Srinagar, Oct 13 (Muzamil Jaleel)
The sun was unusually intense for a beautiful autumn day in Kashmir. My friends, Karn Kowshik and Muhamamad Munim, and I were on a grey inflatable boat. But we were not rowing on a lake in Srinagar. Till that black Sunday when the Jhelum river swelled with floodwaters, this was an old Uptown neighbourhood, bustling with life. We were steering our boat through narrow streams that not long ago used to be familiar streets. Half a mile ahead was Jawahar Nagar, where I had lived in a ground-floor flat for more than two decades. This was home.

As we rowed past British-era brick-and-wood houses in Gogji Bagh, I found it difficult to guide the boat towards Jawahar Nagar. It was unrecognisable. At one cross-section, I saw the DAV school building — a landmark in our neighbourhood — and I knew we were close. The house, where we lived when we first came to Srinagar, was in front of us. There was an eerie silence all around. Most of the residents in this neighbourhood had been rescued and a few families who couldn’t leave were looking out of the top floor of their houses, silently waiting for food and water. I recalled our first few months in that house. The Jhelum wasn’t in fury but it was a different kind of a deluge.

Although I grew up in a village in Bandipore, around 60 km north of Srinagar, my family moved to the city when I was in college. It was the early 1990s and the conflict was at its peak.

My mother would switch off all the lights in the evening; the room where we sat in the evenings had thick curtains. Darkness was safety. We were advised to speak in hushed tones after sundown. We lived on a street corner and she feared that laughter or arguments could attract the curiosity of the patrolling troops. She fed my three little sisters first and ensured they slept, well before the night grew old. Midnight knocks by soldiers were never unexpected.

My mother would wake my brothers and me, whisper a prayer and send us to the surprise identification parades. Held at the playground of the DAV school, at these parades, security forces lined up young men — to be identified by masked men, sitting at the wheel of Gypsy jeeps. She would pray that when we walked past the masked man, he didn’t honk. I remember my frantic heart beat with fear when I stood facing the unknown masked informers, who looked at each face, lit by blinding headlights.

When a Gypsy horn would sound, a group of soldiers would pounce on the young man facing the vehicle and push him inside a truck for questioning. Soon, the screams of the unlucky man would silence the whispering crowd. I don’t remember talking to my brothers or complaining about this pain and humiliation. One day, my mother’s worst fear came true. My younger brother went out for his tuition classes and didn’t return. These were the days when a catch-and-kill operation had been launched by the armed forces. Most of the people picked up didn’t make it home. The families of several of them are yet to know their whereabouts. We were lucky. My brother was traced to a BSF camp after a month.

This house, once shelter from the violence and fear outside, lay in ruins. We rowed through fallen debris and broken embankment walls. I remembered a friend who lived a block away. Irfan Hassan’s house was a treasure of all things old and precious. Before the Partition, his father had been a renowned Kashmiri footballer and he owned dozens of black-and-white pictures from the days when Kashmir’s struggle for freedom began — literally, during a football match between local boys and the Kashmir Maharaja’s soldiers. Hassan was also a very close friend of the poet Agha Shahid Ali, and he had preserved his handwritten letters, poems and pictures — he thought — for posterity. But while his family and he managed to escape the flood, he couldn’t save those curios from the past. He had lost his home and “everything that he treasured all his life” to the flood waters.

When I looked around, everything seemed surreal. If this wasn’t a tragedy, Jawahar Nagar would have seemed like Venice. The water levels were rising as we moved ahead. At the cross-section ahead, we heard the story of a rescue launched by an artist and his brother, another example of the indifference of the state government. In front of artist Masood Hussain’s house was the home of Kashmir’s first director-general of police, Peer Ghulam Hassan Shah. Now 88, Shah is perhaps the most loyal man New Delhi had in the valley. For four days, he and his wife were separated and stuck at two different places, till Hussain rescued them in a toy boat. Hussain said that the former chief of J&K Police had been promised that a chopper was on its way to rescue him but it never came.

On the other side of the road was the apartment block, our second residence in the city. At Flat 20, I ran a writing workshop, where friends and colleagues would gather every Sunday to talk about books, films and Kashmir over cups of tea and biscuits. It was here that my father died. That flat was still submerged. A lawyer friend and neighbour for decades had been rescued from the building by a group of volunteers, who had come with boats from a distant village, Soibug, in central Kashmir.

When the water was finally drained, the city was unrecognisable. It was easier to navigate through the marooned city on a boat. The lanes with broken walls and caved-in houses had no resemblance to our memories of them. For an hour, we drove through these familiar lanes, completely unaware of where we were. It was pure destruction, something no Kashmiri could associate with water. The old houses had broken in the same way: their flanks had collapsed while the front stood like a damaged border post.

Except the old neighbourhoods in Downtown, Srinagar was a city of debris, its business centre, shopping arcades and restaurants ravaged. Carved sofas and massive beds lay along the roadside. Gates had been uprooted, manicured gardens look harrowed and desolate. Everything was covered by dust. Nothing was green anymore, not even the branches of the mighty chinars.

The Bund that meanders alongside the Jhelum was ruptured at many places. The flood has taken away a part of Kashmir’s history too. The Museum and the Cultural Academy were on the banks of the river and the flood water damaged rare artifatcs and maunscripts. The real extent of the damage is still not known, no thanks to the government’s veil of secrecy around it. It seems that there won’t be a return to the Srinagar of our memory ever again.

If you meet a Kashmiri anywhere in the world, he or she is either missing home, thinking about going home or waiting to go home. And if there were a way, nobody would have left — or at least that’s what most would like to think. From politics to poetry, home is the most profound theme of Kashmir.

Ga-re wand-hai ga-re saa-sah: ba-re nare-hi ne zanh (“I can sacrifice a thousand homes on you my home – I wouldn’t leave your door ever)” – this Kashmiri proverb explains it all. But now you can’t recognise that home. There are several lakh residents of Srinagar, now homeless in their home. The Jhelum is calm again but Srinagar — my home and my story — will take a long time to rise again.
Courtesy: (Indian Express)

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