On January 19 1990, tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits migrated to different parts of India under duress. In this photo essay, a young photographer from the community describes the feeling of loss and longing.
Almost every evening, before going to bed, my mother would tell me a story about her childhood in a land beyond the mountains called Kashmir. She would gently stroke my hair and describe the green meadows, lakes and rivers and then tell me about how she was raised among the warm and loving people who lived a simple life surrounded by the sounds of cows, chickens and sheep.
Hearing all that, I often asked myself: why couldn’t I have had the same childhood?
By the early 1990s, my mother’s homeland, Kashmir, was burning with violence as armed separatists challenged Indian rule. Several hundred Kashmiri Pandits, who were a minority in the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, were targeted by various militant groups. They killed many Pandits in cold blood, and forced most of the community out of their homes in the middle of a harsh January winter. My mother and her family also left behind their home, taking with them only the memories of a time and place, which later became a fairy tale of sorts for their children.
Every night, I went to sleep with my mother’s stories in my head, and my heart would coil itself more tightly to this fairytale world. It could have been my reality, had she not been forced to leave. Although Kashmir continues to be my motherland in my heart, it’s still a home that I have never had.I was born in Jammu, a district at least 200 kilometres far from my real home in Kashmir. It was 1999 and the 20th century was coming to its end with another human tragedy — the erasure of the Pandit community from Kashmir.
As the years passed by and the symphony of the tales grew fainter, strangely, my affection for Kashmir grew. It eventually pulled me back. I went there in the summer of 2020. My emotions, shaped by my mother’s stories of love and longing and despair, made my strides unsteady.
As I landed there, I visited one of my close family friends, where I met Basit. He was as old as me. He was the personification of a life that I was destined to have but didn’t: my fairytale, due to the exodus, had never been realised. He was living the life that I could only ever dream about. He was raised in Kashmir and knew the place inside out.
We went to the Kheer Bhawani Mandir, a sacred place for Kashmiri Pandits, to witness one of the most prominent festivals of Kashmir: the Zyeath Atham. We saw people from all around the world participating. Like me, so many were residents of more ‘affluent’ places, but we all had one thing in common: a piece of our hearts was firmly locked inside Kashmir.
I visited the places where my mother was destined to grow up but couldn’t. I saw the gardens where she used to take her daily strolls — the pastures where they used to milk the cows who were treated like family. I loitered around the wilderness where she used to go every day to fetch firewood.