I was at a Reliance departmental store picking vegetables and tossing them into my trolley when the elderly person standing next to me suddenly started a conversation. “How do these guys manage to sell things so cheap?” “I think because they sell well – economies of scale,” I responded. “But there are other chains that are not doing poorly, yet they sell their stuff much costlier,” the old man rebutted. I had not expected a rebuttal. “Omm…maybe because they source their vegies directly from the farmer, uncle.” “But I think others are doing it too, beta.”
The elderly person was apparently from north India. He was speaking smooth English but throwing in a word or two of Hindi in his sentences. He was soft spoken, wore a Sherlock Homes cap, thick black frame and was too fair complexioned.
His patient probing had exhausted my stock of glib answers. I had no more answer. I kept quiet and concentrated on choosing the vegies. A brief silence followed. Then came the obvious from the old man. “Where are you from? “I am from Calcutta but I have been in Bangalore for last 12 years.”
“And you, sir?”
“Where do you think I am from, beta?”
The mischief in his question and the twinkle in his eye revealed something fleeting and deeper than the sum of physical attributes and words. “You are a Kashmiri Pandit, uncle.”
Surprised, he immediately extended his hand for a handshake: “How did you figure out?”
“Gut feeling,” I replied smiling.
Then a desultory conversation followed until our discussion settled into a specific trajectory.
“The Left finished Bengal and even the current person is not doing well,” he said.
I hesitantly brought up the contentious issue.
“Uncle, is the situation in Kashmir normal now?”
“No, it’s not. And it won’t ever unless…”
“Where do you stay now? In Jammu?”
“Yes, we have been there for roughly 30 years now.”
“Have you been to Kashmir since you left?”
“Yes, I have a few times.”
I steered the conversation into the forbidden territory. “In what circumstances you had to leave Kashmir? Was there genuine threat to you and your family?”
“Yes, there was. On 20th January 1990 almost one lakh Hindus left, beta, after terrorism broke out,” he said with a sense of loss he has learnt to live with. “We had to leave with whatever we could carry with us. We left everything else behind.”
To cheer him up, I said: “But things are changing. Your cause is very dear to the current government in center.”
To gather his thoughts, he looked away for a second and then looked at me. “I don’t think my generation will be able to return to Kashmir for good, but if they succeed to do something my grandson will be able to see what once belonged to his forebears.”