The smoke belched from the vehicles burns its way down my lungs. The smell and sight of paan-gutkha spits on the roadside nauseate me. The road from my university to home, passing through the congested streets of Jamia Nagar, seems to be the most difficult one. I have now found my solace in memory. As I walk my way on hot summer days, my mind takes me to the roads lined by Chinar trees. On those days, when mercury shoots slightly up in Kashmir, these trees stand magnanimously and soothe us under their shadow.
Here, in Delhi, I don’t see a tree; I see no respite.
If not respite, this city has other things to offer. It has given me lessons and opportunities. More importantly, it has given me questions which I had never thought about. I have been asked what I think of the situation in Kashmir and who, in my opinion, is responsible for the situation there. When these questions come from strangers, I prefer to play dumb. My human instinct for safety plays a role here I think. I have grown up amidst the conflict. I have witnessed things which people here may not believe. What is strange to many people here is only very normal for people living in Kashmir – like stocking up on food supplies for the entire year and surviving the sub-zero temperatures. We have adapted.
In one of the strangest incidents of being questioned, a woman on a shared rickshaw asked me, “Are you going to go home after this?” My first thought was that the woman was asking me if I was going to my home (a rented accommodation) here in Delhi. I could not understand the question and the stranger’s urge to know things about me. I could not form a reply to this vague question, particularly because it was coming from a random person on a rickshaw. She actually meant if I was going back to Kashmir after completing my studies here. This woman had already made two smart guesses – one, that I was from Kashmir, and second, that I was studying in the Jamia Millia Islamia. She had, for some reasons unknown to me, felt compelled to ask these slightly personal questions.
She was not the first one to ask such questions – neither is she going to be the last one. After this incident, I have met two or three more such strangers, asking me the similar questions. I have met strangers who even asked me with whom I live in Delhi, and about my parents in Kashmir. Some have even told me about their distant relatives who were married off in Kashmir. I have politely answered all of these questions and smiled my most generous smile when strangers tell me all the things which neither concern nor affect me.
The strange thing about this particular conversation was the sequence of questions and the language. My future plans came first, and the confirmation about my ethnicity came much later. I belong to Kashmir, a place which is regularly in the news for conflicts, killings, and human rights violations. Different people view it differently. For some, of course, it is an integral piece of land. Others feel the need to intellectualise the entire dispute, unknown to the ground realities. People have a very oriental perspective. For example, they think the drug problem is because of Pakistan and the clichéd belief that Kashmir is entirely a mountainous terrain.
There is a sense of exoticism associated with us Kashmiris. People do not seem to believe that we can be normal breathing human beings, and can have priorities in life like other people. There is a standard set of questions that I have faced so far – “Aap Kashmir se hain? Yahaan kya karte
hain?”, “ Wahaan halat kaise hain?”
The most interesting bits are the anecdotes about them or their relatives visiting Kashmir and how good they felt there. That’s totally alright. But I don’t see the need to know all this. It might be that people make micro-attempts at making us feel comfortable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work this way. The more personal questions people ask, the more “othered” we feel. I am aware that I am saying this at the risk of being called rude, but I haven’t seen that being asked randomly about your homeland is a norm anywhere.
Kashmir has always been presented as ‘exotic’ in the media, be it in Bollywood or the news. The level of curiosity to know about the place is understandable, but asking personal questions doesn’t find a justified place in the debate. Satiating everybody’s curiosity seems too big a responsibility to me.