My first thought when I think about feeling peace goes to a time walking around the Dal Lake (Dal means a lake in Kashmiri language). A young girl sauntering around this simply named rippling swathe of water, looking at the silent shikaras (wooden boats) glide in a mute distance, the sun going down - hushing everyone, I would savor the peace that I thought existed around me. The silence and the whispers hung like molasses in the air, as I watched the saffron sky, blue mountains, and the sparkling water enter into a pact of darkness. Turned out, this idyllic time was an illusion (as all life is I agree). Peace that I thought was partaking in my growing years was a form a numbness that had seeped into Kashmir during the long years of forced cohabitation with India.
As a young student ambling around my well loved Christian missionary school (which I have come to appreciate and remember fondly), I think I felt peace. Amidst the tall colonnade of poplar trees and low worn-out cement benches, as some mates ineffectively bullied me and some empathized with my love for sitting (with a book), I think I felt peaceful. Watching girls play games while I devoured the library from Edgar Allan Poe to Bram Stoker to Jane Austen to those now seemingly similar romances by Barbara Cartland. I liked my course books as well, but slowly realized that they were keeping from me a lot more than they were telling. I was tremulous as Oliver Twist asked for some more, was sad when Jo (from little women) cut all her beautiful hair for money, the London plague and the world war everything filled the canvas of my world but there was no word about my homeland. The silence was deafening.
I thought peace manifested in the so many informal versions conveyed to me about what Kashmir was, amongst which its beauty stood out. Its clichéd status as the Switzerland of Asia was a mantra that one would often hear and cringe from as friends who visited from outside and tourists repeated it. It made me feel like my homeland was a facially-pleasant caricature (or an exotic animal) that people had to come to look at. There was this haze of Bollywood romances that had used Kashmir as a backdrop and which people across India and overseas had got familiar with. In that narrative I somehow felt Kashmiris were implicitly (unconsciously) perceived as props. It felt like a violation as I am sure all people in touristy places do (not peaceful at all).
So as I rummage for the peace I felt in my growing years, it becomes increasingly apparent that it was not there. It might have been there for the moments that were undeniably personal but there never was a collective peace, as a people. We have always been edgy and waiting; patient in a restless way. Waiting for some kind of deliverance. It was apparent in the jumpy adults who listened to BBC their ears stuck to the radio as they chewed their dinner ever so slowly lest the sound of mastication interrupt. Every day I felt the excitement; as if something important would be announced today. They did not even forgo the state news bulletin (which for most part everyone knew was propaganda), their eyes askance, ears perked up – shushing me to listen. Every morning the pattern was repeated during breakfast and I left for school, hoping to find some answers, which never came.
The teachers with due respects to them were caught up too much in grooming us for the high school matriculation than to worry about my agonizing over Kashmir history (concentrate on your books, the exam is looming like a sword on your head, they would say).
Slowly the tranquil bubble of childhood was burst a little every day; not deliberately but as a byproduct of growing up and overhearing those complex conversations after dinner, by the alley corner or at the bakers. In piece meals labored words about wars and aborted resistance movements, contentions of India and Pakistan drifted in the air. Then the restiveness of people with various administrations that India maintained mostly by rigged elections tumbled out like fur-balls from a stubborn cat’s gut. Intermittent and inadequate as if something was still remaining behind. Sometimes my questions were answered, mostly in a very off hand manner as if picking a piece of lint from my shoulder, as if I should now commence asking about more important stuff (which for me translated as this was the important stuff).
I go back to the memories of peace, with a sense of ambivalence and betrayal. The moments I cherished as peaceful, when I looked around and celebrated the beauty of nature and humanity a bit, which were instrumental in ingraining in me the sense of wonder that is inherent in our existence – for most part the peace I felt as a people was not there. I know it can be argued that there never is peace (even the verdant forest has a broiling lava at its core), however the imposition of the façade of peace is unbearable.
India, Kashmir, Peace