We hold on tight

In March 2003, I went to India and included in my trip a brief visit to Kashmir – to the Kashmir of my birth and of my childhood and of my education. This was my first trip there with my family, 13 years after our home in the valley became inaccessible for us. When we left in 1989, I had been married for a year and my daughter Nikki who was born in Srinagar, was two weeks old. On this trip back, she was enthusiastic to be back in the city of her birth, even if as a tourist, and so was my younger daughter who had been born “in exile”.
Yesterday in her high school English class in the US, where we live now, Nikki was given an assignment to write a short essay about “an unforgettable memory”, and today she casually showed me the essay she had written. I read it aloud and believe me, my voice choked as I read it. I am reproducing her essay here, verbatim – typos and all – she even mixed up the year of the visit.

We Hold on Tight
There’s a magnificently large temple beside my home. It’s been standing there since as far back as I can remember, and will always be there. Between the house and the temple is a dusty pathway, leading to the bank of the river that faces the house. There are steps that lead into the river, gradually leading to the depths of the water right in the middle. It’s a big house to say the least – four stories high; but if you consider the fact that six families lived in it as one big joint family, you might think there wasn’t enough space. There was though. Plenty. I liked the river best; I used to play there when I was little, with my friends and brothers and cousins always running around near the riverbank, and onto the stairs, and down the hill, into my garden, and under the cool shade of the apple tree, all the while being followed by a trail of friends. Friends who will be there forever, just like the temple and the river and the house and that small frail apple tree. I am sure of it…so sure.
I stood that mid-March day, in front of a ruined memory, absorbed with confusion and disappointment. It was my mother’s memory – the same one about her childhood home in Kashmir, a valley in the northern part of India. She used to tell me stories about it – about the place I was born in, but had never seen. Her memory was so strong and so vivid that it had soon become part of my memory. It was almost as if I lived in that house, and as if I too gathered around with my cousins and brothers and sisters to listen to old stories that the elders had to tell. It was as if I felt the cold winters, and saw the snow falling on the grass, as I shuddered inside my ferhan[1], and stared at the bright orange embers shining inside my kangri[2]. And that day four years ago, it was as if my memories, and my heart, were being shattered to pieces.
In March of 2002, my family decided to go back to Kashmir. Only to visit of course; Kashmir is no longer a safe place for Hindus. That is why my mother’s family emigrated from there to begin with: because terrorists had been creating havoc and killing Hindu Kashmiris in broad daylight. So, we knew we were really taking a chance by going back to Kashmir. But I wanted to go. My mom just wanted to see her childhood home. And I just wanted to be there when she saw it. I wanted to see her eyes glimmer with happiness. She had had recurring dreams about visiting her home, and I wanted to see that dream fulfilled. It meant so much to her, and it meant just as much to me. But here we stood, in a graveyard of a community. I looked around and all I saw was devastation. Heaps upon heaps of garbage was piled onto empty burned down lots that used to be homes of many Hindu Kashmiri families. A broken brick slab was all that was left of my mother’s home. There was no apple tree in sight. The temple was half destructed, and behind it stood two people with something long and wooden in their hands, and if my eyes haven’t deceived me, I’d say they were holding rifles. They were at a distance but when one of them made eye contact with me, I forced my eyes to turn away. All that remained was the river. And that was all. There was a chill in the air, not unusual for Kashmir’s early spring, and it stung my eyes. It must have stung my mom’s too, because she was tearing up. With mouths half open, shaking heads, and wide-open eyes, we stared at the situation in disbelief. Not my mom. She turned around and declared she was leaving.
I know what was going through her head. I couldn’t believe that violence over as petty a cause as religion and land, had shattered our dreams and destroyed a memory before I ever experienced it. I couldn’t believe I was deprived of the feeling of being home. I couldn’t believe they were so cruel as to steal that feeling and that satisfaction from my mother and me. And I know she felt rage, and disappointment, but she covered it up; she, like me, didn’t want this memory of destruction and isolation. So, I left that day and memory behind, thinking I’d never think of it again, only to be haunted by it every time I speak about my birthplace. But still to my mother and I, there’s only one real memory and we hold on tight. We hold on tight to that four story house; we hold on tight to that garden up front; we hold on tight to the laughter with friends; and we hold on tight to that river — because that they could never steal from us.
[1] A long cloak made of a thick fabric worn over clothes. It reached down to the knees and helped keep people warm in a time where homes weren’t heated during the winter.
[2] A small wick basket with lit up coals. It was usually held underneath the ferhan to keep people warm.