SRINAGAR: Girija Dhar, 75, was feeling rather impatient. As her autorickshaw slowly made its way into the old city market of Safakadal in Srinagar she kept popping her head out to see if she could catch a glimpse of her old home. Suddenly she asked the rickshaw driver to stop. The place looked familiar. “It should be here somewhere,” she said getting down. But as soon as she started walking down the road she realised that her ancestral residence didn’t exist anymore – two tall concrete buildings had taken its place. Dejected, Dhar went back. “Take me to the ‘ashram’,” she said quietly to her son, Vijay.

Dhar, a Kashmiri Pandit, can never forget the night of January 19, 1990, when owing to the ever increasing violence in the Valley she had to pack up her belongings in haste and leave with her husband. By then her two sons were already studying in another city. She tried to settle down in a camp for migrants in Jammu along with lakhs of other refugees but in the decades that followed not one day went by when she didn’t remember the blissful years of her life in Srinagar. Says Vijay, “My parents had spent their best years in Srinagar and longed to go back to their homeland. But until recently I was unable to muster the courage to return.”

Vijay has always hated the conflict. Away from Kashmir, the turmoil looked even worse. Many a time, his parents, tired of hot and hostile migrant camps, would express their desire to visit Kashmir but he never consented to taking them there. However, some years ago, when his father was dying, Vijay saw in him a longing for one last glimpse of the house he had sold off to his neighbours before moving. That’s when he decided to at least take his mother. Sadly, their trip turned out to be disappointing. “I thought she would see her home and die in peace. But now she is even sadder than my father. He at least died in illusion, she knows the reality,” rues Vijay.

From Safakadal Vijay and his mother went straight to Bhagwan Gopinath Ashram, located in Kharyar Habbakadal, where non-migrant Pandit women and those who have come back after many years meet each other and share their burden of loneliness and grief. “I come here because I have nowhere else to go,” states Pushpa Kaaw, 55. She returned to the Valley only few years ago when her son, her only child, got job in a multinational company in New Delhi. Like Dhar, Kaaw had also found herself at a crossroads on the night of January 19. She had to choose between her husband’s job and moving to Jammu with her five year old son. She decided to go away from the hostility while her husband stayed back for the sake of his work. For almost two decades, the couple lived away from each other except for the occasional visits by her husband.

Ever since her son has settled down, she has come back for good. “But I feel lost here. Every day opens up a new wound,” she remarks. Kaaw loves the Kashmir that lives on in her memory. Her in-law’s huge house in Jawahar Nagar, their joint family of almost two dozen members and a whole bunch of women busily going up and down the wide stately staircase. Her husband and she live in a rented room in Rajbagh, not far from the area where their own house once stood. It had been torched by unknown gunmen two days after she went to Jammu. “I lost even more precious things than my home. I lost my youth,” she says.

Literally, thousands of Pandit women have been forced to live most of their marital life away from their husbands. While the men either stayed back in Kashmir or moved to other cities in search of jobs, the women lived alone in migrant camps raising children and taking care of their ageing in-laws. A study done in the migrant camps in 1997 revealed that there had been only 16 births compared to 49 deaths in some 300 migrant families between 1990 and 1995. Another study done by Dr K.L. Chowdhury, a renowned Kashmiri physician, showed a drop in the population of Kashmiri Pandits due to premature menopause in women triggered by stress, displacement, separation from husbands, lack of privacy and adequate accommodation. “I always wanted a sibling for my son but my future was so uncertain that I was simply not ready to bring another child into this world,” Kaaw says. Today, her existence is sad and miserable as her son refuses to make Kashmir his home.

Nancy Bhatt, 65, too, is facing a similar situation. “I have only one son who was 15 when we migrated. He has become a doctor and says there is nothing for him in Kashmir,” she elaborates. Bhatt lives in a rented accommodation with her husband in Banmohalla Habbakadal. She went off to Jammu with her boy while her husband stuck on. After he completed his education and started working as a doctor she returned. That was ten years ago. Of course, Bhatt has yet to adjust to the changed reality in Kashmir. Anxiety and hesitation are a part of her personality. She insists on donning the salwar kameez instead of a sari, in an effort to blend in with the majority Muslim population. “What a veil is to a Muslim woman, a sari was to me. I feel immodestly dressed in a salwar kameez,” says Bhatt, as she adjusts her dupatta. But she prefers to be uncomfortable than face risk. Although no one in her family or acquaintance has ever been roughed up or sexually abused she has heard of countless stories of harassment. “Even now, I sometimes tie my scarf around my face leaving only my eyes exposed. I know it is all in my head and there is no danger but I still do it,” she says, haplessly.

Away from their ancestral homes and even their children now, the ageing Pandit women feel very vulnerable. “Loneliness is the cause of all our insecurities and fears. Had our children been here, things would have been far better. But if they return what will they eat?” asks Sarita, who doesn’t want to give her last name.

While the government has only recently approved a rehabilitation package of Rs 20 lakh for migrant Kashmiri Pandits to rebuild their homes and their children have been promised jobs, the 3000 Pandits living in Kashmir have been excluded from these benefits. This essentially means that women like Sarita and Bhatt will have to get used to living on their own, meeting their children only on special occasions.

Away from their working kids, Sarita and her husband have been trying to overcome their deeply entrenched fear psychosis for some years. She recalls how one stormy night when their doorbell rang nonstop, the couple locked themselves up in their storeroom before calling their neighbour, “We thought that some unknown assailants were going to harm us. When we requested our neighbour to check who was at our door he told us that the bell was ringing because of a short circuit.”

Of course, despite all the personal struggles she has endured, Sarita is against the idea of an exclusive land for the Pandits. “If we are given a separate land it will further alienate us and disturb our relations with Muslims. All we want to do is build bridges,” she signs off, with a lot of hope.

( Women's Feature Service)