The weather in this part of the world was brutal, just like most other places which weren’t Kashmir. And if you were from the mountains and had been living in the plains for under a week, then the lack of acclimatization could make it seem worse than it actually was. “We’ll soon get used to it”, said Baba as a drop of sweat dripped from his forehead along the bridge of his nose and ended on the cardboard carton he was pushing into the corner.
The room was the smallest I had seen, smaller than our storeroom back home in Kashmir and it was supposed to accommodate a family of four, all of whom had their entire lives lying bleakly ahead of them. The past, well, that had fit snugly in the cardboard boxes waiting to be opened. Everyone seemed to be engrossed in something or the other. Mama was busy tidying up one corner that that would serve as our kitchen while Baba made trips up and down a flight of what seemed countless stairs, bringing up the stuff we had managed to carry along in the last moments. Samy too had busied himself, staring with awe at the line of cars that rushed along the street below. From the height of our apartment, they looked like the miniature Hotwheels dinky cars that he had been forced to leave behind for lack of space. “Samy don’t climb up the grill”, mama kept shouting periodically as he gaped at the site from the caged balcony.
Although I had been allotted the role of unpacking the clothes and folding them into the single closet we were supposed to share, I was observant of every member of my family as well as the tiny details of the cramped space that would be my home for the next few years of my life, or maybe the rest of it, who knows? I felt lost and detached, quite contrary to what was expected of me. I, being the older sibling, eight years elder to my brother was expected to fit in, while Samy who was just five, was supposed to give a hard time to my parents. Samy had done well so far, he had gotten used to the change pretty soon, being amused by the tall buildings that seemed to kiss the clouds and monkeys which were almost everywhere. And my parents, the adults, had been good at pretence.
I, at thirteen years of age, lacked a child’s adaptation skills and an adult’s patience. So, as I was having a hard time, I gave some to the others as well. “This isn’t home”, I had sulked this morning when Mama asked me if I liked our new ‘home’. Every time, my parents expected me to put up a smiling face and be grateful for what we had, my eyes brimmed with tears and my heart felt a strange ache, the kind that my thirteen-year-old self couldn’t put into words. It stemmed partly from longing for the world that was many miles away and could never be ours again and partly from the guilt for not being to appreciate the security of this new place. As our lives changed overnight, we started getting used to the changes gradually, one day at a time, and before we realized we all had devised our own ways of missing home.
Mama put in extra hours in every prayer, Baba secluded himself with the few books he had managed to salvage, Samy threw in a random tantrum rarely when he got bored with staring at the road below and I; I continued being a bystander, watching painfully as my family kept stashing memories of home into the empty cardboard cartons in the little space that was available. I made desperate efforts to cling on to the last pieces of memory that I carried within and soon my parents were worried.
The food in my plate dwindled every day and so did my weight as well as the grades at each performance in school. Every time my parents asked what was wrong, all I could do was stare blankly because I knew that they knew the answer. Yes, I was thankless. Yes, I was being uncooperative. And yes, I pined for home, every single moment of the day.
I missed the azure skies of my homeland and the shapeless clouds which we would gaze at for hours, trying to name each shape, lying flat in our garden. I missed the muslin-light breeze that would run through my hair and clothes. I missed Chinars that dazzled with a green hue in spring and glowered in autumn. I missed the snow that would create a canvas in our garden for me and Samy to express our wild creativity. I missed Abba, my grandfather, who clung to Kashmir with the same intensity with which I refused to let go of its memories. Here the skies were far from being blue, a drab grey with silhouettes of buildings extending for a million miles. There was no spring and no autumn, the winters were without any snow. The air felt so heavy that it took extra effort to raise my arms above my head. And, Abba with his Kashmiri fables existed just as a figment of memory which I would soon grow out of.
Winter had started in the plains. People basked in the sunny days and refused to step outside at all in the biting cold of the night. Back home it was snowing and I found Samy praying for snow one day. Against all logic, I too joined him in his prayer. With the change in season, came the news that almost seemed like an answer to the prayer I had no hopes would be answered. Abba would be visiting us for a week, announced my father and I saw him smile for the first time in months. Sometimes the masks fell spontaneously, I thought. As the day of his visit arrived, our cubicle of a house gave off some semblance of a home.
Abba arrived, exhausted from the journey yet cheery as always. That night the dinner table exuded the same family warmth that had been missing ever since we had left home. After dinner, Abba unpacked his small travel bag. He had a gift for everyone and mine was one that made an indelible mark on my soul. As he handed me my gift, I was confused to see a glass jar, the one they use to store dry fruit. There were no almonds inside, not even cashew nuts.
The jar contained murky water with a bit of soil settled down at the bottom. I opened the red plastic lid and took a whiff from the jar. It took me a while to realize that Abba had tried to smuggle snow into the plains in a glass jar tucked into his bag. Though it wasn’t a successful attempt and the snow had melted before I could touch it, I felt I had been taken home. Sensing the surge of emotions in me, Abba cleared his throat and said, “The snow back home is stained red and the sky goes crimson every day. The Kashmir you have left behind may not seem home when you walk in years later. Home is the Kashmir that resides in your heart”.
Years later when I walked into Kashmir, everything he had said that night resonated with me. That longing for being there, those memories you stoke every night when you’re trying to fall asleep. Those long prayers for peace that you say silently for it. All those feelings that whirl around home; are actually home. You don’t have to live there, home lives inside you.
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