The things we left behind: Life in the wake of the Kashmiri Pandit Exodus

The Jawahar Tunnel in Banihal, which links the Kashmir Valley with Jammu. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli FK/
19 January, 2015

The exodus of the Pandits from the Kashmir Valley began twenty-five years ago, on the night of 19 January 1990. Over the next few months, as hundreds of Pandits were killed by Islamist extremists, lakhs left the Valley. Rahul Pandita was only fourteen when his family joined the exodus on 4 April 1990. In this excerpt from Our Moon Has Blood Clots (Random House), Pandita describes the experience of exile in the immediate aftermath. 

We finally reached Jammu early that evening. After we had crossed the Jawahar tunnel, Father’s worries about finding suitable accommodation had taken over. The Dak Bungalow where we usually stayed would be expensive, since we didn’t know how long we were going to stay. Eventually we checked into a small, relatively cheap hotel. Ma immediately set up a kitchen on one side of the room and my sister was sent to fetch a bucket of fresh water. Until a few years ago we had not even heard of overhead tanks. It took us a while to understand that the water that came out of taps in Jammu and elsewhere was not fresh water.

On the first day I filled water in a bucket to take a bath. The first mug that I poured over myself singed me. I was reminded of how we would bathe back home in Srinagar. In the winter, Ma would wake us up before sunrise. In the bathroom there would be water steaming in the traditional copper tank. We would have a bath while she kept a set of fresh clothes on a kangri to warm them. We would then dry ourselves vigorously, wear the clothes warmed on the kangri, and snuggle back under our quilts. In summers, just for fun, I would bathe at the tap in the kitchen garden when Ma was away.

In Jammu, for me the biggest symbol of exodus turned out to be a pair of shoes. Back home, my father once saw me playing football at the polo ground with men twice my age, and he was so impressed that he bought me a pair of studded football shoes from a store called Sunchasers. But those shoes had been left behind. The ones I came to Jammu wearing were falling apart. So, Father had bought me a pair of cheap canvas shoes from Gumat market. I despised those shoes. But I understood his position. He had no money and there was total uncertainty about our future.

Our only concern during our last few days in Srinagar had been to somehow survive, to go somewhere where there would be no slogans, no loudspeakers, no fists and middle fingers raised at us, no hit lists, no Kalashnikovs, no freedom songs. So we were relieved to come out of the other end of the Jawahar tunnel.

Once we were in Jammu, other worries took over. Where were we going to live? Where would the money come from?

Was everyone else safe—our friends, relatives? Suddenly, the premise that everything was going to be all right in a few months didn’t seem plausible at all—it would take much longer to return. But the thought that we might never return still did not cross our minds.

Living in the hotel beyond a few days was not possible. There were hardly any savings to dip into. Father had put all his money into the house. When we had left, he had been extending our attic. He had ordered the choicest deodar wood, and weeks before the crisis erupted the wood had arrived in planks and had been stored in the attic. The carpenter, Farooq, had been called and he had been shown designs for cupboards, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe.

After spending three days in the hotel, Father began to look around for more suitable accommodation.

In the evenings, we would go to the Geeta Bhawan temple in the heart of old Jammu. It was there that the enormity of our tragedy, of our exile in our own country, struck us. The Bhawan had a large central courtyard. Portions of the building had been taken over by families who had nowhere else to go. Rags or saris or blankets or even bed sheets had been hung up to create small, private spaces.

We would all flock to the Bhawan to find out about the welfare of other families. Neighbours met neighbours, brothers met brothers, colleagues met colleagues, and in that courtyard they took stock of the catastrophe that had befallen them.

Trath ha se peye” was the common refrain those days. Lightning had struck us. Some smoked cigarette after cigarette. Women walked to the storage tank to collect water. Everything looked like a nightmare, including the unreliable water supply. Old women wearing their traditional pherans in that heat cooled themselves with bamboo hand-fans.

It was at the Bhawan that the fate of others became evident to us—stories of what had happened in Anantnag, in Sopore, in Baramulla, in Budgam, in Kupwara. In Handwara, a massive crowd had spilled out on the streets on January 25 and the people carried axes and knives and iron rods. Some of them wore shrouds. The procession was in response to an announcement that had been made the night before: “We have achieved Azadi and tomorrow we will all come out and celebrate in the main market square.” The crowd passed through Pandit localities. “Take out your Kalashnikovs, let’s finish them!” shouted one. At Safa Kadal, the fleeing Pandit families were showered with coins and shireen to tell them they were already dead. The mob had shouted: Ram naam sat hai, akh akis patte hai (Ram’s name is truth, Pandits are leaving one after another). At Poershiyaar, an elderly Pandit saw a young man being brought to the steps leading to the Jhelum. He was being held by his hands and feet. His head was repeatedly banged on a stone step till blood flowed from his nose and mouth.

Those who escaped were on the streets now. We had lost everything—home, hearth, and all our worldly possessions, which had taken generations to build. Everyone mourned over the loss of this or that. An elderly woman known to my mother sat on the steps leading to a small temple, shedding silent tears. Her great-grandmother had passed on some pashmina and shahtoosh shawls to her. She had kept them safe for decades, mothballed for protection, to pass on to the next generation—divided equally between her daughter and her prospective daughter-in-law when the time came. And now they were all lost, left behind in the wilderness of Baramulla.

“I wish I could call my neighbour and request her to keep them safe,” she said.

“Don’t be silly,” her husband snapped. “Don’t you realize what your friend has done to us?” He turned to my father and told him what had happened. They were planning to take their possessions with them to Jammu. The man had spoken to a transport company and they had promised to send a mini loadcarrier. As they waited a few men arrived, banging at their door. Then they kicked the door in.

They entered menacingly as the old couple cowered in a corner. “Pandit, I believe you want to leave. Balaay Dafaa! Good riddance! Leave, but you cannot take anything with you.”So the mini load-carrier was of no use. The family came to Jammu empty-handed, thankful that they had been allowed to leave unharmed. The old man said, “I’m sure the neighbours knew. By now they would have taken all your shawls.”

The woman looked crestfallen, and I think her husband immediately regretted what he had said to her with such certainty. Sometimes it is best to leave things ambiguous, suspended, so that some hope remains. I think it was on those steps that the woman lost her will to live.

A few months later, she died in a one-room dwelling.

Excerpted from Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita. Reproduced with the permission of Random House (Paperback: Rs 350).

Rahul Pandita  is a Yale World Fellow and the author of “Our Moon Has Blood Clots”, a memoir of a lost home in Kashmir.