The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ These immortal words from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Czech novelist Milan Kundera can perhaps set the tone as a prelude to Rahul Pandita’s account of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley during the decade spanning 1985 to 1995.
A memoir of personal suffering and loss, severing of intensely felt ties to Kashmir, which set in him a transcendental feeling of homelessness in his own country, Our Moon Has Blood Clots is a riveting read at one level, and a political project at another. For Pandita, the personal is inextricably tangled with the political, and he manages to bring to light a chapter that lurked for long in the shadowy corridors of history, unnoticed by many and uncared for by most.
Because Pandits are a minority sect within a minority religious group, the Hindus, in Kashmir, their mass exodus remains a hushed up scandal that the political and intellectual classes more or less choose to ignore, ostensibly for the greater good of the secular fabric of the country. A stable population during the Dogra rule (1846 – 1947), about one-sixth of the people left Kashmir after independence, in the wake of riots and subsequent land reforms in the 1950s. Yet, the biggest blow to their integrity came on the heels of rising Islamic militancy in Kashmir that was partly facilitated by Pakistan, and partly a reaction to the brutalities of the Indian armed forces in the Valley.
The Pandits, were, however, neither here, nor there. About 3,50,000 of them were displaced or forced out because of terrorist acts, and about 700 of them were killed in the growing tension. What Pandita achieves is a rehabilitation of this discarded memory from the national reservoir of remembrance. He ties together myriad generic frames and forms — interviews, first personal accounts, reflection and speculation as well as knitting in scattered strings of historical evidence. Banking on his melancholic reminiscence, he exposes the frailty of human connections as kin turns against kin when faced with the demonic avatar of a masked, rifled terrorist. Or, when young boys decide to ‘mark their territories’ by pissing in the homes of the Pandits, whom the Hindus had equally betrayed during their years of deepest anguish.
One of the recurring refrains of the book happens to be the insistence by Pandita’s mother, a refugee now, to remind her new and equally derelict neighbours that her house in Kashmir had 22 rooms. Uprooted from her homeland and having been a witness to the murder of her nephew, Ravi, Pandita’s mother had lost a part of her soul and sanity to the mournful winds between the chinars of Kashmir. Her difficult transition from a well-heeled homemaker living inside a kothi to a refugee surviving in a tiny apartment in Delhi had made her take succor in the vestiges of her memory of those semi-opulent times, with retelling of that bit from her personal life becoming a twig to hold on to during the years of loss and longing.
Agha Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri poet who emigrated to USA, called Kashmir the country with no post-office. The Kashmir of memory is also a Kashmir of love, lost and found, of families scattered, of bonds broken and sometimes forged again. Pandita evokes a Kashmir of the Pandits unsullied by the vagaries of the past, despite repeated instances of exodus at different times. Always a persecuted lot, the plight of the Pandits must not be confused by the lament of other Hindus, Brahmins mostly, who exploited the discrimination suffered by the former to advance their own causes.
The descent into fear and becoming ‘nobody’s people’ are described poignantly by Pandita, often furnishing extracts from interviews that he collected when he visited a ramshackle refugee colony in the outskrits of Jammu. Despite his honest attempt to portray the flight of the betrayed Pandits, as the ‘common man on the streets’ participated in some of the murders that his family has been witness to, Pandita’s account, however, does have a serious lapse. It is heavily inflected towards evoking empathy at the cost of losing some of the journalistic rigour in the process.
Pandita skims through the bigger story, of the wider contingencies of history and politics that had gripped the Valley since the 1980s. Although he provides harrowing accounts of the tales of persecution, he misses out on critically evaluating the reasons for that. Why did the other Hindus betray them? What went wrong that prompted the blood lust of Pandits’ killing? Why out of hundreds of killings, was there not a single case of conviction, as he asserts? What has made some of the Pandits return and lead a ghettoised life in some of the re-settler colonies, instead of living the relatively well off life of an exile, as Pandita himself, who lives in Gurgaon? And, while Pandita describes the fallouts of Islamic religious symbolism in ostracising the minorities in Kashmir, while he furnishes chilling accounts of individual and mass killings and the collusion of erstwhile neighbours in them, where are the stories of support, of resistance and mutual suffering in this significant, but incomplete narrative of loss?