Monday, December 21, 2015

T.N. MADAN - Old Memories and Recent Encounters from a Kashmir We Have Irretrievably Lost

I grew up in the 1930s in the heart of the city of Srinagar. Ours was a mixed neighbourhood; Muslim houses perhaps outnumbered the Pandits’. The house nearest ours was that of an akhund, a traditional Islamic teacher. Every forenoon about a dozen boys and girls assembled there to learn the Arabic alphabet and memorise the Quran by rote. I was not yet at school, and could hear these children repeat each sentence after their teacher in a sing-song style. Sitting in my own home, I often joined in. 

It was fun! I did not yet know the Gayatri mantra, which I was taught later at my initiation ceremony at the age of seven. I did not know the meaning of what I learned by overhearing the Quranic verses, or of the mantra I was ritually taught by the family priest. It was only later that I found out that the Fatihah (opening chapter of the Quran) and the Gayatri mantra are stunningly similar, each praising God (Allah, Bhargodeva) and praying for ‘light’ to pursue the ‘virtuous path’.

Muslims were regular visitors to our home – domestic helpers, service providers (such as barbers, milkmen, water carriers, and washermen); and craftsmen (like carpenters, goldsmiths, potters). We rarely went to their houses. Some of them ate in our home, we never ate with them. We knew of their festivals, they of ours. I have no memories of serious neighbourhood quarrels. I did sometimes hear the elders recall the ‘Loot’: incidents of stray assault and looting in 1931 by Muslim mobs protesting the death of some demonstrators in police firing outside the city jail. Such things (demonstrations, police firings, retaliatory lootings) had never happened before. But by the late 1930s, memories of the Loot had already softened.

Independence, August 1947: Kashmir’s Maharaja had not yet made up his mind which ‘dominion’ to ‘accede’ to. In late October the Valley was raided by tribesmen from the North-West (as it was then called), mobilised and trained by the newly born Pakistan army. The government machinery was paralysed in the affected districts after the Maharaja’s sudden departure for Jammu. Sheikh Abdullah was in prison, but the National Conference rose to the occasion and almost overnight organised a ‘security force’, Salamati Fauj. It comprised young men and boys, mostly Muslims, armed with lathis and hockey sticks, or just empty handed but shaking their fists in the air. They patrolled the city mohallas. No policemen were in sight, and no one knew for sure how serious the situation was. 

I saw a respected Pandit elder appear at a window of the top floor of his house, and call out: ‘Salamati Fauj zindabad!’ The boys responded: ‘Hamlavar khabardar, hum Kashmiri hain tayyar!’ (Aggressor beware, we Kashmiris are prepared!) I had never before seen that Pandit gentleman even speak with street urchins (as he would have earlier called them).

Gandhi’s assassination, January 1948: The next morning, the first person I encountered in the snow covered courtyard was our driver Ismail, a Muslim. ‘So you have killed him!’ he said politely. I was grouped with the Hindu assassin and his collaborators, sharing common guilt. Ismail did not know our whole family had decided to observe a fast that day.

In mid-1949 I went away to Lucknow for studies at the university. Thereafter, I always went home during vacations, but never went back to live there. I did, however, spend the year 1956 in a Kashmir village, engaged in fieldwork for my anthropology Ph.D. Like everywhere else in the Valley, there were many more Muslims in this village than Pandits – this was true of all villages except those inhabited by Muslims only – but the focus of my research was the Pandit household. I made friends in both communities.

Over the years, my academic career took me to many cities in India and abroad but ‘home’ was in Srinagar, not only for me but also for my non-Kashmiri wife and our two children. Srinagar was expanding in area, population, and amenities. My wife and I seriously considered spending more time there after my retirement, which was due in the mid-1990s. Kashmiri Muslims were in the ascendant; this was expected and good, although some Pandits missed their earlier privileged position. The future looked fine despite the troubled relations between India and Pakistan and squabbles between Kashmiri political parties.

I went to Srinagar in the summer of 1989 for a meeting at Kashmir University. I heard about violent incidents and political unrest, but my family was not alarmed. I urged the Sociology department to pay more attention to Kashmiri society and culture, and not remain caged in what was generally taught at Indian universities. I promised I would teach there in an honorary capacity after my retirement. In October that year, my wife went ‘home’ on a brief visit. On returning to Delhi, she told me the signs were ominous; a roadside bomb explosion had occurred outside a shop when she was inside.

Militancy broke out in Kashmir in early 1990. The house of my maternal uncles was set on fire after they went away. I was informed by friends that the Pandits in the village where I had done my fieldwork, about a hundred households, were fast going away, mostly to Jammu. My mother and brother’s wife also moved out, but my brother stayed back until the end of the year when his Muslim friends asked him to go away too, for it was no longer safe there. Pandit houses had been attacked, individuals killed. He left the house in the custody of a Muslim chowkidar, sure that they would all return next summer. They never did. He died in exile in 1997; his wife, a few years later in her daughter’s house in Dhanbad (Jharkhand); and our mother, in my Delhi apartment. Today less than 10,000 Pandits out of an estimated 300,000 survive in the Valley.

In 1998 my wife and I visited Kashmir after nine years. I had been invited to a conference on panchayati raj. The then chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, announced that panchayat elections would be held soon. We were put up in a state guest house. A friend of my brother’s, who was a cabinet minister, accompanied us for a quick visit to our house which he knew well; his escort jeep of armed policemen came along.

Our house had been broken into, systematically vandalised, and extensively damaged. Everything had been taken away, even the copy of the Holy Quran that was in my father’s sizeable collection of books and manuscripts in five languages. Seeing it had not stopped their fell hands. Part of the house was under illegal occupation; several rooms had been locked by trespassers. We knew what the Madan family had to do was give away the house to a friendly Muslim family to save it from total destruction. 

We found such a family after a year-long search; they bought it from us at a throwaway price. A magnificent example of Persianate Pandit domestic architecture, the five-level house will be a hundred years old in about two years (2018). I was born and brought up there. It was there that I heard the Quran and learned the Gayatri mantra. It was there that I took my non-Kashmiri wife after our marriage in 1957. I have in recent years seen photographs of the house in Pandit magazines, identified in some of them as an ‘abandoned’ Pandit home.

After 1999, my wife and I visited Kashmir in 2007. We stayed in a hotel, and did not visit what had been our ‘home’. We were tourists now, and did what tourists do – pay fleeting visits to places of interest. Among these was the temple of Kheer Bhawani near the village of Tulamul, about a dozen miles from Srinagar. We went more out of curiosity than religious devotion. The temple and the surrounding shops and guest rooms were intact, but nearly all of the latter were locked up. The large temple with its stone-paved compound was quiet, unlike the hustle and bustle of earlier days. Several grand chinar (maple-like) trees, their trunks hollowed by old age, stood guard there, offering the famed shade of their leafy branches, but nobody sat or rested there. There was also a CRPF unit posted there.

At the temple entrance, beyond which only Hindus could go, I spoke with the young man appointed by the authorities to look after the footwear of those who went inside. He could not have been more than a young boy when militancy erupted in the Valley. I could not tell from his appearance whether he was a Muslim or a Pandit, but was inclined to think he was a Pandit. He had volunteered the information that three or four Pandit families were still living in the village. Before leaving, I asked him his name; he was a Muslim. Rather discomfited, I self-consciously switched to the Muslim idiom, and said, insha-Allah, we would meet again. Quite spontaneously, he replied, pralabh, the Pandit variant of the Sanskritprarabhda — ‘fate’.

In 2009, I visited Srinagar again for an all-India conference at Kashmir University. I stayed at the campus, and extended my stay by a couple of days to enjoy the autumn sun. October used to be my favourite month in Kashmir. A Kashmiri civil servant, who had studied sociology at Aligarh Muslim University, and knew of my work, contacted me and came over for a consultation on how he might keep alive his academic interests. We had a nice chat. As he stood up to leave, he said, ‘You know, when I left home, my kid boy (lokut) asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to see a Pandit. He asked me, ‘You know Pandits?’ This innocent query speaks of the loss of traditional Kashmiri childhood, when Pandits could recite verses from the Quran and were entertained on festive days by Muslim folk singers with their pipes (surnai) and drums (nagara).

This last summer (2015) I was persuaded by a non-Kashmiri couple, friends visiting from the United States, to join them on a short holiday to Kashmir. My son (also on his annual visit from the US) came along. We stayed in a hotel. I now know only a few persons there, all of them academics. One evening I got into a conversation with one of the proprietors, an elegant elderly Muslim gentleman. He spoke to us in English. I answered him in Kashmiri. ‘Oh! You are a Pandit,’ he exclaimed in Kashmiri, ‘Wherefrom? Where did you live earlier?’ Soon we identified our respective families and mohallas in the city. He turned to my son: ‘Your father’s community educated us, we were an illiterate people. Look after him well, wash his feet!’ — a Brahmanical idea.

Another day, we visited a walnut wood carver’s workshop. My son bought a beautiful Buddha head, polished smooth, perfect in its details. I told the owner in Kashmiri that my friends and son did not know the language. He spoke to them in English, telling my son, ‘Our forefathers were master craftsmen but illiterate. The Pandits taught us to read and write. My own college teachers were mostly Pandits.’ Within a couple of days, two Kashmiri Muslims, one in his late 70s, the other much younger, recalled the old times of amity and camaraderie. The new name for this relationship is ‘Kashmiriyat’, an import from Delhi’s political jargon. I had never heard of it perhaps before the 1970s. We did not need it, we lived it. This is the world we have irretrievably lost, the Muslims no less than the Pandits.

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