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Review of Siddhartha Gigoo's Book, Garden Of Solitude

By Amit Kumar

23 March, 2011

‘All I dream of now is a garden of solitude,

where I get a morsel of rice in the

morning and a morsel of rice in the evening.'

This very first sentence sets the tone for Siddhartha Gigoo's book, The garden of solitude. Throughout the book the author keeps looking for this solitude, the solitude which he and some other fellow travellers have lost. It's a longing to get back in that solitude. It's a narrative of a Kashmiri Pandit longing for his homeland. While I was reading the book, I felt the pain and suffering which Kashmiri Pandits went through, “Every truck carried a home and helplessness” (pp-66). The powerful and emotional narrative of a young Kashmiri Pandit about his grandparents, parents, and the pitiful condition of his neighbours made me stick to the book till I finished it. Being myself a student of Kashmir history I have observed in some of my interviews how people broke down and how I had to console them. Gigoo's work was also very much like the interviews of many Kashmiri Pandits I had done. The only difference being that Gigoo penned down what he saw and how he felt certain things from the day he left his home to the present day. If you are not aware of what happened in Kashmir in late 1980's and early 1990's, then this book with its emotional appeal and a balanced analysis is definitely going to make you cry.

The strength of this book is in its description of the condition that Kashmiri Pandits lived in camps. How the older Pandits are dying every second and how it makes little difference if their neighbours are now Hindus (Dogras of Jammu), and how they still long for their Muslim neighbours. Gigoo might be a student of English literature, but philosophy seems to be his strength. All the letters in the book in their direct speech are a powerful account of his philosophical understanding of things. But the best part of the book to me was his trip to ladakh, where for a minute I felt as if I was reading Gabriel Marquez's, Hundred Years of Solitude. Meeting a Lama in ladakh and his attempt to dwell in the meanings of life and death, his meeting Amiera an English woman in ladakh is where Gigoo sheds of his overcoat of being a Kashmiri Pandit and Gigoo as a novelist and writer comes up.

After I completed the book for two three days I kept thinking about Gigoo and his book. The first question which came to my mind was what I should call this book, and even now when I am writing this review I don't have a very satisfactory and clear answer. Is it history, fiction, a memoir, autobiography or something else? Though after the Post-modernist discourse every category we use has been questioned, for e.g. the distinction between history and fiction seems to be dissolved for scholars like Hayden White and they argue history to be a construct like pure fiction. But still there needs to be demarcating lines and where the burden of writing history with proofs doesn't blur the imagination of a fiction writer. Gigoo seems to be caught up in this dilemma as he is neither writing a history nor a fiction; and to me his book falls under the category of a memoir being presented through the protagonist Sridar.

But this has been an issue with most of the authors that have been writing on Kashmir . They neither seem to be ready to take some pain of going to archives/oral history accounts to write some authentic history; neither have they used their imagination to write a good and absorbing fiction. Gigoo's book also suffers from this problem and the reason is, ‘I' the ‘Kashmiri Pandit' being the subject. He seems to be too conscious of his identity and this prevents him from taking the less travelled routes of Kashmir conflict and Kashmiri Pandit migration. He echoes the things and narratives which we have been hearing for last twenty years now.

“Pandits, do not leave your motherland. It's a conspiracy by our enemy to separate brother from brother”. (pp-67)

‘Let the Pandit men leave Kashmir , but let them leave their women behind” (pp-68)

Haven't we seen these two perspectives of Kashmiri Muslims again and again in every book, pamphlet, and propaganda? I am not saying these slogans were not there in Kashmir in early 1990's, but don't we need not to move forward now and look for some other voices that were there. Are we going to narrate what everybody has been saying and which is being ‘sold' continuously or we are going to read the silences which couldn't be expressed. Garden of Solitude fails miserably on all these accounts.

Despite being very clear in his mind about what he is writing, Gigoo ventures in other regions and in others courtyards. He peeps into the homes and hearts of his Muslim brethren, visits Ladakh and gets into a discussion with a Panun Kashmir ideologue. And this is where Gigoo makes his way into what we call ‘ Kashmir problem' without possibly realizing it. He tries hard to do a balancing act, he narrates the agony of an old Kashmiri Pandits, and in the same vein he also tries to capture the fear of paramilitary forces under which a young Kashmiri Muslim spends his time. But in this balancing act, in this idea of neutrality he skips questions which lie at the root of the whole issue. I very much understand that Gigoo is writing a novel not a political commentary, but every language has a politics, as every political act has a particular language. In the garb of optimism for the future generations of both Hindus and Muslims, Gigoo tries not to interrogate the past; and he stops by calling Azaadi a ‘prostitute who lures us with her false charms'.

I always wonder that, who will tackle these difficult questions Mr Gigoo? Who will define Azaadi? And do all Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims actually believe that they have lost last fifteen years? Does a Kashmiri Pandit who is somewhere in California as a CEO of an MNC still dreams of a homeland? I agree with the author that both Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims are the victims, “Muslims lost many children and Pandits lost their elders” (pp-179). But when we try to raise this issue we have first of all try and answer who is responsible for all this. Is it the Muslim or the Hindu or there is someone else playing behind the screen?? Some kind of Orwellian big Brother, which despite being obvious we try not to bring in the picture and keep blaming the two communities? And second, is the idea of loss being equal for both the communities? To me Gigoo's phrase can be changed into ‘Pandits lost their elders and Muslims have been losing their children'.

Apart from the above criticism of the book, the points of criticism which I raise below fit to almost every writer, writing on Kashmir . Gigoo first of all very specifically chooses his area to be the valley and the migrant camps, which is understandable given the diversity of the whole region if Jammu is also included. But still as is said earlier he ventures into ladakh. But the image of Ladakh which he brings up unfortunately is very much like an ‘orientalist writer' writing about India . Ladakh is portrayed as a land of lama's, full of wisdom, peace and happiness. He encounters a woman who though is English by birth but still fits in that ‘exotic view' of ladakh. Is peace, wisdom, love only to be found in ladakh, or their no problems there? What about Buddhist-Shia conflicts? Can't they a part of a narrative which is all about pain and suffering. Is pain only in Valley and migrant camps and exclusively among Kashmiris. This is where our subconscious thoughts about certain things work. Colonial legacy continues to be in our minds and we need to come out of it.

Whenever we talk of Kashmir Pandit migrations from valley, the Kashmiri nationalist discourse brings the Sikhs and Hindus that stayed back an example of the secular nature of the movement. But they are either portrayed as ‘true Kashmiri nationalists' by some and ‘Gaddar's' (infidels) by others. There whole existence is caught up in this dichotomy, and the worst part is that, in the recent literature that has come on Kashmir they are not even mentioned. Gigoo has also these near neat categories of Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pandit in his mind and thus for him also they don't exist at all. There is not a single line on the Sikhs and Hindus that stayed back. Exceptions often shake our theories and question the neat and crisp generalizations we tend to make, but these ‘marginals' are a part of the discourse we write and ignoring them has its own politics.

The best way to be neutral is to write ‘truth' even if its bitter and unacceptable, and Gigoo book compromises on that.

Amit Kumaris a research scholar in the Dept. Of History, Delhi University. aryanamit25@gmail.com






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