Disclaimer: This post is a combination of my experiences as a child who lived in North India & as an adult who has worked with people from Kashmir, travelled to Kashmir & spoken with locals. I do not claim anything. I know no mechanism to decipher truths. Only stories…that I am sharing here.
All pictures I have shown here are taken with permission!
Remember the time when we had to plot countries, states & cities on paper maps? I remember getting fascinated by those pieces of paper that sold for INR 1 & determined the physical and political boundaries of a nation.
Did you know that Kashmir appears disputed if seen from outside India, on Google Maps? More here.
The 90s in India:
Back in the 90s, when India was in a phase of experimentation and transformation, many things happened to this nation, to us. One of the most remembered of those changes was the 1991 LPG reforms that transformed our economy for the better. The GDP grew. The Foreign Exchange Reserves shifted towards the positive. A new social class emerged in India. That’s not it. In 1998, India also made its entry to the exclusive N-Club by declaring itself as a full-fledged nuclear state after Pokhran II. Pretty bold?! I say, Yes. The following year, India was proud again for its exemplary show of unity & patriotism for the Kargil War. At that time, I was an insecure kid grappling with so many issues in life. But I remember the time of the Kargil War. How donations poured in, how our mornings began with checking the war casualties published in the newspaper, how our evenings ended with prayers to keep Indian armies safe, sound & strong. May be, that’s how I grew so close to this nation that I absolutely love being an Indian.
But not everything was so glorious about the 90s! There were several things that bowed our heads in shame: Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, Babri Masjid Demolition, Bombay Blasts of 1993 and the most shameful of all – the mass exodus & genocide of Kashmiri Pundits!
The 90s in Kashmir:
A lot has been written, shown and discussed and still not enough has been said about that Black Day of Kashmir. Thousands were tortured, became homeless & lost their identities. I was a child when it happened. I remember listening to grown-ups talking about it. I remember my parents and relatives ensuring that none of the kids hears the news from the valley. I remember not being able to comprehend any of this. Between then and now, I met many Kashmiri families who survived that ‘black day’. Some studied with me in school & college. And I met most of them at workplace in the last 10 years.
The colleague who was a friend:
A couple of years back, one of those ex-colleagues who was also a ‘Chai buddy’, shared a picture of her house in Kashmir on Facebook. They were finally able to revisit their abandoned house after ~ three decades. It was a beautiful, three-storyed, wooden house. Back in the day, they ate Loquat on the first floor of their house, played in the verandah, and plucked fruits from their garden.
This is how I came to know that she & her family had left Kashmir in 1990 leaving their home, memories, possessions, really everything behind. This is how I knew that she probably has deep wounds that none of us could see when she worked with us in that high-pressure, workplace. This is how I realised – that not every happy soul with a forever smile comes from a place of privilege & entitlement. Some of them had fought battles that we can’t even comprehend.
By the way, she was really good. Kick-ass, if I may.
During a team lunch, when this colleague shared his story:
It was 2017. Our team of 30+ members were out on a lunch with our new leadership team. We were talking about movies, food, travel & weekend plans. Someone mentioned books and I couldn’t help myself from talking about my recent read – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I was in awe of the writer then. As I started appreciating her, the otherwise quiet colleague of mine, sitting next to me said, “She is a mad woman with no common sense. She talks about Kashmir and Kashmiri Pundits as if she was there that day when it happened. She has no idea and has so many baseless opinions.”
That day, I came to know, that he and his family left Kashmir overnight. The previous day, a group of militants shouted on loudspeakers with details on what they would do to them, their mothers, sisters and daughters if they don’t leave the place by the next morning.
They left & shifted to Jammu for a while. None of them could carry on with their studies that year. Soon, they picked up the pieces and rebuilt their life. This colleague of mine, he was an introvert who loved to solve Mathematical problems, analyze large volumes of data & design machine learning algorithms.
Kashmir of today:
I grew up watching movies & listening to songs that showed the picturesque Kashmir. I wanted to visit the valley for years. And I did, in April 2018.
I was excited. I wanted to drink Kehwa, smell the Tulips, take a ride in a Shikara, gaze at the Chinar trees & wear a Pheran.
Two days before our flight to Kashmir, we heard the news about unrest in the valley – stone pelting, open fire & acts of violence. We got worried: should we go or should we stay. We reached out to someone we met on Twitter. They were a resident of Kashmir. Upon their assurance, and by the virtue of the ‘boldness’ within, we took the flight & landed in Kashmir. To tell you the truth, I was a bit scared and a lot cautious when I landed. I knew so much already that I knew nothing.
We found a decent cabbie. He had studied in Delhi and came back to Kashmir. We got to talking.
“Nothing happens to tourists ever.”, he assured us.
I didn’t dare to ask him anything about the 90s. Because why? But my company didn’t have any reservations. He broached the subject explicitly. To which, the cabbie had no answers other than accepting that ‘wrong’ was done.
The Hotel Owner in Pahalgam
“Can you cook Nadru for lunch?”, I asked my hotel owner when he enquired about lunch options.
He was a B.Pharma, M.Pharma & was pursuing Ph. D, while also running a hotel where guests truly felt welcome. He was a Kashmiri man, who faced biases outside Kashmir. He took a few corporate jobs before deciding to settle in his homeland, Kashmir. It didn’t work out for him. He never felt included. He never felt a sense of belonging.
Today, people from all over stay in his hotel that overlooks a stable & trees. And he does everything in his might to make them feel welcome.
The Horse rider of Gulmarg
Two years before the pandemic, the business was still slow in 2018.
“We barely manage to earn enough for daily meals.”, he said
“People outside Kashmir think that we want a separate nation. We don’t. We want enough means to earn & live a decent life.”, he continued.
I mustered the courage to ask him if he wants to side with our neighbouring country that recognises army rule.
“We only want to be in India. What has ‘the neighbouring country’ done for us except give us terrorism, poverty and poor life conditions? At least Indian Government spends money, allocates budgets here.”
I am not cooking this up. He actually said every single word which is why I still remember it.
The boy outside the Apple Orchards
It was my last day in Kashmir. We had to take a flight back home in a few hours. My luggage bags were packed with stuff that I had bought in Kashmir. My heart was full of stories I heard & memories I made.
The apple orchard was our last stop. Outside the orchard, there was a boy in his early 20s, selling shawls. He was also the caretaker of the orchard. With looks that can easily give inferiority complex to many movie actors and a fashion sense that was worth envying, he looked extraordinary.
He exchanged greetings with our cabbie in Koshur. All of us had a glass of apple juice after which we left for the airport, and that boy went back to selling shawls.
I reached home. The next day, I noticed another Twitter thread of recent news about stone-pelting & open firing in Kashmir.