For most Kashmiris settled outside Kashmir, their homeland is mythical. It exists more in dreams, in memories, in thoughts. Prospects of business, wanting to make a career, and education have pushed Kashmiris into moving out to gain exposure and know the world.
Kashmiris settled in Mumbai have grown to love it for the spirit of ambition that seems to be everywhere. Starkly different from sleepy Jammu and Kashmir, Mumbai is a city where it seems to be easier to follow one’s dreams and get the break one needs.
Mumbai is the city Kashmiris know to be truly free. In some ways, Mumbai too is mythical for people from a violence-torn, conflict zone. “We are used to it now,” states Sajjad, a Kashmiri who came to Mumbai to start his business selling Pashmina shawls, carpets, jewellery, and other souvenirs that the valley is known for.
“There was a lot of violence in the 1990s. Everyone knows Kashmir is ‘disputed territory’. There are ongoing calls and demands for an independent Kashmir, and parties like the Hurriyat Conference are championing this cause,” continues Sajjad as he talks about his homeland after the centre abrogated Article 370 on August 5 this year.
For Kashmiris in Mumbai, life is simpler and less problematic. The “sense of purpose” that is prevalent and obvious in people’s way of life in the city has been inspiring for Kashmiri settlers who view the city as an equal-opportunity place.
Kashmiris in the city love its cosmopolitan character and its ability to accept an outsider as its own, without discrimination on religious and sectarian lines.
Kashmiris in Mumbai love how one can go unnoticed on the streets of Mumbai because of the absence of value judgements among people about a next-door neighbour or a person sitting next to you on a train or a bus.
“I don’t feel so good about the revocation of Article 370. All I want is peace,” says a Colaba-based Kashmiri shopkeeper selling wares that are typical of Kashmir – earrings, necklaces, handicrafts, shawls and kurtis, which have a significant market among curio-seeking foreign tourists.
However, the Kashmiri does add that there have been occasions where he has felt like an “outsider” going by the glares and odd looks he receives sometimes from passers-by. “On some level, there has been discrimination against us Kashmiris.
People think of us as traitors, or that we are not good people. Sometimes I do feel slightly cut off and isolated. Sometimes if I tell someone I am Kashmiri, it becomes a little difficult to make friends. The whole scenario changes sometimes when I reveal where I am from.”
He explains, “Someone who is born in Mumbai is born in an atmosphere that is truly free. We Kashmiris were born against a backdrop of guns and bullets.
That’s the kind of environment we were raised in,” he explains. He also compares the conflict in Palestine, another fiercely disputed territory, with the situation in Kashmir where India and Pakistan have gone to war more than three times.
Jasleen Marwah is a Mumbai-based Kashmiri home chef. She makes her best efforts to bring to diners, who sign up for her meals at her house, the most authentic of Kashmiri food -- traditional Kashmiri pandit specials like mutsch, which is a preparation of mutton meat balls broiled in Kashmiri red chili powder gravy, mutton or chicken yakhni, a dish primed in curd gravy, or tabak maaz, mutton ribs with the fat on, an archetypal wazwan dish.
A wazwan is a traditional Kashmiri feast usually prepared during special occasions like weddings, consisting sometimes of nearly 36 items on offer. In addition to being a home chef, Marwah is also a freelance producer who has worked on indie film projects like Netflix’s ‘Loev’, as well as on international productions like Gurinder Chadha’s ‘Bride and Prejudice’ and Garth Davis’s ‘Lion’ which starred Dev Patel.
“We left Kashmir during the turmoil of the late 1980s when Kashmiri Pandits were asked to leave from the valley. We supported India, however we couldn’t show that because of the hatred for the Indian side that was the common sentiment at that time in the valley.
During Diwali my dad would help us light a few crackers in the bathroom because we couldn’t celebrate our own festivals openly. When I came to Mumbai around 15 years ago, I fell in love with it instantly.
I immediately felt safe and at home, in comparison to the other Indian cities I have lived in.” Marwah also lived in Lucknow, Delhi and Ahmedabad after moving out of Jammu and Kashmir at the age of 12.
Engineering and MBA graduate and now manager at a leading Indian entertainment network, Pertash Koul speaks about how several Kashmiri Pandits fled to Maharashtra because of its pro Kashmiri Pandit rules and laws, along with reservations for the community in engineering colleges in the state.
Shares Koul, “I don’t remember much about my life back in the valley because my family and I left the place when I was two, in the face of pressure to either convert to Islam or leave Kashmir. We were living in luxury at the time.
Our ancestral home in Kashmir, which we sold off, was a mansion. We moved to Jammu where we lived most of the time in rented spaces. Most of what I remember about my life back home is through songs and retellings of stories from back home.
Many of our dinner table conversations have been about the life we left behind in Kashmir. It has been difficult for my parents, who currently still reside in Jammu, to let go.
I think the abolition of Article 370 was a brilliant step. For a long time Jammu and Kashmir have been stuck in pause mode. The abrogation of the article is a step forward.” Koul too draws comparisons with the Palestine conflict saying that Kashmir should not become another Jerusalem.