Creative Nonfiction

What We Talk About When We Talk About Exile

6 August 2019

(CONTENT WARNING:  this piece contains explicit references to the Kashmiri Pandit ethnic cleansing in 1990. It mentions murder, kidnapping and abduction, torture, brutal violence, rape and suicide)


Some weeks ago, after we had had our dinner, my friend and I lingered at the dining table. She mentioned she had read something about political unrest in Kashmir. I nodded, and sensing she expected me to speak further to this, attempted to provide her an exposition of the ‘Kashmir Problem,’ as though it were a maths puzzle, stringing together a litany of terms I’ve become so familiar with: insurgency, militancy, self-determinacy, azadi, genocide, forced expulsion, exile. My account seemed to satisfy, and before we moved onto cake and tea, she tilted her head, ran her fingers through her hair, and said to me, ‘You have such an interesting background.’

Background. That which is behind, past, distant, fragment of scenery, out of focus, throwing into relief a foreground. That which is apart, forgone, incidental, closed.

Background. Lying in bed later, gazing at the ceiling and feeling suddenly nauseated, I realised it wasn’t at all the correct spatial metaphor. Centre, I thought, was more accurate. Or, just, Beginning, Middle, End. That stuff which is woven into the fabric of my every day, stitched through the simplest of acts, always on the tip of my tongue, and breathing, blooming alive. As yet unfinished, and terribly important. 

As I lay awake I played Geeta Dutt songs. Her songs, like mothers’ milk, are songs I’ve always known, and my parents have always known. They’re songs my grandmother once sang to me in her thin voice. They’re songs that clap me apart. 


Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam

Tum rahe na tum

Hum rahe na hum

Time has made of us such a gorgeous tragedy

You remained not you

I remained not me


The first person in my family not born in the Kashmir Valley, I entered the world in the plains of neighbouring Jammu, an insignificant spot of a city teeming with Shiva temples and open fields which grow some of the world’s best cannibis, or kala sona, it’s known locally: black gold. I was born after the events of 1990, when four hundred thousand members of the Kashmiri Pandit community—my community—as targets of ethnic cleansing fled our ancestral homes, fearing for our lives, and so, became refugees in our own country. 

The Pandits’ position as a Hindu minority had for centuries been relatively precarious in Kashmir. But when, in the 1980s, the Americans callously furthered their strategic interests by arming mujahideen to combat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, they also set militancy ablaze across the subcontinent. In Kashmir, violence burst forth in a turbulent wave of radicalisation which deepened already nascent anti-India sentiments, and saw the Pandits increasingly characterised as mukhbirs, untrustworthy agents of the Indian government. We were wanted out. And in time, there were targeted killings, and there were mass killings, and on 19 January 1990, one day before the brutalisations of a massacre on Srinigar’s Gawkadal bridge, loudspeakers from the pulpit of every mosque in the city simultaneously issued this decree:


Zalzalaa aaya hai kufr ke maidaan main

Lo mujahid aa gaye maidaan main

Behold this earthquake in the world of the idolaters

The mujahids have arrived ready to fight


Thousands were killed. Some deaths were publicised, but most were not. Over time, every family accreted its own stories. Many became part of an unfathomable canon known by every Kashmiri Pandit: founts of a horrific knowledge, immuring our collective consciousness, and resounding with our grief. 


It was like this:

March 1990. On the morning thirty-six-year-old B. K. Ganju is due to leave Kashmir for good, two men brandishing Kalashnikovs force their way into his house. He hides himself inside a large rice barrel in his attic. Unable to find him, the men leave, but return shortly after, having been informed by his neighbour of his whereabouts. Bullets are fired into the barrel. His wife is forcibly fed blood-soaked rice. 

April 1990. Three armed men arrive in the deep night at the house of sixty-six-year-old Sarwanand Kaul, an eminent local poet. His house is ransacked for family gold and the loot is crammed into a suitcase. Then, he and his son, Virender, are asked to carry the suitcase out of their house. Their lynched bodies are later found hanging from two walnut trees. They have also been shot, their eyes hollowed out, their bones broken, and their bodies burned with lit cigarettes. Iron nails have been hammered into their foreheads. 

June 1990. Twenty-eight-year-old Girija Tiku travels interstate to Kashmir to collect her salary. On the first morning of her arrival, she is kidnapped by four men, one of whom is a former colleague. She is blindfolded and gang-raped in the back seat of a taxi, before being taken to a lumber mill, where her live body is cleanly bifurcated with a mechanical saw. Its pieces are found along a roadside some days later. 

October 1990. Three militants barge into a large, red-brick house in Srinagar. It is very early in the morning. The house’s owner, frail and elderly, descends the stairs, exclaiming, ‘What’s happening?’ The militants open fire on him and he dies immediately. They then shoot his wife in her legs and say, ‘You must live to tell this story.’ This man is my great-grandfather’s brother. His name is Maheshwar Nath Bhat. My parents were married in his house. Today it is a hotel.


This is how we died. This is how we exhume ourselves and bear witness.


Exile is like this: Being haunted by revenants.


History rarely has sharp endings but, for us, 1990 was one such ending. Those who lost their homes overnight lost also their sense of who they were in the world. Many, like my grandparents, who for months had doused themselves in kerosene, prepared to self-immolate and save their bodies from torture at the hands of militants, were transmuted into shadows of themselves. But those like me, born after our exodus, we lost all we had never had. We became displaced, uprooted, unmoored. We were set adrift, we were deracinated. Our identities were constituted by a great void. We became those who dreamt of a home we had never known, nor likely ever would.

That night my friend came over, I unraveled. My story became palpable again, and inside me it throbbed. And after my nausea finally passed, and my recurrent vomiting came to an end, it seemed to me that my self was protesting, through my body, its absence in the world. It was saying, Not me, not me, what she sees is not me. 


It is like this: Being an outsider in all places, at all times. 

 Being intimate with groundlessness.


I want to make clear that I was not upset with my friend that night. No, I was struggling instead to dwell in my own self, to swim across the cataract of trauma I inherited.  


An exile has no homecoming, no shore in sight. 

An exile is not misplaced; she is placeless.


Our families broke apart after the exodus, as we made new lives wherever, however we could. We could never go home again, after all. An entire community became a diaspora. And now the only Kashmiris left in me and my brother’s lives are our parents, with whom we emigrated from India when he was eight and I was five, and who live on the other side of Australia. I try to visit them a few times throughout the year, and when I am in their house, we stretch out with blankets on the rug, and sip kahwah, and sing songs. As we sit together, the three of us, there are many things we are never able to say.

I realise now that I was grappling with language that night my friend came over. All our selves are storied, and all our selves refuse summation, but how do I begin to tell my story if I cannot sound it in my own language? Franz Fanon once wrote that we bear a civilisation’s weight when we speak, when we write. But these words I write do not sustain any civilisation I can call mine. This language does not feel like mine, it does not roll off my tongue, does not feel as though it were made for me. 


Reader: How can we meet? I do not have the right words.


When I’m unable to shore by gratitude the despair of my universal foreignness, I listen to Kendrick and I exhume my rage.


Feel like I don’t wanna be bothered / I feel like you may be the problem / I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world / The world is ending, I’m done pretending / And fuck you if you get offended.


Like this: Exile is expulsion; it is also nonarrival.


Beneath my friend’s remarks, I’ve come to realise, lay innocence, a simple wanting to know. And here it strikes me that she, like so many others I care for and admire, will never know me as much as I know them. Some relationships will remain asymmetric. 


But this, perhaps, is no calamity. 

I carry my people’s story, my story: I survive.

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