How young Kashmiri Pandits are reconnecting with lost homeland

How young Kashmiri Pandits are reconnecting with lost homeland

On December 5, Delhi’s India Habitat Centre screened Ghar Ka Pata, a documentary by Madhulika Jalali on the search for her identity as a Kashmiri Pandit as she paid a visit to her lost home in Kashmir. Madhulika’s pain and void resonates with thousands of Kashmiri Pandits who had to flee their homes and lives in the Valley at the start of militancy in the early 1990s. January 19 every year has come to be observed by the community as the ‘Day of Exile’.

The intervening night of January 19-20 in 1990 marks the Pandits’ mass exodus that was supposed to be temporary but turned out to be otherwise. Since then, generations of Kashmiri Pandits have grown up outside the Valley. While some have never visited Kashmir, others have been to their former homes as tourists. A few have made a courageous return under the government’s rehabilitation package but are contemplating an exit given the targeted killings of Hindus by militants in the Valley.

So, has the Kashmiri Pandit community entirely lost their homeland? Not really. The newer generations growing up outside are devising their own creative ways to, in a way, reclaim their lost home that is Kashmir.

Madhulika, 38, grew up in Delhi, Bengaluru and other cities. She did not think much about Kashmir until her first visit there in 2014. When she saw everyone speaking the language she had heard only at home and her parents speaking with the locals with so much ease, she was taken aback. She wanted to see the house where she was born, but her father refused. “That reluctance made my urge to find my home even stronger. I felt a strange connection with the land that was mine but of which I had absolutely no memories. How then could I still call it my own? It left me very unsettled,” says Madhulika.

Ghar Ka Pata was the result Madhulika’s urge to find her home. After her visit to Kashmir, she started to interview her family, relatives and friends in the hope that they would help remember her home. She was only six when her family had left the Valley. She asked for pictures of her home but to no avail. “Almost every time, I was asked what really I wanted to know and why now. It was a wound I was scratching, but there was no other way. Exile is an inter-generational thing. The mention of home was as painful for my family as it was for me,” she says.

Anushka Dhar, the author of NH44: Take Me Home, grew up in Mumbai. The 19-year-old’s search for home started at a younger age once she realised she had nothing to talk about when friends shared stories of their native homes during vacations. She noticed that her family would eat Kashmiri food, speak in Kashmiri but never talk about Kashmir. She started asking questions but met the same fate as Madhulika. The family did not want to go back to the devastating memories of the forced exodus.

“The biggest challenge was confronting such a sticky, complex and tumultuous subject at the age of 14. With every personal account I was given, with every article I read, with every photo I saw, I was pulled in deeper into a pool of darkness and heaviness. Knowing what my family went through was shocking. I had new-found respect and admiration for them,” says Anushka, who studies in New York.

Henna Koul was 10 when she had to leave the Valley overnight in a truck without her parents accompanying her. “I remember every moment that I had spent in the Valley, including the last one. I cast a last glance at my ancestral house before leaving. Everything was snatched away from me, even my dreams,” recalls Koul, now 42 years old.

From a young age, Koul had started to write poetry and stories about her experience of the exodus and life beyond it. In 2018, when she and her husband visited their ancestral house and Hindu temples and saw their dilapidated condition, she created a YouTube channel ‘QayNaat’ and started to document those temples.

Niyati Bhat, 29, was born outside Kashmir. She grew up listening to stories of the life in Kashmir. “I remember being very surprised when I first read the word ‘migration’ in a book and realised it was not a common Kashmiri word but an English one. My exile naturally shaped my entire existence. I could not become friends with those who showed indifference to our loss and trauma,” she says.

Bhat sought solace in the literature of exile—Jhumpa Lahiri’s works, Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, Edward Said’s reflections on exile and so on. She wrote poetry and essays on Kashmir, learned her mother tongue well, learned Nastaliq script so that she could read Kashmiri written in that script and also started translating poetry from Kashmiri to English. “The only way to deal with the loss of home was to write about it. I take photographs, record anecdotes, songs or conversations on my voice recorder, film my family on my phone or camera all the time. I feel it is necessary to document our exile,” she says. Since Bhat hasn’t yet found a book about the experiences of Kashmiri women that she can identify with, she has taken it upon herself to write one.