A Return Home: Exile, Friendship and Peace in Kashmir

By Shahnawaz Shah

 

The ambiance of the room grew cozier —  harmonious as we listened to the soft vocals and compositions of Rasa Javedani who had written the fitting words to the melodies that were then sung by Shakeel Shaan and myself.  The audience of old friends grew emotional in the atmosphere and we found it hard to hold back tears.  The song we chose to sing that night was one to express our love for the friends gathered that day, the friends who had left the Kashmir valley three decades back. Today I welcomed them for the first time on their return to their home of Kashmir.

It took twenty-eight years for such an historic reunion to happen. We had spent our teens together, enjoying school and college life and now we had the chance to recollect a time that we remembered as being full of joy, unaware of the divisive atmosphere that was brewing and which we in our innocence could not foresee.

The turmoil that erupted in Kashmir was sudden and spontaneous and with fewer  communication vehicles in those days our group couldn’t contact each other. Unfavorable conditions of the time forced many Kashmiri families (Pundit, Muslim and Sikh) to migrate far from their homes.  It was ten years before we were able to trace one another after this abrupt departure, all that while yearning to reconnect, especially to be together again in the homeland.   The idea to come together was sparked by a phone call and Rajesh Raina and I were determined to make it happen.

shahnawaz & rajesh raina

Enter L to R: Childhood friends, Shahnawaz and Rajesh Raina initiated the reunion. Shahnawaz works in the tourism sector in Kashmir and continues his work in supporting young people in reconciliation and social and environmental work. Rajesh Raina (on right) heads up an important news network of India. a caption

Even now as the situation in Kashmir is still ripe with violence and strife, such simple happenings as the reunion of a group of friends raises hope for others, hope of peace in the valley.  We must be able to imagine peace, to remember what it feels like.

We were inspired by a youth initiative in Kashmir called Ripples. It was an idea that came from the wish to see peace in my valley once again.  We believe that by bringing together those who longed for peace it will awaken the memories of a time when this vast area was the meeting ground of different spiritual traditions and people lived together harmoniously.  We want this feeling to spread.  Along this journey we met with the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a network of peacemakers led by women working for harmony and reconciliation. These women had been organizing and facilitating similar interactions and meetings between divided communities for many years and they took a deep interest in Kashmir after their first visit. It reignited some hope in me and we began to work together, mostly with young people, helping them create spaces of expression for their development. They had grown up amidst tension and conflict and had to know there was another way. We organized programs together with GPIW and invited some of these aspiring youth to come and dialogue with us and ask them what it takes to become true community leaders.

Although there had been many peace efforts by various organizations over the years, we felt our reunion was unique —  at the very least it was an emotional one. Some of those who had migrated were scared to return, imagining their old homeland will feel unfamiliar and the people harsh with them. To their surprise they experienced the same love and affection from their friends in the valley as in the past.  During our days together we visited old favorite places, ate our traditional Kashmiri foods, danced and sang. We sailed on Dal Lake for which Srinagar is famous. When it was time to take leave it was with tearful and moist eyes, visibly expressing the admission of their wrong perception about the reality. The truth is that the majority of the people of Kashmir still keep alive the real Kashmiriyat pluralistic values of simple and harmonious living.

In the Sufi spirit of friendship, the lyrics to the songs were intended to evoke the love and affection in our hearts… “oh friends your place and your glimpses are in our eyes always and your space is always here,  which you have to fill by coming back to your homeland!

These feelings lingered as everyone left. They left knowing that the Kashmir of their youth had not died and there was hope for a future without violence and fear.

group of friends

 

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