Sridar, the protagonist of The Garden of Solitude, Siddhartha Gigoo’s debut novel, represents the lived experiences of the author. Gigoo was born in the downtown area of Srinagar in 1974, where he lived until he turned 15. The novel is full of autobiographical details, in particular the migration of Gigoo and his family, along with thousands of other families, from the Valley as militancy rose in the 1990s against Indian rule and the attendant threats to Kashmiri Pandit identity.
Gigoo’s is a significant and insightful piece of historical fiction on the experiences of Kashmiri Pandits vis-a-vis the armed militancy and modern Kashmiri history and politics. It is clear that the novel also aims to document that history and experience beyond what the official historiography records.
The first part of the narrative is set in Kashmir in the 1980s, a decade before militancy set in. It describes Sridar’s peaceful life in his ancestral home in Srinagar. In this relatively peaceful time, “children had complete freedom to play in the saffron fields and the orchards” of Kashmir and the Hindus and the Muslims coexisted in social and cultural harmony. In those days, it was difficult to identify a Muslim from a Hindu as both communities “abandoned themselves to revelry and celebration” on each other’s festivals.
Things changed dramatically when militants targeted some prominent members of the Pandit community. Fearing persecution—“fear ruled their hearts”—the Pandits migrated to safer places such as Jammu and Delhi. Sridar’s family, like many other Pandits, completely shattered under this sudden change in circumstances. Initially torn between migrating and staying on, they decided to move to temporary refugee camps set up by the Indian government in Jammu.
In describing Sridar’s efforts to capture his past, Gigoo condenses dreams as longings for a lost homeland. He recreates memories that flit constantly between past and present reality to depict his character's sense of dislocation. Fearing that his community’s legacy will be forever lost, Gigoo thinks it essential to document the tragedy of the Pandit community by giving their experiences a voice in The Garden of Solitude.
The Pandits in the novel find themselves vulnerable after the militants allegedly resorted to targeted killings of prominent members of the community. The bitterness of forced exile began to plague the age-old religious tolerance of Kashmir. The Pandits started seeing the Kashmiri Muslims as their enemy and many ordinary Kashmiris perceived Pandit migration as a betrayal that had left them behind to face repression at the hands of the Indian state.
The contentious issue of Pandit migration gets stuck between these two sharply opposing versions which are indeed difficult to resolve. Gigoo’s response to this finds a place in the novel: “[People] believed what their leaders wanted them to believe. The truth did not matter. The truth did not exist…Nobody knows the truth. Falsehood has become the truth and people like to listen to things which are not true”.
It is not that only Pandit perspective is emphasised. The Garden of Solitude refers to the impact of military repression on Kashmiri Muslims while keeping the narrative eye on the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits and then their homelessness. To use a term from the eminent Russian critic Mikhail Bhaktin, the novel has a “polyphonic” style in which the Kashmiri Muslim perspective on the migration also has a prominent place.
Gigoo depicts the departure of the Pandits through Manzoor, a Kashmiri Muslim, who tells Sridar’s father, Lasa, “Muslims are safe in Kashmir so long as the Pandits live here. Once the Pandits leave, the Indian forces will kill us.”
Indirectly, the political machinations of the then Governor, Jagmohan, also figure in Gigoo's novel, as when an old man shouts at the fleeing Pandits, “The Hindu Governor has asked them to leave this place. He is the real villain. Islam does not teach violence. It is not right”.
A Kashmiri Muslim friend, Ali, writes poignant letters to Sridar’s family in Jammu, saying that Jagmohan has betrayed them all by driving a wedge between the Pandits and their Muslim brothers, that the Pandit’s homes and their hearts are in Kashmir, and that an era of siege and terror was unleashed in Kashmir after they migrated.
On many occasions the novel reflects the tensions that had set in the relationship between Muslims and Pandits. A young man shouts at the Pandits: “Let the Pandit men leave Kashmir, but let them leave their women behind.”
As militancy begins to get a foothold in the Valley, Lasa tries to allay the fears of fellow Pandits by saying that they have co-existed with Muslims for hundreds of years. Muslim neighbours and friends unambiguously assure the Pandits: “Do not worry. No one will touch you and your family. This is your home. This land is yours too. You are safe”.
Such assurances have no effect as the Pandit's fears grow as militancy rises; by the alarming sight of gun-toting youth getting a hero’s welcome. For a majority of the Muslims of Kashmir, Gigoo states, India represented “oppression and imperialism.”
Kashmiri Pandits, thus, became cultural and spatial migrants in their own land and have to give up the markers of their cultural and geographical identity when they move out of the Valley. In their own country the Pandits were forced into lives of ‘exile’, ‘exodus’, ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’, the descriptions they use for themselves.
In an interview, Mridu Rai, who teaches history at Presidency University, Kolkata, conveys the significance of the terms that the Pandits use for themselves. “The indictment of the Indian state is forcefully expressed in these descriptions and their decrying of both the Indian state’s inability to protect them when in Kashmir and then its failure to rehabilitate them after their forced departure
The Pandits felt betrayed both by militants and the Indian government, a young Pandit in Gigoo’s novel laments: “We were slain there. And now we will be slain here”.
Their exodus severely impacted the collective consciousness of Kashmiri Pandits. Yet, their traditions and shared values served to sustain a vital sense of community amongst them. In official records they were the “Internally Displaced Migrants”. Their migration had the potential to obliterate their distinct identity as they were “apprehensive of their identity getting assimilated in a larger Hindu identity”. Kashmiri Pandit identity has a distinctiveness that set them apart from their co-religionists in other parts of India.
The pathetic living conditions in migrant camps coupled with their loss of home resulted in the Pandits’, especially of the older generation, being overcome by trauma, depression and dementia. A young Pandit narrates the trauma of his elderly grandfather: “My grandfather barely speaks. He lost his voice while leaving the village... 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 his mouth”.
Despite the years of pain, suffering, homelessness and their distancing from Muslims, many Pandits nurture the hope to return to their homes in the Valley. In the words of a Pandit whom Sridar meets while he collects testimonies for his book, this angst and its reparation find place in the novel. Sridar’s father, Lasa, also nurses this hope of returning to the Valley when he writes to Ali: “This parting is not forever. We will meet. We will re-live the lost time”.
In their 1963 guide to historical fiction, David D. McGarry and Sarah Harriman White make a significant proclamation. They argue that “historical fiction is also an introduction to history”. In elaborating upon the special characteristics of the historical fiction genre, they say that it is valuable for readers in that it does not just entertain but also instructs.
Historical fiction speaks both to the past and the present. The genre can lead an inquisitive reader and scholar towards more avowedly historical sources and pave the way for more knowledge and scholarship. The Garden of Solitude is an account of the many perspectives that represent the Kashmiri Pandit’s reality and experience after militancy struck the Valley.
The novel delicately underlines a long-neglected human story and combines its myriad tales of pain, displacement and suffering. Gigoo sensitively brings out the complex saga of the Kashmir conflict. The narrative never claims to depict reality in its entirety or with objectivity. Rather, its strength lies in the way it gives a voice to the multiple dimensions of the conflict. Gigoo’s deflective narrative trajectory lets him veer away from the official, dominant narratives to articulate the enormous suffering that ordinary Kashmiris have lived through. His novel is a voice of a people denied their due place in history and whose very identity is in danger of extinction.
The writer is a blogger and writer based in Kulgam, Jammu and Kashmir.