Siddhartha Gigoo is the author of two books of fiction, Garden of Solitude (2011) and A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (2015), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2015. His short story The Umbrella Man won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2015 for Asia. He is the co-editor of the anthology A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits (Bloomsbury). Siddhartha has also directed two short films, The Last Day and Goodbye, Mayfly, which were selected for several international film festivals.
NAW- Tell us about your upcoming book, A Long Dream of Home. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
Allow me to give you a historical background.
A quarter of a century ago, in 1990, about half a million Hindus of Kashmir (known by the exonym Pandits) were forced to leave their homeland, Kashmir in India to save their lives when Pakistan-sponsored militancy erupted there. Pandits were an ethnic minority in Kashmir, and Muslims were the majority. Many Pro-Pakistan insurgent outfits gave the Pandit community an ultimatum to leave Kashmir or face dire consequences. Suspicion, betrayal and mistrust divided the Muslims and the Pandits. Both the communities stood divided on religious and ideological lines. When militants started carrying out targetted kidnappings and killings of Pandits, panic spread among them.
By the end of 1990, about half a million Pandits fled their homes and became displaced. They found shelter in temples, sheds, barns, canvas tents and schools in the Jammu province of the state and other parts of India. They lived in deplorable conditions in camps that lacked even basic civic amenities. In these cramped spaces there was neither privacy nor security and safety. It was a life of degradation, deprivation and indignity. Thousands perished due to diseases, mental sicknesses, heat strokes, sunstrokes, hostile climatic conditions and accidents. They scrounged around for even the basic necessities.
Even today, thousands of Pandit families are languishing in migrant camps in and around Jammu. 2015 marks the 25th year of the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland, Kashmir. I have been a mute witness to this camp life. I studied in a camp for five years. The community has gone through a holoucast. People were left to die. The socio-psychological impact of 25 years of camp life is visible now. The new generation born and brought up in camps is rootless. The condition of thousands of camp-dwellers continues to be pathetic. My generation is busy looking after the elders and earning a livelihood.
The book, A Long Dream of Home, marks the end of twenty-five long years of silence of a community whose predicaments, ordeals and valid demands have not only been forgotten by the nation, but also not even addressed adequately by successive governments in India.
In 2005, my father, Arvind Gigoo, wanted to bring out a book containing writings of the Pandit exiles. It was the fifteenth year of the exodus of Pandits. His idea was to compile stories, both fiction and non-fiction, and poems written by those displaced people who had begun to write. These were stories of our lives in Kashmir, our displacement, and our lives in camps. In 2009, I started working on my first novel, The Garden of Solitude. By 2012, my father and his two friends had compiled some good writings of Pandit exiles. These writings were published in the form of a book titled From Home to House which came out in March 2015.
Some years ago, I met Varad Sharma, a twenty-something chap whose parents had fled Kashmir when he was only some months old. I met him in a television studio during a programme on the displaced Pandits of Kashmir. He was passionate about writing and documenting stories of our community. He had a burning desire to do something of significance. We exchanged ideas, and decided to bring out a book of memoirs. I had read some holocaust memoirs and novels. Varad had never been to Kashmir after migration. I had been to Kashmir five or six times after migration. Many Pandits had been kind enough to share their memoirs with my father last year. Reading these memoirs was an unsettling experience. These memoirs were about persecution, murders, kidnappings, banishment, horrible life spent in camps, diseases and deaths.
In Spring this year, we shared a synopsis of the book with publishers in India. Most were favourably inclined. Himanjali Sankar, the Commissioning editor at Bloomsbury India, said yes almost instantly. Varad and I worked on a war-footing for four months and submitted the manuscript. I went to Jammu to gather stories of people living in the camps there. One retired school teacher, Mr Kabu, spoke about how thousands of tribal raiders from across the border with Pakistan, supported by the Pakistani army, entered Kashmir in 1947 and raided a village in Baramulla. He narrated how the tribal marauders terrorised his family and other Pandit families in their village. Mr Kabu’s son was murdered by militants in Gool in 1997. His wife died some years earlier. He recounted the story of his struggles and predicaments. He lives alone in a camp now, and continues to dream of his old home in Kashmir. His only wish is to go back to his homeland.
A Long Dream of Home features haunting memoirs and narratives about the persecution of Pandits in Kashmir during the advent of militancy from 1989 to 1991, the targeted killings and kidnappings, their exodus and life in exile. The authors of these memoirs belong to four generations. Those who were born and brought up in Kashmir, and fled while they were in their forties and fifties; those who lingered on in their homes in Kashmir despite the threat to their lives; those who got displaced in their teens; and those who were born in migrant camps in exile. These are stories about camp-life, survival, alienation, the re-discovery of past, ancestry, culture, and roots and moorings.
There is an account of the persecution of a Pandit family in Anantnag in the spring of 1990 after militants had kidnapped and murdered their neighbour’s daughter who was a nurse at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura, Srinagar. One story is about a person whose name was on the hit list of a militant organisation in his village in Handwara, Kashmir. There is an account about the killing of Indian Air Force officers by ‘mujahids’. One person narrates an account of the days when the time in the clocks and watches in Kashmir was made to go back by half an hour to synchronize with the Pakistan Standard Time. A student paints a haunting picture of the horrors of camp life. A researcher talks about the transformation she undergoes upon visiting her old house in Kashmir after twenty-two years. A teacher writes about the struggle of the displaced school and college lecturers to establish camp schools and colleges for the displaced students in the Jammu province in the early 1990s. Two teenagers and a seventy-year-old woman share their experiences of living in a migrant camp for twenty years. My father recounts the societal and political changes in downtown Srinagar before and during the turbulent period, paints a disturbing picture of his struggles in exile and sums up with two open letters addressed to Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits. A filmmaker describes the conditions in which he and his production team shot the television serial Gul Gulshan Gulfam in Srinagar despite threats from militants in 1989. One award-winning writer has written an account of the twelve days he and his wife spent holed up in fear, isolation and gloom in their own home in Srinagar because they were not welcome in Kashmir after a brief stay in Delhi. Varad Sharma (co-editor) describes the conditions in which his family migrated from Kashmir, and explores how an inherited memory has become his only connection with his homeland where he can’t return. I recollect the last days of my grandfather who died of Alzheimer’s in exile and my grandmother who died when my parents took her to Kashmir to visit our ancestral house in Srinagar.
I met several other camp-dwellers and exiles who have been living in wretched conditions for the past twenty five years. Every day, they dream of their homes in Kashmir. They yearn to return and to spend their remaining lives in their homeland. Listening to their stories was a life-altering experience for me. They belong to far flung areas of Kashmir and, even today, they call Kashmir their only home.
The book, A Long Dream of Home, also features photographs of the abandoned, destroyed and dilapidated houses and temples of Pandits, and the camps they lived in Jammu and elsewhere.
NAW- The Kashmir issue is as yet unresolved and while it’s not really a writer’s job to offer political solutions, during your conversations and in the course of your research, have you stumbled upon a meaningful solution that can help in reinstating the Kashmiri Pandits to their lost homeland? If given a chance, would you like to return to Kashmir?
The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits remains one of the darkest chapters in the history of contemporary India. Kashmir, ravaged by two-and-a-half decades of terrorism, militancy and counter-insurgency, continues to be a flashpoint between India and Pakistan. The displaced and homeless Pandits, who are the original inhabitants of Kashmir, find themselves caught in a vortex. There hasn’t been much progress on their return to and rehabilitation in Kashmir. Their demand for truth, reconciliation and justice has remained unheard for years.
It is important to know the history of Kashmir to understand what Kashmiri Pandits have gone through over the centuries. Kashmir has seen brutal conquests and conflicts – of class, of faiths and of ideologies. Over the centuries, the Pandits of Kashmir have faced persecution by successive Muslim rulers. In the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Sultan Sikandar ‘Butshikan’ (destroyer of idols), descendant of Shah Mir, the founder of the Shah Miri dynasty of Kashmir, unleashed a reign of terror, imposing jizya (poll tax) on Pandits, ravaging ancient temples and forcibly converting them to Islam.
The repression of Pandits in Kashmir continued throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries during successive Muslim regimes under the Chaks, Mughals and Afghans.
What happened in 1989 was a well-thought-out plan to oust Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir. The plan was to Islamicise Kashmir and seek its merger with Pakistan.
One can go on and on about how Pandits have always been soft targets. Sadly, in the current political discourse, Pandits continue to be a forgotten entity.
But if Pandits are to return to Kashmir and rebuild their houses, the people of Kashmir must create the conditions. Hundreds of houses and temples have been destroyed. Can Kashmiris rise above sectarian, religious and ideological beliefs, and pledge to create a Kashmir where everyone can thrive and co-exist in harmony? Can the Muslims pave way for a harmonious co-existence with the Pandits? Can they cultivate tolerance? At an individual level, the answer to all these questions is an emphatic Yes. But at a collective level, one is doubtful. There are varying aspirations and perceptions among people in both the communities. There is bitterness. For genuine reconciliation to happen between the two communities, Kashmiri Muslims should visit the camps in Jammu and spend some days there. They should invite the displaced Pandits to return to their homes. And they should then shun elements which stand for sectarianism, religious bigotry and violence.
I envision a Kashmir where multiculturalism, secularism and syncretism blossom. Where Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, agnostics and atheists are able to live in peace. Perhaps generations from now the condition of Kashmir will improve, and people from all faiths and ideologies will find it the best place in the world to inhabit. It will be a place for everyone.
The younger generations of both the communities must lead the way. Governments will only talk when it suits their vested interests. I don’t think they are genuinely interested in addressing the concerns of the Kashmiris.
But in a larger context, there has to be a lasting political resolution to this dispute. And the solution must be acceptable to all the stakeholders of the state– the displaced Pandits, the Muslims in Kashmir, the Dogras and Sikhs of Jammu and the Ladakhis.
I go to Kashmir only as a tourist now. Apart from strong emotional ties, there is little left which binds me to Kashmir. But I wonder if return is possible. Kashmir has become very radicalised. Separatist groups continue to oppose the idea of a separate Pandit homeland in Kashmir. Delhi is my home now. Kashmir is a memory.
NAW- Kashmir hasn’t received the same sort of coverage in fiction as compared to other aspects of Indian society, at least not as much as the caste system or even Naxalism which has been covered extensively by some Indian authors like Roy or Lahiri in their works. Do you think there is a need for better and stronger narratives from Kashmir? And how does A Long Dream of Home succeed in fulfilling this gap?
A Long Dream of Home is the first-ever book of memoirs. It’s our The Diary of Anne Frank. It carries the voice of a supressed, subjugated and ousted people who are the original inhabitants of Kashmir, and whose history goes back 5000 years. Being exiles, it is our responsibility and bounden duty to preserve what is on the brink of extinction, to end the silence, to tell a tale, and to let the world know that we still exist, despite the efforts to ‘ethnically cleanse’ us.
I’m happy that youngsters from Kashmir have started writing. It is through writing that we will understand one another and know our collective suffering.
NAW- Kashmir has been a recurring theme in most of your works such as The Garden of Solitude and again in A Long Dream of Home. While it’s impossible to dissociate one’s identity when writing about a subject close to heart, The Garden of Solitude tackles the plight of Kashmiri migrants well giving equal insights into the lives of both Pandits and Muslims without delving deep into the political aspects and instead focussing on the humane part. How did you manage to walk such a tight rope? Did you plan it ahead in advance as a narrative which would not deal with the much discussed political aspect behind the Kashmir problem?
The Garden of Solitude told a story. Much of the story was my own. Writing fiction is a very complex task. It is impossible to be myopic while writing a novel. Rigid opinions and personal prejudices must not be allowed to stymie the art of fiction. Mostly, the characters come alive, as one creates them. They dictate the terms. They shape their own destiny. They conspire. They lead the way. They grow. They unravel the mystery. They illuminate the places we inhabit. A writer becomes a mere slave.
As a novelist and storyteller, I don’t bother much about how people will read. Readers are very discerning. They read in intelligent and clever ways. As a novelist, one hopes that reading broadens the horizons of readers. The very act of writing or recounting is political. What happens in my novel is an outcome of politics. But ultimately, the story is a human story. It’s a story of love, betrayal and longing.
NAW- Tell us about your book, A Fistful of Earth. Not many Indian authors venture into short stories these days even though it’s such a powerful medium.
Many stories are set in a land ravaged by political upheaval and war. The characters find themselves trapped in circumstances over which they have no control. One story is about a researcher unearths secrets about a dying clan. Another one is about a monk who encounters an enigmatic stranger at a railway station. There is one which is about a municipal commissioner who goes mad for no discernible reason. One is about a medical intern who discovers a shocking secret after a patient’s death. One is about two chess-loving inmates who are unable to escape from a prison long after it has ceased to be one. One is about a refugee who undertakes an odyssey through time and memory in search of his lost friend.
NAW- In a Fistful of Earth, the surreal tone managed to bring out the sadness very well but it also leads to a sort of detachment between the reader and the overall narrative. Do you think a forceful narrative would have worked better?
I wrote the stories over the past five or six years. I’m drawn to dark, depressing stories. If you think the surreal tone in the stories gives rise to a detachment of sorts, then I’m satisfied. This is how I read stories. For me, a good story must create detachment. It’s an experience I not only relish, but crave. It’s unsettling but redemptive.
NAW- Your prize winning story The Umbrella Man has a passive narration scheme which works very well for the story. Did your background in film making help you in observing and interviewing people? How do you go about researching for your works?
Nothing like simplicity. Bina Shah, one of the judges of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize said, “‘The Umbrella Man’ presents a surreal meditation on mental health and the environment, through its ghostly voice, abstract and philosophical themes, and telescopic structure. This insightful critique reminds me of only one thing – that one is always a learner.
Of late, I have developed a tendency to write what I visualise. First I see and then I write. The way screenwriters do. It’s an interesting way. I learnt a lot during the making of my two short films.
I am not a good researcher. I watch movies, read books, observe people, listen to their stories. And I dabble in writing. That’s all.
NAW- Winning a prize can lead to more visibility but is there a problem in India where serious writers often do not get the limelight whereas some mediocre authors manage to steal the show? In your opinion, is there a shift in Indian publishing where light hearted and under researched works are being promoted solely because they mint more money for the publishing house?
We live in an age of a vibrant social media where instant publishing tools are readily available. Everybody has access to everybody else. Everybody stakes claim to the limelight. There’s a profusion of writing and publishing in India. India presents a market for all types of creative writing. A decade ago, it was not easy to get published. Now there are several avenues for beginner-writers to write and get published without much difficulty. People have varying tastes and sensibilities. It’s impossible to be certain of what the masses like and dislike. But good writing is hard to come by these days.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How easy or difficult was it getting your first work published?
A spate of rejections in the beginning. It took a couple of years, but the book saw the light of the day. I didn’t give up hope.
NAW- Please name your favourite authors. Are there any you would like to name as inspiration?
Nikos Kazantzakis and Hermann Hesse are two of my favourite novelists.
NAW- What are you reading currently?
Just finished re-reading Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. I don’t want to read any other book for a month or so. It’s not easy to get over a novel in an instant.