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The Ethnic and Linguistic Tapestry of Kashmir

I articulate my perspective on the mosaic of Kashmir through the prism of my varied ethnic identity.

As I sit under the bespeckled sky gazing on to the enthralling beauty of Gulmarg in the Indian-administered Kashmir Valley, lush with lupines, daisies, narcissus and red roses, nurtured by snow-covered peaks and glaciers, I watch the mutable aspects of Kashmir, sometimes joyous and sometimes despondent. I am enveloped by nostalgia for the era of lost innocence and misplaced hope that at one point in time had ensconced the Kashmiri in the heart of paradise. Smoke from the chimneys of chalets with shingled roofs creates a languid atmosphere, making the observer oblivious to the anguishes of life. The mist rises stealthily from the mountains and gives tantalizing glimpses of the ethereal vision behind the veil. The tranquil Dal lake in which gentle ripples are created by the oar of a homebound boatman rowing his gondola on a moonlit night calms the angst of existence. From a distance I hear sonorous voices singing folksongs lamenting the loss of a beloved or remembering the imminence of death. These songs are sung by tribal people with weather-beaten faces and jaded souls. The pain in their voices and the emotion in the lyrics echo the centuries of political, cultural and religious persecution that these proud people have borne but have not resigned themselves to. Their isolation, caused by the rugged terrain which they inhabit, has not extinguished the spark of hopeful romance and faith in the resilience of humanity. The beauty of quiet meditation and faith in providence is evoked by the rushing pristine streams in Dachigam, a wildlife sanctuary, redolent of trout. The enchanting wilderness, the mystique of which is enhanced by the soporific sound of crickets and the coverlet of purple hibiscus, provides a haven for the seeker of spiritual comfort. How can a prodigal daughter or son not return to this land of enchantment?

Here, I interject a personal story which provides insight into my maternal grandmother’s cultural identity. My maternal grandmother Akbar Jehan’s mother was an indomitable Gujjar woman. She and her siblings were the proud owners of sprawling acres of magnificent land in Gulmarg. My maternal grandmother’s long years in the unsentimental skullduggery of politics hadn’t robbed her of a genuine sense of humanity. I remember our trip to idyllic Gulmarg in the Kashmir Valley in the summer of 1989. Akbar Jehan, my parents, and I drove to a Gujjar settlement in the area. Driving over undulating hilly terrain with our car windows rolled down, the becalming breeze soothing everyone’s frayed nerves, we stopped at a neat settlement of thatched roofed mud huts.

On hearing Akbar Jehan’s name, the inhabitants of those huts, young, old, and adolescent, came running out, helter skelter, to welcome her with warmth. The women wore colorful clothes and beautifully embroidered caps with silver ornaments. They formed a deferential circle around her and sang Gojri folksongs in their rich contralto voices. Some of the songs, which were doleful and evoked nostalgia, brought tears to Akbar Jehan’s eyes, and she cried with the abandon and simplicity of a child. She had a passionate pride in her Gujjar heritage.

Although the term “Gujjar” is often derogatorily used by some people as synonymous with “barbarian,” “ignoramus,” “uncivilized,” and was covertly and overtly hurled at Akbar Jehan by her political foes, she never hesitated to own that part of her lineage.  She, in fact, instituted developmental and educational programs in an effort to bring that community out of the quagmire of illiteracy and unemployment. I am not, by any means, suggesting that the Gujjar community of Jammu and Kashmir is fully literate and employed. On the contrary, the community still has an arduous climb and a long road ahead, but she did initiate the process of improving their lives and assimilating Gujjars into the mainstream.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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