Pandits

I.

I don’t remember much about Pandits now. Fifteen years of military oppression has hardly left any space to reflect and remember.

My parents had many Pandit friends. I was told that I was born in a Pandit family’s house where my parents had rented a few rooms in the early 1980s. Later when we were building our own house, a Pandit family, who were also building a house in our neighborhood, lived with us in our tiny makeshift cottage for six months. They were friends, so my family never accepted their rent. My parents enforced one rule strictly: my sisters and I were not to enter our Pandit tenants’ kitchen, which was in a room next to ours.

Some Muslims suspected Pandits to be mendacious, yet saw them as better than themselves in that regard. A few would call Pandits shrewd, influential, and untrustworthy, yet many others thought of them as wise and superior. A neighbor told me once that Pandits had helped Indians deny Muslim Kashmiris their freedoms, and that Pandits were hand-in-glove with the Indians. I smiled and asked him if the Dogras or Sheikh Abdullah and his family were Pandits. A rumour was making rounds about how Pandits would ditch Muslim Kashmiris when the latter start Kashmir’s war of independence from India. Pandits were called ‘butteh’ behind their backs (though it was not pejorative), and ‘maharah’ when talking to them. Probably, one reason they were called ‘butteh’ was that many of them had Butt as their last name. Some scholars say it had historically to do with the region they initially came from. Many Pandits also called themselves butteh. Whatever the reason, it just sounded rude to me.

Many Pandits told stories of their success in the following manner: Pandits had secured their position in the social hierarchy by taking to modern schooling. Minorities understand that to maintain their position in the society they must master education, business, or finance etc. It may earn them the wrath of the majority. Jews in Europe are a fine example of this.

Pandits were doctors, bureaucrats, and landowners (until Sheikh’s land reforms), but they were seen best as teachers. Some Muslims, however, felt that Pandits taught their own people different things than what they taught others. How else did Pandit kids become officers while Muslims ended up selling grocery, they would argue.

My parents tried their best to create a good image of Pandits for us, and they are still committed to that belief. However, by the time I could begin to even think about it seriously Pandits had left Kashmir. I remember waking up one day and my father saying that Pandits left in trucks the previous night with everything, and that soldiers were preparing for a crackdown on the rest of us. It all sounded too unreal to be true.

Some of the things I noticed as a child had left me with some doubts. We had a few Pandit households in our neighbourhood, and despite the good relations they had with the rest of us, we never knew what was happening in their families. I would go to Roopa Aunty’s house, and she would get angry if I entered the kitchen. Pandit kids could go wherever they wished in the house. She washed her kitchen each time a Muslim kid stepped into it. In the beginning, I didn’t understand, but when I did later I was very upset. Muslim children were seen as polluting. We were pollution! Her son Vicky spent a lot of his time in our kitchen. My mother didn’t wash the kitchen because of him. Also, there were many Sardarji jokes, as there were Maulvisahab jokes, but there were none about Pandits. If there ever were any, the Pandits came out the wisecracks. Why was it so? Jokes about people, though not ones that create dangerous stereotypes, sometimes ease negative social tensions. Not that it was a problem, but Pandits also used Sanskritized Kashmiri where Muslims used Persianized Kashmiri. Among some people though it was seen as an issue!

Later on, when I was living in a Muslim university in India, which was no more than a ghetto, I realized why people preserve their culture and what it means to them. It also helped me to see the world with a minority consciousness. I was a majority in Kashmir and a minority in India. Although Muslims in India haven’t achieved the kind of status that Pandits had in Kashmir, but the community sense is growing strong. Any remark at Muslims in India, intended to hurt or otherwise, is not taken kindly. Probably for the same reason there were no Pandit jokes in Kashmir. On this count, the Sikhs paid the price. However, Sikh-Muslim relations in the valley have mostly been cordial. Sikhs were as bad in education as the Muslims; they were mostly carpenters or mechanics.

Their unfavourable number in the valley despite the traditional good relations between Pandits and Muslims made Pandits put an extra effort in achieving higher education, which their leaders felt was key to their survival and growth. Many Pandits were in the top echelons of Indian power circles.

————–

II.

In summer this year, I went to see some of the few Pandit families that continued living in the valley. In spite of a huge Indian-generated fear-psychosis, they didn’t leave.

It had rained all night, and I was afraid I would have to abandon my plans. Then rain stopped and I set off. Walking by the torn down homes in old Mattan town, I was nervous about what I would confront. Will anyone speak to me? Indians were telling the world Kashmiri Muslims had driven Pandits out.

This place was just a couple of miles away from my home. I went along with a journalist friend and his TV crew, who were making a report on the valley Pandits’ reaction to government plans of bringing migrant Pandits back. We walked through a narrow lane that ended in the rubble of razed homes. After Pandits left for Jammu in 1990, miscreants had burnt their houses. There were still some houses on the farther side of the rubble mound. The rain had made the mound damp, but we moved on. A narrow path ran through low ferns and moss. If the rubble were an archive, one could see that it was the richer Pandits who had left, leaving their cement and bricked, and deodar-paneled houses behind. The poorer ones held back; their houses were safe, but miserable anyway. Muslims couldn’t have prevented Pandits from leaving–they had no control over the events as Indian military controlled everything–but Pandit homes should have been saved. If homes are burnt, it would be harder for those who left to return, and that is never what Muslims wished–at least never those who I knew. 1990 was a year of burning; soldiers had already burned parts of Srinagar, Islamabad (Anantnag), neighborhoods, markets, mosques. Occupation’s beginning lay in razing, blazing, and scorched earth.

We knocked on a door. An annoyed, old woman with grizzled hair answered. We asked if we could have an “interview” with her. She eyeballed us, and casually slammed the door on us after telling us,

“Go away. Go interview your mothers!”

It was not what I expected, but I liked it anyway–the true sign of a Kashmiri grandma when she doesn’t want to give a shit. It brought on a lightness than I had felt evaporate as soon as we had reached the neighborhood. We moved on, suppressing our laughter at the poor cameraman. who had told us he knew the family.

We saw an old man walking toward us. His ragged pheran, unkempt hair, and his sunken eyes, added a decade to what he later said was his age. We said “adab mahara” in unison, standing almost in line, like in a guard of honor salute. He nudged his way past us without saying a word. I was intrigued.

Just then a metallic female voice from close by, but whose origin I couldn’t trace for a few moments, said:

“He is insane. Who are you looking for?”

I looked up to see the woman sitting in the balcony. I couldn’t tell her age. Her hair was graying, and her eyes were sunken and dry, yet her face and hands didn’t have any wrinkles.

We were perplexed. We didn’t know anyone here. Before I could explain, a smartypants cameraman (there were three in all) in our team, loudly clearing his throat, answered with a debilitating lie,

“We have to meet Pyarelal Handoo. Do you know where we should look?”

The woman laughed, as we looked on the cameraman with amazement and anger.

“The famous one! He is dead. You know. You are joking. And he is not from here. Now tell me who are you looking for?”

The chief reporter, my friend, explained the situation. The woman smiled and asked us to wait a minute.

After a little while the woman came down to the barn where we were standing. Another woman much older than her was accompanying her. Both answered everything the chief reporter asked. They were not happy with the government. They praised their Muslim neighbors. Most of their bitterness was reserved for their co-religionists who had fled Kashmir.

“They could have held on. How many would have been killed? A thousand? Two thousand? But not more than that. Did anything happen to Sikhs?”, said one.
“So many Muslims have been killed. Did they flee?” the other added.

“They left their home, and now force us to leave too,” said the older of the two.

The women were teary eyed. The older one held the arm of the other one and went in. We waited for a few minutes, and then moved on.

We came across an old man who said he couldn’t run away because he couldn’t afford it, but he was happy that in the end to have not left.

“This is the place I was born; this is the place I shall die.”

I was looking for some younger faces but found none. It was the middle of the day, and they must be off to their jobs, so I thought. I asked the old man and he said there are no young men and women here. They have all left.

Soon I took leave from the TV crew and began walking the streets alone. Mattan is famous for its sun temple, but there is another temple near the main road, with a fountain and a big spring where some pilgrims halt on their way to Amarnath cave. A stream of water flows from the spring which has many fish in it. Inside the temple compound is a Sikh gurudwara also. Women folk–Muslim, Pandit and Sikh–wash clothes at the other end of the stream.

I went inside the compound past the guards, and stood watching. An old man looked suspiciously at me. I smiled. He relaxed. I went near and asked if it was possible to stay there for a while. He said I was welcome but the security guards will not be comfortable, so I better ask their permission first. The Indian guards were least pleased with my request, and turned me away. The old man came to argue on my behalf and managed to get me back inside, but only for a few minutes. The security guards used abusive words while talking to him. I was angry with the way they were treating him, but I managed to keep my cool. He turned out to be the chief priest of the temple.

Th priest remained calm and said, “These people are from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh or Orissa. They do not respect Kashmiris. What matters a poor Kashmiri priest to them?”

I did not know what to say. This was new to me. I had believed Pandits to be ‘hand-in-glove with Indians’. I asked him how things were going for him. He said people who came here from India every year exclaimed how I was still alive. Anger welled on his face, and he looked away mockingly toward the CRPF camp nearby. He didn’t want people to ask him such questions, he said. Several members of his family, who had migrated, asked him to leave Kashmir. He wouldn’t get proper care in his old age, they would say.

“I don’t want their pity. It is they who are living a pitiable life in an alien land.”

I was about to leave when I saw a familiar figure at a distance. I went near to see why this person’s face had struck a chord inside me. I immediately recognized him. It was Kaul sahab, my teacher in the high school. He taught me Math and English. Students loved him. He was often the only champion of our causes in the school. He would argue on our behalf with the principal for the games day. The school was a Muslim institution, but Kaul sahab, a Hindu, was invited to teach and managed to stay for years.

Kaul sahab had introduced a new melody for the morning assembly song, Iqbal’s ‘lab pe ati hai’. It was a lovely, hummable tune, better than the earlier bland one. It was an aesthetically-inspired music, and not the ideologically-intended original one. We quickly picked it, and it became popular. Kaul sahab would often listen to the 1940s Indian singer K L Saigal’s songs during lunch time on his old cassette player. The player was held together by strings. The students would gather around him and hum with him. He was a joyous old man and the only Pandit teacher in my conservative school.

Some jealous teachers sometimes said that he was trying to make us Indian. That was ridiculous. We never had political discussions in class. Once, he caught me arguing with another student about Indian and Pakistani cricket teams. Indians were losing all the time with Pakistan those days, and somehow I felt sympathy with the former. I jokingly said that we should send Kashmiri fast bowler Qayoom to boost India’s pace attack, and that might make Indians less cruel toward Kashmiris. When Kaul sahab overheard me, he punished me by making me stand outside the class for two hours, with my hands holding my ears. Apparently, he preferred the Pakistan team, not that I ever dared to ask. It was superficial, but loyalties toward India and Pakistan were often expressed in terms of which cricket team you cheered for.

We were very sad the day Kaul sahab’s wife died. His wife had been living in Jammu with her two sons. Kaul sahab had never visited them there. Three years after migration she passed away. The morning after the news reached him Kaul Sahab came to the school as usual, and began teaching us. Then suddenly he broke into tears. He pulled himself together immediately, and left the classroom. He resigned from the school soon afterwards. A pall of gloom hung over us for many days.

I had not seen him since.

And now, Kaul Sahab looked leaner and weaker than before in his large pheran. He quickly recognized me. He was teary eyed as I shook his hand. I asked him how he was doing, but he was interested to know more about how I was doing. I told him about my studies and the purpose of my visit to Mattan. I wanted to ask him why he had punished me for siding with the Indian team, but it was not the right occasion. We went on to talk about my other high school mates. He was eager to know if they were doing well. I told him about how the principal never allowed us the games day after he left the school. He said he knew that was going to happen but he couldn’t carry it on any further.

Kaul Sahab asked me if they changed the tune of the morning prayer song. I said no, and it made him happy. I also told him how our geography teacher confused Austria with Australia, Chile with China and Prussia with Russia. He laughed, awkwardly. It looked like he hadn’t laughed in many years. I held his hand tight in my hands and kissed it. I was feeling a lump in my throat. I asked him if he could come to my home for lunch some evening. He said yes. We talked for a while before I left.

I reached home very late in the evening. The day had been too much for me. I could not sleep for a long time that night. I called up Kaul Sahab in the morning and proposed a date for lunch. He immediately accepted. Kaul Sahab said this was the first time in many years that someone had invited him over. My father consoled him over phone by saying nothing lasts forever, and better days were round the corner. We all needed each other’s consolation.

The lunch didn’t take place. Kaul Sahab fell ill. The summer was over. I was back in Delhi.

————–

III.

“Pandits are a part of us; we are incomplete without them.”

This was commonplace for Kashmiri Muslims to say; even after Pandits had left. In these words there was, however, something paradoxically truthful. Pandits knew Kashmiri Muslims like no one else did; Muslims knew the ‘secrets’ of Pandits. We spoke a common language, and at least, at the level of neighborhoods, experienced natural and personal vicissitudes together, and stood with each other in those moments. When Pandits left, this sense of togetherness in neighborhoods was sliced open, and both were left suddenly vulnerable to all the ‘secrets’ being spilled. Pandit’s saw Muslims falling for Pakistan’s ‘machinations’ as a betrayal of what they called ‘Kashmiriyat’, while Muslims saw Pandit’s leaving for India at a critical historical juncture when Kashmir had started its fight for freedom from India as a betrayal of trust, of Kashmir itself.

While this sense of ‘betrayal’  remains central to their mutual misunderstanding now, the ‘incompleteness’ has become the constitutive element in the formation of their new identities, which are becoming increasingly harder to bridge. As of now Pandits are adrift in the sea of India, and Muslims remain crushed under the jackboots of India’s military occupation.

 

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