“It’s two people, yes, a Punjabi couple,” said Mr Azad loudly in Kashmiri on him mobile. He was informing the caretaker of the hill-top cottage in Gulmarg of our arrival.
“Please take this number. You can call this man for food or anything else you may need.”
This second sentence was spoken in Hindi for our benefit as Mr Azad did not know that I could understand Kashmiri. On my part I had not done anything to clarify this information either. The reason was part curiosity, part hesitation. The words did not roll off my tongue as clearly anymore. I didn’t want the embarrassment. I nodded courteously and left. The winding roads were empty except for the local nomads walking their cattle. Tourism had been hit by the state of affairs, called halaat over here. The dual damage of floods followed by the state imposed curfew had evaporated the once lucrative industry.
In the afternoon as my husband and I trekked the meadows, spread luxuriously with dung from the grazing cows and horses, I informed him of the little detail from earlier. “He thinks we are Punjabi, our caretaker.”
My husband laughed.
At the age of 5 my family moved from Kashmir Valley to Delhi, a city bursting with a population that once hailed from the state of Punjab. As a result of this migration for the better part of my life I was labelled a Punjabi by everyone. Be it a stranger trying to make a conversation or my mother-in-law trying to make a case for her son not to marry me, the assumption was similar. There is always an immense need to fit people into categories and the first in my immediate surrounding has always been statehood. ‘Where are you from?’ has been on all occasions the first question I have been asked after my name. So as I travelled across cities in search of education and employment, they invariably looked at me and asked, “Punjabi?”
Exasperated I would launch into an internal monologue to disarm the loaded question. ‘I am NOT a Punjabi’ my heart would scream. In reality, however, I would politely shake my head in a negative. I couldn’t blame them. A fair-skinned person with Delhi as a permanent address on their identity card was most obviously Punjabi. Followed by Rajasthani, Himachali, Marathi and silence. Kashmiris are after all small in number and our presence in the media negligible.
‘What do Kashmiris eat?’
‘Do Kashmiris have a language?’
‘Do Kashmiris understand Hindi?’
No one knows the answer. So I would always inform those, who mistook my origin that I was in reality a Kashmiri. A community of loquacious people who gorge on Haak-batt, lamb and in fact speak Kashmiri, not a regional dialect of the all pervasive Hindi but a bona-fide language.
“Oh!” they would unfailingly exclaim as if they have spotted a unicorn. This was followed by the classic phrase, “Kashmir is heaven on earth.”
Rogan Josh, apples, terrorism were usually the words that accompanied. Again I would be offended.
Yet I stood tongue-tied because this is how things were. People of Kashmir have been invisible for the people of my country except in the backdrop of old Bollywood films and news reports about disturbed halaats. Or diplomats meeting to discuss the issue that has been hanging in the face of Indian democracy for over 70 years. Kashmir for the lack of better representation in an average Indian household was three things. Apples, Tourism and Terrorism.
So imagine my surprise that no one thought of me as a Kashmiri as I roamed in the valley. The length of my ginormous nose, an easy to spot physical quirk, went unnoticed. The drivers, shopkeepers, shikara boatmen, hotel managers, vegetable vendors and myriad of men and women with whom I interacted saw through me. To them, in my jeans and jacket, I was just another tourist. Livelihood.
The one person who I told that in fact I was born in Srinagar to a Kashmiri Pandit family exclaimed “Really? No! You are a Kashmiri?”
Only when he realised that I understood the language did he finally agree but the shock on his face made me finally recognise that I was indeed no longer one of them. With a lifetime in the cities of India I had turned into something else altogether. A modern amalgamation that had no name, a hybrid culture and who for the lack of words here in Kashmir, everyone called a Punjabi.