Recently, I was waiting for my final round of interview at the passport office in Jammu. I assumed that a set of generic questions would follow, before the routine renewal. When my name was called out, I was met by a woman of my mother’s age. Stout, fair and a bit strict, she came straight to the point: “What do you do?” This was easy, I thought. “I write. I am a freelance journalist.” She looked at me keenly, “What do you write on?” I replied quickly, “On the arts.” This time, she seemed to unbend a little. She asked me a few more questions, till she lobbed a question at me that left me fumbling. “Why don’t you write something on the Kashmiri language? I feel so sad that today’s Kashmiri youngsters don’t know the language and are moving away from their culture.” I wasn’t expecting this. “Do you speak the language”, I asked her. She smiled and said, “I am not Kashmiri, but I have observed how the language is not being carried forward.”
To dig out anything from a closet of bitter memories has always been a painful exercise. As a result, I have deliberately kept myself away from looking back for clues to analyse what led to the massive cultural erosion within the scattered Kashmiri Pandit community. Perhaps, it was the guilt of being both an active participant and a silent witness. Back home after my appointment, I asked my mother when she had learned Hindi. She looked at me, offended. “What do you mean by that? In Kashmir, we used to speak Hindi. Not so much, but still good enough to survive,” she said in a firm tone. I had got my first clue. Her tone held the same indignation that I had observed, almost two decades ago, in my grandmother’s voice when I was trying to converse with her in my poor Kashmiri. She had suddenly flared up: “What makes you think that I can’t speak Hindi?”
When had Hindi become so important to her, I had thought then. Speaking Hindi was integral to Srinagar, but it wasn’t a prerequisite for survival. But then, I remembered a different time, a time when we had just moved to Jammu, like many other Kashmiris in the ’90s, to escape the insurgency. In Jammu, it was all about the right “usage”, of speaking the language without our typical Kashmiri accent. I remembered an incident from sometime in the early ’90s, when I was 12. Once in class, during a random conversation, I had said, “Maine toh kal skirt lagayi thi.” Immediately, my then best friend pointed out, “Kapde lagate nahi, pehente hai (You don’t stick on clothes, you wear them).” The group broke out in uncontrollable laughter. For some reason, I took it quite personally.
And that’s how, I gradually lost Kashmiri. The laughter of the native Dogras would be the cue to finding yet another Hindi word I had used in an inappropriate context. Something as innocuous as understanding the subtle difference between “mat” and “nahi” would become crucial to blending in. Our parents would often say, “Humko yahan mat jaana hai”, or “humko mat yeh aata hai”, inviting derision from the listener. Both “mat” and “nahi” meant “no”, both carried in it seeds of heartbreak.
Adding fuel to this humiliation was one vicious insinuation that came in the form of a phrase that people of my generation, who grew up in Jammu, had to hear almost every day. “Kashmiri Lola” — it meant people who had chickened out and left their homes. Sometimes, it was said in a lighter vein among friends, and sometimes, with an intent to hurt. My parents hardly had time to ponder over these insignificant things. They were busy rebuilding whatever was left of their life in a new land. They wanted to assimilate and adapt, as quickly as they could.
I wanted to “fit in”, too. I no longer felt connected with my mother tongue. I decided to forsake it and bring Hindi home. The shift at home was smooth. When I think of it now, perhaps, it was expected of me. It was essential to the integration exercise — to make us feel that we, too, belonged.
This fraught relationship with my mother tongue continued for close to a decade and it seemed that only a divorce would settle the case permanently. As I left Jammu for my undergraduate studies and moved to a new city, I thought I had buried the ghost at last. But, that was not to be. In my batch in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, there was one other Kashmiri girl from Jammu. Unlike me, she was fluent in Kashmiri and hadn’t allowed herself to be swallowed by the petty politics of language. She remembered many Kashmiri weddings songs. For the first time, I felt envious and something close to regret — for giving up without a fight, for succumbing and failing.
And then one day, on our way to Jammu on the train, we found ourselves in the same compartment as a good-looking young man. There was no WhatsApp then to exchange our silly adolescent crush over and speaking in Hindi would have been foolish. My friend spoke up in Kashmiri and I had no option but to respond in my broken tongue. That day, we made a pact: Kashmiri was now going to be our language for all secrets. The more we spoke, the more compliments we got from friends and strangers — they found the language unique, lyrical. Why had I abandoned it in the first place?
If learning begins at home, now, it was time for me to take it back to where I belong. I began speaking in Kashmiri at home, and surprisingly, like last time, no eyebrows were raised and no questions asked. My parents, too, seemed prepared for this delayed homecoming. Today, after several years, I can say that I am fluent in my mother tongue. Making up for lost years is difficult, but it is less scary than never having reconciled. I am part of that generation that saw cultural appropriation as a means to survive, without understanding the repercussions it would have on our identity. Language is an important tenet of who we are as a people and the onus to preserve it is on us. The question is, how many of us are willing to take the plunge?
Shilpa is a Delhi-based freelance writer.