“Why unpack? We will return soon”

Siddhartha Gigoo
Siddhartha Gigoo

For a Kashmiri Pandit life changed when the armed rebellion started in Kashmir Valley in late 80s. The community migrated to Jammu – outside Kashmir Valley in a matter of few days. Some of them settled in different parts of India and some left India to live in other countries. Some lived in make-shift camps, now living in government allotted flats at Jagti, Nagrota. How they lived since their migration and what they went through is their story which started after 90s. One of them is Sidhartha Giggoo, who was a teenager at that time. He too like many others left Valley along with his parents and a younger sister. After twenty one years of living away from his ancestral home, he wrote a novel, The Garden Of Solitude. This piece of fiction is about a young boy Sridar, who migrates out of valley and grows upto become a writer. Years later, Sridar goes back to the migrant camps and then to his homeland in search of stories that are on the verge of being forgotten by a generation; stories about identity and ancestry. Siddhartha lives in New Delhi now, The Kashmir Walla asked him about his life, his book, his views about Kashmir and his hope of returning to Valley.

Siddhartha Gigoo was born in Srinagar, Kashmir in 1974. He studied English Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is the author of two anthologies of poetry, ‘Fall and Other Poems’ and ‘Reflections’. These days, he works for Tata Consultancy Services and lives with his wife and daughter in New Delhi.

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You are a Kashmiri Pandit who left the valley in 90’s, lived in the camp, moved out and became a writer, much like the protagonist of your novel, Sridhar. How much of “The Garden of Solitude” is you?

My novel is partly autobiographical. Many of the incidents in the novel are based on real events. After reading the novel, many Kashmiris told me they saw their reflections in the characters and the story.

I didn’t live in a camp, but stayed quite close to one. I went to a camp school which was set up in a vast migrant camp with canvas tents all around where displaced families lived.

Pandits’ moving out of Kashmir was a tragic event and more so considering the strong emotional bonds locals shared with each other. If you can give an account of how it happened with your family?

Everyone knew that the socio-political situation was changing in Kashmir. Right from the early eighties!

Our house was in a small mohalla between Safakadal and Nawakadal. My father was a lecturer in a college in Srinagar and many youngsters from our locality were his students. Our house was nestled in a cluster of Pandit and Muslim houses.

In our locality, the Pandits feared that the uprising and the militancy might lead to a ‘divide’ and that they would be targeted. I witnessed the bizarre events unfold day by day. While thousands of Kashmiri Muslims came out on the streets, defying curfew and shoot-at-sight orders, and demanding freedom from India, the Pandits huddled indoors in fear and bewilderment, not knowing what to do. Fear lurked in their hearts.

When militancy erupted in the winter of 1990, Pandits in our locality sent their children out of Kashmir. Soon, the elders followed suit too. My sister and I were sent to Jammu with a neighbor. My parents didn’t want to leave. So they remained in Kashmir till the summer of ‘90. Perhaps, they were the only Pandit family in our mohalla who lingered on till summer.

What happened in the summer of 2010 reminds us that the turmoil is far from over. The migration of Kashmiri Pandits was tragic too. But for youngsters, it proved to be a boon.

Initially, I felt some sort of excitement. Leaving Kashmir for a different town seemed adventurous. I was in my teens and didn’t care about many things. None of us understood the gravity of situation at that time. It was only after spending the first few days in Jammu that the magnitude of the problem dawned on me. People from all parts of Kashmir were already there, living in barns and moving into camps which were being set up on a war footing by the authorities. Thousands of canvas tents were erected. Every evening, I idled around a highway bus stop and saw men, women and children pour out of trucks and buses, and seek shelter in temples, dormitories, sheds, schools and vacant buildings. Few places were habitable. But no one bothered. There was no choice but to occupy whatever space one found.

Ours was the last family to leave the locality. Some neighbors came to my father and pleaded him not to leave. They gave assurances. ‘We will protect you. No harm will come to you,’ they said. Ironically, they also advised us to leave when things changed. It took me years to understand the ‘humanity’ of it all. Our neighbors were concerned for us. Sometimes I feel that my parents finally left because of me and my sister. They chose to migrate to Udhampur, a small hill town on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway. It was less chaotic in the town and one could see the hills at a distance.

How was life in the camp for you?

After leaving Kashmir, I stayed in a dormitory in Jammu. My neighbors took care of me. The dormitory resembled a large cowshed.  Many families shared a not-so-big hall without a window. We huddled together and struggled for spaces. The old and the infirm were in agony.  Sleep evaded me for many nights. Water and food tasted weird. I barely heard from my parents. There weren’t any means of communication.

There were a few camps in Udhampur. Thousands of migrants stayed there in abject conditions. Landlords threw open barns, terraces, rooms and warehouses for the migrants to rent. The rent rates went up. The city dwellers preferred to live in rented accommodation, while those from the villages had no choice but to get into canvas tents.

My days at the camp school were interesting. It was strange attending the classes in puny tents, doing the class work and listening to our teachers. Strangely, everyone around me – the teachers and the students – paid utmost attention to schooling and studies. I had lost interest in school completely as though it was thrust on me. Lack of preparedness and disinterest led to poor marks. Yet, somehow I trudged on from one year to another.

Those were terrible times for me. Failure stared me in my face. I felt crushed most of the time. Loitering around the camp was fun. I was not of a serious disposition.

What was the general sentiment in camp?

The displaced people prayed for an early return. They nurtured hope. There were people who didn’t open their trunks for months together. Trunks and suitcases were used as settees in small rooms and tents. One migrant said, ‘Why unpack? We will return soon.’ They kept waiting day after day, month after month and year after year. Yet, there were some who accepted their fate and moved on, facing the hard reality with bravery.

Did you ever visit Kashmir again? When was the last time you went to the valley?

I have visited Kashmir four times in the last 21 years; each trip lasted no more than two days. On all visits, I felt strange. On my second visit, I clicked pictures like a true tourist. From there I called my father. He gave the phone to my grandmother. When I told her that I was in Kashmir, she said, ‘So you are home now…’ I was struck by the irony of it. Her words made me cry. She still calls Kashmir her home. She always will, I know.

So is Kashmir not your home?

Kashmir is no longer home …Ghar tha, ab nahi hai… I have been living in Delhi for many years now. I know each and every place in Srinagar by heart. So many years have passed, but I still remember the narrow lanes and streets of Downtown Srinagar. The houses, the shops, the buildings, the bridges, the signposts, roadside hawkers… Everything! In Delhi, I have trouble reaching home, especially when I drive.

Do you see Kashmiri Pandits going back to Kashmir and making it their home?

My personal view is that Kashmiri Pandits have kissed goodbye to Kashmir. Do they, as a community, really want to go back? Most people have sold their houses. The only way they keep their bond with Kashmir alive is by spending some days there every summer. They visit the temples and shrines on certain festivals. Then they return to their ‘homes’ in Delhi and elsewhere.

And there is the state subject certificate, which continues to be the most valuable document. Soon, it will become a family heirloom.

Kashmiris have suffered. People of Kashmir who lost their loved ones continue to suffer. The Valleyites still live in fear and uncertainty. Pandits are out of it now.

I wonder if people of my generation will ever go back. They are comfortably settled outside. I suspect the old people might want to return. But how? I am conscious of the ambivalences around ‘the return’ of Pandit migrants.

The wounds have healed to a large extent now. The exiles have found their homes now. But one never knows. Who knows what will happen a hundred years from now? The children of children of exile! Perhaps, they might want to rediscover their roots. Individuals will make their choices.

Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits share a long history. But the relationship has been strained since last two decades. How do you see this?

All we have now are memories of a shared past in which beauty and ugliness are plaited together. At an individual level, the bonds of friendship are really strong, but at an ideological level, there are differences, bitterness, mistrust and even a sense of betrayal. Differences come to fore when contemporaries from both communities interact on many sensitive subjects involving the historical tragedies and the wrongs inflicted upon them by political dynasties that nurtured neither care nor understanding for the Kashmiris and their diverse aspirations. Human relationships are put to test when we are confronted with the bitter truth.

Certain things are irreparable. One needs to become a saint to be able to view relationships beyond a sectarian and religious divide. The chasm will keep widening so long as people play petty politics.

We need to ask ourselves difficult questions and be honest about many things. Kashmiris have suffered. People of Kashmir who lost their loved ones continue to suffer. The Valleyites still live in fear and uncertainty. Pandits are out of it now. Elders, I suspect, have a philosophical bent of mind but the young generation is fierce and angry. During my third visit to Kashmir, I met an old man who worked in a household. I started talking about Kashmir. Avoiding the topic, he smiled and said, ‘Forget it. There are better things to talk about.’

 

What is your position on the Kashmir issue and the suffering of people?

I have never thought of having an ‘ideological position’ on Kashmir. I prefer to keep away from the mucky politics of it all. Kashmir comes to me wrapped in newspapers now.

It would be unfair if I talk about the struggle and the suffering. I don’t know what it must be to be in the midst of a political turmoil, a struggle, almost a war-like situation. I have not experienced much of this hardship. Torture, disappearances, rapes and humiliation… The statistics frighten me. What happened in the summer of 2010 reminds us that the turmoil is far from over. The migration of Kashmiri Pandits was tragic too. But for youngsters, it proved to be a boon.

I must confess that I am no authority on socio-political matters, including the one on suffering. In today’s age of social media, seminars and talk shows, people find it easy to express and react to situations. Many people try to monopolize suffering, others analyse, intellectualise and theorise. There are a few who seek inspiration in it for artistic expression. In their own ways!

 

The struggle has taken a new turn in the form of written words. What do you have to say about it?

Basharat Peer is a trendsetter. His book is considered a watershed. I am a fan of Mirza Waheed’s writing. Both of them have become youth icons, if I may say so. Their books are still being read by people across the world. I understand many more novels and memoirs are on their way to us. Literature of resistance, of conflict, of exile, of human suffering…..Generations will come and go, but this literature will keep people alive.

One of my Kashmiri Muslim friends is writing a novel which when published will remind us of Boris Pasternak and Anatole France. His first book of Urdu poems is being brought out by Urdu Academy, Delhi. It is being hailed by the critics as ‘deeply mystical’ and reminiscent of Iqbal. Another Kashmiri Pandit friend of mine is in the middle of a memoir of growing up days in Kashmir. I have read some marvelous short fiction on peoples’ blogs and personal websites. The world awaits such literary works.

There was a lot of discontent with a literature festival happening in Kashmir. What do you have to say about Harud?

I have never been to any literary festivals and am not interested in them. I was invited though and was wondering what to do. Shyness can be a savior sometimes.

What happens in these big literature festivals anyway? Writers give grand speeches and sign autographs and even share words of wisdom. In the evenings, they wine and dine. Some people like the idea of networking. It suits some and does not suit some.

Writing a small novel does not necessarily qualify me either for participation in such a festival or commenting on its merits or demerits.

It is for serious writers, artists and intellectuals to take a stand…and make statements. I revel in being a commoner, a hobbyist.

Beyond the necessary futility of such festivals, people talk and exchange views on matters of interest and of relevance to life, art, culture and politics. Writing a small novel does not necessarily qualify me either for participation in such a festival or commenting on its merits or demerits. Moreover, I am neither a good listener nor a big talker. And I have a history of not showing up at social events and get-togethers.

So you think it was a good opportunity for Kashmiris?

In Kashmir there is no cinema, no theatre, no art, no music. Just two bookshops. The libraries in colleges are no good. There is no life.  Yet despite all this, there has been artistic expression at an individual level. Opportunities are not important. Passion and ‘will’ are. The passion to live, to survive, to prevail and then tell the tale.

Hemingway says, ‘whatever I have to say is in my books; beyond that I have nothing much to say.’

Do you always wanted to become a writer?

I did my primary schooling from National School, Srinagar. Like many classmates in my school, I read a lot of novels in my childhood. I loved scribbling small nothings in a journal. Participating in essay writing competitions and writing for the school magazine was fun.

I used to experiment a lot with creative writing. It was a hobby those days and will always remain one.

Years ago, I wrote a weekly column in English for a daily published from Jammu. The column was called ‘Looking-Glass’. I wrote on social issues and used a bit of sarcasm and wit to entertain my readers. The column became popular. When I stopped writing the column (out of sheer laziness), many readers wrote to the editor requesting its revival. Someone else took over the column. I also tried my hand at poetry.

But I wanted to become a flautist.

Photo: Fahad Shah

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