On Not Leaving Kashmir
When I crossed the lake to Bobba’s house, in a low wooden boat something like a canoe, it was my next-to-last day in Kashmir. I had come to write and report on the region’s exiled Hindus and the work was maybe done. Also, I was very tired. The boatman threw the water back with a heart-shaped blade on a stick, hard purposeful strokes. He stayed to one side, didn’t draw the oar inward or outward, didn’t barely flick his wrist, and yet we moved forward in a terrifically straight line. How was he doing it? I couldn’t tell. Alongside us, the shikaras—yellow boats the same length as ours but wider, canopied, with fleeced seats for reclining and curtains for deflecting stares and the hot sun—proceeded just as straightly. I liked our simple vessel. We came to a half-submerged plank and he nodded that I should get out. He asked for ten rupees.
A few steps from the makeshift dock, on a line in front of the house, Bobba was hanging laundry. She turned to look at me. Her head was covered with a long white kerchief that she tucked behind ears hung with gold hoops, and she was wearing light yellow pajamas. She was roundish, barefoot. She smiled, exposing two tiny teeth, like a baby, and in Kashmiri yelled for the neighbor. She prattled nervously, he translated: There were no free rooms in the house, but there were mats in the attic. It was early afternoon. I climbed the stairs to the wide open room at the top, pulled a mat from the pile and slept.
I heard Hebrew on the stairs. It startled me out of sleep. Two girls were coming up, carrying a metal pot each of food. Israeli, audibly. They stopped when they saw me lying there. “Oh, sorry,” whispered the dark-haired one. “We didn’t know anyone was up here!” In my fatigue I tried to reassure them that I didn’t mind. “But there are a lot of us. And we’re going to be eating. And singing.” She flushed. The girls began to talk over each other in impaired, guttural English. It became clear that they were struggling to give an explanation of the Jewish Sabbath. I yawned: “I’m a Jew.” Their faces lit up like they had found love.
In a half-hour we were sitting in a circle on the ground, maybe ten Israelis in their early to mid-twenties and I, only slightly older and Canadian. There were cold sesame noodles and salad and Kashmiri bread. And there was singing. They wondered if I knew the Hebrew song “Chad Gadya,” about the little goat. I sang a couple of verses and they broke into giggly applause. The dark-haired girl, Priya, and her new husband David were like parents to the group of them. Most had just come out of the army and were within that stretch of time—six months, a year—between the end of service and the start of college that so many Israelis use to loaf around Asia.
The Kashmir Valley is one of the only Muslim-majority regions in the world that an Israeli passport holder can visit. In a month and a half in the valley, I hadn’t so much as seen another non-Indian, but from the day I met my first, I met Israelis everywhere. They seem to prefer far-flung places; they’ve established a presence in all of Kashmir’s most naturally beautiful hamlets—and there are many. Vacationers from other countries are still somewhat reluctant to visit. Israelis do not scare easily, or at all.
Shabbat lunch concluded and a wisecracking boy whose Hebrew name translates as “Fox” began to meditate in a corner. I returned to the watery plank and waved my arms in the air, trying to hail a boat. Bobba grimaced at me. The neighbor translated: “Don’t come back after dark or she will worry.”
Muna, a wiry adolescent taxi driver, was waiting for me in his white van on the road. We drove together to Kheer Bhawani, the largest and most significant Hindu temple in the valley. Muna had never been there before—on other occasions I had taken a different car—and he stopped five or six times to ask for directions from motorcyclists and men on foot. “So, I’m getting married pretty soon,” he said as we overtook empty paddy fields. The air cooled.
“Yes, of course, by my parents. She is calling me all the time. We stay on the phone all night and then I am so tired in the morning.”
“You’re a lucky boy!”
“What? No!” He slammed his hand down on the dashboard and grinned wide. “She is a lucky girl. The luckiest girl.”
We were stopped by an Indian officer in a green flak jacket, who checked Muna’s papers and asked me a dozen impertinent questions. It felt good to me in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital; relatively peaceful. But still there are police and barbed wire and men whose only job it is to sweep the roads for mines before the morning traffic comes. Parts of the region are claimed by India, Pakistan and China. And in India-administered Kashmir, young combatants have, since the late 1980s, waged a separatist rebellion that has taken about 60,000 lives. My interest, as a reporter, was in the valley’s minority Hindu community. Kashmir’s Hindus, or Pandits, as they are called, lived for centuries together with its Muslims. But the militancy took the Pandits as early targets and, feeling under threat, over a quarter-million of them fled in the spring of 1990.
Now, at a time of rare calm for Kashmir, some among them are coming back for the first time since the exodus. I wanted, in particular, to talk to the young Hindus who had returned in response to a rehabilitation package being offered by the government. The Kashmiri administration, with New Delhi, has set aside 6,000 highly coveted government jobs in the valley for Pandits under thirty-five. Fifteen hundred Kashmiri Hindus have moved back to claim those posts. Almost all of them have left their families behind in Jammu, the Indian city to which the majority of them migrated as children. I wondered about the politics of their resettlement and about the possibility of their reintegration. I wondered what it might be like to return to a place after two decades. I wondered if the young migrants still felt that it was theirs.
I left Muna in the temple parking lot. Anil met me at the gate and led me to the pilgrim rest house where he occupies a single room. I liked to talk to Anil, a returnee who wore a bowl of dark hair like a well-fitting hat, and had eyes so sad and tired they seemed to want to slump onto the bags beneath them. The first time we met he told me that he was happy to be back in Kashmir. The next time, with coaxing, he told me that his father had been shot twice and killed by Islamic militants when he was six years old. That is when his family left the valley. He returned in 2011 to take a government teaching job. The school is less than fifteen kilometers from where he was born. He cannot bring himself to go back to that place, which had been the site of his family’s fruit orchards and a five-story house and now is just a swath of nothing that belongs to someone else.
I sat on his floor and he gave me a kind of soda, in a can, with pieces of congealed fruit in the bottom. Previously, I had only met him at his school and we had discussed many things, but never the details of his accommodation. I wondered: How had he managed to move into the temple complex? And how had he found and kept an entire room to himself? The other young Pandit returnees I had talked to had been assigned to faraway transit accommodation and lived six to a miniscule dormitory apartment.
He chuckled. “Well,” he told me, “I came to know that I have been provided transit accommodation at district Sheikpura. But I did not want to go there. Then came the day and it was the time to come to Kashmir. I came with my friend. I asked him, ‘Where should we go?’ But when I asked him that, I was totally knowing where I should go. In my mind was only the temple. So we went to temple. I was not knowing that there is such type of buildings at the temple. I saw the caretaker and he said, ‘These buildings are for the pilgrims, they are not for you people.’ But it was late, there was nowhere to go. So I took this room in the night. In the morning one person from Jammu called me and asked, ‘Where are you?’ I told him, ‘I am at temple and I took a room.’ He asked if there are other rooms. I said, ‘Yes, there are so many rooms. Please come!’ The next day thirty persons came from Jammu in a 52-seater police bus. And they took rooms, too. And until now we are still in those rooms. The temple trust was asking us to leave all the time, but now they are not asking anymore. It has been 18 months.”
At 7:30 Anil joined the rest of the Pandits—visitors, mostly, and other returnees—for that evening’s prayer. They turned to face the goddess to whom the Kheer Bhawani temple is dedicated, floating in her pool of water, and they sang, hands clasped together. Small restless children chased each other through the complex. As every new devotee wandered into the congregation, a bell rang. It hardly stopped.
The front lights on Muna’s taxi blinked once and died. The sky was darkening fast. He pulled into a repair shop minutes from the temple and a band of perplexed-looking men began to tinker. I was starving and anxious of worrying Bobba. I wandered down the road, found barbecue potato chips at a tea stall.
There were only two boats when finally we pulled up to the lake, yellow shikaras both, waiting for late-coming customers. I took one. We rowed up to the dock under the stars. The house was black and still and Bobba was already sleeping. She wouldn’t smile at me again.
The next morning I did not leave Kashmir. To have found company outside of my sources was a marvelous thing. Before Bobba’s, I had stayed alone in the two rooms of a remote and orange-carpeted houseboat with no one to talk to in the evenings but the Kashmiri man who brought me my dinner. (And he was a quiet sort of man.) I had bought some pirated DVDs and would sometimes run them, without watching, just to cut the silence. Shabbat had been far from my mind.
I did meet two of Bobba’s sons. I recognized Zee, the elder of them, immediately: gold-chained, milky-toothed, thick chest hair, cut like an athlete. There were photographs of him in every room of the house. Most of them were proof of his erstwhile modeling career, advertisements that looked scanned and printed, and in these he almost always had his shirt off. The rest were a catalogue of his now-ex-girlfriends. He even appeared on a mug on prominent display in the T.V. room, the central artifact in a small-scale shrine, his arm draped around a smiley blonde.
His brother, Shaggy, with a shaved head and a pointed face, had been on a few-day trek. He knew the upper terrain well and often took vacationers into the mountains to hike and fish. I had heard he was a drug addict. “Where you from, tiiiger?” he asked me.
“Oooh, well, helloooo mate! Fancy some vegemite?”
“No, I’m from Canada.”
Sometimes I would find him on the porch, curled in his mother’s arms. He was twenty-eight, but he looked much older. The men’s father, a British citizen, had died, and I never heard anyone speak of their other brothers, though I knew of their existence.
Here is how their house became full: Zee was walking in town when he met a group of Israeli tourists looking for a place to stay. He invited them to Bobba’s. Later in their travels they spread the word: home on the lake, cheap, good family, friendly to Jews. And the Jews came. That first batch had slept on the floor. By the time I arrived, three or four months later, there was a bed in every of the six bedrooms, wireless Internet and a big-screen television.
Bobba used some pots for vegetables and others for meat. She did not mix them—a boon to traveling Israelis trying to keep moderately kosher. Visitors had only to take out the small blue boat tethered to the side of the house and buy from a produce-monger drifting on the water. Zee had set up a hotplate outside in the yard and a refrigerator on the ground floor, where everyone could store their groceries and the food they had prepared for tomorrow’s Sabbath. My housemates checked their egg yolks carefully for blood and then cooked them together with misshapen Kashmiri tomatoes. They skinned stout German turnips and ate them raw in salads. It was a pretty good arrangement for these sort-of-practicing Jews. The more laidback among them, boys with big hair, girls with many, many scarves, spent nights with Shaggy and a crude bong on a balcony that overlooked our piece of Dal Lake. On clear days the Himalayan peaks didn’t dissolve into cloud, but snow.
I made friends with a man, Ofir, who was a student of Kabbalah. He had come to India to find some faith in himself and we began to take most of our meals together. He would make us lunch—tuna and egg salad, spaghetti, grilled cheese sandwiches—while I worked in my little room. If I took a midday break we might row out to the middle of the lake and swim in our clothes. Motorboats dragging domestic tourists behind them left us in their meager waves. It was advertised as “waterskiing,” but it certainly was not waterskiing. The Indian man or woman or child would stand astride a piece of wood like a garage door and holler enthusiastically as the boat doing the towing made two or three wide circles. There was no possibility of becoming wet.
I tried desperately to paddle on one side and, without availing myself of the J-stroke, to move straightly, like the boatmen did. I was unsuccessful. Every few minutes the oar would come up strangled with thick green weeds. They were the same weeds that, a few times a week, a giant and terrifying nautical backhoe would lift from the lake floor and leave to dry on land so they could be used for cow feed. There were ducks with matted black feathers that could not be bothered to preen themselves and sometimes a flash of brilliant turquoise: a Kingfisher. It was nearly July and the water was suddenly a bed of yellow lilies that opened at first light and shut in on themselves at dusk.
The group that had shown me my first Kashmiri Shabbat left. Ofir went, too.
Three days later, I arrived back at the house in the late afternoon. Bobba was washing pieces of cutlery under the outdoor faucet. She pointed to the top floor. I went. And there was Ofir, tangled in sleep on the ground. Feeling not quite done with Bobba’s house, he had abandoned the jeep he was riding northward in some mountainous town. The way down was rough. In the end, a band of men on pilgrimage had taken pity on him and loaned him a pony. He had made it back for Friday.
Fridays were important. Zee did not usually respond to the call to prayer that resounded across the water, low and megaphoned. But on Fridays at noon he swapped his jeans for a sleek black kurta pajama and paddled himself to the Jumu’ah service that is obligatory for adult Muslims. At Jumu’ah, the week’s sins are forgiven. Often an Israeli traveler would ask if they could accompany him to the Hazratbal mosque, a white dome under perpetual construction that’s said to contain a hair of the prophet Muhammad, but he always went alone.
The sun came down slowly, dragging its rosy train like a shy bride, and only then did it occur to Ofir and I that we needed milk, juice and eggs. The Sabbath had begun and Ofir could no longer exchange money. He didn’t want me to, either. We took the boat to Bashir’s Lakeview Corner, a buoyant convenience store around the bend. Ofir asked Bashir if he could pay for our foodstuffs later in the weekend because it was a holy day. He started to elaborate, but Bashir waved him away. Everyone on the lake understood what the holiness of a day might mean.
One afternoon I left to work and returned to find plastic patio furniture and an inflatable swimming pool on the lawn. The pool was filled with ice cold water and five Israeli boys in clingy boxer shorts. Dozens of them had arrived in the night and now there were too many; Zee and Shaggy were trying to disperse them among the nearby, cedar-carved houseboats, but they did not want to go. There was such a multitude on the balcony that a boy whose face was barely visible beneath his ringlets slipped and pitched a glass of water over the side, and it shattered on my head. That day a centuries-old Sufi Muslim mosque had mysteriously caught fire and protesters were fighting the police in the streets. I knew that I might not be able to leave the house again for a while.
I had not yet eaten. Zee, calling “Hillrrry!,” invited me into the small shed where Bobba slept and then, to my discomfort, left me with her there. She was sitting in front of the fire, boiling Kashmiri kawa, a tea of cinnamon bark and almond slivers and strings of saffron. She handed me a plate of food. I had never heard her speak a word of English and I had no Kashmiri, so we just eyed each other. Her cheeks were heavy and full, her chin like a stuffed coin purse. I shoveled in the spiced green beans, pausing occasionally to swat at the bugs feasting on my arms. I killed a particularly big one. Bobba raised her eyebrows. “Mosquito,” she said, and turned back to the tea.
For five days we were shut in because of the mosque burning. There were frequent power outages, during which Zee would rev up a small purring generator. I tried one of those days to take a car to the Kheer Bhawani temple. The taxi driver and I were stopped almost immediately by a young police officer. He gestured further down the road. “They will hit you with stones if you go.”
When we could move about again, I went to Mattan, a village an hour’s drive south from Srinagar. All along the road men were selling cricket bats fashioned from the pulp of Kashmiri willow trees and together the paddles made a strange sort of fence. I was going to visit, for the second time, a group of Pandit young men I had met at a Kheer Bhawani temple festival. I had learned so much just by walking with them, by watching them gossip and tease each other. I thought they might take me on another, longer wander through the town. I brought a local photographer.
Like Anil, the men had recently returned to Kashmir without their families to claim jobs reserved for them by the government. None of them were especially happy to be back, but also none of them could imagine foregoing the type of security that a government post in India brings. They had been assigned to very small dormitory apartments with inoperative sinks. There are seventeen such apartments in Mattan, divided between three sterile brick buildings, and one-hundred Kashmiri Hindu returnees share them. The buildings are surveilled by the police. One of the officers asked me to put down my name and the date. He was using a firearm registration form for a sign-in sheet.
We toured Mattan’s once-Pandit homes, homes that had been abandoned at migration and then looted and gutted and burned. Most of the houses, with time and the theft of their wooden support beams, had caved inwards. Most had never been sold. Sickly flowers grew over the bricked half-buildings. A woman wheeled past a cart of vegetables as though this weren’t a domiciliary graveyard. We came upon a few houses that seemed relatively intact, but the Pandit men wouldn’t allow me to step inside them: they might collapse in surprise or defense, or I might emerge asthmatic from the dust. On the inside they were gray and hollow, from what I could tell.
At the center of town was a Hindu temple to the sun god that had been well kept even in the years when it had no patrons. Now it was full, mostly with Pandit pilgrims, but also with Hindu vacationers from the rest of the country. Hundreds of dark whiskered fish, sacred fish, clouded a pond at the entrance. You could not touch them, the signs cautioned, but you could hurl grain from little metallic bowls into the water and watch them feed.
On the road we met a woman who had been born in Mattan and was visiting, sleeping in the pilgrims’ quarters at the temple. She was wearing hot pink lipstick and a matching bindi. I asked if the house of her birth was still standing and she took me to it. It was not so much a house as a wall. It was not so much a wall as a tenuous letter “H” of cracked gray brick. Local Muslim women were doing laundry in the stream that ran in front of the debris. The suds made white caps that dissolved quickly. After she had stood there, remembering, for a few minutes, the Pandit lady made a move to leave; she wanted to be in her room by dusk. She looked slightly panicked as she hastened away from us. “She has bad memories of the nighttime here,” one of my boyish companions told me. “But she is overreacting.” The young men were unsure of how the Muslims perceived their return, but certainly they did not feel threatened or afraid, they said. I believed them. Apart from the days that followed the mosque fire, Kashmir seemed safe.
I had sent my photographer back to the capital in my car and I could not manage to find myself a taxi. Two of the Mattan-dwelling men, Romi and Ranjan, offered to drive me to my next destination, the village Aru. We took Ranjan’s small white car. On the road we passed dozens of vacant Pandit houses. “That was my uncle’s shop,” Romi said, pointing to a forsaken building with blasted shutters. The men enumerated their frustrations. They missed their families; they missed Jammu’s nightlife, the cinema; they had only returned to Kashmir for these jobs and they were lonely and bored. We followed the Sindh River, icy blue and impetuous. The mountains rose before us, sloping towards the sky. Ranjan stopped grumbling. “It is the most beautiful,” he said.
Soon the car was surrounded by pilgrims—so many that it seemed coincidental that we did not hit one. We stopped the engine and let them overtake the vehicle. On the sides of the road were their encampments, thousands of tents and festooned caravans. It became night and the pilgrims’ bonfires flared. They were headed into the hills, on the long yearly trek, Amarnath, that would bring them to a sacred cave. In the cave was a Shiva linga that had arisen naturally, from ice, and which I had heard was in danger of melting. Most of them would go by pony and then by foot; some would take helicopters.
From Pahalgam, the fabled hill station, we continued to climb. It was rocky and moonless and I was afraid that we would be flung into the night. At the height of my panic, we came into Aru, which would have been completely quiet but for the sound of rushing water. Aru is a place of green meadows and alpine lakes. It was cold enough, in mid-July and the first days of Ramadan, that I slept with a rubbery hot water bottle.
I was there for one day, but in that day I met a man with eyes so bright I remember them as yellow. The color of his skin and his name were such that he could easily have been from the valley, but he was Israeli. I rode back to Srinagar, along the clamorous river, on the back of his red motorbike, my head resting in the dip between his neck and his shoulder. He had been in India for a long time and for no reason in particular and he wondered why I would want to leave. I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t. His back was warm. It began to rain muddy sheets. We sped by the cricket bat sellers, huddled and dry beneath their store awnings. There was black dirt in the corners of my eyes and in my nose. I showed him to Bobba’s house so that he could clean himself off. I went, wet and trembling, to conduct an interview at a former Pandit residence being used for police barracks.
When I returned to Bobba’s he was still there. He stayed for ten days. On the morning he left, I sat on the floor of my room and made my body into a small round ball. I had been there for a month, the longest that any single traveler had lived in the house. I came down the stairs with my suitcase. Bobba was there, at the bottom, washing Kashmiri rice under the outdoor faucet. She held her hand over my mouth and fed me a few of the nutty uncooked grains. She was crying. I was also crying and then we were crying on each other, and the Israelis on the patio furniture looked stoned and confused. Bobba wept something I couldn’t understand and Zee translated: “She said that you have had some good times here and some bad times here.” He took me to the road in the little blue boat, through the yellow flowers and the larger, sparser pink lotuses that had just begun to bloom. The shops all were open, but it might have been a holy day.
Hillary Brenhouse is a cultural writer and editor whose work has appeared in TIME, the International Herald Tribune, Slate, the Oxford American, PRI's The World, and others. Her research and reporting on Hindu returnees to Kashmir was supported by a Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion.