The Heaven I Know

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Fighting her parents and the media-generated perceptions, a Bangalore student volunteers to teach at a Doda school and spend some time in Kashmir and Gurez. In this passionate write-up, Sanika Athavale deconstructs Kashmir, a place that is the most misunderstood place in this part of the world

Sanika Athavale

Kashmir, to my middle-class patriarchal upbringing, was nothing less than forbidden fruit. Just as the Book of Genesis would have it, at a young age I was made to understand that it was off-limits because of juxtaposing nature of the events ‘reported’ by media. They made it seem that the land previously referred to as heaven, had become a haven for anti-national and terrorist elements, which in the eyes of Indians was an unforgivable offence and my family was not an exception to this ignorant notion.

Growing up I read the same news reports and watched the same television discussions but I always wanted to see things for myself. My intuition told me that there was more to Kashmir’s story than meets the eye.

After my post-graduation, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon an opportunity to teach in a quiet Kashmiri hamlet nestled in the Himalayas and cut off from all modes of noisy civilization. I knew to get there wasn’t going to be easy. Continuous misinformation fed by my extended family, concerned phone calls, emotional blackmail, and personal inhibitions were a handful to deal with and it was a hard battle to fight. I did not give up easily and put my foot down, instead.

After days of heated arguments, my parents acquiesced to my plans on the condition that I would return after three months of volunteer work. I was so glad about their objection being lifted that I accepted their conditions without a hiccup.

“You have to call us for all your days there”

“Don’t be your happy-go-lucky self with the villagers”

“We do not want you wandering anywhere. You’ll do your job and return to your room”

“Travelling in Jammu and Kashmir is out of the question”

They put up conditions and I tried to follow as well as I could. But a bird can’t be caged forever.

Travelling alone from the South of India to an ‘alien’ northern region was unimaginably thrilling. I must have stuck my head out of the window, whenever there was one.

If I were to break down my itinerary, it would include a taxing number of stops and transit points because it was a journey to a Himalayan village located at an altitude of 7500 metres above sea level. When most of them admit that the mere thought of making the trip is intimidating, imagine how have generations of Paharis triumphantly survived, without a road to connect them with the world that rests at their feet.

Haji Public School, Breswana

To get a step closer to them, I took an early morning flight from Bangalore to Delhi and boarded an overnight train to ‘outlandish’ Jammu. On reaching the Railway Station at 5 am, I informed the school management about my arrival. They had sent somebody to escort me from the station to the city bus stand where I was about to embark on a five-hour-long journey to the quaint town of Premnagar.

A humble settlement, Premnagar is built on the banks of mighty Chenab, requiring one to crossover a not-so-wide bridge. When the bus reached Premnagar several passengers got off the bus and Satyaprakash easily identified the anxious “foreigner”. A lean man, Satyaprakash, with his two strong horses was waiting for me as he was to lead me 7-km uphill on horseback. He greeted me warmly and patiently answered all my questions about the school throughout our four-hour climb.

The ascent was arduous and awe-inspiring. Never had I seen such spectacular beauty around me. Formidable snow-capped mountains, green terrace farms, free-spirited animals and people made me feel real and alive. It is hard to feel so in the cacophony of our cities.

The entry into the village is through a set of concrete steps built by the local Panchayat. As I got a step closer my heart began to beat loudly. It was past school time and a lot of kids were playing around the forests when they saw me first. They had seen so many voluntary teachers at the school that one look was enough to know. “Good evening Ma’am!” they screamed. God, the journey was so overwhelming but seeing my students for the first time gave me the energy to reply in my loudest voice.

“Good evening children” I yelled as we locked eyes and exchanged warm smiles.

Finally, I had made it to Breswana and in retrospect, all that squabbling with my parents seemed insignificant. This was it, and I had made the right choice.

Morning assembly at Haji Public School, Breswana.

My tenure at the school was supposed to be for three months but I stayed for eight. I wasn’t supposed to travel anywhere else but went to one of the last army check posts at the Line of Control (LoC).

Kashmir is a marvel in all senses. It is the land where the Masjids adorn their walls with colourful lights on the day of Diwali. It is the place where people greet each other with salaams and namastes. It is a masterpiece of nature and it is here that one can learn what compassion is all about.

From teaching little babies to handling hormonal teenagers, I understood how perfectly balanced their life is. Daily routines are set as per nature’s cycles and are implicit agreements with the forces of the environment so well meted out that it may seem incomprehensible to a nascent city dweller. People here respectfully recognize cultural differences and let those different live in peace. There is gentility in the tone of the language, admiration for diversity and greatness in simplicity. The supposed forbidden fruit was sweet, delightful, and as time passed, it ripened to become even more appetizing.

I made my trip to Kashmir valley just after the promised three months was over. A minibus from Doda took me to the mystical Srinagar city. On the way, we stopped for multiple washroom and food breaks during the 8-hour long journey. I thought that I could pass myself off as a Kashmiri while making conversations with my fellow passengers. But they saw right through me.

“Where are you from?” they spoke in Urdu with a thick Kashmiri accent.

“I am actually from Bangalore,” I replied, disappointed that my act had gotten over sooner than expected.

“What are you doing here,” they enquired and I found that a little intrusive because I had travelled to many places and the locals had never questioned my motive behind being there.

“I am here to just travel through the valley”.

“Alone?” they asked sounding concerned.

“Yes, alone” and I walked away feeling slightly annoyed.

What was it that gave me away? My clothes? My uncovered head? And why were they asking me such prying questions?

Students of Haji Public School, Breswana.

I was confused then but steadily things became clear. The people of Kashmir don’t lead individualist lives like the city folk who don’t know their neighbours. They reside in tightly knit communities where everyone’s lives are everybody’s business and it’s a way of life that grows on you with time.

In Srinagar, I found accommodation through Airbnb, in Rajbagh. The house I chose to live in belonged to a group of young boys who rented out space to travellers. When you’re travelling solo especially as a woman, you can only choose to trust people and I put my faith in these sweet men. They were working in Srinagar but weren’t native to it. Everyone in that house was a non-Kashmiri and I soon learnt that their bungalow was nicknamed The Hindustan House by their neighbours.

Outsiders in Kashmir are easily distinguishable from the indigenous population. There is a difference that is hard to explain. It needs to be experienced. A never-ending war has deep implications on the general psyche, causing them to be suspicious of anyone who is not local. It is only natural to feel so and visitors must be respectful of their culture and social conduct.

I don’t know if I was unfortunate to have reached an evening before Burhan Wani’s death anniversary but I got the experience of living through a day’s curfew and it was dreadful! Internet services which happen to be my lifeline were suspended, venturing outside was a grave risk and it was shockingly hot in the city. I couldn’t stand it for a day, let alone make it alive through months of such house arrests. It is beyond our capacity to survive what a Kashmiri endures every day.

Students of Haji Public School, Breswana while playing.

The very next morning I took my host’s bike and wandered around the city just as I had planned to. He didn’t have a riding helmet so I wore his cricket helmet and looked like a cartoon. I was subjected to curious looks everywhere and I knew it wasn’t so much for the headgear as it was for the fact that I was a woman riding a bike. Seldom did I notice a female driver or rider. It was a rare and amusing event for the men who heavily outnumbered the women on the streets. Later that evening, I enjoyed a slice of cake alongside the Dal Lake and even fell prey to the charming words of the shikara walla who wanted to make a few bucks.

The people seem wary of you at first but with a few words exchanged, they open their hearts like you are family. My host offered to take me to old Srinagar, Hazratbal and the glorious Jama Masjid. I had forgotten to carry a scarf which was indispensable for a visit to any of these sacred places. Hurriedly I walked into a store and pleaded them to lend me a scarf that I promised to return in an hour’s time. They gave me a fine silver cloth and I made my way to the decided places. By the time we reached the Jamia Masjid, it was namaaz time and the guard denied us permission to enter.

On seeing my petulant frown, he let us in but asked us to offer namaaz without fail as it would be disrespectful to enter the masjid and return without prayers, during the Maghrib time. With the help of a kind local who guided me through each step, I offered prayers and it felt blissful. I have never been religious but every time I have walked the halls of any place of worship, I have felt at peace. There is some kind of soothing energy that their walls exude. I surrendered to that force at the Jamia Masjid and looked on with humility in my eyes. We made sure to stop at the store for I had to return the borrowed scarf but to my surprise, the aged gentleman behind the counter asked me to keep it as a memory of my first visit to Srinagar.

The two constraints that I had were time and money. I had seen quite a bit of Srinagar but now I needed to explore what lay beyond the city. After a long discussion with my housemates, I decided to move further north to the Gurez valley.

Students of Haji Public School, Breswana while doing co-curricular activities.

Getting into Gurez is an ordeal if done by road. A shared cab from Bandipore, where I caught many glimpses of a large dumpster called Wular Lake, took me on an eight-hour-long back-breaking journey to Gurez.

If there is anything that comes close to Kashmir, Kashmiris, and Koshur, it is Gurez, the people speaking Shina. I am making this distinction because the Gurez residents say they are the Balti people, separated from their homeland and relatives ever since the LoC came into existence. They identify themselves different from the Kashmiris while agreeing that there are more similarities than differences in their culture, and I concur. They have secular, accepting hearts and the same patriarchy.

As a female traveller, I faced a little trouble with the locals. In Srinagar, the people were very inquisitive and amused by my solo trotting but in Gurez the locals felt the need to interfere with each step that I took. When our shared cab arrived at Dawar, Gurez’s administrative capital, one of the co-passengers kindly offered a place in her house for me to stay in. I had planned differently so I nervously declined the offer. Watching this, one co-traveller arrogantly retorted that I take the offer and stay ‘safe’.

Honestly, if I wanted to stay safe, I would have never come in the first place. And what did he even mean by ‘safe’? Did he not trust his villagers or did he self-appoint himself, my guardian? With a sharp look I asked him to mind his beeswax but sadly, he wasn’t the only meddlesome one. It was a thing for them to do to female tourists – call them their sisters or daughters and ‘guide’ them. At one point I was almost harassed by a man who wanted me to book a room in his guest house. It was very distressing. I saw that they left couples and male tourists alone. As per them, men and women accompanying them were to be left alone, but when I planned to go over my newly-made friend’s house for fresh trout in the evening, the tourist reception centre’s manager vehemently stopped me and made calls to have my plan cancelled.

I was furious because he had no right to do so. I went against my family to come here and he, a stranger had no business dictating terms. There was also a woman who threw nasty comments at me for the way I dressed. On my last day there, I picked out a black salwar kameez to wear and she gave her unsolicited approval remarking on how it covers the right places. I could have said so much, but I didn’t. It is infuriating to feel powerless in such situations and I am certain that many women in this world experience this feeling more often than not.

It is important to remember that a few bad apples don’t always make the basket rotten. I had a few ugly encounters but on a whole, I found genuineness. The beautiful Kishenganga river almost seduced me to jump with her turquoise blue ripples, I was lured to lose myself wandering in the mountainous forests and I wanted to sing an ode to my imaginary lover as Zoon did on the triangular peak of the Habba Khatoon.

There were countless kind strangers and some really persuasive ones who pulled me into their homes for noon chai and cake. I was even invited to stay over at a local resident’s house and where they served me some finger licking Wazwan food for dinner.

With that little unpleasantness brushed aside, I was completely content with my travel and the time to go home, to Breswana, had come.

Anybody who has trekked or climbed mountains knows that the Pahari life is a laborious and hard one. Modern-day facilities such as mobile network, internet, transportation and access to public utilities is a luxury for the Paharis but unsurprisingly enough you see them blissfully content with their hardships for it gives them their identity. Amidst such difficult settings, Haji Public School was founded and it has had ten glorious years of successfully bringing quality education to the village.

The school was established in 2009 by the Haji family that hoped to facilitate the access to good education for the village children. This unique institution built on family savings caters to the educational needs of its village and the others that surround it. It is situated in Breswana (Doda).

Serving in the school as a teacher for one academic year was the most enriching time in my life, so far. Living and breathing between Kashmiris, practising and observing their culture made me fall in love irrevocably. Starting the day as early as 5 am, courtesy the melody of the azaan and crashing on my bed a few minutes before midnight after a long day at school, became a routine I never got tired of.

The school constantly tested the teachers’ expertise in subjects and their compatibility with different age groups. After a month of trial and error, the school and I found my sweet spot in the kindergarten classroom. In between the long and screechy good mornings to flying kisses at the end of the day, the kids and I developed a bond that was real and beautiful. Seeing them grow and contributing to their intellectual progress was the most satisfying thing I had done.

After eight long months and a little bit of adventure in Kashmir, I was reluctant to go back to Bangalore. Walking through the streets of old Srinagar, visiting the Jamia Masjid, interacting with the locals over cups of hot noon chai in Gurez, helped me open my eyes. There is so much more to the Kashmir conflict than what meets the eye. You and I, warming our backs on comfortable sofa sets and living in privileged neighbourhoods can never even remotely imagine what it is like to live in a war zone and hence we don’t have the right to opine about the issue. It is often said that popular peoples’ stories about past happenings have more credibility than history textbooks. In Gurez, the people have profound opinions and real stories that go way back in time, to share on the Kashmir conflict that are quite distinctive from the local Kashmiri outlook.

My students who are slowly beginning to realize the complexities of the world they live in are still blithely unaware of how much their parents and relatives have suffered during the times of turbulence. Their innocent minds make no judgements but their moment of epiphany isn’t far away.

The truth is, as you move through the state, at every village or township you’ll find different and sometimes contrasting viewpoints. There is a disparity in their views, but that’s only because the atrocities they suffered and their troubles are inimitable. Pain is personal and it is a bitter pill that Kashmiris swallow every day and live.

They have survived the merciless winters for generations but they have also had their gates open for travellers since time immemorial. They have always offered the pherans off their back and warm cups of tea to the shivering but they have never parted with their dignity. Their identity and struggle for self-determination is the forbidden fruit that will always be ripe inside every heart that beats in the majestic valley and now a seed has made its way in mine too.

(Author, a master in commerce is a passionate writer and blogger. She was on a teaching assignment on a voluntary basis in Doda till the fall of 2018.)

1 Comment

  1. I know this girl and she’s an amazing woman ..! Always smiling 😍♥️ We met in Gurez Valley for the first time, When I went to gurez valley for 18 Days ☺️ Great couple of days with her for sure : )

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