Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots about the exodus of the Pandits from the Kashmir Valley. What was left to say about that story so often held up like a badge of hate by the Hindutva brigade? Perhaps it was the memory of a visit in the mid-nineties to a crowded Pandit transit camp in Andheri East, Mumbai, that made you flip through the first few pages – pages so strong that you keep reading – and arrive at a nuanced understanding of a people in the unenviable position of having been victimised by a more powerful victim.
“I’ve wanted to write this book since I was at college,” says the 37-year-old associate editor with Open Magazine when you meet him at a south Delhi café. After grappling with different ways of telling his story, including fictionalising it, he finally followed his editor Meru Gokhale’s advice and wrote a memoir. The form contributes to much of the power of this book that speaks of the pain of fleeing a beloved home, incorporates moving descriptions of rituals specific to the Shaivite Pandits, and weaves in oral histories and snatches of poetry from, among others, Lal Ded and Agha Shahid Ali.
Pandita reckons many of his generation in Kashmir are embarrassed to talk about what led to the Pandit exodus 23 years ago to the day today, and is dismissive of the idea that militants from across the border were solely responsible. “From the testimonies I’ve used, it’s evident that there was a divide between the communities in 1989-90 and that the Pandits became a target of a brutal ethnic cleansing in which even ordinary Kashmiris from the majority community took part,” he says referring to the case of telecommunication engineer BK Ganjoo who was shot dead in his attic by militants after a neighbour directed them to his hiding place.
“Kashmiris born in the 1990s have no idea about what it was like to live in Kashmir when Kashmiri Pandit culture coexisted with Kashmiri Muslim culture. They have also been told that we were wealthy landlords who were taken out in some sort of revolution!” he says adding that he hopes his book leads to a “consensus on the circumstances that led to exodus” so both Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims can “move forward”.
“Agha Shahid Ali used to say ‘our history will come in the way of memory’ and ‘my memory will come in the way of history’. My memory will come in the way of this false history,” Pandita says pointing out that though just 3.5lakh Pandits were affected and about 700 killed, the incident isn’t any less shocking than “what happened in Bosnia”.
“The numbers are small but all of us have been forced into permanent exile,” says Pandita who carries his homelessness like a burden he cannot put down. “It’s only in Kashmir’s context that I use the word ‘home’. I now have a flat in Gurgaon but I use the word ‘house’ for that. The idea of home is lost forever,” he says.
Some of the most moving sections of the book deal with his mother’s great initial shock at being called a refugee and her consequent compulsive need to tell strangers that her home in Kashmir had 22 rooms.
“She kept at it till 2004 when she lost her voice,” Pandita says. Suffering from motor neuron disease, a rare neurological disorder brought on by the years of hardship in squalid temporary homes in Jammu, and the shock of the killing of Ravi, her beloved nephew, by militants – the book is dedicated to him – she is now completely paralysed. His experiences have affected Pandita deeply enough to make talking about some things difficult and he lapses into occasional silences.
“I remember all the names of people killed, where they were killed – it keeps playing in my head. I sleep with it at night,” he says. “It’s a part of who I am now. Like the old newspaper which carries the headline of my brother’s murder.”
You would understand if he seethed with hate but it’s his struggle to maintain a fair perspective that is striking. “It was a beautiful life which we had in Kashmir; it’s all lost now. It’s lost for every Kashmiri,” says Pandita who has returned to the Valley many times as a journalist. “In every home, someone has died; maybe he was a militant or died in an encounter, bomb blast, picked up by security forces, gone, disappeared,” he says adding that being a refugee has made him sympathetic to oppressed peoples everywhere including Palestinians and those from the country’s tribal belt who were the subject of his earlier book, Hello Bastar.
“When you talk about Kashmiri Pandits the sympathy you get is usually from the right-of-centre; when you talk of Bastar, people who are left-of-centre sympathise. That’s the tragedy. Why should a person who believes in Hindutva be oblivious to the suffering of someone in Bastar?” he wonders. Why indeed?