Memories of a Pandit boy

Siddhartha Gigoo wanted to write a novella, but could not stick to the word count. In a freewheeling interview with Ibrahim Wani in New Delhi, he talks about his journey to The Garden of Solitude. 

Ibrahim Wani: You were working in TCS, how did you turn to writing?
Siddhartha Gigoo: Since my childhood, I had this fascination for literature – for poetry, for novels. I used to scribble some poetry and such stuff. I was a voracious reader in my childhood and always had this ambition to write a bunch of stories.  I always thought can I write a few short stories? Or may be a novel! Then I gave it a shot. I wanted to see if I can narrate a story.

IW: And you did find a story to tell…about Kashmir?
I have had interesting experiences during the writing process. Mainly, because I did not have a structure in mind. In fact, I did not have Kashmir in my mind. Kashmir somehow crept into my writing, and somehow it became quite easy for me because when you talk of Kashmir, you have millions of stories. And perhaps I found it an easier way during the writing process to narrate a story about Kashmir.

Originally when I started to write, the idea was to write the story of a boy coming of age, who gets to journey through different phases of life, and meets different people, and somebody who is looking for some meaning which is elusive. The setting could have been anything. It could have been Delhi, it could have been a town or a village. I could have created a fictional town. But when I started writing it was difficult to keep Kashmir out of the story. Kashmir crept into the story mischievously and intelligently. Also the whole thing about migration, which was in my mind, and stories told stories and so on. Migrants, their life, their condition, and so on.

And the whole thing about Kashmiri Muslim and Pandit divide. The whole thing intrigued me. The militancy, how it started, and how it erupted? What happened overnight? There were these unresolved questions in my mind. The story I was writing became a story of a boy who was living and evolving through these things.

IW: The boy, the protagonist in the story, travels a lot!
Originally I wanted to write a novella. I had fascination for novellas – hundred page books. Herman Hess’s books like ‘Siddhartha’, or old man and the sea, just 90 to 100 pages. It is amazing how these small novellas can have so much in them. But unfortunately I could not stick to the word count, something like 40,000 words. There were stories and they went on growing and growing. I still wanted to keep it as a small novel. But then the canvass grew.

A boy migrates, and then after many years the protagonist goes to Kashmir, and has a very interesting experience. He visits his own house after fifteen years. And then the protagonist starts writing a book- a book of ancestors, he calls it. So that whole thing was a dream like kind of a thing.

And there were many other triggers. Sub-plots and sub-stories, you know about old men. There is a lot of talk about old men and women, forsaken and forgotten. My book is fiction, but it is based in a socio-political context. I let the book flow as it came to me. And then it took me a couple of years to write.

IW: Tell us about yourself and your childhood?
I was unknown till yesterday. I consider myself nobody. I have come up with a small book. Am a Kashmiri, who has lived in Delhi for 14 years and been out of Kashmir for 21 years. And so Kashmir is a homeland for me, which it always will be. I migrated to Udhampur in 1990, when everybody was leaving. And studied there as a private student and came to Delhi to do my Masters in English from JNU and was an above average student. Then took up a job in Delhi, as an editor in TCS. Have been in and out of the country for work related reasons, and lived partly in Europe and America. Now settled in Delhi.

Born in 1974, my recollection of childhood is very vivid. I have great recollection of every event. I had friends in school, and the community, I grew up in. I lived in a small dirty, filthy lane, in between Safakadal, and Nawakadal, the two famous bridges. And our house was in that small lane, among a cluster of houses accessible through a very narrow lane. You could not drive a scooter there. There was a mosque at the back of the house. There was a temple. There was small shrine of Rupa Bhawani.

The mohalla had a great mix of Pandits and Muslims. Most of my friends were Muslim boys. We would walk to our school, National school in Karan Nagar. My childhood time there was excellent. You played cricket, fly kites. Of course Eidgah was 10 minutes walk from my house.

And suddenly everything changed in 1990s. The playground, where people would fly kites, have water chestnuts, play cricket and football and people would celebrate Eid, (changed) into a big a graveyard. Very interesting the way things changed, almost overnight.

That left a big impression on me. There would be speeches, congregations and funeral processions of militants who would be buried in the Eidgah. We used to call the place paradise. One of my Kashmiri friends still calls it a paradise, because there are noble souls buried there. Some interesting ways of looking at history and places which form part of us.

IW: What are your earliest memories of change in the valley?
My first memory happened when Maqbool Bhat was hanged. The judge who had given the sentence, his granddaughter was a friend at school. He was, I think, killed. I used to visit their house in Karan Nagar.

I remember that some of my class friends, even though all of us were ridiculously young, telling me that things are changing. Something is going to happen in Kashmir. Something will erupt. Though those were the peace times, there was still some unrest lurking in people’s minds. And hearts. Even during the mid eighties when things were absolutely normal. Some unrest was there in the hearts and minds of both communities.

I feel that Pandits used to think that something terribly wrong was going to happen, and something terribly wrong is going to happen to us also. And Muslims used to think that something is going to erupt.

Then suddenly when militancy erupted, the first memory I have is of a funeral procession- of a famous militant who was idolised then. I remember my friends who were too much into cricket, their interest suddenly changed. From cricket it turned to militants and freedom fighters.

I happened to find myself caught in that procession. There were lakhs of people in the procession. It was no longer a road. It was a river full of people – kids, elders, as well as women. They were all shouting slogans. People were looking out of the windows. Some people were celebrating the martyrdom. It was a momentous occasion that someone had become a martyr. Some people were crying because they were sad. For days together people were talking about it.

Then there was this famous trio – Asfaq Majid, Javed Nalka and Hamid Sheikh. These three became heroes, and were supremely idolised. Some of my friends said that they wanted to die like them. With a grenade in their hand. That was the frenzy, the madness, the passion.  Of course the whole thing was a little nerve wrecking for the Pandits because they feared for their lives. They feared that they would be targeted.

There were some killings, some Pandit people died on the streets. There were these announcements of ‘Azaadi’. And then people leaving. And when I look back upon them, it is as if it is happening in a movie, a world war movie.

I used to watch movies in Palladium Cinema, and then suddenly you find yourself in a situation where there is a war, and in hindsight you talk about these things for example in Delhi, people say that my God, these sort of things only happens in movies, and books. Has it happened? They ask.

This was one of the triggers for my writing. If you happen to a be a part of such childhood where the surroundings are too good to be true, there is horror, humour and pathos around, there is change around, things are changing, people are changing. So these are the vivid memories I have.

Roads full of people, curfews for endless day. People could not even buy cigarettes.

I remember one of my friends saying we will meet. Those days there was no telephones. Then, we never got to meet.  We had a cricket team with Muslims as well as Pandit players. Some of them were excellent players. When there was curfew, and we used to have a small patch of land in the vicinity which was enclosed by houses on all sides. Despite curfew on the main roads, we used to play cricket. We somehow managed. Kids somehow manage their own way. But I don’t think it lasted.

IW: Were you able to meet or contact any of your old friends?
SG: The funny thing is that I remember the names of all my classmates, but I do not remember the names of my neighbourhood friends. We never called them by the real names. It was usually the pet name such as Prince or Saethe. I have no idea where they are this time.
I know a couple of Mohalla friends who crossed over. There was this plumber’s son who was two years junior to me. I was I think studying in tenth; he was in eight class he disappeared one day and crossed over. And somehow I got to know that he never returned. And there was his brother also. But I have no idea what happened to them.
I tried to locate my friends but was not successful. It is possible to locate them if I go there. But I doubt whether they would still be living there. Many wanted to get out of downtown even then, because it was a dirty place.  By late 1989 they wanted to construct houses in the posh areas. They were saving for that.
Thanks to social networking sites, I have been able to locate three or four classmates. Somebody is able to locate me, and I locate someone. And three of my friends are doing very good. We are really surprised to see ourselves doing jobs which we even had not dreamt of doing at that time.

IW: How did your family cope with the migration?
To be honest, I can only try and understand. I mean for a personal standpoint, my father did not suffer much. We had relatives in Delhi, my mother’s family. So every winter we used to come to Delhi. When I migrated, I thought that it was one of those things only, when we have to come back. The same applied to my father also to an extent.

But for my grandfather it was very difficult. The same was true for all the Pandits of his generation and age.In fact most of the people love their houses so much that they did not even venture out of their houses for most of the times. For them an outing at maximum was to go to their relatives in the village. And my grandfather, used to love his house so much, that he would not even go out and socialise much. For him his room was the best. He would come back and be in room.

He died out of his homeland. I do not think that he wanted that to happen. I know a number of people also who suffered a lot. They waited that tomorrow things would be better, we will go, and they had this hope. Hoping against hope. Sadly they could never go back. And they died away from the place where they were born.

Old people who could not cope up with that sudden change. It is not about a new place. Kashmir was too much a part of them. There were a lot of people, who had not seen the life outside the Banihal tunnel. For them going beyond the tunnel was something that should not be done. So I remember a scene, when I left, when I was crossing the tunnel, there were buses and trucks full of the people. Some people were blinded because of the sun. Because immediately after the tunnel, the sun came out. And they said is it like this here. While writing my book, I was suddenly reminded of this thing. That what a change they must have felt.

I did not suffer much. But those people from the villages who had no jobs, or relatives outside and had to live in camps, they suffered a lot. Others who did not live in camps, and whose parents had government jobs and salaries, they lived in rented accommodations, and did not suffer much. It was sort of ok.

IW: Your family migrated to Udhampur…
No. My parents packed us, me and my sister, first to Jammu to live with some relatives. There was this feeling that children should be sent first. Then my parents shifted from our house in downtown to a safer place – Indranagar (near the cantonment). My parents did not want to migrate.

But since we were out, our relatives forced our parents to migrate. And then an interesting thing happened that most of the neighbours did not want them to leave. But then, they came. They said we cannot come to Jammu, since it is too hot. We will go to Udhampur, and we will take up a rented accommodation, because it is surrounded by mountains and it is less difficult to live for a good period.

During this time, my father got to teach in camp college which was set for migrant Pandits in Udhampur. My grandfather and grandmother also lived with us. They found themselves in a strange situation. He was a working person and a bread earner for many years when my father was unemployed. He suddenly found himself out of job, and away from work and home.

IW: Did you visit Srinagar after migrating from the place?
It was way back in 1994, when I went with a Kashmiri Muslim friend for two days. In fact in those days we hardly went out and spent most of the time, in his house.

Second time I went was in 2006. My daughter was I think three years old. We went to Jammu and my father said let us go to Srinagar. We went for three days. We went to Gulmarg, we went to Mughal gardens. It was a whirwind kind of a tour. My mother, as well as grandmother came along.

IW: You did not visit your ancestral house?
No, we did not go. It did not occur to us during that visit that we should go there. What happened is that when we were on our way to Gulmarg, we happened to drive by a medical shop, which was owned by a friend of my dad’s.

He came down, and he was seeing my father after 18 years. He hugged my dad, and he started crying. He asked us where we were going, and we replied that we were going to Gulmarg. He insisted that we must come to his place. Then my dad promised him that the next time we the valley, we will definitely visit him. Very emotional for all of us.

Then I visited Kashmir again after a year. I went actually to Amarnath with some friends. After we returned from Amarnath, along with a Muslim friend I went to my old house. That was after 18-19 years. We had sold it when we had migrated.

We knocked. An old lady opened the door. I explained the situation, that I used to live here, that i am a Kashmiri ‘bata’. She then said, why are you waiting outside. Come inside.

She introduced us to his children. She said that her husband was not there since he was a vegetable vendor, and comes back in the evening.

She said that this is your house. Go and have a look at your place. So I stayed there for 10-15 minutes. I saw my room, and my parent’s room.  She offered us tea, but we said we are in a hurry, and will not be able to have it.

Her daughter asked, are you a Kashmiri Muslim. I said no. Then she asked then what are you. I said that I am a Kashmir Pandit. She had never heard of us.
So then I said that I take your leave. I was swayed by the emotions. I was shocked to see the way she had treated me. She had called me ‘son’. This can only happen in Kashmir. And that was no longer our house.

I tried to see if I recognised someone. Some shops were closed. I happened to meet one lady, and she asked me whether I recognised her. When I said no, she slapped me. She said in Kashmiri, that how can you forget me. She was our neighbour. She was still the same. I had changed. She invited me into her house, but I did not have time. In fact I wanted to cry.

What happened that I called my parents, and said that I am here. My grandmother said an interesting thing. She said, are you at home. She said in Kashmiri, “tche chukha ghare gomut?”

I said yes.
She told me to tell everyone there that we are OK and good. She did not know who was there.

People just go to Kheer Bhawani shrine. That actually means little to me. I think Pandits should visit their homes. That is the real pilgrimage.

IW: Many Kashmiris have started writing about Kashmir. A number of writers like you are coming up.
Basharat (peer) is a trendsetter. He wrote a memoir and inspired more people to write. He has mentioned in his book that it used to torment him that he would walk into a book store and there were books written by non-Kashmiris and foreigners. The same thing used to torment me also. I think Mirza Waheed also mentioned that.

For an English speaking world, you need to have books in English. I am reminded of Agha Shahid Ali here. He made it really really big. I tried to follow him. I wrote poetry initially. I got couple of books published. He was a big influence. He writes so well, magical.

IW: So who has been the greatest influence on you as a writer?
There are so many writers I admire. It is difficult to name few. Nikos Kazanzakis, the author of the famous, ‘Last Temptation of Christ’. His books like Zorba-the Greek. He is somebody I have read many times. And Herman Hess. His novella Siddhartha. I always dreamt to write something like that.

IW:  Kashmiri Pandits are reportedly losing their Kashmiri essence. Most of Pandit children hardly know anything about Kashmir or are unable to speak Kashmiri?.
What I also feel and tell my friends now is that Kashmiri Pandits are no longer migrants, because they are all settled. Of course they have seen bad times, but they are all settled. A majority of them have their own homes in Delhi, other cities, or even abroad. So they are no longer migrants. Second they are no longer Kashmiris and they are no longer Pandits.

They have amalgamated in the mainstream. They go to Kashmir as tourists, and stay there in hotels. They are not Pandits anymore, they are Hindus. The young generation no longer follows the traditions and the rituals. That concept does not exist now.

IW: You married outside of your community. Does your daughter know anything about the past?
A lot of Pandits have married out of the community, like me. My daughter does not speak Kashmiri at all. She speaks mostly English and Hindi. But when my parents are around they teach her some Kashmiri, and when my Mom-in-law is around she teaches her Malayalam.

But she asked me one day in her own interesting way. She asked, are you a Kashmir Pandit. She asked then what am I. I had no answer. I said what do you think you are? She said I am a Delhi Pandit. I said fine, yeah you are a Delhi Pandit.

The sad part is that, after 20 years from now, when an entire old generation will no longer be there, a new generation of Kashmiri Pandits will be settled abroad, I do not know how many of them will have memory of migration, or whatever happened, or even the place.

So it will be interesting to see what will happen then. Will they make an effort to seek what happened to our elders and our ancestors. Will they go back, or will they not. I think that these are questions only history will answer. Will they continue to speak Kashmiri, will they continue to observe Kashmiri rituals. I mean in the real sense.

It will be really interesting to see what happens. Anyway it is a very shrinking community and things will totally change.  To be honest I think that Kashmiri Pandit story is not relevant at all in the currents scene in India. It does not exist. Whereas the Kashmiri Muslim narrative is very much alive and it is a thriving issue.

It is a forgotten community. I do not know whether the community is itself responsible for that, but when you talk of Kashmir globally, the only talk is Kashmir Muslims. In fact many of my journalist friends say that Kashmiri pundits, there is no issue, there is no story, and they are all well.

IW: Did all your relatives migrate from Kashmir?
Many chose to stay back. We are in touch with them. They are happy there. They never chose to migrate. They are doing well there.

IW: How do you see the current situation – Amarnath land row, Shopian and so on?
: Personally I feel, that maybe it was destiny. I figured a way out of the chaos. I never care to imagine, what would have happened to me had this not happened to me, and had I not left Kashmir, then what would have happened.

But my friends tell me horrible stories. Sometimes I wonder what if I was a Kashmir Muslim. And there are no answers. Like, I know so much has happened, hundreds and thousand have died and suffered. There is migration. There is this aspiration for Azaadi. There is this tiredness, related to what is going to happen. And then there are these self styled intellectuals, who say they know what is going to happen. But ordinary Kashmiris, how do they feel.

I have nobody to blame. The worst things people can do is play blame game. Somebody will say India, someone will say Pakistan, someone will say we Kashmiris ourselves are to blame. What will we achieve out of the blame game? The only thing I have been able to do is to be a mute spectator. Helplessly I have just seen history descend and trample innocents. And that is the sad part what we have lost we do not think we can get it back.

IW: Coming to your novel. What does it communicate?
  It is about a family who migrates from Kashmir. They get to live out of Kashmir for a period. They are torn between two realties, whether they will go back or not. Then the main protagonist sees the whole community living in exile, and he goes back to Kashmir, like me when I went. He visits his old house, and is greeted nicely. Then he returns and writes a book there actually called a book of ancestors. I have not talked about what is in that book. I have left it to the reader to understand.

IW: How did you name the book ‘Garden of Solitude’?
I am not the right person who should be asked this. There are these three images I have. There is this image of Eidgah, which is a playground and has been turned into a martyrs graveyard. There are people who used to play in this ground and are now buried. That is one image. When I look back I see it as solitude.

Second image, is of a camp and an old lady sitting in heat and dust. Waiting for something which will not come and she is in some solitude.

Third image is that of an old migrant, who has lost his memory completely. And he is in this different world now. He does not recognise his own family, his own son, because of whatever has happened. And he is in a different world. That is also solitude. All these three images are somehow connected. All these images are beautiful images. They are sad images, but isn’t sadness pure. Deeply sad, deep suffering, there is some beauty in it. Garden of solitude, a little poetic, isn’t it.


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