The Road to My Home in Kashmir Goes Through a Tunnel of Darkness

A Kashmir Pandit recalls his childhood, memories of loss and pain, and a deep longing for home.

8 min read
Hindi Female

A day in the summer of 1994.

A village on the outskirts of District Udhampur, Jammu.

I’m waiting for my guru, Anil Raina, son of the illustrious sitar maestro and music composer of Kashmir, Pandit Omkar Nath Raina, to return from his school where he teaches music. I am thinking about what he will teach me today. I am hoping he introduces me to a new raag. But deep in my heart, I know he will stick to the usual alankaars. ‘One mustn't be impatient’ is what he has been saying to me ever since he agreed to make me his disciple. I am bound by the guru-shishya parampara to not do anything on my own.


Shortly before sundown, he returns home. “I am going to take a nap, but you start the riyaz,” he instructs. I lift my flute and begin, “Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa. Sa, Ni, Dha, Pa, Ma, Ga, Re, Sa.” I practice for two hours, hoping to be taught something new. Even in sleep, my guru nods every now and then, and makes a face at every false note. When he wakes up, he doesn’t waste even a moment to begin his riyaz.

Outside, birds start chirping — a sign they are back in their nests after flying all day long. I sit at my guru’s feet with my eyes closed. Afar, in a shanty along a mountain slope, a Gujjar woman is lighting a lamp. This happens every time my guru plays raag Yaman.


‘We Should Look for a Better Place’

The next day, in our rented two-room set in Udhampur, I am to go down a hill to the spring and ferry water in a bucket. That’s what we do every morning and evening. Mother’s spondylitis has aggravated. She wears a belt, there’s no other way out. Grandmother lines up the utensils. When we return from the spring with two buckets full of water, she starts pouring the water into empty vessels — first into the big ones, then into small containers. Then, to father’s surprise, into small saucepans and spoons. “I am not mad,” she says. “Every drop must be stored or else…”

The summer is turning out to be terrible with no proper water supply in our rented accommodation. Walking down the hill with empty buckets and then climbing back up with water in them is what sustains us through scorching days and nights. Half of our daily lives are spent scrounging for water in fast drying springs. But we are not alone. Around 20 displaced Kashmiri Pandit families in the neighbourhood do the same twice a day.

A Kashmir Pandit recalls his childhood, memories of loss and pain, and a deep longing for home.
Author in front of his ancestral house, Safa Kadal, Srinagar, 2012 
(Photo by Vinod Veerakumar)
“We should look for a better place,” says mother. “A place where we don’t have to do this uphill task every day.”

I find it difficult to be in the house. My music lessons take place on alternate days. I want to be at my guru’s place all the time so that I don’t miss out on riyaz. On weekends, my guru goes to Jammu to spend time with his family living there. I’m happiest on Tuesdays when I am back at his place for lessons. Still no luck with a new raag!

At last, after several months of teaching me raag Yaman, he takes a compassionate view. “We will start Ahir Bhairav today,” he says. Little does he know that I have already copied it from him, and I secretly practice it at home. Yet, my fingers tremble at the very thought of getting the komal rishab right in front of him. The oscillation of his komal rishab is so evocative that it makes me see the sun rise, even at dusk.

‘This Won’t Last Long’

Adjacent to our two-room set is a one-room tenement in which lives another migrant family of six members — grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, son and daughter. The son — a 10-year-old boy — comes to meet me at the terrace. He comes with his flute and is after my life to teach him. My excuses — I am still learning and I am not good enough to teach anyone, not yet at least — fall flat.


The boy is adamant. His eyes conceal a fiery look as though he’s burning inside. He wins me over by playing an intricate piece that I myself struggle with. I wonder how he has managed to do it. He blurts out the truth. “I listen to your flute whenever you play, bhaiya,” he says. “I don’t know what else to do but copy you.”

His mother complains to my mother: “My son is going astray. All he wants to do is play the flute. He keeps bunking school. I am worried. What will he do in life? My daughter too supports him. She says we must let him do what he wants. Will you tell your son to drive some sense into him? What will this flute playing fetch him? Doesn’t he realise what we are going through? His father remembers everything about his childhood but can’t recollect his last meal…” Mother comforts her. “Don’t worry. This won’t last long.”

The family is from Bandipora in Kashmir. Just another displaced Kashmiri Pandit family living in Udhampur.
A Kashmir Pandit recalls his childhood, memories of loss and pain, and a deep longing for home.
A displaced Kashmiri Pandit family next to their tent in the Garhi Camp, Udhampur, 1994.
(Photo by Vijay Dhar)

‘Learn to Pay Attention, Only Then Will You be Able to Hear the Music’

One night, in the winter of 1994, while roaming the streets of Allahabad, I hear flute music coming from a decrepit house. I am unable to keep myself from barging in. In a large hall, several children of varying ages are sitting on the floor and facing a young man who’s playing flute. Some fidget with small flutes in their hands while others play. After sometime, the man stops playing and walks up to me to find out the reason for the intrusion. I tell him how his mesmerising recital led me into the house and how lucky his students were to have him as their guru. “You’re wrong,” he says with an inscrutable expression on his face. “You don’t seem to have noticed these children carefully. They are homeless kids with spastic cerebral palsy. First you must learn to pay attention, only then will you be able to hear the music.”

The man permits me to spend the rest of the night in the house. At midnight, I play my flute hoping to attract the attention of some children.

Not even a single child looks at me. “I don’t know what God is and where he resides, but I know for sure that if you wish to be heard by him, music is the only way,” says the young flautist when I am about to leave in the morning.


‘Music Will Follow You If You Don’t Give It Up’

Spring of 1995.

I secure admission for a master’s degree in English Literature in Jawaharlal Nehru University. I don’t know what to do. Without my guru, how will I learn music and what will happen to me? As days go by, my riyaz dwindles. How far will I go? How long will I survive?

My guru’s parting words keep haunting me: “Study in Delhi, then get a job, do something in life, but don’t give up music. Music will follow you if you don’t give it up.”

I see sadness in his eyes. He sees sadness in mine. “Are you sure you want to leave everything and go?” he says. The silence between us is tormenting. I hear his unspoken words: “You will find another guru. But then, you will have to walk on fire. Will you pass the test?”


A Home Far Away – Beyond Time, Space, Memory

A day in the summer of 1996.

I return to Udhampur to see my grandfather who is fading away. His suffering is unbearable. His heart and mind are elsewhere now — a home far away, beyond time and space and dream and memory. He has lost the sense of time, of relationships, and of the true nature of things. I have become his father; his granddaughter has become his wife; his wife has become someone else – his daughter-in-law or a stranger. The rash on his hip starts growing bigger and bigger with each passing day. One day, he grabs hold of my hand and places it on his rash, begging me to rid him of it. I kneel in front of him, helplessly. Father asks me to play the flute, hoping that it will ignite a memory of the happy times we spent in our home in Srinagar.

A memory of Grandmother humming the hymns of life while looking after each one of us!

“You know,” Father reveals for the first time, “Gasha, my uncle, was a wonderful flautist. The melodies he played would make the cows in our cowshed happy…”

He turns to Grandfather and asks him if he remembers anything of Gasha and of our home. Grandfather smiles an enigmatic smile.


Slipping into a Trance

Delhi, 10 January 2020.

I am attending the Swami Haridas-Tansen Sangeet Nritya Mahotsav. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia is to give a flute recital. After a long wait, at 10 PM, he walks in through the door of the concert hall, greets the audience with a graceful smile on his lips, settles down in a chair, and begins playing raag Jaijaivanti. Behind him, his two disciples — a girl and a boy — blow into their flutes to create beguiling swaras whenever their guru pauses for a breath. At the end of the recital, audience entreaties to play raag Malkauns are placed before the maestro. “Are you willing to wait until the third prahar of the night?” he says, referring to the time the raag is usually played. I slip into a trance. I am playing Chandrakauns and a shepherd girl is dancing in moonlight.


‘We Will Go Back, Even If It Takes Many Lifetimes’

Once, while strolling in the bazaar near his school, my guru reminisced about his growing up days in Kashmir when his father began to teach him music at the age of 10. “I’m still trying to figure how to play raag Yaman well,” he said. Quoting his father, he said, “A single raag can take you a lifetime to learn. Sadhana (devotion) and Samarpan (submission) are what you must be prepared to do if you wish to be showered with a raag’s blessings.”

“What if we never get to go back to Kashmir?” I said to him that day.

“What makes you think we won’t? Of course we will go back, even if it takes us several lifetimes,” he said.

Love & Loss: Memories & Dreams

I have now become a dream and a memory of those whom I loved and lost during the past three decades in exile. Their sadness has now become my sadness. The road to my home in Kashmir goes through a tunnel of darkness.

Today when I commemorate the 30th anniversary of exile from my homeland, Kashmir, there’s nothing but a long wait that defines my existence. When will the wait end? When will I see the light?

But then, what if it does take me a lifetime to go back. What will I do on the first day of my return? How shall I begin again?

I seek solace in the teaching of my gurus. Between the swaras, Sa and Re, is a long distance stretching up to infinity and it will take me a thousand lifetimes, each lasting a hundred thousand years, to cover even a miniscule.

(Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth Prize-winning author. His latest novel, ‘The Lion of Kashmir’, is just out. He tweets at @siddharthagigoo. This is a personal blog. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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