Kashmir is called Paradise on earth by the rest of the world for it’s scenic beauty, mesmerizing locales, snow laden mountain peaks and crystal clear water bodies. But for me, Kashmir is a lost paradise because of the loss of my home, my village and it’s wonderful people.

I was born in a village named Gairoo (called Noorpora now). It is located almost in the center of the valley, very close to Avantipore that used to be the capital of Kashmir during the reign of king Avantivarman. The village had about 300 families practicing Islam, 50 practicing Hindu faith and 20 Sikh families. Amongst these families, there were land tillers, potters, barbers, vegetable growers, milk sellers, carpenters, preachers, black smiths, masons, traders, washer men, oil extractors and even grave diggers; making the village self-sufficient in almost everything. There were a number of shops in the village but the most popular was the Co-operative society store that sold things that the village did not produce like salt, sugar, tealeaves, khadi cloth and fertilizer for the paddy fields. Anything extra produced in the village was deposited with the Govt procurement agency in lieu of the stuff taken from the co-op store. The land had already been evenly distributed, so there were no big landlords and only a few families did not own any agricultural land. These families helped others in cultivation or performed other tasks in the village and were paid in kind for their services. Everybody was rendering services for the society and getting paid in kind when the crop was harvested. No family in the village was roofless or slept without food.

There was a metalled road that led to the village but there was no proper transport. One had to walk about 2 kilometers to get to Avantipore to ride a bus to go to other places. A number of people owned bicycles and there were also a good number of horse driven tongas that also provided income for the landless families. Medical facility was available in Avantipore but there was a local medical practitioner in the village who attended to emergencies.

My earliest memories date back to 1955-56 when I was enrolled in Primary school for my education. I had to wake up early every morning to memorize my lessons taught at school. I did not memorize much of my lessons but I completely memorized the Azaan given from the mosque in the early morning hour.  There were small mosques all over the village and a very large mosque Jamia in the village center and that had a loudspeaker. Call for Namaz was given from this mosque by Pir Mubarak Shah five times each day. I still remember his voice as it was very melodious.

Most of the people of my father’s generation were illiterate and memorized the Arabic or Sanskrit verses. I did enquire from Amir Dar as to what he said during the namaz. He said he couldn’t memorize even though he was taught, so he just kept a count as to how long he stayed in a certain posture during the namaz. Similarly the Hindu purohit Satbuoy had memorized Sanskrit shlokas and would repeat the same for all occasions. At a later date, I realized that he used to say “sowbhagyawati bhava” to widows also. But nobody could doubt the dedication of Amir Dar or Satbuoy to their faiths.

Hindus and Muslims lived in separate neighborhoods but there was no religious barrier and anybody could visit anybody at any time. Everybody came together for any festivals or celebrations irrespective of religion and respect for each other’s faith came naturally. The village ziyarat of Haider Sheikh Sahib was pious to both Hindus and Muslims. People would cook turmeric rice and take it there and distribute it amongst children. There was a temple under 3 large chinars by the side of a big fresh water spring that was visited by Hindus daily. This also used to be the meeting place for children on festive occasions.

There was only 1 radio in the village. There was no panchayat ghar, therefore the radio was put atop the shop of Nabir Bhat and it would be tuned on around 5 PM to blare out music and news. Everybody free at that time would assemble in front of the shop and enjoy the music and wonder how the singing party had gone inside the little device. The idea of radio signals was beyond comprehension.

The village would get a fair share of visitors. People from Gairkhal, a neighbouring village used to come and sell womensware like needles, combs etc. Fisherwomen from Avantipore would come selling fish, singers from various places would come with their sarangis and sing in the courtyards in exchange for some paddy or rice. Sometimes people with a monkey or a bear would also show up to entertain people and they would be paid in kind. A party of taxidermists would visit once a year with their shikari dogs looking for cats and foxes. This used to be the noisiest time in the village as all the village dogs would keep barking at the hunter dogs. Many sadhus would also visit during summer enroute Shri Amarnath yatra and would spend a night at the temple. Similarly, many pirs and faqirs would make appearances in Muslim households seeking their hospitality. The best among the visitors were the party of “Baands” from Akingam. Children would be the happiest during their stay in the village. They were the performing artists, and would perform shows criticizing the system, whether governing or the social. One of their dramas was critical of the king and another was critical of bogus Godmen. This was the cinema of those times. These performers would collect paddy from every family in the village given at will.

By the end of the decade, a bus was introduced and people could travel to Srinagar. The BUS would return in the evening and halt for the night in the village. The payment for the bus ride was in cash. It would not accept payment in kind – 12 annas flat (75 naye paise). I remember sitting in the bus in the evenings with my friends just to get a feeling of the bus ride, making noises as if the bus was running. Then the village was electrified and all the households had a light bulb. In the sixties, the village got a rice shelling machine. My mother no longer needed the mortar and Pestle for shelling rice. Radio sets started appearing in well to do households but the best musical entertainment was still the “Rauf” performed by the village girls in the evenings, especially on moonlit nights. Those sweet voices still tingle my ears.

By the seventies, the village had a panchayat ghar and that is where the village saw it’s first Television set. The village youth would assemble in the evening to watch the musical programme “Shokhiyan”. By now, the bus service was extended to other villages, so there were buses plying through the village all day. The boys’ high school was upgraded and the middle school for girls was upgraded to High school. There was now a post office and medical and veterinary care was available within the village. With all these changes, the economic change started becoming visible. The number of youth getting employed with the state government increased dramatically and with the flow of money, private transport started appearing. There used to be one butcher shop, now there were many. The food habits of people started changing along with the lifestyle. Income from the orchards increased manifold and many village people now owned four wheelers big and small. A friend Gul Sofi started a cricket-bat making factory. This changed the willow harvesting and planting scenario completely and brought in a lot of cash flow.

Eighties saw the introduction of private life. Walls appeared around houses. Now the collective musical sounds in the evening were no longer heard. One could not walk into anybody’s house unannounced. People were getting jobs as per need and were getting paid in cash. The seasonal appointment against wages in kind disappeared. Services that used to be available throughout the year as home services against payment in kind also disappeared. All services were now available in the village market against cash payment. The self-sufficiency of the sixties was over. Ration depos appeared in the market. Even vegetables were being imported from other places and were sold against cash.

Towards the end of this decade, the entire social fabric of the village changed as it did in the rest of the valley. Strange faces started appearing in the village and people started locking doors soon after sunset. Now we were not addressed by our names but all Hindu men were being addressed as “Panditji”. I lost my temper during one of our department meetings where the HOD addressed me as Panditji instead of my name or designation. But nothing changed, much water had flown through Jhelum. The Sufi culture was being replaced by Sharia culture where all non-muslims were only zimmies. The names of places were being changed. Shankaracharya hill in Srinagar was being referred to as Kohi-i-Sulaiman , Hari Parvat became Kohi-i-Marran, Anantnag became Islamabad and my village Gairoo became Noorpora. This was happening all over the valley. Muslim dress code saw a change too, Muslim men started wearing the long Pathan Kurta and pajama and this was called the Islamic dress. The fact that the dress was adopted from Pakistan and not Arab world only shows the influence Pakistan had over Kashmiri mindset although the Yasir Arafat style headgear also became quite popular. Traditional Kashmiri wear and the conical cap was looked down upon and soon forgotten. The dress for women underwent similar changes , the white burqa that the women wore only while travelling was replaced by a black burqa that was called Arabi Burqa and it was used daily and not only while travelling.

Friday Prayers to Allah were now offered in public spaces and not only in mosques and as a result most roads were blocked for Namaz on Fridays and festivals. Kashmiri language was given second place to Urdu. Kashmiri Pandits were mute spectators to these changes happening in the valley and were now openly ridiculed. They stopped going out wearing the Tilak and tried their best to blend into the background.

All the developments in the Muslim world found an echo in the valley, be it Palestine, Iraq , Iran or Pakistan. The pandits became convenient scapegoats who the Muslims used to vent out their anger on. Anything happened in Palestine and next there would be unrest in the valley. There were calls for hartal and Government property was damaged and Pandits were terrorized as they represented the enemy who was responsible for all misfortune anywhere in the Muslim world. There was no help for the Pandits who were only 7 percent of the population. The Pandits dreaded India Pakistan Cricket matches as they would be harassed irrespective of the result. If Pakistan lost, stones were hurled at Pandit houses/shops and if Pakistan won, there was no end to the ridicule. The Miandad Four or probably it was a six in a certain match became “Batni chuch”. DaaleBatta and DaaleBatni were now the common terms used by Muslims for Pandit men and women.

By 1989, the valley erupted in flames. The Pandits were hounded out of their homes. Kashmir was for Muslims only was an open sentiment now. In the early 1990 , I lost my Paradise completely. Gun wielding youth from my own village appeared calling for Azadi. A young man Ghulam Rasool Wani appointed by me in Govt service was also a member of this gun wielding gang and was instrumental in getting my fruit bearing trees cut and my family home torched after looting the same. Why ? Neither did he know nor did I understand.

We had one such gang member in Srinagar named Bitta Karate. Upon enquiry as to why he killed Pandits, he said he was only following orders. I am sure Ghulam Rasool Wani in my village was also following similar orders. Why these orders were being issued is beyond comprehension. In this new setup, there was no room for good Muslims like Pir Mubarak Shah either. This was being done for pre-dominance of Islam. For heaven’s sake, tell me when was Islam not pre-dominant in the valley? Was anybody deprived of his religious obligations? Was land not taken away from Hindu landowners without any compensation and distributed amonst majority Muslim population ? Were government jobs and seats in colleges not provided to Muslims on a preferential basis. Then why was the gun directed towards me. For God’s sake , someone do tell me why?

What harm would I have brought to you had I been living in my house now in my seventieth year. Whenever people would ask me what I would do after retirement, I never had to think twice before replying that I will go and rest under my chinar. But look at my misfortune, both my Paradise and the Chinar are lost for me. Curse be upon Pakistan and it’s cahoots in the valley for having directed their guns at us and put us to flight. My home was lost forever and so was my Paradise.

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.