A Long Season Of Ashes: A Memoir Of Pain, Loss, And Longing Experienced By Kashmiri Pandits

Siddhartha Gigoo’s 'A Long Season of Ashes' is an attempt at recording personal perspectives of the 1990s killings and mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.

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A team of from All Parties Migrant Coordination Committee (APMCC), an organisation of Kashmiri Pandits examine the damaged abandoned Kashmiri Pandit (Hindus) residential houses Photo: Getty Images

“...because of the paradoxical impossibilities, it is impossible not to write about the Holocaust. The Holocaust cannot be repaired, avenged, assuaged or even understood. All one can do is to look it in the face and recognize it,” writes Imre Kertész in his remarkable essay “The Exiled Tongue”.

An elderly man sighs, frustrated by the “time-checking” ritual of those around him: ‘This is a refugee camp. Time has no time for us.’ Siddhartha Gigoo’s A Long Season of Ashes is an attempt at recording personal perspectives of the 1990s killings and mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, an attempt at “looking it in the face and recognising it,” so to say. It’s a blend of pain, frustration, loss, despair, and longing for what-was, what-is, and the what-ifs. The personal is political, and the political is deeply personal, as evident in every page here.

Gigoo is no stranger to writing about and around the Valley, the contradictions and complexities so inherent in the landscape and its politics despite what the naysayers will have you believe. And amid the gimmickry and whataboutery of our contemporary political landscape, nuanced and compassionate perspectives are the need of the hour. Opinions on Kashmir and Kashmiri politics can be found in every nook and corner, but an understanding of the same is rarer than blooming foxgloves.

Time as Space and Switching Narrations

A Long Season of Ashes charts Gigoo’s life as a displaced child, living in one temporary shelter after another, a lost teen trying to make sense of his life, identity, and purpose, and an adult coming to terms with his past, heritage, and the historical injustices he had to witness and experience. The narrative constantly shifts from one incident to another, from one date to another, throughout the length of this memoir, as if someone’s recollecting their life beside you. The word memoir comes from the French word “mémoire,” which, in turn, comes from the Latin word “memoria”, both meaning memory. In that sense, the book is a perfect exercise in writing a memoir, an amalgamation of memories in their unadulterated form.

The switches in time and space create a memory-like experience, an act of remembering and collecting seemingly unrelated, incomplete fragments. Time, in the book, also acts as a parallel to space, the experience of being displaced and lost through history, geography, and the resulting identities (or a lack thereof) channeling through an experience of being displaced and lost through time. Time replaces space. Space replaces time. Both fragmented.

Collecting Emotions, One at a Time

Perhaps the only semblance of “structure,” if you may, can be seen through blocks of emotions. There are striking chapters on the life of Kashmiri Pandits in Udhampur: missing basic amenities, each day another survival competition, unheard diseases becoming family members. A woman living in the camp cries for softer days, mourning the lack of privacy, the lack of dignity. Then there are the intensely personal ones: around Babuji and Babi (also mentioned in the dedication), both coping with the loss of their homes, identities, and lives in different ways, both taking those losses and cries to their deathbeds.

The concluding chapters brim with frustration: at society, the nation, and mostly the government for letting a community be bereft of the basic right to life and freedom, for betraying its trust over and over through the decades, regardless of the superficial promises made in all their chest-thumping glory.

The memoir is at its strongest, perhaps, when it exists at the crossroads of what-was and what-is. A memorable part is Siddhartha’s journey back to his home in Safa Kadal, Srinagar, Kashmir. He visits his home, now someone else’s, and looks at the familiar engravings, his posters that remain, windows made of recollections, rooms made of habits. When meeting his Pa and Babuji’s friends, the conversations are laced with nostalgia, disbelief, pity, compassion, and sympathy. It’s a memory of a home, not the home itself.

Without Place, Without Identity

“Is it a boon or a curse to be thrown into a situation that makes you lose your memory? (...) You can’t recall the name you inherited. Your own name. (...) I forget the name that was once on my lips. I don’t know what to do or whom to ask. I search for it everywhere. (...) And then I remember a photograph. On it is written a name, which was once my life.”

Gulzar, in the introduction to his novel Do (translated into English as Two), mourns the lack of literature around the Indian partition. They kept writing about the Second World War, he rues. to come to terms with its horrors, but we kept silent, allowing the wounds in us to fester. To remain silent, therefore, is to not acknowledge. To not acknowledge is to create conflicts that shape the decades to come, conflicts that can change the fundamentals of society as we know it to be.

As an entire generation ceases to be, the firsthand witnesses of these horrors, and a new generation grows up, that experiences the intergenerational baggage and muddled identities, how do you reconcile the gaps in history and memory? How do you become more than a mere footnote in the annals of history?

You remember. You hope. You write.

A Long Season of Ashes does just that.

(Amritesh Mukherjee is a Jaipur-based reader, writer and editor)