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‘Nobody Asks Us What We Want’: What I Heard In Kashmir

I got to tell you this, first up – I am neither a writer nor a poet. I am bad at expressing myself in any charismatic way when I write. These are just some thoughts I had while walking back from my internship today, here in Kashmir. Now that you know this, you may continue…

On the way back from the office of the NGO I was working with in Lal Chowk, to Dal Gate, where I live – there is this big ground that I pass by every day. I never bothered to check or go inside the place until today.

It looked barren from outside and I could only see big chinar trees with no leaves on them. It’s autumn here in Kashmir now, and it’s slowly slipping into an early winter this year.  There was this long stretch of barbed wires running all along on top of the already tall wall that surrounded this area. I walked around outside, trying to figure out where the gate of this place could be.

Finally, on the opposite side of the sidewalk, I found the gate and went in. The board at the gate read ‘Pratap Park’. It was a peaceful place, right in the middle of the busy Lal Chowk street. There were parents playing with their kids, young boys and girls riding bicycles, couples (or I think they were) deeply engrossed in conversation and an occasional solo person sitting and reading under a withered chinar tree.

There was also a fountain where people came and took photographs. As I walked around and found a tree to sit under, memories from the past few weeks, came to my mind. The stories I’ve heard and transcribed from the villagers I met came running back as I looked around the park. There, in the corners of the park, you could see tall green structures that had army men with guns in their hands, walking in and out – inspecting everyone who came in and went out.

Simply put, Pratap Park is Kashmir. It’s beautiful inside with smiling faces of people walking around. But there are outsiders with guns inside that look at every Kashmiri with suspicion. The people are screaming and telling you that Pratap Park is their country and that they want to live peacefully. But the voice doesn’t go far, because a gun points at them the minute you start to scream, and a gun butt hits them down when they keep screaming and if there is more screaming even after that, the gun turns around and a swift bullet from the barrel takes their life.

It is not a one day, one time affair. It is a reality that Kashmiris live with every single day of their lives. They try to break the wall and get out and tell the world that brutalities are a daily affair, but the barbed wire on top strangles them.

How were outsiders allowed to come in with guns and take over their Kashmir, their Pratap Park and claim it as their own, even when the people did not agree? Was it because the people of were hospitable, who treated us as guests for generations but now we want their home?

And the news says that the people are anti-nationals and militants, trying to disturb our peace and we must contain them with more tanks and guns. Simply put, you don’t know and won’t see the beauty of Pratap Park and hear the stories of hardships it hides under, if you don’t go to Pratap Park (Kashmir). It still welcomes you inside with open hands, but it only pleads that you understand that this is their home, and you’re guests.

I step out and continue on my way back to Dal Gate. I stop at a street vendor to get some Kashmiri apples. Also, at the shop was this teenage-looking Kashmiri boy who told me that the cap I was wearing was nice. I thanked him for the compliment, took my apples and walked on.

Another thought hit me this time. I have been wearing this since a few days before arriving in Kashmir and I’ve been wearing this all the time that I’ve been here too – on field work days, when in the office and to meetings and even when I’m having food. I like it. It does protect my ears from the cold wind, but I also just genuinely like wearing it.

Simply put, I felt like the cap was similar to how many of us viewed the hijab and the Muslim community. I have many friends who proudly wear the hijab as a symbol of their identity and faith, and feel liberated when it is draped around them. I also have friends who never felt the need to wear it. It’s simple really – every person’s experience with the hijab is different and we wouldn’t know their story until we talk to them.

Seeing a hijab on a girl’s head, we tend to demonize an entire community. We need to speak out for someone who wants to wear the hijab and isn’t allowed to, and also for someone who doesn’t want to wear it and is forced to. There are always more sides to a story and to a person than what meets the eye. It is a faith with a lot of depth and meaning to it along with flaws, but isn’t that true for every faith and culture in this world?

If you don’t like me wearing the cap, you can keep the thoughts to yourself and reflect on why you don’t like it. You can’t tell me that you don’t like it and try totake it away from me. Simply put, that cap is a part of the identity I embrace and want to live with – just let me be.

I kept walking and reached Yusuf bhai’s small shop from where I buy, the most delicious Kashmiri Tuj. He greets me with a smile and a firm handshake and asks me about my day. As I watch him pack my Tuj, something that he had told me a few days ago about Kashmir came back to my mind.

This is what he said – India and Pakistan are like two people who want to buy a table that they both like. They are in a shop arguing about it. They grab a chair each, sit across this table, and keep talking about the table as if the table is already theirs. Yusuf bhai said that the problem is that they consider Kashmir to be this table. Something that either side could just buy and get over with.

They don’t realize that it is a place with people, living people, who want to be the last ones to make the decision. “We are never part of the discussion and we are never asked want we want,” he said. Both of them put heavy objects on this table and weigh it down. The weight is killing them each day and still no one cares. Both of them, to this day, go on arguing about who gets to buy it. “But we fight to survive and to live, because this table that they see, this is our home.”

Around 6 pm, when the traffic was heavy, I neared Dal Gate. I looked to my right and saw an old lady, clad in a beautiful black pheran (traditional Kashmiri cloth), smiling back at me. She was speaking to me in Kashmiri, because she thought that I could understand it. I didn’t. But I understood that she was only asking me to help her cross the road through the traffic.

I smiled back and nodded. She clenched tight on to my fingers and continued speaking with that smile. I helped her cross the road. When we reached the other side, she patted my shoulder, pointed up to the sky, said something in Kashmiri again and walked away with a big smile on her face. I didn’t exactly understand what she said, but I am sure it meant, “God bless you, son.” I might never see that wrinkled, smiling, angelic face again, but I am sure that the blessing she gave will remain.

She was the people of Kashmir, asking us for a hand to walk through this mess and come out to the other side safely.The least we can do is help them at this crossroad, and let them be once they are on the other side because in the end, the traffic block and blaring horns came from the cars and buses were put there by us. The least we can do is acknowledge that it is a mess we created and help them through.

Tell the people on the streets near Pratap Park that the people are not terrorists, but wonderful human beings and we should let them peacefully live in their homes. Tell the people on the streets that the army men and the impunity they enjoy to hurt the people who live there, isn’t right and needs to be stopped. Tell the people on the streets that the culture of the people here -just because they sport a beard or wear a pheran or a hijab, doesn’t mean that they are bad or different. They are just a diverse community and we become a bigger person when we accept the beauty of this diversity and live with it. Tell the ones in the shop that this land is not just a table that they could buy and ask them to step back. Tell them that we need to apologize for all the cruelties we’ve down already. And when you are finished, tell them to notice the old lady at the crossroad trying to cross over. Tell them that what makes us human is the compassion to hold hands and cross over this mess.

As I sit on a shikara that takes me to my boat, this cold breeze that carries the fragrance of love and the stories of struggle and tolerance, makes me want to tell them that our country isn’t just what we made with walls and barbed wires, our country is also humanity.

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