Can every house become home? Or do places stop mattering beyond a certain age? As we moved place to place in childhood, staying two years at most in the small towns that father was posted to, home took shape for me mostly as a collage of memories. And memories knew no geographical boundaries, no language barriers, no son-of-the-soil whiff.
I remember a shiny long corridor at one place where my sister and I would play, where she the more intrepid one would catch butterflies and I jealously pretend I was only concerned about the poor winged things. I remember sun-dappled lunches in a huge lawn somewhere, where mother would let loose her long, long hair to dry. I remember dark, dark nights from another place, where we would catch fireflies and then wonder at the horrid smell in our palms. I remember the fascinating green-blue eyes of a girl at a school further south, a first for me (I would know her as a ‘Chitpawan Brahmin’ much later). I remember my first snow day up north, an impromptu picnic bunking school, and chortling later that morning as our wet socks left to dry on the coils of an electric heater by our unsuspecting mother got burnt. I remember a cold morning dragging my very young sister for a long walk to school through a hill town on missing the bus, making a halt at a tea stall. I remember scooter chases by father and his friends through the then largely empty streets of another town, with us children egging them on. I remember the sparkling black stone of the parapet of the poshest apartment complex we had stayed in, deep, deep south.
And yet, in all those years of moving about the country, there was one place that promised a solid certainty: Jammu. Again, in the curious way memory works, it seemed that way despite us spending only around 15 days a year during summer holidays there. The city felt ours to claim not just because of the many aunts, uncles, cousins it held, but also the ‘special’ place it indisputably occupied in the imagination of the rest of the country. Even if people mistakenly took you for a Kashmiri, and you corrected that error, a certain awareness of history tinged the conversation that followed. As resentments and violence stoked the gulf with Kashmir, one both strained against as well as more closely held on to that umbilical cord. And through it, to the other side of the border, guilty but also fascinated by the violence that bound us all. And what would our present mean without that history? How far can one shed one’s roots without being left rootless?
Given the insubstantial time I spent in Jammu, I am perhaps an interloper to comment on the overnight change in its status, from ‘special’ to one half of a Union Territory. But given it is the city of my ancestors, I retain a right to mourn a sense of loss. Of never seeing Jammu the same way again. Of wondering whether it is the city’s resentment towards Kashmir that empowers the government to shut millions of people out, or to stage the charade of passing off five persons eating a meal in a curfew-clamped town, served in incongruously large pots on a deathly quiet street, as “normalcy”. Of having to ward away thoughts regarding what drives my RWA, in a Delhi colony miles and miles from J&K and L (the coupling of those three parts seems almost ordained by larger forces), to hold a “tea party” in “celebration” of the death of Article 370, and to recite a reworded Hanuman Chalisa where Narendra Modi is Bajrang Bali.
Around the time that “historical wrongs” were being corrected, a lot of other things happened. Another building caught fire in the national capital and another wall collapsed, claiming lives; the financial capital and its surroundings again went under following a burst of rain; an alleged rape victim fighting for her life was flown out on court orders from her state, so as to continue her battle for justice; on the other end of the country, four people died in a dash across 300 km to prove the same citizenship that is being enforced with an iron hand in Kashmir; a woman died in a fire without her parents in Kashmir getting to know till the day after; a 17-year-old drowned reportedly trying to escape security forces while NSA Ajit Doval assured his audience in the Valley that their children would have a future; and I put my son on the Delhi Metro telling him and myself not to think about a “high alert”.
But, we couldn’t care less. “We had Kashmir” — and all was well with the world.
Meanwhile, the RWA moved on, to more pressing matters, of “useless” guards, and a police that couldn’t stop neighbourhood robberies.