Thursday, 19 September 2019

‘We never moved back to Kashmir, because we couldn’t’

A writer tries to make a home everywhere to dull the pain of losing hers after militants targeted the Hindu minority when the insurgency against India erupted.

We vacation hard, my family. Ideally three weeks, and always a home rental, never a hotel. We settle in like we own the place, and have always owned the place. We start with a grocery store, a thrift shop for toys, a visit to the local library. We scope out playgrounds and children’s classes, make some friends, set up play dates.

The Google map I create during my research phase is color-coded, layered, intricate. We set up temporary lives everywhere from Greece to Japan. On our last trip, to Oahu, Hawaii, we did five grocery runs and nine loads of laundry, and spent the rest of the time washing dishes. In the places we stay, there is no turndown service, often no air conditioning, and the elevator always breaks on day two (I’m looking at you, Paris).

The drive to settle in immediately is pathological. I am compelled to ensure that my children are protected from unease or confusion, that they feel safe, enriched, fed, wherever we are.

I originally thought my bone-deep aversion to hotels was borne of all of the moving. Travel aside, I have lived in so many places I have lost count. Born in India, stints in Britain, Saudi Arabia, New York and then dragging a garbage bag full of clothes from a decrepit house to a more decrepit house as a student in Ann Arbor, Mich., plus some time in Italy and now, five addresses in Los Angeles.
Sarah Mazzetti

I have spent a formative amount of time in sterile extended-stay suites while a bunch of these homes were found, furnished or built. Hotels make me feel unsettled, unmoored, worried, and now that I have two children, the logistics are beyond me. How do you cram so many people into a room and all manage to sleep? If you don’t sleep, is it even a vacation? What happens when a growing boy needs breakfast at 5 a.m.?

But I have realized recently my “travel style” runs deeper: I don’t have a home. Yes, I live in a house. But you know how most people have somewhere to go home to?

Despite my best efforts to move beyond it, I have been thinking of my lost home since the eruption of the most recent crisis in Kashmir. I was born a Hindu in Kashmir, as was almost everyone in my family, for probably thousands of years. My parents decided to move abroad for work opportunities in the early 1980s, really so that they could gather funds to build their dream house in Srinagar.

We spent every summer and holiday, probably four to five months a year, in Kashmir. I was born in Habba Kadal, a neighborhood in central Srinagar, its maze of streets lined with narrow, four-story wooden houses.

My parents built their house in the suburban area of Natipora, which at the time had open fields, fresh air and an unobstructed view of the Himalayas. We gently, by hand, carried home china, linens and decorative items for the house. We clambered over rocks and beams at the construction site, watched them polish the terrazzo, proud and excited for our return.

I split time between there and my maternal grandparents’ house, or “matamaal,” in a verdant central Srinagar area, where I was the first of eight grandchildren, doted on by a boisterous extended family. I could draw you a detailed architectural map of both homes. I remember the hidden staircase to the roof at matamaal, the heavy curtains I wrapped around myself, until I dislodged a family of mice.

Afternoons cleaning string beans and corn from the vegetable patch. The time my mother told me not to play badminton in the evening, and it got so dark that I smacked a shrieking bat instead of the shuttlecock. I woke up once in the middle of the night and saw a bear dancing on its hind legs on the lawn. Nobody believes me about this one, but it happened.

After one of many picnics in Pahalgam, a hill town so picturesque you can see it in every Bollywood movie, I was halfway through a tourist-trap horse ride before realizing a pound of chocolate-covered walnuts was too many.

This is all to say: Have you ever heard people talk about how incredible Kashmir was? How beautiful, how peaceful? “Paradise on Earth” is the cliché, right? It was absolutely all of that, no exaggeration. To my 9-year-old self, it was the most magical, joyful place in the world.

At the same time, being Kashmiri has always been difficult. My parents’ generation had seen two wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, followed by an insurgency against Indian rule and rapid militarization in the winter of 1989-90. When the violence began, many Pandits, as Kashmiri Hindus are known, were targeted and killed by militants, which terrified us, leading to rushed middle-of-the-night departures by most of our community, including my extended family. I realize I recite these facts simply and without emotion, as a child would. That is so I don’t cry.

We were last at our house in August 1989, and it is now a pile of rubble, I think. The roof was burned off by militants, and snow seeped in to dissolve the rest. In a lifetime of talking to my parents every day, I have never asked for updates. I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to talk about it. I hear my beloved matamaal is a tech sales center. Even typing this out makes my heart clench, and I go back to the drawings in my head.

I have mapped out the houses, room by room, obsessively, for the past 30 years, so that I can remember them. Because I can’t (or won’t?) revisit, it is my only way to access the happiness of those summers at home in Kashmir. It is why I try to make a home everywhere I go. Feeling at home grounds me. It makes me feel the loss less.

We never moved back to Kashmir, because we couldn’t. We just kept moving. But summers in India continued, nothing like before. After we lost our home and our house, six of us spent the summer of 1990 crammed into one room in Delhi, sleeping fitfully. So, no thanks, hotels. The next summer we had two rooms. Eventually, an apartment, also in Delhi.

And I, throughout all of this, was one of the lucky ones. All we lost was a home. So many people suffered much more than we did. So many people are suffering right now. So many Kashmiris’ grief and loss outweighs mine by a factor of thousands. Can we ever go back? Should we ever go back? I have long avoided discussing Kashmir. I am neither historically nor politically fluent enough to unpack these answers.

All I know is, I loved it. I loved it so much. But I live here now.

Priyanka Mattoo is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

(Source: NYT)

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