'Jileh assa nikiya saahn' - when were young

"Jileh assa nikiya saahn” is Pahari for “when we were young” and when you hear a Pahari woman say these words, you prepare to perch by the tandoor on a summers evening as history unravels before you. 

I can confidently tell you that those who say women aren’t well versed in politics have never heard a Pahari woman recall history. 

In old folk tales Pahari women are descendants of tribes which once guarded the mountains. They are strong, brave women who know the land. Women who know how to face adversary and personify hope. They were never drawn as mystical creatures but as real, raw individuals. They’re women known even today for their ability to kill a snake, with their bare hands, when the safety of their people is in question. 

I was born in ’94, in a small city in England to a mother who was barely 19. She had come to England in ‘77 with her mother, my Nanny. My great grandmother, who was the first woman from our region to make this journey across the globe, was here ready to receive them into a world they could never have imagined to exist. But my childhood was entwined in journeys to the village well to collect enough water for the day whilst the men slept. 

The men slept, because overnight they had been awake to defend the village from those committing arson; burning alive the women and murdering the men, one by one. 

In the day these women were the guardians, working the land but ready to defend their homes and their men if the need arose. This was during the Jammu Massacre. Vivid in my memory as though these were moments I’d lived, because the women who survived to hold me to their bosom’s had not forgotten.

It is almost as difficult to remove the politics of our history from a story as it is to narrate it to a child. My great grandmother would always begin “Jileh assa nikiya saahn” referring to herself and my dhadhi who I’d never met and tell me how they’d carried children across the mountains to escape a genocide. 

How my Nanny’s mother’s womb was heavy with life as they crossed what was to become the Line of Control, to something closer to safety. How the days that followed were singled by words like “crossfire”, “death”, “soldiers”… as were the next six decades.

Their ability to cloak a story so powerful in a sentiment so human always amazed me, and then in 2012, over a decade after my great grandmother’s death, I found myself in Kashmir. Perched by the tandoor, in the home my father grew up in, with my thayi narrating to me the same stories; starting with the same words “Jileh assa nikiya saahn”. 

I found myself in the same villages my ancestors had sought refuge in, carrying a world so different to theirs yet recalling their memories. My thayi is still making journeys to the village well to collect water for the day.  

My father told me, these villagers still had to defend their homes. A sentiment to live across the villages lining both sides of the LoC is still there.  A sentiment preserved over four generations, in the collective memory of the women of the Pahar. 

One day I too will narrate their stories to children with the same phrase “Jileh meh niki saahn..” (When I was young). Fairy tales are spared for those who have not tasted tragedy, for those who have memory is the most powerful gift and our only heroes are the ones who survive. 

P.S

Tandoor – Outdoor stove traditionally used to cook roti upon. 

Thayi – The wife of your father’s elder brother.

Thaya-  Your father’s elder brother

 (Blogger is student of Medicine from Kotli, Azad Kashmir currently based in England)

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