THE exile of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990 has stimulated a variety of writings. Siddartha Gigoo’s debut novel The Garden of Solitude is yet another addition to their growing number. It recreates the conditions that led to the exile of Pandits from Kashmir and its painful effect on their life in the inhospitable plains of Jammu. It also focuses on its protagonist Sridar’s personal struggle to cope with his changed situation.
In the early part of the novel, we see Sridar live happily with his parents and grandparents and his Muslim neighbours and their children. The close bonding of the two communities is established at various levels. We also learn about Sridar’s fears, stirrings of first love, and his desire to become a writer. Soon after, things change dramatically. Pandits perceive threat and menace in the looks of Muslims, and Muslims begin to distrust Pandits, for being “informers, agents, and kafirs.” Muslim boys cross the country’s border to return with military training and weapons and become militants; they exchange fire with soldiers and police, which results in civilian casualties. Pandits are threatened, kidnapped, and killed, which forces them to flee.
Gigoo’s portrayal of the miserable life of Pandits in Jammu, in cramped, unhygienic tents and hovels, come off very well. They are totally disoriented. Almost all of them curse their fate and “resign to the inevitable.” Sridar’s grandfather Mahanandju, his father Lasa, and several of his friends and acquaintances feel that life has lost its meaning.
Though Sridar, too, feels like that, he does not lose sight of a possible new world. In Baderkote, he keeps himself busy with reading and writing. He also goes places to further his career, and works with a film maker in Delhi. He stays on with his dreams and remembers his father’s advice: to search for shreds of his identity, of “your essence and your own history.” He makes a trip to Ladakh, where he meets Ameira. He becomes intimate with her, wanders around a good deal, and tries to know himself, but the memory of his past makes him feel “a deep void within him.” He goes to America, too, where he meets other Pandits, listens to their stories and opinions, and takes time out to start writing about his ancestors.
Back in India, he revisits the migrant camps, to meet people and listen to the stories of their past. He makes a trip to the Valley, goes to his old home, meets all his old neighbours, and tries to collect information about his great grandfather who was said to have written a book. Soon after his return, his book about his ancestors is launched.
Gigoo has a firm grip on his material, and he writes well. He makes us see and feel the pain and suffering of the Pandits. One feels a little uneasy only when he makes them accept their situation as part of their fate. Nevertheless, his novel deserves to be read and should be of interest to all kinds of readers.
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