A lot has happened in India over the last few years; much of it in my own backyard. I used to think of my home as a simple place; one that is free of all hatred and malice. To me, it was the safest place in the world. The people were humble, their concerns basic – whether their children would get into good colleges and what to wear to their nephew’s wedding.
My home is Kootah, a small village in Kathua, Jammu. It is the place where a child was recently raped and murdered. Many people and politicians from my state defended the accused, organised rallies in their support and attempted to use the issue to garner political support. As a child, I remember visiting the village for various family functions, pujas, funerals and get togethers. My cousins and I relished the opportunity to see each other. Babaji, my grandfather, would give us Rs 5 each to spend at the village market. We used the money to buy various kinds of churan, imli and that orange sugar candy that’s kept in glass jars. Babaji always gave my sisters some extra money. “My little sparrows are special,” he’d say. We often slept on the terrace, under the stars. Whenever people ask about Jammu, I always have the same response; I say, “It is simple, pure and beautiful. Everything is simple.”
Living away, in a world full of hardship, one can’t help but realise the significance of simplicity. Whenever I am overwhelmed by the world around me, whenever I find myself disillusioned by greed, a lack of sympathy and dirty politics, I close my eyes and think of Kootah. The road that leads to the market, the safeda trees and snow-covered mountains that my terrace at home looks out on. It has almost become a ritual.
I don’t just miss my physical home, but its people too. I think about my grandfather, his stories, his lessons, his aura; his habit of reading the entire Urdu newspaper every morning and listening to ‘Akashwani’ on the radio. I think about the civility with which he debated, or as he put it, ‘salah mashwarah’. To me, my grandfather was the embodiment of everything I loved about Jammu. Then there were also the little things : as children, we were taught to fold our hands, close our eyes and bow our eyes every time we passed a place of worship, regardless of which religion it belonged to. It inculcated a respect for diversity in all of us. We exchanged food and gifts on Diwali and Eid. We truly celebrated diversity.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot about this folktale from my hometown. It’s about King Jambulochan, after whom the state was named. It is said that when the king was travelling through Jammu, he saw a tiger and a deer drinking water together from the Chenab river. He was so awed by this scene that he decided to establish his empire in Jammu itself. I imagine that every one in Kootah, and Jammu in general, is familiar with this story. In a way, I think it perfectly conveys the harmony I associate with my home.
Recently, I tried to close my eyes and think of home. I longed for a familiar sense of peace and tranquility. But I was unable to find it. It felt like fanaticism was flooding my country. All this time, the image of a peaceful home had shielded me from this difficult reality.
I now realise that the waters of hatred need to be contained. Otherwise we’ll all lose our homes, history, love, the teachings of our elders, the basic idea of unity amid diversity that this country was built on. I don’t know how we can contain the flood, but I know that moving to higher ground simply delays the inevitable.
Maybe reviving simple gestures, like joining our hands and closing our eyes in front of every holy place can be the first step to healing – to remind us of who we are and who we need to be. Maybe we need to revisit the story of the tiger and the lamb on the shore of Chenab, so we can close our eyes and feel tranquility — not desolation — when we think of home.
Aseem Sundan is a poet and a photographer from Jammu & Kashmir, based in Delhi.