskings. At the third one, even an inoccuous bottle of hand sanitizer has to be passed by the team supervisor before I am allowed to take it on board. It may be reassuring to know that you are going to fly under such thoroughly examined conditions, but it does not escape my notice that the security check for flight from Delhi to Srinagar was not a patch on this. Where is the logic in this special treatment? A terrorist who wanted to hijack an aircraft or a fidayeen with a bomb on a suicide mission would certainly opt to travel from Delhi where there is no such frisking, board a plane to Kashmir and achieve the same target. Does this not give rise to resentment, or has it become routine in the lives of Kashmiris over the past 20 years to be treated thus, and worse?
I am so tense, with all the queues and check-posts, baggage checks and barriers, that it takes me a moment to register that the young man at the final x-ray check is yet again one of the many who wanted to speak to me and just knew that I was not a mere tourist. A troubled young man, with light brown hair and the chiselled features of his race, his blue-green eyes search beyond words to see how I react, and perhaps finding a reassurance that he will not be misunderstood, begins by saying “I would like to talk to you for a few moments, if you don’t mind?” He has many questions to ask, and I have no answers for some of them. He says, “We were the same blood. What happened? How could this happen?” I have no answer for that.
But then he asks: “Is it true that the Pandits exploited the Kashmiri Muslim?” This time I do not hesitate to answer “Yes, it is true” as that is what I have always heard in conversation in my own home. In a population of 96% Muslims versus 4% Hindus, the ratio of white collar jobs and government positions amongst the less literate was the reverse, and the wily among the Pandits did not fail to take advantage of that. Then post-Independence, the large numbers of Kashmiri Muslims who were able to access professional and university education changed this demography and there was a realisation of past wrongs. Yet, I hold up my palm with fingers outspread, and his smile tells me that I do not need to repeat the saying “All five fingers on one hand are not the same.”
The queue builds up behind me several times, and he checks them in past me, but continues to talk, an outpouring that reflects the dilemma of a generation that has grown up amidst the kind of turmoil and horror that was unimaginable just two decades earlier. Finally, seeing that my son is through with the check in the men’s queue, and has just begun to wonder why I am taking so long, I reluctantly bring the conversation to an end. I get his name from his identity card and hold out my hand: “Mudassar Bhai, Khuda Hafiz.” He takes my hand and wishes me too, then asks “Will you come again?” “Insha’llah,” I say, almost to myself, and proceed towards the aircraft.
Many years ago, in the wake of the bloodshed of Partition, the poet Sheikh Shahid Hussain of Allahabad wrote the following lines which are equally true for Kashmir, for Punjab, the Northeast, and all those areas of conflict where the greedy politician and the unholy cleric find grazing grounds to fatten upon:
“Hamāre sheher ko maqtal banā diyā kisne? Sunā hai ahl-e-siyāsat ki meherbāni hai”
[Who turned our city into a slaughterhouse? They say it has happened with the blessings of politicians.]
(Dr Gayatri W. Ugra, former Head, Publications Department, Bombay Natural History Society, Mumbai, is now a Consultant Editor at the Society. Jayant Ugra is a freelance photographer based in Mumbai.)
More on Kashmiri Pandits from Kafila archives:
- Raju Moza: Why Kashmiri Pandits May Never Return to Kashmir
- Gowhar Fazili: Our memories come in the way of our histories
- Sameer Bhat: Audacity of Hypocrisy
- Siddhartha Gigoo: ‘Snakebite or Sunstroke?’