His elderly mother by his side, O.P. Kichloo walked up to their former house for the first time since they fled Kashmir in 1990.
The house – well-preserved – "struck my heart because it was built by my father," says Mr. Kichloo. "Tears rolled down from my eyes."
A Muslim woman emerged. She learned who they were, and soon the three Kashmiris were chatting on the lawn over cups of tea. Fifteen minutes later, they snapped photos and said their goodbyes, and the Kichloos got on with the remainder of their vacation.
As the era of armed uprising against India fades here, tourists are flocking to Kashmir and emboldening some Hindu natives who fled the fighting to also visit and consider moving back to the mostly-Muslim valley, where many feel they were once targeted for being a minority.
The visits offer glimmers of rapprochement between Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris.
While the trips are rekindling old friendships and recalling shared customs, distrust still runs deep as key questions of Kashmir's past – and future – remain disputed.
"Things are much better and people are very receptive this time, and people want us eagerly back in this place," Kichloo said in Kashmir in the presence of a Muslim.
But reached later by phone at his current home outside the region, his assessment runs darker: "I think in their heart of hearts, [Kashmiri Muslims] don't want us to settle back there.... Most who are coming are getting the same feeling when they go there."
Two sides of the story
The contradiction does not surprise Ankur Datta, an anthropologist studying the Hindu Kashmiri community known as pandits. "There's this kind of double-speak constantly, and it's really symptomatic of a certain kind of fear."
It's too early to say whether these trips will bring much reconciliation, says Dr. Datta. But any changes of heart are more likely with multiple trips.
He tells of one pandit couple who went back for two visits. They initially went quietly to the husband's village. The reception was so warm that the husband mentioned rebuilding a home there, and the neighbors enthusiastically said they would help. His wife was not convinced. But after the second visit, she said she saw that both sides had suffered.
Fundamental disputes remain over history and politics, such as how many pandits fled (350,000 by one estimate, 100,000 by another), why they fled (fear of violence versus government orchestration), and what role India should play in Kashmir. Neither community is monolithic in its views, but competing communal narratives have significant followings.
One pandit group, Panun Kashmir, favors the creation of a separate pandit homeland inside the Kashmir Valley within India. Meanwhile, many Kashmiri Muslims today say they wish the pandits would return and, in fact, never wanted them to leave.
"In the early '90s, some of the Kashmiri pandits definitely were targeted, but there might have been reasons other than being a pandit associated with that," says Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor of international law and human rights at Kashmir University. But "many Muslims were also targeted."
He labels the few cases of group killings of pandits as "mysterious" and possibly a plot to blacken the name of the separatist movement. He says it's widely suspected in Kashmir that the exodus may have been orchestrated by the government "to portray before the world that it is a communal frenzy rather than a genuine freedom movement."
The thaw begins with contact
A few pandits have stayed in Kashmir since 1989. One of their leaders, Sanjay Tickoo, says 651 pandit families remain in the valley. He advises pandits not to migrate home in the absence of a political settlement.
If they come back, says Mr. Tickoo, they should integrate with the majority population. Over the past year, the Indian government has given jobs to more than 1,000 young pandits who agreed to permanently relocate to Kashmir – but they are mostly housed in walled-off compounds. "We know when there were crises in the past, our cordial relationships with our neighbors [helped]," says Tickoo.
Many pandits cannot simply return to their former houses. Kichloo, like many pandits, sold his home after fleeing. He needed the money to pay school fees so he sold cheaply. Housing prices have since soared and his old home is now unaffordable. He supports the idea of a pandit homeland.
The controversial idea of a homeland would ensure that if pandits returned they would never again have to flee, argues Ramesh Manvati, the vice president of Panun Kashmir. He talks of mental scars. In the days before he fled, there was a move to set clocks to Pakistani time. He grew so afraid of being asked for the time by troublemakers that he stopped wearing watches; he still cannot.
Young people are starting to visit and build relationships. Earlier this year, young pandits and Muslims formed a Facebook group to start interactions. So far the group has led 13 pandit youths to Kashmir for week-long "home stays" with Muslim families. Vivek Raina, one of the cofounders, says another 100 youths have made their own trips to visit Muslim friends.
"There's a huge number of pandits and Muslims also in Kashmir who have grown up in isolation from each other," says Mr. Raina, a pandit.
"What has taken [root] in their mind," he says, "is the dominant narrative that's prevalent in the society [that is] driven by vested interests and filled with hatred and bitterness."
Raina says the group wanted to find a space beyond politics where Kashmiris could recognize their commonality.
"You can resolve differences only if you start to meet with each other," he says. "You start looking at them as human beings; and as soon as that happens, most of the thaw happens there."