From Kashmir to Kerala: Breaking the Stereotype
As the year 2016 was coming to a close some of my friends and I packed our baggage and headed for Kerala to participate in an academic conference. More than the eagerness for participating in the conference, the thought of being able to celebrate New Year’s eve on a beach or the backwaters was our real source of excitement.
We had been told that at sea, the sun seems to rise from and drown into the unfathomable waters. Even the imagination of it was enough to leave us craving for the moment. None in our group had had the privilege of witnessing such a sight before. ‘God’s Own Country’ seemed to welcome us with open arms when we finally arrived in Trivandrum, the capital city.
After the three-day conference came to an end, we stayed over for a few more days. Excepting the unusual rush owing to New Year’s eve and a consequent difficulty in making our transport and accommodation arrangements, everything seemed to be perfect.
The places we visited looked exceedingly mesmerising. The early morning spent at the Kovalam Beach, hours spent boating in the picturesque backwaters of Allepey, the noon-time enjoyment of Fort Kochi beach and subsequent wanderings in the craft market, and finally the Athirapilly waterfalls where you literally felt natures lap, added some new unforgettable episodes to our memory baskets.
We fell in love with the place, thanks to the warm and generous hospitality of its people. This happened despite the expected communication gap between us and them. While moving from one destination to another the frequency of cities and towns and their cleanliness was particularly noticeable. The people seemed to be conscious enough of their duties in tidying up their native place. And the stereotypes about the southern people that we had often been fed on seemed to vanish (we have been told that there is a similar process of stereotype-creation going on in the South against the Northerners!).
Above all, communal harmony seemed to be the eloquent feature of the social order. We found its finest example in a shop in Trivandrum. Run by a Muslim we found there a donation box aimed to collect donations for a church! That was pretty much an unprecedented sight for any of us. These experiences subverted the constructed image of the people of the South in our minds.
Just as a positively-stereotyped image of the South was taking shape in our minds, an incident shook us from within. Leaving from Allepey to Cochin (Kochi) in the evening, we booked a couple of rooms in a Cochin hotel in advance and reached there at midnight. Upon reaching there we found out that instead of keeping an arrangement for twelve persons, the manager had set aside two rooms for us which could accommodate a maximum of nine persons.
We made a reference to our advance payment and asked him to make proper arrangements for all of us. However, he not only turned down our request, but in a short while almost started manhandling me and one of my friends. To top it all, he uttered, in his native tongue, the oft-repeated and most ‘dangerous’ trio: Kashmir-Muslim-Pakistan!
Apparently none of us knew Malayalam and all we could understand were the three words which can land anyone in danger. His tone said it all. Talking to the travel agent on the phone did not bear any fruit. The manager went a step further and threatened us with two options: extortionate additional charges for accommodating all of us or leaving the hotel premises without any refund. We preferred to go for the latter, thanks to his outrageously wicked behaviour.
We left the hotel: at midnight wandering in an unknown place and searching for somewhere to settle in for the night. Denial of rented rooms and flats to Muslims in general and Kashmiris in particular was no news for me, but this was the first time I experienced it myself. This despite the fact that our small group of twelve students was as diverse as India herself: students from Kashmir, U.P., Bihar and the North-East, speaking four different languages, following two different religions.
However, since two Kashmiri guys were on the forefront, the others arguably became the indirect victims. For the first time in my life I felt the dangerous side of my identity as a Kashmiri and a Muslim.
In today’s world media can play a leading role in binding society together. But unfortunately most of the fourth estate is now so much enmeshed in its own set of constructs that it becomes impossible for common people to break this chain. Such a narrative is utterly perilous: it not only misinforms the general public outside the Valley about the actual state of things, and thereby helps bolster the typecast image of Kashmiris, but it also precludes the people of the Valley from identifying themselves with the people of the Indian mainland.
My own treatment of this subject may also result in the continuance of a stereotype: that Muslims, and particularly Kashmiris, are not safe anywhere in India. Yet I must affirm I don’t intend to make any generalisation because of this one incident. I have been staying outside the Valley for nearly six years and over the years I have made friends with people from different regions, religions, disciplines, ideologies, and socio-cultural backgrounds.
One’s own experiences goes a long away in shaping his/her opinions. For me the assumption that an all-inclusive trend of breeding hatred against any particular community or region exists around us is an infinitely sweeping statement; only a small section of our society is intent on doing so.
There certainly are people who feel that accommodating diversities should be the norm of our society and that dangerous generalisations only tend to overturn our sanity and shrink our levels of tolerance. Paradoxically, unless they speak out, their silence is only feeding the myths!
(Cover Photograph: Support for Kashmir in Kerala)