Mantasha Binti Rashid
(Memories of the Gathering: A joint photograph of participants clicked by Irfan Shahmiri.)
Two years in America and I know that nothing here is free. If you need to grow a potted plant, you have to buy the soil.If you need a pair of patient ears to open your heart to, you need an appointment with a counsellor. It is not bad to pay for things and services. But it certainly makes you appreciate what you otherwise take for granted, back home.
When you stop by a corner in any Kashmiri village, people invite you for tea. They hold your hand and pull you in to their home. Hosting you with katlam and kulcha (bakery), some sit around you only to listen to you. Whether they ate or not, whether they have work to address or not becomes unimportant in those moments of sheer love.
But the similar feeling of selfless love, care and generosity filled all the segments of the Annual Gathering of Kashmiris in North America, held for the first time in the USA, in Washington DC. This three day gathering proved Tyndale Biscoe wrong about the character of Kashmiris that they lack appreciation for their snow clad mountains and crystal clear waters. Seemingly, it requires a physical distance from homeland for the natives to appreciate the landscape, culture and ethos. And perhaps a secure and stable everyday life also. With all his privileges of being a ‘civilized White man’, how could Biscoe really know what it meant to live in deplorable conditions then, and an added insecurity now? Kashmir with all its natural beauty has an ironical paradox of man-made ugliness, in which Kashmiris have lived for centuries.
This event was outcome of the efforts of two Kashmiri Americans – Tahir Qazi and Wajahat Qureshi. Supported by Sumayya Mir and Bazillah Zargar, and a bunch of volunteers, this event attracted 700 Kashmiris living in the US and Canada. Some of them have been living here for more than three decades, while some are a year old in North American continent. The team worked tirelessly for three months to arrange logistics; some Kashmiris set out to prepare the entertainment part, based in history and culture of Kashmir whereas some designed the workshops ranging from Koshur darbaar to environmental concerns in Kashmir.
Young second generation Kashmiri Americans who have no apparent connection with Kashmir personified Habba Khatoon, Lala Ded, Mehjoor, Aga Shahid, Satlal Razdan and other Kashmiri luminaries on stage. The faces of their parents were lit by pride and love when their kids spoke in Kashmiri as it is a hard and conscious attempt to keep your mother tongue alive in a foreign land. It looked no less than an accomplishment for them.
A 13-act play utilized props like jejeer (hubble bubble) and daan (earthen hearth) and highlighted the changes through which families, interpersonal relations and larger Kashmiri culture has gone through, yet trying to maintain its ethos along with a modern lifestyle. The show stopper of the evening was Roff (Kashmiri folk dance) by beautiful Kashmiri women. Donning Tilla Pheran (embroidered cloaks) and traditional jewellery, their grace and energy filled the air with joy.
(Rouff in Washington DC. KL Image: By special arrangement with Dr Shabir Hassan)
Various focused events highlighting the initiatives of Kashmiri diaspora in the sectors of education and health were organized. These initiatives are fueled by a desire to give back to their community. At least seven different initiatives in educational sector were discussed which are operational on ground and benefit hundreds of poor but meritorious students across Kashmir. Adopting government schools, providing scholarships, improving teaching methodologies are some of the activities currently undertaken by these organizations. Feedback was invited to improve the quality of education in Kashmir, with an inspiration for younger Kashmiri Americans to join such initiatives. Events for networking and professional reach out were also held.
Kashmir is a small place. This, I realized only when I went to Long Island on my return from the event. Long Island is part of New York State and has more population than Kashmir! I also realized, as I stared at the humongous bridges and buildings through the glass windows of Long Island Rail Road train, that my homeland being such a small place with so many socio-political issues, disappointment and hopelessness is obvious.
I went to Long Island to collect my laptop which I had forgotten in the car of a loving Kashmiri uncle who drove me and others for five hours to Washington, and back. I met him for the first time, and he kept telling me at our departure, ‘yeli 42nd street waatakh, maekarizi phone, nate chu maegasaan tension’ (Call me once your reach the port authority bus terminal on 42nd street lest I freak out). Another uncle kept asking me throughout our journey if I am hungry or thirsty.
(Young participants at the gathering: KL Image: By special arrangement with Dr Shabir Hassan)
The commonest story that I recall about my community is about the hot cauldron in the hell. The fiction goes that in hell, cauldrons will be filled with fire and sinners of different identities will be put in separate pots as punishment. The cauldron inside the hell that burns Kashmiri sinners would not be watched by an angel, like others cauldrons of Chinese, Americans or Punjabi people, because Kashmiri community wouldn’t let any one escape the cauldron by holding on to each other’s legs! The moral being that no one allows no one else to escape, to grow or to be better due to envy.
I witnessed the members of the same community about whom this story has been propagated, working blood and sweat for no material benefits whatsoever. It is so interesting that we still look at ourselves through the colonial gaze, the lens of a white European master, who finds faults not only in the daily practices of its subjects but also in their very character. These stories of mistrust, disdain and selfishness are so internalized in our psyche that we have an extremely negative image of our people, our community. I am not suggesting that we do not have issues to address and faults to correct, but do we ever question that what makes us so bitter about each other?
It took me nearly three decades and an environment free of presumptions and assumptions to realize how beautiful we are, as people. The women in the room swarmed to me and held me in such warm embraces that my soul was touched. Just because I read a few lines of my disorganized poetry, they wouldn’t stop appreciating me.
(American born Kashmiri children presenting their creations to the gathering.)
I heard absolutely nobody criticizing any arrangement. People living in Washington DC donated the carpets they used in their living rooms, for the event. We walked over them in our shoes, which otherwise lay guarded against dust as they cost a fortune. A few youngsters watched over babies, painted their hands and made henna tattoos for them. We are a people who live for others. What we need to belie are the colonial stories which blur our goodness as people.
The precarious conditions which we face on daily basis, the lives of extreme poverty and repression which our forefathers lived under, for hundreds of years, have made us one of the most resilient people in the world. I have often heard us blame each other for supporting opposing sides and thus being hypocrites. How can one judge those people’s character who fear for their lives on an everyday basis. People who begin and end their lives fighting for one thing or the other? People who have seen bloodshed and pain for so long?
(On the stage: Hena Kausar, Fareeda and Yanin Fazili.)
The best test is when the people are free to act the way they want to, when they live in prosperity, and then choose something, freely. Kashmiri Americans and Canadians chose to sponsor 50-70% of the costs involved in the event, just to host their fellow Kashmiris (which was thousands of dollars!). I have not seen even the richest communities do this. At the same time, like most colonized people, all we know and hear about each other are negative stories.
I wanted to share this story of Kashmiri magnanimity with the readers, wanting them to ponder on what does it take to do good, talk good and believe in good about each other? Getting rid of the colonized and victim mentality and working hard to make things happen is what this event symbolized for a skeptical Kashmiri, like me.
(The author is a Fulbright fellow studying Gender and Policy in the US)