By Syed Abdul Haq
I was born and raised in downtown Srinagar. My home is still in Shah Mohalla, named after our ancestor Syed Yusuf Shah who settled there (God knows when). Prior to that, this neighbourhood was known as Buzegar Mohalla. On one end this mohalla is bordered by Kaete Kol, near SMHS hospital, and on the other side is Nawab Bazaar, our rival mohalla.
Nawab Bazaar and Shah Mohalla had a rivalry since time immemorial. While Nawab Bazaar was regarded as ‘Bakra’ stronghold (supporters of the Mirwaiz family), Shah Mohalla, except a few families, including our own, was considered a ‘Sher’ territory, a diehard follower of Sheikh Abdullah.
In Kashmir, I started my career as a lecturer in Zoology in 1969 in Government Degree College Sopore under the illustrious Principal late Abdul Salam. There I got to know and befriend, among others, Abdul Ghani Bhat, Saif-ud-Din Soz, and Prof Ghulam Rasool Baccha. One of my students there, Dr Yousuf Kanjwal, is a cardiologist based in Ohio, US. From Sopore, I went to SP College Srinagar, Women’s College Nawa Kadal, Degree College Islamabad (Anantnag) and finally Women’s College MA Road.
In May 1984, I immigrated to the US and settled in Clarence, New York. I was 36 then. My elder brother had also immigrated to the US, much before me, in 1971. We Kashmiris living in the US call ourselves “Kashmiri Americans” and we have a well-known organisation Kashmiri American Council, with its head office in Washington DC. Kashmiri Muslim population is quite sizeable here, and most of them are related to medical field. One of the well-known Kashmiris here is Farooq Kathwari, CEO of the highly regarded furniture chain Ethan Allen. I can say with confidence that most Kashmiri Muslims settled in the US are doing very well when compared to other immigrants, like the Kashmiri Pandits. Both communities, as I see, live apart in their own world, not mixing much and have totally opposite opinion about Kashmir. Here I want to narrate a story about how the perceptions of Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits differ regarding Kashmir. About 10 years ago, I went to the residence of an acquaintance Dr Kaul to commiserate with him on the death of one of his parents. Talking to his wife, I dwelt upon the atrocities and pain Kashmiris were facing. Without mentioning the name of Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq, I told her that a lot of people were killed on the day of murder of “our leader” in May 1990. She said, “Yes, It is a shame that Kashmiri leaders have been assassinated.” A few moments later, I asked her which leader she meant. And her terse reply was, “Of course, Tika Lal Tapiloo.”
The readers in Kashmir will be surprised to know that we Kashmiris here are much more knowledgeable about what is going on in Kashmir than they themselves are. It is because of the TV, the truly independent and hard working journalists of The New York Times, The Washington Post and numerous other media channels. There is no government censor here, and the press here is truly the Fourth Estate.
America is a huge country. For example, Buffalo, where my brother had settled, is situated on the eastern shores of a very big lake, called Lake Erie whose size is bigger than the Kashmir Valley. The size of the Kashmir Valley is 6ooo square miles and Lake Erie is nearly 10,000 square miles! Actually Lake Erie is the smallest of the five interconnected large fresh water lakes in the world (Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie). Whereas the Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie are directly connected to each other and are navigable by large barges and ships, Erie and Ontario are connected by Niagara River which has one of the biggest falls, a natural wonder called Niagara Falls.
Of late, Buffalo has emerged as a global centre for medical services. It has some highly regarded hospitals, chief among them being Roswell Memorial Cancer Institute, a world-renowned cancer treatment centre. A prominent Kashmiri medico, Dr Khurshid Guru (son of martyred Dr Abdul Ahad Guru) is a celebrated surgeon working there as the Head of the Urology Department. A large photograph of Dr Khurshid was displayed at the entrance of Buffalo airport terminal. Dr Khurshid Guru is doing a lot of charity work for Kashmir and is highly regarded and admired here in the Kashmiri circles.
The very first thing which strikes one when arriving in the US is the infrastructure particularly roads. Every village, town and city is connected through a vast network of roads. These roads may be classified as neighbourhood roads, city roads, town roads, boulevards, county roads, state and inter state roads or thruways. The neighbourhood roads are as broad as the 90 Feet road in Soura, Srinagar. For example, the street in front of my house can have three vehicles driving parallel at a time, even though it is meant, as most roads, a two-way lane. The most interesting is the thruway system or interstate highway system. These highways are 2 to 8 lanes in both directions, with a shoulder as broad as a lane itself. President Eisenhower started this system after the Second World War. It was basically a defence project to allow fast evacuation of population in case of an atomic war with the erstwhile USSR. The thruway system bypasses cities, has almost no stop lights, and the speed limit could be up to 80 mph. The US has approximately 4 million km of paved roads.
Next to the roads, one is struck by the immense area of this country. It is really a huge country, more than three times the size of India but with only one fourth population of India. It is said that the whole population of world can be accommodated in the US, with the population density of Bangladesh. So, while driving out of a city, you see lots of orchards, wheat and other crops and a lot of greenery with little population. Hence, there is not much attraction in buying and holding land in the US, unlike in Kashmir, as the value does not appreciate that much over time. Even average homes in well developed neighbourhoods have half an acre (4 kanals) as their backyards. The exception being large cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. It is therefore essential that people have cars for commuting as everything (stores, schools, hospitals, etc) are not at a walking distance, particularly from the suburbs. However, in congested cities, like New York and Chicago, people drive in taxicabs, underground metro trains, and buses. Uber and Lyft are now used extensively in the cities. Drinking water, electricity, internet, satellite communication are available to all citizens. Food in the US is abundant and churches and community centres provide shelter and food to anybody who seeks their help. The immigrants from other countries work hard and have done very well. Italians dominate the construction, Irish the police, Jews control finance and businesses, and south Asians, including Pakistanis and Kashmiris, have done well in medical fields. Chinese and Indians are represented well in the IT sector.
At the end, I would say that even after living in the US for more than three decades, I feel equally proud to be a Kashmiri as I am an American citizen.
The piece appeared in Kashmir Narrator’s April issue. To subscribe to Narrator’s print edition, please mail here: KashmirNarrator@Gmail.com.