Suman K Sharma
A peripatetic friend of mine, now in his late seventies,never tires of recalling the genuine warmth he and his wife received at a Dal Lake houseboat when the newly married couple was there on their honeymoon. ‘You know how my business keeps me moving from place to place in India and abroad. I have been to Germany and to Japan. I have seen Canada and I visit the USA so often that it seems like a second home to me,’ he fondly recounts, ‘but nowhere else have I been accorded such a hearty welcome and unflinching hospitality as that Kashmiri family of the houseboat tendered to me and my bride over fifty years ago.’ The hosts took care of the smallest detail to make his stay memorable, my friend says. Choicest vegetarian dishes were made for the newlyweds who shunned even pastries for the fear that such delicacies contained egg-yolk. Every morning the head of the family would chart out an itinerary for the couple and place at their disposal a shikara to ensure a hassle-free round trip. The smallest wish of the man and his wife was anticipated and fulfilled.As could be expected, they – he from a staunch Sanatana Dharma family of Delhi and she of an Arya Samaji lineage of Harayana -got so attached to the Kashmiri Muslim family that my friend’s wife wished by the end of their fortnight’s stay if only they could have lived with them a little longer. The lady of the house consoled her. ‘It is all yours,’ she said to the departing woman affectionately, ‘You are welcome here anytime.’
One may dismiss my friend’s story as yet another yarn of an elderly man trying to relive the fleeting exuberance of his honeymoon.Cynics might even say that the charm and affability of the Kashmiri family was just a marketing ploy of the owners of the houseboat. How else would they win the patronage of tourists if not by being pleasant and ready to serve? Whatever that be; I have my own story to tell. The year was 1963. Then a student of Class IX at Shri Ranbir Higher Secondary School, Jammu; I had gone to Srinagar to spend summer vacation with my elder sister. She stayed with her family in a rented house under the Shankaracharya Hill near Dal Gate. On a cloudy August morning when I returned home from a lakeside stroll, I saw a tall, heavy-set man sprawling on the earth wet from the last night’s rain. He was bare except a strip of cloth around his lions. I looked at him out of curiosity and he looked back at me. Then before my eyes he took a pinch of the wet soil with his thumb and index finger, rubbed it a little while and brought out a shiny coin. Signalling me to draw closer, he gave the coin to me with a beatific smile.In fifty-seven years since that incident, I have never been so happy to receive any amount of money as I was on getting that newly minted coin from the hands of a Kashmiri dervish.
My impression of the inborn geniality of the Kashmiris was reinforced in 2008 in a much more concrete manner. I had gone on a pilgrimage to Shri Amarnath Shrine along with my wife. Having had the darshan, we returned to the Srinagar hotel at night. It was then that she started having unbearable pain in her stomach. I lost no time in taking her to the SMHS Hospital where the doctors diagnosed that it was a gall bladder attack. A surgery could not be performed as we had to leave for Jammu the following morning itself. The good doctors then decided to give her palliative treatment that asked for no less patience or effort on their part. My wife had to go frequently to the washroom. The surgeon in charge allowed her to go to the one reserved for doctors as the washroom meant for the patients was too filthy – that was something which neither my wife nor I would have imagined. I was relieved that she was being given the best treatment possible in the circumstances. The story does not end there. As I stood by my wife’s bed in the Casualty Ward, almost all the attendants of the patients asked me one by one if I had eaten anything or whether I needed any kind of help. Their commiseration was touching since we were perhaps the only Hindu couple there, what with my wife having a large red tikka on her forehead. To us, those sympathetic faces appeared closer than our dearest kin; and so they were indeed.
If a section of such a decent and humane community is alienated from the mainstream then we must look for a solid reason. The Kashmiri Muslims alone have not suffered at the hands of self-serving rulers over the ages; so have the Dogras, the Pahadis, the Gujars – in fact all the communities of the State and the rest of India. Why do, for instance, people from Bihar still have to trudge to the remotest areas of our state to earn a pittance? The canker of the alienation lies elsewhere. I had once a chance to interact with a young Kashmiri gentleman who held an important post in Kupwara administration. ‘Do you know what ‘Kashmir’ means?’ He asked me jocularly, and then answered himself. ‘Kash stands for the essence, what is good; and ‘mir’ is the rest, like the dredges in a cup of tea.’
It is this false narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is the root cause of separatism and all else that it means. In a heterogenous country like ours, every community is unique and yet connected symbiotically with the rest.
The blessed climes of the Valley have been kind to the Kashmiris. Fair complexioned like the Pandeys of Uttarakhand or the Syrian Christians of Kerala, they are as robust in body as anyone in Punjab and Haryana. In mental calibre they can match the brainy Bengalis andthe thinking Tamils, anytime. They have contributed significantly to every aspect of life in India.’Unity in diversity’ is not mere a cliché but it has become a crying necessity in our country today. What Allama Iqbal, who prided himself on his Kashmiri descent, said many many years ago still rings true more than ever:
Mazhab nahin sikhata/Apas men bair rakhna
Hindi hain hum /Vatan hai Hindostan hamara
Mahatama Gandhi said it more specifically in regard to the Kashmiris. In a speech made on 29 December, 1947 in the aftermath of the Kashmir war, Bapu declared –
‘It is on the Kashmir soil that Islam and Hinduism are being weighed. If both pull their weight correctly and in the same direction, the chief actors will cover themselves in glory.
‘My sole hope and prayer is that Kashmir should become a Beacon Light to the benighted sub-continent.’
Abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A has been a concrete step in this direction. It is now for us, the citizens of the Union Territory, to make the most of it.
Suman K Sharma