Sitting in the verandah, watching the children of that strictly disciplined school (or so I have known of it so far!) playing cricket, I’m sitting wrapped finally in my own skin, breathing through my own fins and dreaming of my own will. Sounds of “four” and “out”, “catch” and claps hang suspended in the air this morning, celebrating the tryst I made with audacity.
This morning marks the beginning of what I landed in here for, on the 17th of August, one and a half days before today and two days after the Indian Independence day. These words, Indian and Independence, are more loaded than we think, here in Kashmir, and they must be allowed their due contextual reference, but I will choose to refrain from going down that road, and focus now on recounting the first few of my hours in Pulwama, Kashmir. It was 4.30 in the evening and I was walking out of Srinagar Airport with two bags full of anxiety and strained shoulders loaded with apprehension, looking intently around to find a face that was to be my only family in Kashmir for a long time to come. Mr. Farooq Fazli had been patiently pursuing my association with Dolphin International School for over a month and he was waiting now to receive me into it and to finally negotiate my truth with his own. As the director of the school, a friend to a dear friend, and as a man true to his Kashmiri roots, he took it upon himself to make sure I feel at home. After a short chat over coffee and a longish drive to Pulwama, we arrived at the little outhouse which was to be my home from then. A lovely Kashmiri family of an old couple and their children were waiting for me fondly and with the pride of having organised the house so thoughtfully. Rouf bhaiya, the elder son in the family, was joyfully showing me every little detail in the house meant for my comfort, hoping to see me love it like they do. I, however, was caught by my own sense of who I was, and couldn't quite receive the warmth they were so eager to offer. There were 7 people in the house that evening trying their ways to comfort this small looking new bundle of questions, who’d moved all the way from Bombay. They read my fear and felt responsible for making sure I was loved in the way I was loved back in ‘my own’ town. They left me to rest half heartedly, wanting instead to spend the night around me. But I had insisted on being left alone. I was overturned by the degree of difference I was facing and the meaning of that difference in my sensibility. I was scared. I was scared to realise how deeply instilled this fear of the ‘other’ was in me and how loudly it was surfacing then. But my belief in the reason why I was here, helped me sleep through the night; that first night in the valley of ‘the other’.
Next morning was as fresh as never before. Though hesitant, I hugged Gulshan didi (Rouf bhaiya’s sister) back, when she hugged me and Wallah! what must I say about Kashmiri hugs! They hold you like that’s the only way they say you’re important. I had my first cup of tea with some sattu, a traditional breakfast element, spoke with a room full of smiles and open arms, and left for school. I was still a little anxious, a little unsure, and even a little skeptical (of what, I don't know). But the school hugged me in like a baby hugs her mother, or a long lost friend hugs you after years of distance. There was acceptance in their eyes, right from the first time they saw me and I realised it’d been a while since I’d seen such an expression of sheer value for one’s presence. Ever since then until today, every individual at school has asked me if I am okay every morning, especially on the mornings after instances of conflict, and spoken with me of me and my life in India, to find commonalities to bond over and sometimes differences to laugh about.
That evening when I reached back home, much less anxious and so much more hopeful, my ‘kashmiri parents’ were waiting for me, as if at the door, with a cup of tea and some roti. They announced they’d made vegetarian dinner for me and that they’d refrain from eating meat in their meals with me, now that they have a vegetarian member in the family! I wasn't sure if I was prepared to receive so much from them, but I couldn't deny the simplicity with which they looked at me and the space they’re still carefully etching in their lives for me. They ask me about India and how ‘we’ think of Kashmir and say how upset they are at the media for running ‘our’ perception of the valley. Now that I’m here, they see me as a means to communicate what they truly wish to. My time in Kashmir with all of its geographical, natural, cultural and practical beauty, is going to be a story of revelation, and a medium of honest communication long due between the ‘me’ from India and the ‘me’ from Kashmir.
That night I slept at peace, like I hadn’t slept in months, and woke up next morning in what I now call my home!