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A Thought on Traditions

Somewhere in 10th grade, little by little, I started picking up on Kashmiri through listening to folks in my family. It wasn’t a requirement in the family – most folks of my generation don’t know much, or any, Kashmiri –, nor was it a conscious decision. I started by understanding common words, and then complete phrases, and occasionally I’d stop and ask for meanings of words that were new. Eventually, I got good enough at understanding it that I could drop in on most conversations and immediately pick up on what was being discussed. With my newfound power, I realized that I was part of a different circle now. I was still a kid but I could listen in on the conversations of the adults where till now I had no idea what was going on if the language wasn’t Hindi. Then, with the air of an overzealous, innocent kid, knowing that I knew the meanings of some words and thinking that I knew them all, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to hold a conversation. So I tried speaking it, and I butchered it completely.

But for some reason, as I realized later after having left for college, it wasn’t so much about knowing Kashmiri, or learning the traditions as it was about that primal connection we have with wanting to belong. The connection that binds us to times past, to history being relived or reread in books that transport us to farther off places and times, when maybe things were better, or they weren’t, but it didn’t matter because we were in it together, is the sense of belonging.

The thing about tradition is that it’s undervalued most when it’s thrust upon someone. And when it’s thrust upon someone, it is often taken for granted, without criticism or observation and with certainly no derision. But we’re suckers for culture, for finding meaning where there is none, and so when we’re taken out of our pocket of culture, we begin to realize what we’re missing. Something you often get asked when you’re studying abroad is whether you miss home. Usually, it’s a bright, sunny day and the day’s calendar is ringing its bells at you and maybe you have somewhere to go or something to do and so the question comes out to you and, to get it out of the way of the many things you have to do today, you swing a bat at it and say “No.” End of conversation.

Most days that’s true. You miss home when the pockets of culture and tradition you grew up in come around on the calendar but suddenly aren’t physically there. And you realize the bright, sunny days hold strength only in the company of other people. So you make up for them by filling up the void with the best you can get. On Diwali, you go to the houses of the few Indian friends you have on campus. You share stories of how it used to be in India, play a few card games, quarrel over whose celebrations were better, drink a little, drink a lot, turn on all the lights in the house, and find excuses to make more time for each other out of your busy lives. If you were anything like us you’d even indulge in a little prayer thali with its mithais and diyas and decorate the house with a little flower pattern on the floor because this is what you grew up with. Festivals do this to you the most. You start to hold on to little customs and traditions when there is no one to thrust them upon you. You start to relish even the most cliché of customs. Even the hardcore non-Indian Indians among us shared this sense of community during the festival season, of belonging that is the very essence of tradition. This is what it means to miss home. The sense of shared belonging.

The idea of holding on to tradition is the idea of holding on to you as you’ve known yourself. It is the very root of identity, of community. Maybe it’s why people find it so hard to distinguish themselves from their faith, since it is rooted so deeply in one as they grow up that defining oneself as anything other than a combination of customs and traditions seems but impossible.

Over time, I’ve learned and practiced enough Kashmiri that I can hold a short conversation, yet it’s nowhere near enough to keep this dying language alive. There was even a short phase where I asked my grandmothers to speak to me only in Kashmiri. That didn’t last long. But now I understand that my initial desire to learn Kashmiri had little to do with languages, just as our prayer on Diwali had little to do with whether we actually believed in gods or not, and had everything to do with finding a bit of ourselves in our rituals.

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