Will Girija Ever Feel At Peace Again?

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 20 Jun 2018 12:49:31


By shazia yousuf

Vijay Dhar has always hated conflict. Away from Kashmir, the turmoil looked even worse. Many a time, his parents, tired of living in hot, hostile camps, had expressed their desire to go back to their homeland but he never consented. However, some years ago, when his father was dying, Vijay saw him longing for one last glimpse of the house he had built in the Valley but had been forced to sell off when they had moved all of a sudden. That’s when he decided to at least take his mother, Girija. Sadly, their trip turned out to be disappointing.

As her autorickshaw slowly made its way into the old city market of Safakadal in Srinagar, Girija Dhar, 75, kept popping her head out impatiently to see if she could catch a glimpse of her old home. Suddenly she asked the rickshaw driver to stop. The place looked familiar. “It should be here somewhere,” she said getting down. But as soon as she started walking down the road she realised that her ancestral residence didn’t exist anymore - two tall concrete buildings had taken its place. Dejected, Dhar went back. “Take me to the ashram,” she said quietly to her son.

Dhar, a Kashmiri Pandit, can never forget the night of January 19, 1990, when owing to the ever increasing violence in the Valley she had to pack up her belongings in haste and leave with her husband. By then her two sons were already studying in another city. She tried to settle down in a camp for migrants in Jammu along with lakhs of other refugees but in the decades that followed not one day went by when she didn't remember the blissful years of her life in Srinagar. Says Vijay, “My parents had spent their best years in Srinagar and longed to go back to their homeland. But until recently I was unable to muster the courage to return.” Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned and Vijay rues, “I thought she would see her home and die in peace. But now she is even sadder than my father. He at least died in illusion, she knows the reality.”
From Safakadal Vijay and his mother went straight to Bhagwan Gopinath Ashram, located in Kharyar Habbakadal, where non-migrant Pandit women and those who have come back after many years meet each other and share their burden of loneliness and grief. “I come here because I have nowhere else to go,” states Pushpa Kaaw, 55. She returned to the Valley when her son, her only child, got job in a multinational company in New Delhi. Like Dhar, Kaaw had also found herself at a crossroads on the night of January 19. She had had to choose between her husband's job and moving to Jammu with her five-year-old son. She decided to go away from the hostility while her husband stayed back for the sake of his work. For almost two decades, the couple lived away from each other except for the occasional visits by her husband.

Ever since her son has settled down, she has come back for good. “But I feel lost here. Every day opens up a new wound,” she remarks. Kaaw loves the Kashmir that lives on in her memory. Her in-law's huge house in Jawahar Nagar, their joint family of almost two dozen members and a whole bunch of women busily going up and down the wide, stately staircase. These days, her husband and she live in a rented room in Rajbagh, not far from where their own house once stood. It had been torched down by some unknown gunmen two days after she left for Jammu. “But [in the fire] I lost something even more precious than my home. I lost my youth,” she says.

Literally, thousands of Pandit women have lived most of their marital life away from their husbands because the dark years of insurgency forced them to break their family. While the men either stayed back in Kashmir or moved to other cities in search of jobs, the women lived alone in migrant camps raising children and taking care of their ageing in-laws. A study done in the migrant camps in 1997 revealed that there had been only 16 births compared to 49 deaths in some 300 migrant families between 1990 and 1995. Another study conducted by Dr K.L. Chowdhury, a renowned Kashmiri physician, showed a drop in the population of Kashmiri Pandits due to premature menopause in women triggered by stress, displacement, separation from husbands, lack of privacy and adequate accommodation. “I always wanted a sibling for my son but my future was so uncertain that I was simply not ready to bring another child into this world,” says Kaaw, whose son refuses to make Kashmir his home.

Nancy Bhatt, 65, is facing a similar situation. “I have only one son who was 15 when we migrated. He has become a doctor and says there is nothing for him in Kashmir,” she shares. Bhatt lives in a rented accommodation with her husband in Banmohalla Habbakadal. She had gone to Jammu with her boy while her husband stuck on. After he completed his education and started working as a doctor she returned. That was over a decade ago. Of course, Bhatt is unable to adjust to the changed reality in Kashmir. Anxiety and hesitation are a part of her personality. She insists on donning the salwar kameez instead of a sari, in an effort to blend in with the majority Muslim population. “What a veil is to a Muslim woman, a sari was to me. I feel immodestly dressed in a salwar kameez,” says Bhatt, as she adjusts her dupatta. But she prefers to be uncomfortable than face risk. Although no one in her family or acquaintance has ever been roughed up or sexually abused she has heard countless stories of harassment. “Even now, I sometimes tie my scarf around my face leaving only my eyes exposed. I know it is all in my head and there is no danger but I still do it,” she says, haplessly.

Away from their ancestral homes and even their children now, the ageing Pandit women feel very vulnerable. “Loneliness is the cause of all our insecurities and fears. Had our children been here, things would have been far better. But if they return what will they eat?” asks Sarita, who doesn’t want to give her last name. Away from their working kids, Sarita and her husband have been trying to overcome their deeply entrenched fear psychosis for some years. She recalls how one stormy night when their doorbell rang nonstop, the couple locked themselves up in their storeroom before calling their neighbour, “We thought that some unknown assailants were going to harm us. When we requested our neighbour to check who was at our door he told us that the bell was ringing because of a short circuit.” Of course, despite all the personal struggles she has endured, Sarita is against the idea of an exclusive land for the Pandits. "If we are given a separate land it will further alienate us and disturb our relations with Muslims. All we want to do is build bridges," she signs off, with a lot of hope.

(WFS) l