Culture Shock

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I was a young lad when I left Kashmir in 1989.

I was 23.

Like most young people of my generation, I was more interested in the Beatles than Mohammad Abdullah Tibetbaqal, and in the days following the exodus, I was too caught up in the struggle to eke out a living and shape a career, to worry about things like cultural heritage, or identity.

I was young. I was occupied. I was adrift. I was scattered. I was root less.

It took more than a decade before I even began to think about my identity, or the culture I came from.

Then slowly the internet happened. I started reconnecting with people, and with my past, reliving memories, revisiting the idyllic life that I once lived, and so on and so forth.

When I started writing this, I was a bit apprehensive, because I have been away from Kashmir for nearly a quarter of a century. 

So at one level, I haven’t been witness to the forces that have shaped Kashmiri culture and values in the last 2 decades. 

I haven’t seen the churn. 

But my long absence enables me to see the difference with clarity.

To give an interesting example, last year I was at a wedding in a friend’s family in Srinagar. It was Mehndiraat, and I heard this song that I thought provided an amazing insight into the shift in our culture and values.

“Yyel sone gare yekh, Iphone hyeth yizeye, yuth ne sayeth anakh Nokia Khatara, Oh Yara…

Yyel sone gar yekh, BMW as manz yejye, yuth ne syaeth anakh Maruti Khatara…oh Yara”

I might not have got the lyrics right, but for those whose Kashmiri is as rusty as mine, the song is about the bride or the bride’s friends telling the would-be groom, that when he lands up at their house, he better land up with an Iphone, and in a BMW, and for heaven’s sake not to embarrass them by landing up in a Maruti or carrying a Nokia “Khatara.”

As an amateur sociologist, what this tells me is that the dominant culture today in Kashmir is consumerism, or materialism.

In that sense, Kashmir is no different from any other part of the country, but this is not the Kashmir or Kashmiri culture I knew.

The Kashmir I knew was a far more refined, far more self-effacing and humble, far more grounded in values, with a premium  placed on “Sezar and Pazar,” “Sharafat,” “Zubaan,” “Acchan hyund liyhaaz,” and “Khandaan.”

These values drove our culture, they drove every aspect of our life, be it a marriage proposal, or who you invited home for tea. Money was not a passport in to this genteel world.

The other startling aspect of what I have seen is a sad creeping sense of inferiority when it comes to biggest cultural barometer of any society, and that is language.

On a bus journey from Srinagar to Anantnag, I was stumped when a young parent told me with great pride that his son doesn’t speak Kashmiri, “Humara ladka sirf ORDU karta ha.”

How will our culture survive if our language dies? How can we take pride in our culture if we can’t take pride in our language? 

Not for minute, am I trying to say that we should not embrace other languages or cultures, but if we reject our own language, what will be left of our culture?

My other memory of Kashmir was at a place that was culturally traditional, but not necessarily conservative. Pluralism was evident in the rich cultural tapestry, in the way people expressed themselves, in the way they dressed. I am not talking about pluralism just in the sense of people of different faiths, I mean in a larger sense, even people belonging to the same faith looked more different from each other than they do today.

There was place for mavericks. There was place for those who differed. There was place for “myets.”

Pluralism in Kashmir was also about a keen abiding interest and participation in each other’s festivals, rituals, weddings, and even funerals.

On one trip, a dear friend’s teenage daughter asked me the reason I was in Kashmir. I explained to her that I was there because a cousin had decided to have his son’s “mekhel” ceremony in Kashmir at a shrine called Zetheyaar. She didn’t know what “mekhel” was. I tried explaining, her father tried explaining, and then he looked at me sadly and just shook his head.

I must confess here that I am agnostic, and I must also confess that in spite of that, I feel that in a world where religion has divided people, at the same time it has enriched our culture, and made the world a more interesting place.

Kashmir’s spiritual culture, for me, was best expressed, by the sublime sound of Daroodkhwani mingling seamlessly  with the pealing of temple bells, as though God was himself sitting on the sound console.

The first thing I do when I land in Srinagar is to go to Syed Sahb’s Dargah at Sonwar, to offer my salaams, to offer my love. I would go to his shrine as a kid before every maths exam, and make a request that he help me pass. He never let me down. 

He also taught me that love of humanity is greater than worship of God.

It saddens me when I see the great Sufi culture and traditions of Kashmir under pressure, when I hear children telling their parents that what they believe in is wrong.

If I am happy tying threads, let me tie a thread, and feel happy and contented. That’s my way. 

In all of this, what I find encouraging is that there a bunch of liberal, young, articulate people in Kashmir, who I have connected with thanks to social media, and while they might be small in number, I feel they have an understanding of what Kashmir has lost, culturally, and that is very important, because to bring change, you don’t need crowds, you need a small competent core that has the vitality to rejuvenate society.

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’ -Margaret Mead

(The write-up appeared in the Kashmir Observer supplement (Oct 29), dedicated to SAMANBAL, a two day cultural festival organised by the Talent Club of the Islamic University of Science & Technology, Kashmir)

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