“Years from now, children of your children will return and plant saplings in the backyard of their old houses. Go home now and sleep through the dark nights”
I finished reading the book and the first thought that came to my mind was - with the release of Sridhar’s “The Book of Ancestors”, is it time for the Sufi’s foretelling to come true or is this just a milestone in the journey back home – a journey that might never be fully accomplished – a home that might never be reclaimed? The cherries have started to blossom again but is the long winter really over? And then, the uneasiest question of them all – has the finality of the futility of waiting been so absolute that, in Lasa’s words, “This is our end. We have only the past to seek refuge in.”
The Garden of Solitude by Siddhartha Gigoo traces the personal history of a whole generation of Kashmiris (Pandits and Muslims) caught in the whirlpool of the political tumult and military insurgency that the year 1990 brought to a place that school children are still taught as Heaven on Earth. The central protagonist is Sridhar - who belongs to a Kashmiri pandit family and is forced to leave his “home” in the dead of the night at the age of 15. Through his exile, his quest for self discovery, his yearning for the beauty of a childhood buried in Yarbal, and finally his pilgrimage to his abode after 15 years – comes alive the saga of devastation, betrayal, deaths and alienation.
The language of loss, pain, pathos, nostalgia and solitude – translated beautifully in words that come from a heart that has braved through it all – gives away Sridhar as none other than Siddhartha himself, and in parts, maybe his alter ego.
At one level, the book has been an educating experience for me. I did not know the extent of the horror that the exodus of Kashmiri pandits, from their own valley of magnificence and splendor, was accompanied with.
‘Each truck carried a home and hopelessness.’
The description of the inhuman conditions of the camp sites in Jammu, where the ‘sunsets were hollow’ and every day was a funeral (snakebites and sun strokes excuses to cremate bodies that had left their souls behind), bring out the disturbing details of life as a refugee.
It is surprising that so little is written on this. We have libraries of literature on the Hindustan – Pakistan divide, and most of the upheavals we have been unfortunate to experience, but Kashmir remains shrouded in hushed whispers.
Is it because the unrest is still not history; the time for mourning has not yet come?
The book offers no logical reasoning, no logical resolutions – it talks nothing of the politics of the state – Because no logic seemed to exist? Because it did not matter to the common Kashmiri? Because still no one has been able to untangle the chaos that suddenly changed the face of the valley?
As we learn the tragedy of Kashmir through Sridhar, what is striking is Sridhar’s state of mind – he is at times angry, frustrated, bewildered, disoriented, helpless, and even heartbroken, but he never once comes across as bitter or prejudiced. He has seen pandits and muslims suffer equally – both lost Kashmir – one having left it behind – the other having seen it burn to ashes – and he mourns that loss – his longing for a future that reminisces the past is, alas, in vain, he knows.
“The past was too beautiful to be left behind. The past evoked a longing to be re-lived...The present was just a crippled memory...”
…I can’t yet see the future through the tinted glass that’s still foggy from my memory and my dreams – the garden of solitude I have survived, is there a garden of solace in the offing?