Painful recollection

 Sridar, the protagonist of this novel, and by extension the author himself, undertakes to “write about exile, migration, the killings, the condition of migrants in the camps at Jammu, the community on the verge of extinction, the loss of identity and homeland… Make the world aware of our helplessness and plight.”

Before 1990, Hindu pandits and their Muslim neighbours lived in peace and amity in Kashmir. Young Sridar’s pristine world changed into a nightmare of “fearful armoured vehicles which marched to roads of the city at all times. The faces of soldiers betrayed anger and hate.” The local newspapers “wrote about the freedom struggle.

Fear ruled the hearts of the pandits, and they became suspicious of their Muslim neighbours and friends.” The same fear corroded the souls of the Muslims, to whom their old pandit friends now “became suspects — informers and agents of India.” Innocent people like the noble Prof Amarnath were senselessly butchered.

Like thousands of other pandits across the valley, Sridar’s family is forced to flee. Herded into nightmarish refugee camps in Jammu, they lose their homes and property and become internally displaced migrant refugees. The pandits of Sridar’s parents’ generation strive to rebuild their lives in an alien land, while the elderly wither and die in shock. Children are sent to Delhi and elsewhere for education, and are their hope for future support. Sridar pursues higher studies, drifting until he finds his true calling as a writer who will one day present before the world the lost history and tragedy of the pandits of Kashmir.

The theme is unique, timely and potentially powerful. However, this grand rough diamond needs more polish to bring out its full sparkle. The writing is patchy. Strong evocative passages alternate with repetitive and awkward lines. Thus, a description of life in the refugee camp (pp 74-75) powerfully captures with matter-of-fact understatement, the tragedy of pandit refugees. “Old and mangled electric wiring peeled from the walls of their old house, broken switches,… keys, clogs, idols, photos of grandparents, ornaments… empty brass vessels and some strings. An old man arranged all these things on the floor and touched them as though they were newly acquired, prized possessions. He kept the bank passbook carefully in his pocket.” 

However, distracting odd patches crop up now and then. Thus Sridar “mastered the art of realising in sleep that he was dreaming a dream and that he could, at will, cease to dream the dream.” Elsewhere, “The pandits watched the scene in terror.

They were mere terrified spectators.” Or, “Their present fear and a sense of horror kept them from imagining the horror of what was to come and become of them elsewhere.” Such hiccups dilute the impact of the novel and the readers’ deeper engagement and understanding. 

Character delineations are sometimes hazy, actions unmotivated and loose ends left dangling. Too many minor characters appear briefly and vanish without a trace.

Sridar briefly befriends Tulmul and Rosie in college. We are also informed at this point that Sridar secretly loves a mystery girl and feels “love, madness, fear, desire.”

After this abrupt and unsubstantiated declaration, they disappear and the needlessly distracting love angle is abandoned. Other characters such as Pamposh, the disturbed young refugee boy, are not fleshed out, but simply serve as plot devices or mouthpieces for ideas.

Stilted dialogues can further strain credibility. Pamposh says, “Every day I live the life of a centipede. I crawl. I lick… People wake up in the morning, hungry and muddled. Their awakenings are pallid…” The poetic monologue continues through three-and-a-half pages! Elsewhere, Sridar tells his father, “I am accumulating the ammunition for a story.” Do real young lads ever talk like this?

The hero, Sridar, is a minor player in Part One. The narrative focus shifts erratically throughout Part One from little Sridar to Lasa, to sundry other peripheral characters, hampering the reader’s deeper involvement with a compelling protagonist.

The garden of solitude
Siddhartha Gigoo
Rupa and Co,
2011, pp 244,
Rs 195

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