That it took twenty-one years for a Kashmiri Pandit to write the first account of the exodus is but a sad reflection on the scholarship of a community that prides itself for being the only one in the world to have hundred percent literacy rate. Among many other things that the community is slowly losing the most telling has been its scholarship or so I thought.
Siddhartha Gigoo’s , ‘The Garden of Solitude’ is a chip of the old block genre of literature. It may disappoint the reader for it does not have the magic realism of a Rushdie or the intricacies that one finds in Tarun Tejpal’s writings. Siddartha’s writing is as simple as the ones that we read as children in our text books, simple but loaded with meaning. The jargon is intentionally kept out as is the bitterness of being in exile. It is this lucidity of the novel that makes it stand out in the swamp of present day modern English literature.
Sridar, a rather uncommon name for a Kashmiri Pandit boy born in seventies, but name apart Siddartha’s protagonist could be anyone of us who was born in Kashmir during those times, when today’s Kashmir could simply have been dismissed as a bad dream. The Garden of Solitude is a docu-novel that recounts the beautiful times of peace in Kashmir, the onset of the armed insurgency, the forced exodus of Pandits and its aftermath. Sridar is not just an eyewitness like the Sanjaya of Bhagwad Gita but is himself a character, a sufferer in every sense of the word. As the novel progresses the author gets a firmer grip on the plot and its characters. His earlier accounts give the impression of being sketchy and a little lost in the maze of his memory. It recounts the days of his growing up in the neighborhood of the downtown Srinagar. At some length the author delves upon the complex relationships between Pandits and Muslims and how suspicion creeps into the fragile peace of these relationships once the call of Azaadi reverberates across the valley much to the chagrin of the Pandits.
Till then the novel is paced even. It is from here on that the lid on the crucible that had held together the different strains breaks free and the novel takes itself out of the cozy confines. It does not mince words and remains honest to the plot. Suddenly the ugly Kashmir (sic) reveals itself.T he contained entropy takes the shape of a hideous beast. The novel travels out and crosses the Jawahar Tunnel for the first time but only to return at a later date.
It records and documents the exodus of a community from what had been its home ever since one knew of history. When the novel takes us to the chaos of refugee camps & schools it speaks of the sordid condition and the inhuman existence in which the Pandits are forced to live. It talks of stink and hopelessness, of rot and dirt, of despair and existential and identity crisis but does not give its opinion. It does not wallow in self pity nor does it bring in the prejudice of a victim. The story is told as it is seen. The author’s protagonist merely mentions to us what he lives through.
Sridar is fortunate not to have lived in refugee camp for long but for all those who suffer them without a hope of freedom from them find voice in the extremely well sketched character of Pamposh, a reticent boy living in one of the many refugee camps in Jammu, who has no more than a cameo in the novel but one that leaves an indelible mark. Through Pamposh one feels the pain of exile and rootlessness but more than the apparent symptoms the putrefaction of the mind that such a state of being brings in with itself, where his grandfather wants to smell the urine of his own granddaughter.
Sridar has shades of Kafka in his character. The meaninglessness of life and existence occupies his mind and that makes him a wandering soul. To me the most beautiful part of the novel is Sridar’s travel to the picturesque Leh. It is here that the novel attains the meaning that it may not seek to find. Sridar meets the mysterious but truly mesmerizing Ameira-a woman without a past as she is described to Sridar. But then the shell crumbles, just a little and we discover a half Kashmiri girl who comes looking for a past eventually to settle in the anonymity of the oblivion. The silence between the two of them and the moment where Sridar’s trembling hands hold hers could easily have been the culmination of the novel.
Dreams and their meanings have a special significance in the novel and it is one such dream that brings Sridar back to the refugee camps that he had left behind. He searches for his friends and their stories but finds none. Time seems to have devoured them all. The world seems to have forgotten the Pandits. Sridar finds a purpose in his living-The book of ancestors!
The novel comes back to Kashmir. Sridar comes home but the occupants aren’t the same.The daughter of the new owners asks her mother who could this man be who speaks Kashmiri like them but isn’t one. The unusual homecoming smells of hope and underlines somehow the layers of complexity that’s inherent in relations between the two Kashmiri communities. He is welcome everywhere and people are cordial but that doesn’t take away the fact that he is seen as someone who has come from Delhi,a guest.
The book ends on a note of optimism or pessimism depending upon how we look at it. The Book of ancestors is published but released on a hot sultry day not in Kashmir but in Jammu where the exiles live. It begins to rain as soon the book launch finishes. The author leaves it open ended. Like everyone else he too isn’t sure if the Pandits will ever return to their Garden of the Solitude.