“I left my river far behind at a place which was once my home. The river is somebody else’s now.”

Siddarth Gigoo’s novel/historical narrative/realist fiction kept me awake for three nights in a row. I imagined 'Poshkuj' – the brave matriarch with the smile on her face in death. I smiled at imagining Gowri, the eventual successor who turned story teller. But the one, who kept my unblinking eyes open, was Mahananadju. Internally Displaced Migrant (IDM) kept reverberating through my mind like a litany. The novel follows the travails of a Kashmiri Pandit family comprising of three generations who find themselves in the middle of the chaos and turmoil that erupted in the Valley of Kashmir in 1990. Though the point of view keeps changing between the various characters it gives a multi-dimensional view of the fate of the targeted Kashmiri Pandits (a minority in the state) and the opinions and sentiments of a major Muslim population that gets sucked into the vortex of death, mayhem and gore.

The novel is more tell than show with very little dialogue, but some characters have monologues of whole pages giving voice to the helpless, tormented and often resigned “displaced”. These monologues give insight into the life in the migrant camp at Jammu. The growing animosity for the community is vividly, with increasing suspense, depicted in Part One – the frequent posters, letters and physical intimidation of prominent Pandit personalities in every locality and town; the slogans from droning loudspeakers and songs of the euphoric “drug” of ‘azaadi’.  Every aspect of Kashmiri culture makes the narrative poignant and nostalgic for the “what was” – the “Duckback gumboots”; people flocking to Ali’s bookshop; the children playing with cycle wheels all day; boys playing truant from school to watch a movie at cinema halls; Mahananadju’s pheran filled with dates, raisins, almonds and shireen for Sridar; the popular ‘Zon Dab’ radio programme; the almanac ‘nechhipater’ of the Pandit families; both communities going to the ‘peers’ to offer niyaz for the well-being of the family.

The most memorable line for me was: Each truck carried a home, and hopelessness

And the heartrending moment of reconciliation, mutual fear and collective grief at the Qazigund stop while fleeing to Jammu:

There were some who had left without informing their brothers. Qazigund was a place which united brothers and cousins, who had spent years living separately due to family feuds. Brothers and cousins who didn’t talk to one another in their homes embraced when they met at Qazigund. It was a strange feeling of horror, consolation and grief, which united brothers who hadn’t talked for years. A sense of homelessness ignited their hearts with love for one another. A sense of loss made them embrace each other and seek solace in grief. Each one had a story to narrate. They narrated stories of the last few days in their homes to others, whom they had never known. 

Part Two is exclusively devastating in its description of migrant life in the camps. A musing by Sridar’s father Lasa, whose genial courage all along the trauma of migration and rootlessness is remarkable and noteworthy:

Lasa was not able to make up his mind whether such an act of mass migration was a sign of cowardice or great strength and courage. Even years later, he would be not be able to fathom the depth of the wounds the migration inflicted on a generation. 

The resilience of children which keeps getting reiterated from the annals of history in the stories of the forced abduction of Native American children and Aborigines by white racist colonials of Canada and Australia or survivors of the Holocaust concentration camps is brought forth in this line:

In the new city the children found themselves despicably enticed to the new surroundings.

The confusion and skepticism of a little girl in the migrant camp whose mother assures her every day that tomorrow they were going to her grandparents’ house is evident in this insightful line:

In the days to come, Sridar always remembered her as the little girl who waited for a ‘tomorrow which never came’.

The longest monologue of three pages is that of a character Pamposh, who fleetingly makes an appearance as the boy whom Sridar befriends in the migrant camp school. It warrants a reproduction here:

‘Life teaches us that there is beauty in ugliness.’ Sridar said.

Then Pamposh said something Sridar was not prepared for.

“Every day I lead the life of a centipede. I crawl. I lick. I hide. I sting. I wake up to the fumes of kerosene in the morning and the sting of speeding ants, feeding ravenously on the sugar spilled on the floor of the tent. It feels as if I have never had a morsel of rice for ages. I wake up hungry and go to bed hungry. I lead the life of a centipede, I crawl. All around the camp, there is the stench of human excrement and waste. People wake up in the morning, hungry and muddled. The awakenings are pallid. The water in the water tanker smells foul, and the children lie whole day in their own vomit. The quivering smile on my mother’s face is false. I want to peel off that false smile from her face, so that she is beautiful once again. Father spends most of the time playing cards with other migrants near the highway tea shop. I am a mute spectator to the horrors of the life inside my tent. The air inside is squalid. My grandfather barely speaks. He lost his voice while leaving the village. A young man had shown him a gun as he was returning from a butcher’s shop. He still thinks that the young man is hiding around a corner, with a gun, waiting to scare him. He stopped talking after we crossed the Banihal tunnel. I saw him look sadly at the fading mountains for long, till they disappeared completely, one by one, into his frozen dreams. And he swallowed his fright. Today I cannot hear what he says. His words do not come out of my mouth. When we are asleep, we cannot even stretch our arms and legs. There are no hangers to hang our clothes on. No cupboards to keep our personal belongings in. We have no portraits of our gods and goddesses. No pictures of our ancestors. During the day, we hide from the blazing sun. At night we live from one insect bite to another. Centipedes,millipedes, and spiders are our companions. We must learn how to live with them.’

‘My grandfather does not recognize the insects. She confuses a lizard for a plastic toy paralyzed on the wall. Her gaze is fixed at the crucified lizard. For hours and hours, she just gazes endlessly into a dark nothingness! It is a vacant gaze into a world of oblivion and amnesia. Petrified with a sense of desolation, she does not even feel the presence of hundreds of mosquitoes circling her head constantly while she stares into blank space. I do not know if she is hungry or thirsty. When asleep, she resembles a corpse. She perspires. I wake up to feel her pulse and feel happy that she is still breathing. She would be happy in her death, I pray. My mother and sister wash their clothes and the utensils in a puddle of water outside our tent. They line up for hours in the morning to use the makeshift toilet made of torn shreds of canvas, pieces of cardboard and tin. They await their turn at the filthy and stinking toilets while the loitering men watch the women wait to relieve themselves. Many women prefer to go to the stinking latrines at midnight, away from the stare of men. Even the mosquitoes keep away from the foul smelling latrines. Sometimes, I hear women shriek, fall silent and then cry in solace behind the filthy tank. The nights bring squalor, pallor and heat. We live in fear of the mangled and naked electric wires, criss-crossed around wooden poles that hold the canvas of the tent together.

‘There is a large rash on my grandfather’s leg, a rash perhaps from the bite of a millipede. The rash has swollen and become sore now. It oozes puss and resembles a horrifying wound. He scratches the wound with a knife. The festering wound will never heal. I want to burn the wound. The old man looks at my sister change clothes at bedtime. She puts out the light. There are no curtains to hide behind. She sleeps in snatches, sandwiched like an insect between her mother and her grandmother. She dreams nervy dreams of crawling insects in the sun and the shade. The old man wants to touch her clothes hanging from the hook. He smells the clothes of his own granddaughter. And he relishes the putrid smell. We lick the hours that weigh heavy on our half-asleep existence, and tread laboriously into an endless strain of nightmares. The earthen pot in the tent is empty. A discarded plastic bottle used for the toilet contains a few drops of water. I grab it and empty the drops into my parched mouth. My tongue is dry. It can fall off anytime. My grandmother shrieks when she sees the sun. She dreads stepping out of the tent for fear of fainting in the sun. She soils her clothes every day. She can’t even use the bedpan which my mother got for her. From morning to evening she clings to the old box, which she brought along. It sticks inseparably to her chest. I wonder if there are any ornaments or valuables left in it. 

‘Never before have I felt the desire to unknown myself and others. The smell … the touch … the breath … the sigh!

“In an adjacent tent a family of five torture an old man, their foster-grandfather, who lost his mental balance upon seeing his house fade away in a hazy distance. The old man is a burden for his son and daughter-in-law. Another mouth to feed, they feel! He moans at night constantly, and intermittently wakes up to a cold shiver – a nightmare. His son and daughter-in-law taunt him for their amusement. They whisper in his ears that his mother was dead and that she was beaten mercilessly to death. The old man groans and pleads them not to utter the atrocities. Every evening, the torment continues. The maddening laughter of the men ricochets from the tattered canvas tent. Every night the old man cries. He gapes at his son and daughter-in-law and gives them his blessings.

Darkness! Darkness!

‘I wonder what is moral and what is immoral.’ 

Interspersed between the struggle of this family’s quest for sanity are the voices of the Muslims left behind in the Valley who are bearing the brunt of the mighty former colony’s attempts at squashing the almost 50 years old sentiment of ‘Freedom’. Boys killed in gun battles or hurling grenades, or in cold blood while crossing back from the LOC (Line of Control). Boys/men languishing in jails without trial as mental wrecks or helpless inmates alone with the horrors of their sojourn across the border.

The “feigned madness” of some people who wanted to survive or the “acquired madness” of the common people at the mayhem of the scale of the dead and buried is heart wrenching. Amidst the “madness” Tota Maecz’s natural insanity seems the only sensible reaction to all that the chaos around  - her hysterical laughter. This is reinforced in Ali the bookshop owner’s letter to the stoical Lasa on 12 Aug 1994:

I remember your words that we must remain mad in order to be sane. What are we fighting for? What are we living for? What are we dying for? The laughter of the mad woman near your house pierces the day. She laughs at me.

Waiting for your homecoming in sensible times…

Siddarth Gigoo’s pain in writing this is exemplified in part Three and Four wherein Sridar leaves a lucrative job in the US to return and document his community’s invisible pain and unvoiced trauma. The growing hopelessness in the migrant camp is summarized by the aging and haunted Lasa in his letter to his son Sridar:

I met husbands who had lost the love for their wives, and wives who no longer felt the need to hold their husbands’ hands. Some couples have not shared an intimate moment ever since they left their homes. Living in tents has turned them into cold humans. They have forgotten to love, to caress, and to touch. They no longer feel the warmth. They don’t wake up to the warm embraces. They live lives devoid of passion, of desire, of craving. They go to bed tired, and wake up exhausted. They huddle in the dusty corners of the tents. 

The reply of Sridar signifies acceptance and fortitude:

Last summer I saw an old couple sit unruffled outside a canvas tent in the camp. Hot winds had started blowing fiercely. Children ran amok and created a ruckus. People around me seemed to complete the chores hurriedly. Some left the chores unfinished and entered their tent. There was dust all over the camp. A strange ennui engulfed me as I searched for some shade. There was none in sight. I fixed my gaze at the old couple. There was a sad quietness about them. The way they smiled and sighed! It was ineffable. I wish I could read their minds. Then I thought to myself, “Perhaps, they are making love.’ 

In the dreamscapes that Siddarth paints all along in the plot nothing depicts the stoic pride of a community more than:

Every evening the daughter-in-law of the house washed the utensils noisily in the basin, so that their neighbors believed that they had eaten. She ensured that the sound made by the utensils reached the neighbors’ living rooms from the courtyard.

Sridar’s visit to his old house in Yarbal immediately reminded me of Marga Minco’s short story “The Address”. The similarity of Sridar’s / the woman’s numbness at seeing the rooms/belongings being used by someone else is extensively humbling.

Nothing sums up the situation and unanswered questions about the future of a beautiful valley than in Nagraj’s words:

This is not peace Sridar. This is only a semblance of normalcy and peace … common people feel betrayed. They are tired of the violence, the bloodshed and the deaths of their children. Their voices stand suppressed. People want to carry on doing the small things that give them joy. Freedom is an illusion. It eludes them. The rich and the powerful have cheated the poor and the downtrodden. Exhaustion has engulfed the innocent. The rich and the influential are making money while the poor are still chasing a distant dream.’ 

Mahanandju would have understood in his fragmented mind. After all everyone’s destiny Muslim or Pandit is the ‘garden of eternal solitude’.