A young woman gets off a train at Kashmir’s Avantipora station. She is from a far-off place; this is her first visit to Kashmir. She is going to Pampore to search for a person who holds the key to a mystery surrounding Pandit Kashi Nath, who once lived there. Some blurry details are in Kashi Nath’s letters, which are in the woman’s possession.
One letter, written on an unspecified day in 1996, in a migrant camp near Udhampur, is addressed to an Abdul Qayuum of Pampore. The writing is hurried and barely legible. Another letter isn’t dated and is addressed to an unborn child. It begins with a vivid profile of a clan and its intricate relationships; it ends abruptly at a description of the wedding of Kashi Nath’s uncle, who claimed to be a close aide of one of Maharaja Gulab Singh’s courtiers.
Suspecting a connection between Kashi Nath and Abdul Qayuum, the woman is keen on unravelling a hidden story. Upon making enquiries in Pampore, an elderly shopkeeper hazily recalls one Abdul Qayuum, a saffron merchant who’d been close to a certain Kashi Nath, a school teacher. No one knows what happened to him, the shopkeeper says. Go meet Shabnam Begum. She’s known for keeping accounts of people like Abdul Qayuum. If you’re lucky, you might pick up a clue…
But the young woman comes across varying descriptions of Abdul Qayuum, the saffron merchant. She doesn’t know how to reconcile the divergences, how to isolate the truth. She is uncertain if her quest will be conclusive. Her exploration into the cesspool of Pampore’s troubled history has just begun. She hopes the Abdul Qayuum she is searching for is still alive — and that his memory of Kashi Nath hasn’t faded.
Her name is Avanti. She’s named after Avanti Varman, the king who ruled Kashmir in the 9th century and built the Avantiswami Temple, now in ruins near the train station in Avantipora. Avanti and I began corresponding in the summer of 2016 after she read the book A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits. She is curious to know more about the Hindus of Pampore — except a sketchy inherited memory, she has nothing to rely on.
A memoirist living in Jammu has knowledge of some Hindu families displaced after the militants’ siege of Pampore in 1989. Militants had done terrible things to a girl of a family. The elders of the family dwindled. The young are scattered.
“How do I get to know what happened?” Avanti asks. The memoirist chronicled hundreds of deaths occurring in the camps from 1991 to 2010 — these deaths are unusual because the exiles weren’t supposed to die the way they did.
Avanti’s mother is married to a computer scientist from Maharashtra. The family has been in Seattle for 40 years. Avanti was born and brought up there. A photograph of her maternal grandparents rekindled a memory. This is Pampore, famous for saffron. An illustrious family once lived there, Avanti’s mother revealed.
“Would you have more photographs?” Avanti asked me after studying a photograph of a girl filling water next to a tented shelter in the Muthi camp. “Where’s this girl now?” People lived in wall-less shelters, I said. Very few outsiders ventured into the camps. Not many people in India know what happened in the camps over the years. Memory is our only heirloom now.
In a letter to the Hindus of Kashmir, Amanullah Khan, the founding leader of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, set out a roadmap for their future. Better to leave Kashmir now and be safe elsewhere, he wrote to the Hindus. In the mid-eighties, he already knew their fate. Khan’s prediction wasn’t an act of providence but an affirmation of his firm belief in Pakistan’s crafty plan for Kashmir.
Kashmir’s historical timeline of the past 25 years is scarred with bloody events. Almost every day, Hindus and Muslims commemorate an event that occurred on the same day of the previous year — but both communities lay claim to two disparate narratives.
In the wider political discourse, the exiled Hindus of Kashmir aren’t relevant anymore. In the popular imagination, Muslims are emerging as the sole victims and custodians of Kashmir’s history. The question of the exiled Hindus will be settled as new generations take over the reins. Who knows if the desire to go back and reclaim Kashmir will remain aflame at all?
Our identity already shows signs of fragmentation. Some years later, assimilation with a humongous multitude in India and abroad would have robbed us of a unique ethnicity that, for centuries, was protected and preserved by our ancestors.
The people of Kashmir are fighting a battle of varied ideas. And in the battle of ideas, there are no winners or losers. With time, ideas lose their sheen and become obsolete. But human experiences do not fade. The memory of them burnishes. Upon our lived experiences, however bitter, will be built the arc of our history.
Amongst our progeny, will someone, like the woman who gets off the train at Avantipora, undertake an odyssey, not for leisure or commerce, but to uncover what happened to several unknown persons like Kashi Nath, whose silent obliteration didn’t leave a trail?