In this piece, the author has a conversation with friends from India about childhood memories. The author talks about how she has very few fond memories as she can only remember living in a state of constant fear while growing up in Kashmir.
The essay is the seventh in the series from Wande special issue on Kashmiri women titled Me and Militarization.
A few months back I visited Delhi. One fine evening while I was in a gathering with six to seven non-Kashmiri friends, a discussion about childhood started. One friend said, "I miss being a child, this adult life is so tough and full of responsibilities, I wish to be a child again". Then another friend agreed to the earlier statement and said, "My childhood was so beautiful, I used to go to the park every evening where I used to play football with my friends and we used to eat chocolate ice cream every time we were out in the park and I always used to insist to spend more time outside till it was very late." Then another friend narrated her beautiful childhood followed by another till they had all finished narrating and cherishing their favourite childhood memories. Everyone seemed to have had an alluring childhood. While they were revisiting their childhood their faces were lit with happiness and excitement.
All this time I remained quiet and was getting flashbacks of my own childhood. My facial expressions were bleak and doleful. I was deep in thought when someone nudged me and asked what my favourite childhood memory was. I thought for some time and when I could not find a beautiful memory in all the chaos in my mind, I told them that I was from Kashmir.
After a long pause I found the strength to speak and said:
“I remember one Sunday when I was playing in a park and I heard the sound of an explosion followed by multiple gunshots. Everybody started to run away but I could not move. I can still feel the shivering of my legs which prevented me from moving until some person came and helped me. I don’t remember how I reached home, I didn’t even recognise the person who helped me. At home, I remember my grandpa hugging me and trying to cheer me up by saying something but all I could hear was the racing beat of my heart. But all this didn’t end with this one incident. The following morning was not a normal morning for me. I was hesitant to get out of bed. I peeped through the window to look for any possible threats. I was scared to leave home and I missed school that day. I was terror-struck for so many months. I didn’t speak about it to anyone because somehow it was an ordinary thing for the people around me. Of course, it doesn’t affect me much now but the incident never slipped my mind.
I remember the days when mom used to wake us up very early, put our clothes on and tell us that there would be crackdown that day. I was too young to know what a crackdown really meant. I associated it with having army men all around, threatening everybody, entering our homes with their shoes on and ransacking the things. Sometimes we didn't even have proper breakfast. With a rolled up roti in our hand, we would run outside. The crackdown also meant separating women and children from men. We had no idea where our male family members were and whether we are going to see them again or not. Crackdown most of the days also meant not having anything for lunch because once we were out of our homes, no one was allowed to go back there. We children used to sit behind women who would whisper the verses from the Holy Quran and would pray for the safe return of their fathers, husbands and sons.
I remember I was in 5th standard when a friend of mine suddenly stopped coming to school. Upon inquiring I came to know that, some army men took her father one evening and since then he was missing. They even filed a missing report but nobody knew anything about him. My friend never saw her father again because he never came back home. After a few months, I heard that my friend along with her mother and brother had shifted to her mother’s paternal home because they had no means of subsistence without her father. I don’t even know if my friend was able to complete her studies or not.
I remember not doing any homework at night because no house was allowed to have electricity on after 9 p.m.
I remember losing so many school days to these cordons and crackdowns.
I remember the army using ruthless force on innocent people whose relatives were associated with or sympathetic to militants and militancy. The mothers, sisters, daughters of militants were beaten. The family of militants lived a life of extreme fear.
I was too young to have seen all this, no child in the entire world deserves to witness dread, to witness terror, to live in a constant state of fear and disturbance. And yet these are the childhood memories and experiences of almost every Kashmiri.”
Then I looked at my non-Kashmiri friends and stopped talking not because I was done, but because I needed to breathe. I could talk about the atrocities suffered by Kashmiris for the whole night and still, it wouldn’t have been over. After a short pause I said:
“So I have no favourite childhood memory. My childhood has no chasing of butterflies in the parks, no cartoons in cinemas, no 'Sunday is a fun day', no Disneyland, no bedtime fairy tales to help me sleep, nothing poetic and worth remembering. My childhood is all memories violence and armed conflict.”
I didn’t realise my eyes were wet when one of my friends from south India who had started this childhood discussion held my hand and said, “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Then another friend said, “When I was little I was so overwhelmed by Kashmir, the way I saw it on television, I envied the people who lived in such a beautiful land, the people who could experience and play with snow, I considered those people very lucky, but I had no idea that there is another dark side to this beautiful piece of land.”
Almost all my conversations with friends from outside about Kashmir end like this. People seem to be mesmerized by the beauty of our land and our people, but do not know about the gloomy and ugly side of our existence. The Indian media paints a very different picture of Kashmir, one that is removed from reality. What goes on in the daily lives is outside the imagination of the regular Indian citizen. But our lives, out stories and childhoods, are full of memories of violence and bloodshed. ♦