The events of 1947 forced a Pakistani family to abandon their summer holiday house in Gulmarg. Now a garrison, the house still evokes memories of a golden era for Omer Tarin
A famous writer once said: Some places have power to hold us – when we leave these places we leave little bits of ourselves there.
Alas, I never had the chance to visit beautiful vale of Kashmir, despite my family’s connections with the place. Thus this statement holds true. Metaphorically, Kashmir continues to ‘hold’ us.
I belong to an Afghan origin family settled near Abbottabad city, Hazara division of NWFP (now KPK province) of Pakistan, since early 18th century.
At that time, this area, including Kashmir, was ruled by Afghan (Durrani). My forefathers used to frequently visit places like Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and other locations famed for their astounding beauty.
Later, they also made some firm connections with local inhabitants in Kashmir, including some well-known families like the Mirs, Aghas and others. This connection went on from around 1760s to modern times, till 1947.
One of my elders actually married into the Mir family of Srinagar in 1911 or 1912, to the daughter of a renowned merchant of this family, Mir Obaidullah, who had a large business of Pashmeena shawls, spread all over India (then) – Srinagar, Amritsar, Lahore and Calcutta.
This was a happy relationship, as many good Kashmiri habits, in dressing, food (delicious dishes like Shab degh, Ghoshtaba, Tabaq Maaz) and other cultural aspects, were introduced to us.
In 1930, my other great-grandfather, Khan Sahib Abdul Majeed Khan, decided to take a summer (holiday) house in Gulmarg – a popular summer retreat among Britishers, Indian Princes, Nobles, senior government and Army officials.
At that time, the Maharaja of Kashmir controlled this area and permission had to be obtained from him to get any property in Gulmarg.
After getting this permission, my great-grandfather managed to a large but old house on lease from a native. The house was surrounded by hills and forests.
This was a very joyous time for our family. Every summer, they would pack their bags and stay at the house for two or three months. They would pass their time by walking amid the pine trees and wildflowers, going for picnics, swimming, horse-riding etc. They would enjoy the simple pleasures of life in immensely beautiful and peaceful surroundings of Gulmarg. The house has many beautiful memories attached to it. My grandfather and grandmother and later my father and mother, recalled their stay at the house with nostalgia. They often talked about friends they had made in Gulmarg. My grandmother used to tell me that the people of Kashmir, rich or poor, Muslim or Hindu, were the happiest people back then, and the most hospitable.
If they even had a small piece of ‘roti’ or maybe an apple or two, they would share that with any visitor with deep gladness. It was a real ‘paradise on earth’. But sadly, someone cast an evil eye on this magical place.
After my great-grandfather’s death, my grandfather Selim Khan took charge of looking after and maintaining the Gulmarg house. It continued till August 1947, when the partition and independence of India (Bharat) and Pakistan, took place.
At the time of partition, my grandmother and other family members were in Gulmarg, for their summer holidays, while my grandfather was in Lahore.
A British officer told my grandfather that they should try to get their family out of Kashmir at once as the situation is starting to get dangerous, and the partition might get violent. He told him that many Hindu and Sikh gangs in Punjab are already looting and killing immigrants coming to Pakistan and it’s likely that this violence might spread even to Kashmir.
My grandfather urgently contacted some relatives, who managed to arrange for my grandmother and children, also some servants, to book a truck and reach safely to Rawalpindi.
Only one old chowkidar was left behind to look after the old house. Since that time an ‘iron curtain’ had descended upon Kashmir. Rest is history. We all know what Kashmir had to go through since then, or how things are there even today.
Unfortunately, because of this ‘iron curtain’ our generation could not visit our ancestral house in Gulmarg. Ever since we have been denied access to visit and see if our old house in Gulmarg is still intact.
Despite such a short distance between Abbottabad and Gulmarg, it is an insurmountable one. For me, Gulmarg is like a special place out of a fantasy story.
My grandmother missed Gulmarg a lot. But fortunately, post 1947, she was the only person from our family to get a special permission to visit Kashmir in 1979 or 80. During those few days, she visited Srinagar and Gulmarg. And to everybody’s surprise our ancestral house in Gulmarg was still standing! But to my grandmother’s dismay, the house was occupied by a unit of Indian Army, who didn’t permit her to see it from inside. They allowed my grandmother to take the photo from outside but no permission to go inside or take more photos.
After my grandmother’s death, that photo and a few others still survive with us, are all that are left to tell of that once-splendid time, to speak of old memories of happier days, to connect us to the past.
‘Omer Tarin’ is a pen name used by a former university professor and a well-known Pakistani poet and scholar, Dr Omer Selim Khan. He is now director of a research and higher education training institute in North-West Pakistan.