I still remember that one-room rented flat where we lived. My grandfather, at an age when he should have retired, was serving as the Vice Principal of a private school. My granny used to take care of me while my parents were busy restoring the life they had just lost.

My granny had told me the stories of Kashmir- the heaven. As a kid, I imagined sitting inside a houseboat sailing calmly on the Dal Lake surrounded by lotus and Shikaras. A couple, both of them wearing Pheran (Kashmiri Dress), exchanging glances and Kangri. The warm affordable Kangri resting warmly in their pherans. I often wondered that if Kashmir was so beautiful, why did they leave?

Different metaphors and similes describing Kashmir gave me a strong urge to visit the valley. But whenever I asked my family to take me on a holiday to our Mini Switerzland, all they replied was, “Teth chun vyan kehin, che kya karakh tayatnas” (There is nothing left now. What will you do there?)

I grew up listening to the stories of Kashmir, which I had never heard earlier. Stories that shocked me. Stories about the atrocities that my family members faced. A sudden adrenaline rush and a sense of hatred would overpower me and my urge to visit the valley increased manifold.

It was hard for me to imagine the masses gathering outside the mosques and shouting  Anti-Indian and Anti-Pandit slogan.

For a moment, I started looking at my Muslim friends with with suspicion. But my granny convinced me otherwise with the stories of brotherhood and about how her Muslim neighbours helped them during the tough times and assured me that there were a handful of fundamentalists who spewed venom across the valley.

I visited Kashmir for the first time and I finally felt at home. Passers-by looked familiar and I was stunned by those beautiful snow-clad mountains. A crystal clear reflection of the moon in the Dal lake and the cold wind playing with my hair gave me goose bumps and made my stomach flutter. The Valley stole my heart. It was love at first sight.

Paradise it will always be, in the hearts of Kashmiri Pandits, even after the exodus took everything with itself and left behind few bitter and sweet memories. And I believe that one day I’ll go back home.