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Memories of ‘Batta Mohalla’: How the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits continues to haunt the survivors even after three decades

A few years ago, I made a promise to myself, that I will always remember and document the events that brought my parents to Delhi. This is a small effort in that direction.

They say that no one really “survived” the Holocaust, the implication being that horrors that the Nazi Third Reich wreaked upon its ethnic, cultural and sexual minorities were so singularly life altering for everyone that they left an indelible mark upon those who suffered trough them. The physical, emotional and mental abuse visited upon them left them scarred for life; often the tattooed ID numbers were the least reminder of their horrific experiences.

The sheer volume of literature, in as diverse forms as survivor accounts, semi-fictional works, poems, sketches, dramaturgy and even graphic novels produced by the survivors is testimony to the years and decades of continual pain of the survivors, even after the Jewish and other minorities were liberated from concentration camps.

The Holocaust was a seminal event in all of human history, incomparable (one hopes) for all eternity in the uniqueness of its events, the inhumane, methodical and merciless planning that went into it, the scope and depth of the suffering that characterized it. Yet, it remains the paradigm for all other genocides that have plagued the collective human conscience. The aftereffects of genocides, whether the Holocaust, the Armenian, or the Rwandan genocide, continue to reverberate across time and space and impact the lives even today.

My parents are Kashmiri Pandits, who were forced from their home in the Srinagar locality of Habba Kadal. The forced exodus of Kashmiri Hindus following persecution and threats by radical Islamists and militants left us torn from our lands, our temples and our homes, bringing us to various places across the world. The events that unfolded in 1989-90 in Kashmir were neither new nor unique to Kashmir.

The story of Islamic invasions into the Indian subcontinent is one that is particularly blood-soaked, and there is no part of our nation, no caste or community or region that has remained untouched and unagitated by the marauding crowds that trampled the soil of this nation with jihad on their minds and monotheism as their rallying cries.

For today, however, I choose to not delve in a grand, more holistic paradigm. I merely put to words something that happened only a couple of days ago.

The genocide of Kashmiri Hindus is a reality that lurks behind our celebrations, marriages, births and deaths. It creeps upon us when we’re drinking tea in the afternoon, and it plays upon our minds as we plan our days. And while it might be the past for the perpetrators of independent India’s largest communal atrocity, it remains as it did in 1990, to haunt us, stalking our mindspace today as it did 30 years ago.

An elderly relative of mine suffers from adult dementia. He cannot recall small details of his life as it exists today. He forgets where we are right now, and for some reason, he thinks we’re in Jammu, and keeps referring to Talab Tiloo as if it’s right next door. He cannot recall who I am, sometimes. It’s not appropriate to make this about myself, but it distresses me because, like I’ve mentioned previously, my grandmother had Alzhiemer’s for some five years, before she passed away in 2014. Being around someone who is also losing their memory is a painful redux.

The irony of someone losing their memory inducing the memory of someone else is something I’ll leave for more deep diving minds to dig into. But then, I do have to add something. This relative of mine, the one that I’m around these days, casually asked me yesterday where in Kashmir I’m from. It’s a question he’s asked before, many, many times. I smile when he asks, because I am reminded (not painfully) of my grandmother when he does.

“Srinagar”, I say, knowing well his next question.
“Where in Srinagar”, he asks and despite myself, I smile even more broadly.

“Habba Kadal”, that’s where my family is from, where they’ve been for the past 200 years or so. Where our small family temple lies locked, barricaded; Its small Shiva lingam and its Shaligrama now likely coated with dust. But, I digress.

“Habba Kadal?!”, he asked me today, “that used to be a Batta Mohalla”, indicating a residence purely of Kashmiri Hindus.

This is new, he’s never remarked this before, when we’ve had this conversation earlier. He continues even as I fight not to betray my surprise with my face: I want to see where this goes.

“Ohh”, he continues almost nonchalantly, “now there must be no Kashmiri Hindus there, no?”
“They made us leave”, he adds. Who “they” are, how they “made us leave” is not specified.

I nod gingerly, careful not to say anything else. He continues on, “Ohh, when we used to visit Habba Kadal from Ganpathyar temple, it was so much fun”. The excitement in his voice is palpable even underneath his dulcet tones and toothy voice.

He moves onto other topics, but my mind is lost looking at some scene of Habba Kadal from decades, perhaps half a century ago. What the gods of memory choose to leave us with, and what they choose to take away, is capricious in a manner one cannot bear to think. All this, over an evening cup of what we Kashmiris call “Lipton Chai”.

A few years ago, I made a promise to myself, that I will always remember and document the events that brought my parents to Delhi. This is a small effort in that direction.

Note: The article has been authored by Aakash Raj. He tweets under the username @Ateendriyo

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