With the dawn of May 26 each year, Kashmiri Pandits massively date Kashmir by turning up for annual Kheerbhavani Mela. Of late as the day has become an occasion of reliving past without actually reviving the same, Bilal Handoo reports longings harboured by elderly KPs about Kashmir
Three elderly Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) sitting on a bench inside the yard of Tulmulla’s Kheerbhavani temple are talking about Kashmir. “So, it was fake picture Delhi media was feeding us all these years,” says Rakesh Koul, a man who has visited Kashmir after 29 years. Another KP quickly responds: “Yes, they always broadcast the bad image of the place and its people.” Amid the talk, the trio relive their past by recalling bygone moments spent in Kashmir and the difference it had brought in their lives.
“We landed here on a day before yesterday,” says Koul, a greying man, probably in late fifties, “and the first thing we did was to visit Amira Kadal to refresh our memories.”
Manoj Koul, one among the trio sitting on a bench, says: “We are staying in a houseboat. And the moment houseboat owner came to know that we are KPs, he directed his staff to charge us less: ‘Take good care of them. They are our own brothers and sisters.’ That gesture was very heartening. One can’t find such compassion and hospitality in Delhi or elsewhere. We miss this thing about Kashmir.”
A lady among them, probably in her early fifties, gets nostalgic. “I was born here, got educated, made friends, worked here, got married and then had to flee the place in the most unfortunate manner. I take lot of pride about Kashmiri roots. But sadly, everything is just reduced to memories now.”
Footfall of visiting KPs is picking up sluggishly inside the temple yard on this damp day. Setting temple bells tolling at entrance, many pandits with saffron marked foreheads are stepping inside barefoot — whispering prayers, carrying Puja trays in their hands. A non-native priest is leading prayers inside the temple. His loud-speaker airing prayers are apparently competing with audios being played at scores of community kitchens at periphery. Huddled inside the temple are scores of KP women, hymning religious tunes, setting off marital-type celebrations around. Amid cheer and chant, they occasionally rise up to dance. Their smiling faces spread an apparent wave of delight inside. In the yard though, drenched day has squeezed scope for signature floral patterns and earthen lamps typically placed on the ground for the occasion.
In the same yard, Jaykrishan Raina, a man probably in his mid-fifties, seems visibly detached from a mild festivity going on around. He has arrived in valley a day before from Jammu — his new residence since last 25 years, with his wife. His son and daughter, he says, refused to be the part of the annual religious festival citing an eleventh hour busy schedule.
“They (new generation) aren’t identifying themselves with all this,” says a sober looking Raina, a native of Magam in Budgam district. “But our attachment with the place is still intact. We grew up and spent some lovely time of life here.”
For this erstwhile teacher, life in Jammu has always been hellish. “Those who would dread earthworms in Kashmir had to live with snakes in Jammu,” he says. “Heat strokes make life further miserable there.”
Apart from weather factor, Raina says, shifting base was a social setback to him and his ilk. “Here in Kashmir, I would freely approach Muslim grocer, buy stock without bothering to pay him on time. This would help us sustain in times of penury. But back in Jammu, we couldn’t continue such things. As a result, we had to pass through tough times.”
Raina says his religion makes him believe in rebirth. “And if given a choice, I would like to take rebirth in my mud house in Magam, where I continue to play in my dreams,” he says before walking away to join his wife, waiting for him, inside a nearby tent.
For a moment, sun rays passing through leaves and branches of mighty Chinar trees have visibly faded a weather gloom inside. But some KPs present on the occasion appear too reluctant to take off their gloomy faces.
“We used to have a Class and Status in Kashmir,” says Hridanath Bhan, a frail man, sitting inside a tent. “But after we left valley, everything got messed up. Though we have successfully rebuilt our lives, but that respect, aura and time we spent in Kashmir are too tough to recreate.” Bhan lived in Habba Kadal area of Srinagar, he describes as “the cradle of culture”.
“It doesn’t matter how high one flies in one’s life,” he says, apparently sounding philosophical, “at the end of the day, everyone has to return to their resting places. But we people are unlucky to lose the same.”
But amid this homesickness, many scribes present keep asking KPs: Your longing is understandable, but what prevents you to return to valley and relive your past?
“Look, it is not that easy for us to return amid this threatening political uncertainly in valley,” Bhan says. “Besides, young KPs will never consider homecoming. I mean what is there in Kashmir for them? Why should they leave their lucrative jobs outside to end up returning in the place mired in unemployment?”
Perhaps Bhan isn’t wrong. With Gen-next KPs making their least presence felt at Kheerbhavani, it appears ‘move on’ is indeed a new mantra they follow.
But even then, Kheerbhavani seems to be the only remaining social gathering place for KPs in Kashmir now where they pray, socialise a bit and return with a “heavy heart” to their new homes protected under “harsh sun”.
Like many, Sarla Ganjoo, in her mid forties, originally from Budgam, is now returning to Delhi after paying her obeisance at the temple. “Today, KPs are suffering from scattered-root syndrome,” says Ganjoo, a banker, who has turned up for the festival with her mother and husband.
“When I say ‘syndrome’ — I mean, ‘a growing realisation of homelessness.’ After we left Kashmir, we lost our identity in new places. For the sake of survival, we had to adapt a new culture, but I tell you something; it was never a nicest feeling. We terribly miss our time in Kashmir. We miss everything we knew about it. Sense of belonging is something one can never forget, no matter what…”
She pauses to recollect herself. “Our irony is,” she resumes, “we aren’t able to return home. People tell us many things like the dogmatic political situation prevailing over Kashmir. They stop us saying, ‘Are you going to get uprooted once again?’ You see, such words do stop one’s stride. I mean, we have lived through one nightmare. How on this earth we will ever wish the same thing for our kids? But in this lingering uncertainly, we continue to suffer, away from our home, for the home.” She gets up and steps inside the temple.
Meanwhile, rush has started picking up inside. Other than KPs, army men and non-Kashmiri are pouring in to pay obeisance. Staring all these activities quietly, Roshan Lal Mattoo — sitting on the raised platform around a Chinar tree, cuts a ‘despondent image’ for himself. This retired teacher from Ganderbal is nowadays living a self-professed life of an “alien” in Jammu.
“There are always good and bad people in every community, who want to keep pot boiling for their own vested interests,” says Mattoo, sounding ‘politically correct’. “I am saying this because I know how some handful people are derailing peace process between two communities in Kashmir. They don’t want to restore Kashmir’s lost glory. Let me tell you, such people are on both sides. But in this damn politicking, only a peace-loving commoner is bearing the brunt. People like me who have been put inside a living dungeon in Jammu are suffering. This dungeon is too vicious to set us free! In that dungeon, I crave for my roots in Kashmir!”
Still talking Kashmir on a bench inside the temple yard, three KPs are now planning their sojourn in valley. “It is so peaceful here,” blurts Rakesh Koul. “But I regret the manner Kashmir is being broadcasted across India. But I believe, lies and myths are bound to explode, sooner or later. Oh, did I sound political? I don’t wish to be one! But anyway, we would love to revisit the places before returning to Delhi.”
After this candid confirmation, can one actually consider a word of mouth: Neighbours of yore have now become ‘religious tourists’? You see, some imaginations, do run riot!