Sunday, May 18, 2008

Kashmir Homecoming

Raka Khashu -- whose first name means the moon -- lives in New Delhi. She is a young lady in her late twenties, having already charted a very promising career path to become a senior executive with an international company. She is one of the most wonderful people I know.

Raka is the daughter of Mr. Upendra Khashu and Mrs. Girija Khashu, two of Kashmir's celebrated cultural personalities. They are, and have been, popular radio presenters and theatre and television artistes -- though as you will read in the story here that I wrote two years ago, one got death threats from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the other marriage proposals.

In March 1990, the Khashus -- Kashmiri Pandits -- had to rush out of their home after death threats, even as food was hot on the oven.

Raka's younger sister Nipunta, now a successful public relations executive but then just a three-year-old, had one simple question from her mother's arms as they scrambled out of their home into a paramilitary truck to take them to the airport -- to be thrown into an uncertain future.

"Where we are going, will I get batta (rice)?" the three-year-old asked.

Kashmiri Pandits love their rice.

They also love their homeland as much as their fellow Kashmiri Muslims who have gone through crushing oppression over the past two decades.

Raka went back to Kashmir recently for the first time, spending a week in Srinagar. She wrote me an account.

"This the story of my life..story of a home coming..YES..after nearly twenty years..
I belong to Kashmir..was born and brought up destiny would have it, I was kicked out of my nest – with just one threat call..left my home within one hour..not knowing where for..

Now after twenty years, I got an opportunity to "visit" my homeland..I am using the word visit – because that's what I have been reduced to being a 'visitor'.

The moment I touched the ground..I knew I was 'home' in the true sense of the word. Wading through a series of security checks, I managed to reach my locality – the place where I was born and brought up..Due to unavoidable circumstances, we had to sell our house..and here I was in front of the gate..didnt know if I would be a welcome..nevetheless decided to march ahead.

The warmth was still there. "Leela Cottage" as we had named it – was still the same..nothing had changed..

Fortunately, the lady remembered my family and I was ushered into the house with a hug..I was speechless with tears flowing down my cheeks.. I don't know why I was crying..crying because of being forced to leave my house..or because of seeing it again after so many years or because I knew that it was just a short visit and the moment I step will be over..

I climbed the stairs and there I was, a small five-year-old girl running up the stairs and then stumbling and falling ... a few cries and my grandmom running to help me and there -- my granddad coming out of the room to save his little one..guess what..these were all memories…all this had happened 23 years back..

Came out to the garden..and there I was running and playing in mud, playing..all in my thoughts…not to forget – I was helping my granddad clear up the driveway to help him park his car..all in my memories..which I had nurtured all these years and they will always be fresh in my mind..

And then, it was time to leave..yet again..I could not even relive my old days in entirety.

I wept and wept on the way back. Just could not stop myself.
The driver looked me in the rear view mirror, paused and then said: "Sorry, we made a mistake".
It is not only me who has suffered... its them as well (the Muslims)... I could see that in the eyes of my driver who was a local. Nothing will erase the pain. But this remark made me believe that there is some hope for my birth place and some day we will live in harmony again."

(All photos by the author, except when credit mentioned otherwise)