Malika, Theo and I sat outside overlooking steep, close, tall mountains that hid behind a low hanging veil of dust clouds. The mountains in Munsiyari had reminded me all day of Kashmir, though there were subtle differences. Here the mountains felt bigger and the architecture was different. But it was the absence of men in uniform with guns hovering on the edges of the forest, it was the absence of a deep anxiety, that I soon realised was the biggest difference. Here we could trek to the top of the mountain without a worry. In Kashmir many of my male friends didn’t trek at all for fear of being mistaken as a militant. And for many of the women I knew the threat of sexual violence from the armed forces loomed large in a similar immobilising way.
“This tea reminds me of the Tibetan tea consumed by the local Bhotia traders,” said Theo, “Malika and I visited Kashmir together on a motorbike in 1988—but I don’t think we ever tasted this tea.”
“Things felt peaceful in Kashmir then. We rode all the way from Delhi and it was just so beautiful coming up that mountain and reaching the valley,” recalled Malika.
“Well, not quite.” Theo interrupted, “I remember the military checkpoints. They were different, more intense than the border regions of North India. Even then you could feel something was different.” Although the political situation in Kashmir did not emerge over night—there had been decades, if not centuries, of struggle—1988 still feels like it was the cusp of something irrevocable, something unbeknownst of its future.
“I had a Punjabi friend whose family had settled in Srinagar. They were forced to leave their home when the violence began. They had a Kashmiri friend who was looking after their home in their absence. But he died and soon they lost everything.” Malika continued, “But my friend, despite loosing everything, said she really believed there was a need for political change in Kashmir. There still is.”
We spoke of the Pandits and the complex politicisation of religious identities in Kashmir’s recent history. I have an older Muslim friend who describes his youth in Kashmir as one characterised by a real sense of fluidity between the Muslim and the Pandit communities of the valley – though this, he laments, is now all but lost to his children. In early 2010 I had travelled with a Pandit friend to his village in Kashmir, after what had been for him a twenty year absence. As we walked over the burnt posts of where his home once stood he spoke to me in great detail about leaving this place on a cold, almost frozen night, and his persistent dream to return. Today that man is quietly settling back into life in this village and into a newly built home where he hopes to spend the rest of his days. If one looks around, amidst all the grime of life, there are many quiet glimmers of hope just like this.
Both Malika and Theo were from minority communities in India, but Malika added, “I wasn’t really aware I was a minority until 1984, during the massacre of Sikhs after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.” Her voice became more fragile, “I grew up on the north-eastern outskirts of Delhi. For three days I waited inside our flat with my mother and father, while Sikhs were being killed on the streets outside. Our neighbours protected us, but we waited for that knock on the door that would carry death to us. But we survived. Delhi soon returned to normal. And I was changed forever. And I couldn’t understand why the city wasn’t changed too. Everything just seemed to go back to its old rhythm. There was a complete disjuncture between what I felt and how the city was. And then I realised this must happen everywhere—life simply goes on.”
On the twentieth anniversary of 1984 someone strung a sign up across the ITO in Delhi that said, We Remember. “It felt so good to know someone remembered.” Malika said with a hopeful sigh, “It was a small gesture, like these cups of nun chai, but that sign meant the world to me.”
Our conversation had been slow but rich. It was filled with periods of silence that functioned like still moments in a memorial that didn’t always require words to think. Night soon fell, the mountain wind became cold and we moved inside.