Bhagode Batte: Can We Create a Home or Should We Be Born in One?

My parents restarted building everything ground up in their 30s. I never thought they found home again. I’ve forever asked myself: can we create a home or should we be born in one? What does it mean to truly belong? Since I was a child, I’ve been detached from the concept of home. I just don’t allow myself to feel nostalgic about it. I rarely allow a place to chain me so. I have trouble making friends and trusting people other than family. And that’s the truth of my life. People just don’t care beyond their immediate issues. We are not empathetic to others who do not fit in our own world views.

We were not 6 million Jews but a paltry 200,000 Kashmiri Pandits…

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my great-grandparents wearing pherans in Kashmir

In March 1990 after having an unusually long winter break from school, we never went back to Mallinson girls school in Lal Chowk, Srinagar. I was about to join class 3 and my sister a lofty upper kindergarten. My mother was a school teacher, slogging her way from Peerbagh to Rainawaari, Srinagar, often traveling hour and a half each way to get to work. My dad worked as a veterinarian and traveled to adjacent cities and villages in Kashmir for work.

One night in March 1990, we left home in a massive goods truck. We loaded some furniture, clothes and paperwork. Our majority community neighbors helped arrange for our last drive. They promised to take care of our home, as we foolishly planned to be back once the situation ‘settled down.’

The decision of leaving home wasn’t arrived at in a single day. We had endured months of curfew, intentional minority community killings, right-wing majority media threats, blackouts and continual harassment. Our dogs were shot at in the night. Our neighbor was shot at and lay on the ground like a dead animal with everyone too scared to help cremate him. Women were raped, kids were kidnapped, shops, schools and homes were vandalized. No one was allowed to talk loudly at night as religious leaders claimed we should run away on loudspeakers in the evening, generating fear. Kids were allowed to watch TV on mute as a distraction.

The majority community claimed these actions were somehow ok by remaining silent or not doing anything. It served their interests if the minority was wiped off. Their leaders promised that our exit would help protect their religion, provide with more jobs, keep them safe and give them the wealth they deserved. They would finally be able to run their own state and not have the minority or the educated elites to deal with. From social inequality, opportunities to political resentment, the solution to every problem was to place blame on the minority and frighten them enough to leave their homes.

No one across India cared about this situation. A few hundred thousand people from a far flung state were not large enough to think about from a vote bank perspective. As a token gesture, once a national media channel came to our neighborhood to interview the minority community, and my grandfather. Without providing any protection, they came in with members from the majority community. In his state of fear, my grandfather lied that the majority community had always been friendly. There were no communal tensions, he claimed in presence of a handful of people who were scrutinizing him as he uttered each word. The national news reporter had no interest in exploring more. We were on page 32 in a small box in a newspaper only when someone important died. There was no outrage.

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my father sitting in our rose garden in Peerbagh, Srinagar

We moved to create a home someplace else…

We simply transferred to Jammu for a few months and then moved to Noida. Majority of the population had shown support or condoned religious and militant leaders who basically cleansed out an ethnic minority out of their homes by fear. This was real and it happened.

Some of my young cousins felt angry and upset with this situation. Having effectively run away from home without putting up a fight ensured that all school kids in our new forced homes ridiculed us. They made fun of our different sounding accents, and questioned our courage. Kids are not born cruel, they learn what they see.

When I was particularly annoyed, I sometimes thoughtlessly argued with my parents and called them, “bhagode batte” or runaway Pandits. This wasn’t terminology I invented but also something I heard as a child around me. It wasn’t meant as a badge of honor but deriding their hardship further, making them feel responsible for the atrocities that they had in fact been victims of.

Not everyone has had childhood experiences that involve a forceful eviction from home accompanied by a sense of permanent rootlessness. Silently condoning an atrocity or sharing smart aleck social media generalizations about a situation that you’ve not experienced makes you just as bad as the people responsible for creating horrifying situations.

We don’t need more people who don’t care. We don’t need more people with half baked information dishing out advice. All we need is a little more empathy and the understanding that your privileged point of view isn’t helpful for dissipating real fears of people who live a different life. This is the time to reflect upon what sort of a future we are creating.

And then again, maybe the only true home is where you are born. But what do you do when it is stolen from you?

I am afraid to note that all my buried historical memories have found an outlet in a place that I never thought stood for this.

And that’s what my parents felt too. It was their close friends, and neighbors that they never imagined complicit in an agenda involving them leaving home. Maybe there is no such thing as home. I have been detached from this concept for a while. It’s my husband who’s experiencing it for the first time. And I feel for him, but I also don’t understand it truthfully because I have always maintained my detachment ever since we left for Jammu in 1990. The nadur gaam in my life was never replaced, although we came inches close this time.