Unzipping the leather bag, he takes out the Lenovo laptop, switches it on and opens an image file. “See, the cover,” says Siddhartha Gigoo, 36, a Classic-smoking senior manager in an IT company whose first novel is to be published by Rupa in a few months. We met him on the terrace of Indian Coffee House, a rundown café in Connaught Place, which has history, tea-kettles, turbaned stewards and the mood. Since the laptop screen is reflecting sunlight, we squint our eyes to look at the image but it’s not coming out clear. We move inside the lounge.
“It’s titled The Garden of Solitude,” says Gigoo. With his rippling biceps, Calvin Klein shirt and Lee Cooper shoes, he defies the physical stereotype of a malnourished debut novelist. “No, no, no. I’m not into brands. My wife gifted me this shirt. I’m a FabIndia man,” he says referring to a retail chain known for its traditional Indian wear.
The novel is Gigoo’s coming-of-age saga on Kashmir, the strife-ridden Himalayan province, the Muslim majority of which is demanding ‘freedom’ for decades. While there have been political memoirs and exotic travelogues on the region, this is a rare fiction to have come out from there. It concerns with the violence of the 90s when Muslim militants, aided by Pakistan, forced Hindus to leave the Kashmir valley for fear of death.
Scanning the menu, Gigoo, a Kashmiri Hindu, says, “It’s about a boy whose odyssey takes him from the migrant camps back to his homeland in search of stories that are on the verge of being forgotten by a generation.” In 1990, Gigoo’s parents, like many Pandits, moved from Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, to the fairly peaceful town of Udhampur. A decade later they shifted further south to Jammu, the region’s biggest Hindu-majority city.
The steward appears and Gigoo asks for omelette, toast and coffee. He opens his shoulder bag in which we notice three books: Austerlitz by W.G Sebald, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa and Mirrors by Eduardo Galeano.
Gigoo has around a hundred books, besides wife, Aishwarya, and daughter, Amia, at his apartment in Dwarka, west Delhi. He became a Delhiwalla in 1995 when he took a Masters course in English Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The two years passed in a hashish-ridden indulgence. Life was wild and drunken. Gigoo almost flunked the course on Shakespeare. Since this was JNU, the world-view was tinged with Marxist pretensions. Friends were called comrades though a wider social networking oscillated between the leftists and the right-wingers.
In 2007, Gigoo started writing the novel. “There were phases when nothing came out. Then arrived nights when events unfolded rapidly. Some great ideas flashed while working out in the gym. I met new characters of my novel there. They started talking to me.”
Being a Kashmiri Hindu, who was forced to leave his land by Islamic extremists, is Gigoo hard on Muslims? A pause follows. Turning over the omelette with the knife, he says, “The novel will especially interest those who long for their homeland… and also those who have lost loved ones in the struggle for freedom.”
Does it offer the possibilities of a more peaceful Kashmir?
“There are bonds of hope and love in my novel. But on the whole, it’s not a very good picture.”