It is difficult to review a book whose every page seems like a leaf out of one's own life. For me, and I suppose for every Kashmiri Pandit of the 'sandwich generation' (I'll explain that in a bit) who lived the exodus of the 90s, Siddhartha Gigoo's The Garden of Solitude is first an emotional treatise and then a literary work. The descriptions of everyday life in the Valley as it once was - women celebrating Gada Bhat, men waiting for hours at the neighbourhood bookshop to grab copies of newspapers - are accurate. In fact, they are so accurate that after the initial delight of encountering them, the impossibility of returning to such a life hits harder.
What seems unreal from this distance of time and medium is to note the germs of separatism gradually dissolving, then poisoning the humdrum existence: a maths professor disappearing overnight; the schoolboy Basharat rumoured to have crossed the border to train in handling weapons; a Pandit family killed in Mattan.
Gigoo recounts the experience of migration through three generations of men. So, there is the grandfather Mahanandju, father Lasa and son Sridhar. The youthful Sridhar belongs to the 'sandwich generation' - those that could not spend their entire lives in the Valley or watch the children grow up in the land of their forefathers. It is fitting that Sridhar becomes a writer - a chronicler of his community's experiences, hopes and sorrows.
It was not the Pandits alone who suffered. The letters exchanged between Lasa and his neighbour Ali are poignant reminders of Pandit-Muslim amity. Ali writes to Lasa: "Waiting for your homecoming in sensible times". Lasa tells Ali about the sordidness of life as experienced by the Pandits in the refugee shelters of Jammu.
Unlike his grandfather and father, Sridhar eventually returns home, even if it is a temporary return. The chapter of Sridhar's 'homecoming' is overwhelming. Gigoo's language is touching in its simplicity, the length of his sentences mimicking the thinking process. "Am I returning home? Am I a tourist? What strange feeling is this?"
He is welcomed into his old house by its current inmates, a middle-aged Muslim woman and her daughter. As he sips tea with the hosts, the little girl asks her mother: "Mother, is he a Muslim? How does he speak Kashmiri like we do?… He is like us all. He is having cakes and tea the way we have it. What is this? Who are Pandits mother?"
Long after one has turned the last page, young Noor's question reverberates: "Who are Pandits mother?"