Cross-border militancy, curfews, terrorism, the forced exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits – the beautiful vales of Kashmir have been marked by continuous conflict and complete breakdown of civilian-state trust in the past few decades.
As someone whose family was forced at gunpoint to leave behind their ancestral homes in Srinagar in the early 1990s, author Avanti Sopory could have chosen to dwell on the negative and to paint Kashmir in shades of bitterness in her writing.
Instead, the Gurugram-based mother of two writes about its beauty, folklore and fairytales. In this interview, the 42-year-old shares her thoughts on her homeland.
In your latest book The Kashmir That Was, you have tried to recreate an older, idyllic time in Kashmir – Bollywood movie shoots, theatre enthusiasts, laid-back village scenes. What inspired you and what was your vision for this book?
I think it is important that the youngsters of the country and Indians in general should know that there is more to Kashmir than meets the eye. The many years of unpleasant narrative about Kashmir have shadowed its real and more romantic culture under a garb of hatred and fear.
As a native, I wished to bring out the unseen, unheard and the undiscovered part of Kashmir – a state that has birthed leaders of international repute, actors par excellence, world-class musicians, and artisans hailed for their supreme craftsmanship.
Kashmir was once a thriving centre for local and national theatricals. It was once as normal and as beautiful as any other part of India.
Kashmiri Pandits often admit to having mixed feelings about Kashmir – there is love and nostalgia but also anger and betrayal. What are your thoughts?
As you have rightly said, there are mixed feelings. I was born there and spent my childhood there. In 1990, when my family moved to Delhi, I wasn’t aware that, in my little memory box, I was carrying the most precious and treasured times of my life.
Those childhood memories are still frozen in my hippocampus, like stills from a movie. When I close my eyes, there is a jigsaw puzzle of various events, conversations, anecdotes, discussions, artefacts, journeys, food, places, family, cousins, friends, school… Whenever I shut my eyes, these memories haunt me.
I guess anyone who is forced to leave their home and hearth under the merciless threat of the gun has every right to feel angry. To make matters worse, our exodus was never acknowledged by any ruling establishment, media, or anyone in power. Nobody blinked an eye!
How did your community get back on its feet after the events of January 1990?
Kashmiri Pandits have been forced out of the valley a number of times. But each time, we have risen from the ashes like the phoenix. We are a resilient set of people. Education has been of primary importance, irrespective of the social or cultural status of the families.
My great-grandfather was the first ornithologist in Kashmir, and an author par excellence on the subject. Both my maternal and paternal families are replete with academics, media entrepreneurs, social workers and thought leaders. History may not have been kind to us, but we have all been able to carve out a niche for ourselves.
Many Kashmiri Pandits feel let down by successive Indian governments for lack of support and rehabilitation. What are your views?
Yes, that is true. Successive governments have been hostile towards our condition and our cause has been completely sidelined. For 30 years, we have been at the receiving end of hopeless lip service, dished out by each political party.
We are a displaced community within our own country. Even in 30 years of our exile, none of the ruling governments has been successful in providing a sustainable structure for us.
Modern-day Kashmiris of both religions face discrimination in the rest of India – the Muslims for being Muslims, and the Pandits for “running away” from militant-torn Kashmir in the 1990s. Have you also had to face such censure?
When we had just migrated to Delhi, I overheard a woman on a bus say, “Why did these Kashmiri Pandits run away from the Valley? They are a weak bunch of people who could not stand up and fight.” There was a tinge of ridicule in her voice.
As a child, I didn’t understand what that meant, but now I wonder what the woman had been thinking. She probably didn’t know that we were a handful of law-abiding families up against a planted and planned group of militants who had threatened us to leave our own house or face death. Wasn’t this some kind of discrimination in my own country?
I think that people living in other parts of India were – and still are – often ignorant about the mass exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from their birthplace.
Are there any films, authors or artists in popular culture who you think have successfully portrayed the traumatic experiences of the Kashmiri Pandits?
Yes, there have been plenty. But what comes to mind right now is the movie Shikara (2020). I think it was very brave of Vidhu Vinod Chopra to make such a film.
What according to you is the solution to the “Kashmir problem”?
Kashmir will cease to be a problem the day Pakistan stops meddling. Since 1947, they have sponsored terrorism, sabotaged development and exploited the religious sentiments of the people. They continue to create a noise around the so-called ‘atrocities’ in Kashmir at diplomatic, social, political and international levels. That’s the cause of the unrest in the Valley.
It may sound strange to many but, socially and culturally, Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have a lot in common – be it their food, names, wedding rituals, or spiritual alignment and Sufism.
Both Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have lived for long in mutual warmth, respect, cooperation, community strength, mysticism, spirituality, devotion, and empathy. We hope to relive those days once again.
I let the red of the memory bleed me crimson,
Shudder with the splash and freeze within,
I plug the gash, hold my heart tight,
Ah! fond memories engulf me like the dark of the night,
Of times not stung, no venom spread,
Of life unadulterated, we natives lead,
I let the red of the memory inundate me,
Of a past so ecstatic, my present should see,
I too was a performer in the Act 7 of Valley,
Those hearty times also belonged to me,
Snowballs, scent of just-mowed grass, frolics of childhood,
Crisp was air, those picnics were real; now praying for a chance of likelihood.
First published in eShe’s August 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control