Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Kashmir in two books Part 2 - A Long Dream of Home by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma and Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita

Over the past few years, I've developed a growing affinity towards memoirs and autobiographies. Non fiction has never been my cup of tea, but these seem to have slipped through the cracks. The last year and a half has seen me grow increasingly interested in the happenings in and around Kashmir. Perhaps it was a year ago that I published the post - Kashmir in two books Part 1 - Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by A.S. Dulat. The former gave an average Kashmiri Muslim's perspective, the other provided insight into the Gordion knot that is the Kashmir problem and the parties involved, all from the perspective of an Indian Intelligence agent.

The two books in this post are about the 1990 exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from the Kashmir Valley. Hundreds of pandits were forced to flee their land at the time of the insurgency on or after 19th January, 1990 in an ethnic cleansing and Islamisation of Kashmir.

A Long Dream of Home: The persecution, exile and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma

This is a collection of anecdotes from the time of turmoil in Kashmir from 1989-2003, when the Kashmiri pandits were exiled from the region, the years leading up to it and the time that followed. It is divided into four parts: 

1. Nights of Terror - events witnessed in Kashmir at the heart of the exile movement, in the years 1989-91.
2. Summers of Exile - events the horrible decade and a half spent struggling in exile
3. Days of Parting - events leading up to the exodus, including the tribal raiding in 1947 and the long history of the pandits in the Kashmir valley
4. Seasons of Longing - voices of Kashmiri pandits old and young, the former yearning to return home while the latter wanting move on, home a mere fable told by generations past. 

The tone of the book is its defining feature. It has no pretense. It is not a work of literature, it is a nightmare in written form. It takes great effort to read and not turn a blind eye to the things written in the accounts, but it is also difficult to put the book down. Very enlightening. Through the stories is given a brief history of the pandit community and their rich legacy of nearly five thousand years in the valley. Through the myriad anecdotes, Kashmir emerges as a kind of character and her beauty is palpable... the natural beauty of the valley, the close knit communities, the salty tea and houseboats. 

Then, the atrocities of 1989-90 range from bleak to horrific. The chants of creating a place "without the Pandit men, but with their women," people being forced to set their watches back a half an hour to match the Pakistan time, that story about the man who was shot in a tub of rice and how the rice turned red... the ever menacing ever present death. That nonchalance with which each of the writers talks about people dying ("We heard the news that he was shot outside his house," "I learnt later that they had got to him," "That evening they shot him on the street"...) makes you feel ashamed of your safety... the very ability to wake up and leave the house in the morning is a luxury. 

Part 3, Summers of Exile, talks about the years spent by many in camps and apartments across Jammu, suffering the heat and poverty that had been imposed upon them by circumstance. There are families who had put their entire life's savings into the house they were forced to vacate. How do you define the value of material possessions - lost as well as lacking? Anecdotes have also been given of generations who have been brought up entirely in the camps. Whose very postal address reads "Jagti Camp." Children whose futures were cut off even before they started. In the eponymous story, Sushant Dhar writes,

"I became friends with the summer, despite the atrocities it unleashed. But I always dreamt of watching the snowfall. I dreamt of snow, of touching it, walking on it. Whenever I heard reports of snowfall in Kashmir, I would dream of leaving my quarters and going back to the distant land, the land of my birth, just to see the snow. I longed for snow. For many years, before sleeping, I imagined myself walking through a land covered entirely with tress and snow, walking through the fields and reaching the top of a mountain; this helped me sleep in the summers."

"The years that followed brought mere dejection and anguish among the people. The government provided paltry relief and ration, while assuring us of building better shelters. Little did we realise that these were empty and hollow promises. Our condition was being pitied. We were not even a vote-bank. We were merely a liability for the authorities. We didn't matter. We were as good as the dead."

Many of the stories mention the network of the Pandits in Jammu kept alive by their newspaper and radio station - how they keep track of familiar faces in the obituaries on these channels. So many details reappear across stories, so many perspectives mix and mesh. This is not a political book, it will not try to give you insight. It is not unbiased or impartial and it's not analytical. Its beauty lies in a shared narrative and a collective consciousness. It's simply a recollection and a plea... to be remembered. It's a protest and a memorial and an epilogue... an attempt to be unforgettable. 

Our Moon Has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home by Rahul Pandita 

While it seems wrong somehow to talk about either of these books with a critical eye, I had the advantage of reading this right after the first - so I was a bit seasoned (deadened would be a better word) to the atrocities that were sure to follow. Rahul Pandita's book is in fact a political statement, possibly because it is one fleshed-out book, and not a series of glimpses. 

From the beginning there is ample clarity on what he hopes to achieve with this book; he also admits to curating history to make his point. He is open about his one-dimensionality, if you can call it that. He doesn't aim to be objective, he doesn't seem to care enough. In a long book such as this, as opposed to the stories of A Long Dream, it is conspicuous that the simultaneous tragedies suffered by the average Kashmiri Muslims are not treated with any sympathy. 

An interesting example: One of the stories from A Long Dream talks about the general panic among the Muslims during the exodus. A rumour had been doing the rounds with the Muslims that this was an Indian-government initiative to vacate the Hindus from Kashmir before bombing the area. While the Pandits fled for their lives, their Muslim neighbours were afraid that they would be picked clean once the Hindus were gone. A Long Dream uses this fact ironically, to show how both sides were gravely affected with mass hysteria, and how ridiculously suspicious neighbours had suddenly grown of each other. Pandita mentions the same incident - and scoffs and seethes. He cannot, and will not, try to be "fair." This isn't the time, he conveniently feels. 

“Another problem is the apathy of the media and a majority of India’s intellectual class who refuse to even acknowledge the suffering of the Pandits. No campaigns were ever run for us; no fellowships or grants given for research on our exodus. For the media, the Kashmir issue has remained largely black and white—here are a people who were victims of brutalization at the hands of the Indian state. But the media has failed to see, and has largely ignored the fact that the same people also victimized another.”

It's odd how often Pandita criticises others for being black and white, and proceeds to do the same! But his rage is pure and it burns you. Pandita has fashioned a powerful narrative out of his and his family's memories. His mother stands out. Throughout the book, his mother reminisces about their house in Kashmir, how it has twenty one rooms. Never mind the fact that they no longer own it, having been forced to sell it while in exile. Pandita describes a point when a few thugs show up outside their house and point to neighbourhood houses, loudly declaring which one they would like to take. That incident illustrated better than any description, the sudden encroachment upon their lives.e Death is everywhere, yet each loss is an unexpected and searing cut. A slow and steady stripping away of humanity.

It seems wrong to scrutinize it so, yet I must say - this is a brilliant, moving, terrifying story of a boy. One boy, plausibly representing many, who has suffered a great injustice, who is stranded in the unfamiliar, torn away from everything he considers his own. I couldn't stop the tears rolling down my cheeks. I could hardly stop shuddering. Our Moon Has Blood Clots is an intense book. The author's constant struggle, with his identity, his memory, his history is very evident and this makes it a personal, very emotional book. But both Curfewed Night and A Long Dream of Home capture and subsequently transcend the personal, and make better stories of Kashmir as a whole. 

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