Debut novelist Siddhartha Gigoo says that in writing a story based on the Kashmir conflict, he did not want to be one-sided
Let us rejoice for the dead/and grieve for the living/as we go/from ashes to ashes.
These lines from a poem by a 22-year-old Kashmiri migrant boy make you wonder: What kind of world have we created, that in the bloom of youth, when kids should be writing about, maybe, first love, or fearless adventure, or at least about cars and computers, they write about death being preferable to living?
One comes upon these lines and others like them if one looks up Siddhartha Gigoo on the Internet. Only now, Siddhartha is some 16 years older than he was when his exile poetry was first published. And he has joined the ranks of novelists, with his debut work of fiction, “The Garden of Solitude” (Rupa), released the other day in New Delhi. Among the few novels dealing with the crisis in the Kashmir Valley, the book recounts the story of shattered lives in some excruciating detail.
However, notes the author, his intention was primarily to write a novel, not to document events, and significantly, he wanted to ensure it was “not just one-sided”.
Siddhartha, currently based in the Capital where he works in an IT company, has not only grown from adolescence to adulthood, from poetry to prose (he is convinced people don't read poetry anymore), but from the confusion and horror of a young Kashmiri Pandit in the throes of the Valley crisis to a mature artist who realises he must distance himself from personal experience to be able to create a work that speaks a universal language.
But he doesn't just balance real life and fiction; he has to balance a technical job with the flights of an artist. “I know, I know,” he says, doing away with the need to describe the sheer frustration of having to delve into dry documents when the writerly pen longs for verbal adventure. “I'm not a computer engineer. I work as an editor there,” he explains.
A dream project
Despite being a published poet since his 20s, with two anthologies of poetry to his credit, “Reflections” and “Fall and Other Poems”, Siddhartha is modest in his debut as a novelist.
Describing the novel as a “dream” project, he says he would write and “keep it somewhere in the closet,” but felt encouraged when his wife and his father (who used to teach literature) read the manuscript and found it worthy. “Then I thought of showing it to publishers.”
He took his “own sweet time,” writing the novel, says Siddhartha. “I did not have much research. The only thing I had was my memory. In 1990 I was 15 when the whole thing erupted. Overnight it happened; there was militancy, there were disappearances and, finally, there were killings. When the whole thing happened it was too shocking. I remember it happened on January 19, 1990. I was witnessing the whole thing unfolding layer by layer. The old people, they lost their memory to dementia…”
There was no cable TV or Internet, “so these things have gone undocumented. There were unfinished stories, unfinished conversations. But there is completeness sometimes in incompleteness,” he says philosophically, adding he didn't want to “bore” his readers with too much detail.
It was about two years ago he started writing the novel. Distance, they say, is required to be able to turn experience into literature. “My whole novel spans 15 years. I thought it was the right time. Also, there's this whole thing about incubation.” Had he written it 10 years earlier, he feels, he might not have arrived at the ending he did.
“Typically, the Kashmiri Pandits have a lot of bitterness,” notes Siddhartha, “but I did not, because I thought history happened, and history has such complex issues.”
So as a novelist, his central concern was what kind of story he wanted to tell. “I struggled with the form. I had no dearth of stories.” Siddhartha says while it is for readers to decide whether he has been successful, his attempt has been to speak through his characters, events, through different voices. “People, especially my generation, should see a little bit of their story. We have seen this erosion of identity, of loss, and love. So I had to maintain this distance between my identity, what I had suffered, and the novel.”
Saying it is “dangerous” if as a writer he harbours bitterness, Siddhartha wants to “look at these terrible, terrible times not with bitterness but with compassion.”
Saying he has always been “a lover of sad stories,” Siddhartha has a number of short stories ready but is not game for his next publication yet. Certain he does not want to base his next work on the Kashmir conflict, he says “I'm not looking for encouragement. I'm looking for responses. That would help me in writing.”