“The sacred valley of Kashmir was our nest, our nursery, our nesting place, our home, our mother! Fortunately or unfortunately, as per God’s Will, the politically unstable and socially inhabitable and hostile conditions in the valley, in the late 80s / early 90s, compelled most of us to take unplanned flights out of our nest, as birds, to fend for ourselves and survive. Everything looked chaotic and hazy, commotion was in the air, and individual survival became paramount. Every Kashmiri Pandit family was suddenly left on its own to survive and defend itself. In a relative sense, every Pandit was left on his/her own to decide what to do next! Those were very dark days in the history of mankind.
Our flights required us to fly very high – far above the Peer-Panchal range – to be able to find safer nesting grounds in the plains of India. For many older and weaker birds, that initial flight proved to be their most difficult and the last flight; they had never before flown so high or so long! Their new environment was completely alien to them; unfortunately, many perished soon after their first landing – some due to severe exhaustion and deep shock, some to diseases of the plains, some to the elements and some fell prey to other living beings. No words can ever describe the extent and the intensity of their pain and suffering, and their grief and shock, due to the sudden loss of their mother, which could be similar to the suffering of a 5-year old child who has been forcibly separated from his / her living mother!
After recovering from that first excruciating historical flight, many younger birds started to find their feet back again; some took relatively much more time than others. All had to grow new feathers to survive and keep flying. Some took months and some took years to recuperate, gain enough strength and the necessary flying skills before embarking on their next flights – much longer and higher than their initial flight – around the globe – to look for their own piece of Kashmir elsewhere. Their eyes had yearned and craved for years to see those tall poplar and deodar trees, highlands and grassy meadows, snowfall and the shehjâr of Bhüne kül (deeply soothing shade under the Chinar tree). Though their eyes had finally run out of tears, their hearts continued to cry due to the nostalgia and the shocking loss of their ancestral nest; they had lost their mother, their home!
As it happens usually in such situations, not all birds could adjust to the harsh alien environment in the plains of India; they started looking elsewhere. Some flew to relatively cooler places within India – Pune, Bengaluru, Himachal – whereas many flew to North America, Europe and the land down-under, Australia, and New Zealand. All these long-distance migratory birds were required to fly very high to be able to cruise to such long distances. From that cruising height, it was not possible to see any political boundaries – all lands looked similar – the whole world looked as one.
With time, many of these migratory birds started flying back to briefly revisit their native nest from time to time – to pay obeisance and respects to the soil of their ancestors – the soil in which they were born, the soil which nourished them, the sacred soil which is mixed with the mortal remains of their ancestors – the soil that was their mother – Maej Kasheer!
The sacred soil of our Kashmir – our pilgrimage – is our mother. Undoubtedly, we migratory birds will remain connected with our roots in our ancestral nest, till death snatches our mortal frame from us. We are the Global Pandits!
I am one of those migratory birds. But I did not fly out with others, I flew out in advance. Since 1984, I had felt the tremors that had rocked my nest from time to time; I had also noticed an alarming growth in their intensity with time. In 1989, I made lots of noise to warn many other birds but they chose to sleep blissfully. Even my parents ignored my pain. In October 1989, I took my first flight out to Delhi, but got disillusioned and returned a few weeks later. Later, on 23 December 1989, when I could bear it no more, I took my decisive flight, with my young family (but without parents), out of the valley. The harsh reality of losing my nest dawned upon me in the plains of India when the hot summer days started burning my tender feathers. I struggled to fly and breathe; the hot air was unbearable. “Delhi or Detroit, it should not matter, go where you find honour, dignity, respect and success”, a wise Kashmiri Pandit, Mr SK Bhan, advised. We were grounded – poor, hopeless, disillusioned, desolate and helpless – like half a million other birds. God helps those who help themselves. So, we had to work hard to reclaim our lives back. And we did, thankfully!
My first long flight out of India took me to South-East Asia, where I lived, worked and prospered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The family worked very hard and tried to save every hard-earned penny that we could. We lived a very modest but dignified lifestyle, and focussed mainly on the education of our young children, whilst inculcating in them the traditional Pandit virtues and values, as well as freeing them of many outdated stigmas. We raised our children as free citizens. As destiny would have it, I was fortunate enough to have worked on some iconic large infrastructure projects in Malaysia, whose foundation design work had my significant input. It was the golden period of Malaysia when Dr Mahathir was the popular (though a little authoritarian) Prime Minister of the country. Thankfully, his popularity amongst the Malaysians never dwindled; people recently brought him back, at the age of 93, as their new Prime Minister!
For technical reasons, however, Malaysia could not be our long-term home, so we started preparing for our next long flight to the land down-under, the land of green and gold, the land of opportunities, the land of Don Bradman and Dennis Lillee – Australia. But things did not come on a platter. Before allowing us in, our new home rigorously tested our commitment, worth and qualifications. In those days (late 90s), immigration to Australia was relatively quite difficult and the general public, due to a lack of exposure, was a little conservative towards the new immigrants, especially from the non-English speaking countries.
I was required to pass a 6-hour long written assessment in engineering, called Test by Examination, conducted by Engineers Australia, which was held over two days at Australian High Commission in Singapore, which I passed in late 1996, thankfully. This stringent assessment process was later scrapped by the then Government of Australia in 1998, as not many foreign-trained engineers could pass it; it was replaced with a new, much more lenient (and potentially corruptible) assessment process – comprising the submission of three project reports. Since 1998, the new assessment process has allowed many more foreign-trained engineers to freely immigrate into the country.
After passing my technical assessment, our whole family had to undergo a full medical assessment, to prove our good health and physical fitness, which was followed by our character assessment. Only after crossing all these hurdles, we received the final ‘green’ signal – our first embrace – from our new home.
After we landed in our new home, we were warmly received by the immigration officials – through Meet & Greet protocol – but later in everyday life, we had to overcome numerous challenges to fit-in. The onus was always on us – Adjust, Adapt, Assimilate and Acclimatise. During our daily struggles and the process of our regrowth, we remained firmly rooted to our traditional virtues, values and spirituality. We have remained strict vegetarians and teetotallers, without any hoo-ha! The focus was always on our children – their health, values and education. To do so, we remained firmly grounded, and led a relatively much simpler and straight lifestyle, without frills.
Now what after these two decades in my new home, with my Australian stripes? What have I learnt? Who am I?
- A part of me is still Kashmiri, a part Indian, a large part Australian and everything else Global.
- I have not stopped eating and relishing my traditional Kashmiri vegetables – hakh, sochhal, nadroo, monja, gogjee. With time, since my days in Malaysia, I started accepting South Indian, Malay and Chinese vegetarian dishes too. The area of acceptance widened in Australia where immigrants from nearly 160 countries live coherently and prosper together. (Note: We Kashmiris acquire the local culinary habits – be it within India or overseas. Last year, during my book launch tour across India, my cousin’s family in Bangalore treated me to a homemade delicious South Indian breakfast at home – dosa and uppama. Another cousin treated me to a typical Kashmiri lunch. Same was the case in Mumbai and Delhi.)
- I have become a much simpler person than I was before, less pretentious, more forthright and direct, and much more sensitive to the human suffering.
- My eyes become moist and hazy, whenever I stand for the national anthem of India – in India or Australia; I have even sobbed at times. Having said that, I become much more sentimental when I hear Vande Matram!
- I feel so proud when Suresh Raina wins a match for India. I distinctly remember my joy when my other fellow Kashmiri, Parvez Rasool, played for India; I did not mind at all when he took 6 wickets for 30 odd runs for India A against my national Australian team. I feel proud every time a fellow Kashmiri tops the IAS examination. I feel so proud when I shake the hand of a Kashmiri pilot who flies my plane. I feel proud when a fellow Kashmiri is honoured for his/her outstanding work towards the humanity.
- Australians don’t respect you for what you own; they respect you only for who you are – the human inside you. One has to be genuine and be able to earn respect, based on the quality and sincerity of one’s work. It is not the nature of the work that you do; it is how you do it!
- With my naturally acquired Australian stripes – and due to the tall-poppy syndrome – I naturally reject people (including politicians, sports-persons and celebrities) who sound boisterous and/or behave in a cocky manner.
- The greatest thing about Australia is its tradition of mateship; people address one another generally as mates. The terms for thanks are ‘no worries’ – quite modest and humble!
- I also become emotional when I stand for the Australian national anthem – Advance Australia Fair.
- I feel proud when my fellow Australians achieve success in sporting, educational, scientific and human endeavours.
- Australia has given me the freedom of thought and action, dignity and respect, which I did not experience before. No one asks me about my religion or anything personal. I have been a responsible voter and a tax payer ever since I have lived here.
- Unlike the Hindustani language (similar to the French and other European languages), which has words like tu, tum and aap – to distinguish between the status and the age of the subject – in the English language, thankfully, there is just one word – you – which naturally breaks down the sinfully discriminatory class-wall.
- Australians, as responsible world citizens, get involved in most rescue missions and disaster assistance / management tasks around the globe. I feel humbled and grateful to my mother (for bearing me) that a part of my tax goes toward all such humanitarian causes. The crucial input into a recent multinational rescue mission in Thailand made me so proud about my fellow Australians and the country that I call home.
- My heart bleeds every time an Aussie soldier loses his / her life in any international combat / rescue missions. In the same vein, I also grieve internally when I learn about the death / martyrdom of an Indian soldier while defending his / her country.
- I become deeply sad when a fellow Kashmiri, in Kashmir, loses his / her life due to militancy. I painfully look up and ask, ‘Why an unnecessary waste of life! Why?’ But there is no answer from the above! I am left to deeply introspect to figure out why!
This story applies in so many similar ways to many or most of my Kashmiri friends and cousins who live across the planet – Australia, New Zealand, South-East Asia, the UK, Sweden, Africa, the Middle East, the US, Canada and of course India. My cousins around the world have acquired different nationalities and all are responsible law-abiding and tax-paying citizens of their respective countries. A part of my tax goes for our army, which engages in the strife torn areas of the world. Our army works alongside the armies of the US and the UK, which are funded, in part, by the tax paid by my American and British cousins.
We are indeed Global Pandits! Empathy and compassion connects us with everyone living on this planet, our planet – the beautiful earth, on which we all live and thrive. God never put labels on our foreheads when we were born. God gave us one earth, one sun and one moon, and one anatomy, to show that we all are one. Despite our new colours / stripes and nationalities, all of us remain close to our roots, in our own individual ways.
As a Global Pandit:
- My heart goes to those 357 Keralites who have tragically lost their lives due to an unprecedented flood event in their beautiful state.
- I pray for the peace of those 461 Indonesians who lost their lives recently due to the effects of a series of high intensity earthquakes (and numerous aftershocks) that have been rocking the beautiful island of Lombok, Indonesia.
- I mourn with the families of those unfortunate 43 Italian commuters who tragically died recently due to a sudden bridge collapse. Such a thing must not happen; it is an embarrassing incident for us engineers. Bridges are designed and constructed for a design life of at least 100 Years.
- A few days ago, I was sad to learn the untimely tragic deaths of those 96 unfortunate Greeks due to unexpected and sudden wild forest fires.
- My heart goes to Allan Tull, from New Zealand, who died yesterday when his helicopter crashed while fighting bush fires in New South Wales (Australia).
- I salute and bow in deep homage to Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I shall always remember him as a true leader of the people of India, a poet by heart and a good human, one who positively transformed India under his leadership. Not only was he a scholar and a great orator, he was also a practical, fearless and brave doer! His good heart and a great smile will be deeply missed. Undoubtedly, he will live on in the hearts of all who have known and loved him. Be peace to him! Amen!
As we become more and more exposed to the people from across the globe, we also become more open and our internal silos disappear. We discover all people are just like us and there nothing in us that should make us feel we are superior to anyone. We become more humble, more accepting and less closed. We believe in coexistence of all humans, with no one being higher than the other. We have started living in a post-materialistic age and we care more for the environmental sustainability. The whole world belongs to us and we belong to the whole world. We remain, as always, compatible with humans of every race, every ethnicity, every religion and every living being on this planet. We are Global Pandits.”…Bill K Koul