The Pandit's tale

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Tugnath is the place where Shiva’s arms emerged from the earth after his underground flight from the Pandava brothers. It's the highest temple in India, standing 3680m above sea level on the mountain ridge dividing the Alaknanda River from the Mandakini.

The temple is small, barely the size of a small house. It is built of grey stone and looks old. The staff were sitting in the stone flagged courtyard with blankets draped over their shoulders. In another couple of weeks they would be moving back to their valley homes for the winter. A chill mist blew gently across the mountains. Scraps of blue sky appeared overhead from time to time, but neither the mountains above nor the plains below could be seen.

A motor road passes a few hundred metres below the temple. On the way back down to it I ran into four trekkers equipped with long ice axes, and we all squeezed onto the roof of the bus together.

The man beside me - Jayalal - began grumbling about the weather. They had had a disappointing holiday. It was too late in the year, he said. He was going home now, to Jammu.

“But I am not from Jammu,” he said. “I am from Srinagar. Kashmir.”

He was a Brahmin; a Pandit. He had left Srinagar in 1990, in the springtime.

“There was no choice,” he said.” “There is only gun law in Srinagar now. It is impossible to live there unless you are Muslim. Impossible. Everyone else has left; one hundred and fifty thousand people.”

“What about your job?”

“I work in broadcasting. It is Government Service; secure employment. They had to find a job for me in Jammu."

“And your house?”

"I still have my house in Srinagar. They say it has not been damaged.”

He had not been back to Srinagar, even for a day.

The Delhi newspapers had said that a kind of peace was beginning to settle over Kashmir. That there were to be elections there. That the Army would see to it. Perhaps Jayalal would be able to go home soon?

“Perhaps. It’s too early to say. Muslim people do not think like us. They do not want peace. Everywhere they want to win, like Afghanistan. Taliban are supported by Pakistan, you know.”

The Taliban had taken control of Kabul a few weeks ago.

“Did you have Muslim friends before the troubles began?”

“Oh yes.”

“They are the ones protecting your house?”

“Yes.”

“And if you go back? Will you still be friends?”

“No. They do not think like us."

The bus rattled and roared down the road. The horn trumpeted. The air grew warmer. From time to time we passed beneath electricity cables and we all had to lean forwards or backwards or sideways amongst the bags that shared the roof with us.

"Tell me," said Jayalal, "why does Britain support the militants?”

“Pardon?”

“Your BBC made a programme supporting the militants in Kashmir. Why did they do that?”

Months earlier, the BBC had shown a documentary about Indian Army atrocities in Kashmir.

“The BBC aren't the same thing as the Government,” I said. “It's natural for journalists to be interested in Kashmir. That’s all.”

The Indian media would never have run the story. Their reports on Kashmir reminded me of the reports that the British papers used to run on Northern Ireland. Criticism of the Government had to come fitted with proof of the critic's patriotism. Brutality could be deplored only if it ‘played into the hands of the terrorists.’ Incompetence could be pointed out only if it was ‘letting our jawans down’. In one respect the Indian newspapers were more direct than the British. They liked to show photographs of neat rows of corpses; ‘militants’ killed in ‘encounters’ with the Army.

“And your Labour Party supports Pakistan,” said Jayalal. “Your Robin Cook made a speech supporting Pakistan. British people are prejudiced in favour of the Muslims. But Pakistan is not a good country. They are not like us. Not like you. Why does your country support them?”

"Politics," I said. "Pakistan was an ally in the Cold War. And Labour wants the votes of British Pakistanis. But there's a lot of racism in Britain. Against Pakistanis and Indians, it makes no difference. So believe me, there's no prejudice in favour of Islam."

“Yes?”

Jayalal sounded encouraged. I changed the subject; said something about the mountains. Jayalal had gone trekking in Himachal Pradesh the previous year. In the old days he had trekked in Kashmir. The mountains of Kashmir were the most beautiful in the Himalaya, he said. One summer he had met an English woman there, and they had fallen in love. She was from Yorkshire. He had written to her after she had gone home, but she had not replied.

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