‘Snakebite or sunstroke?’: An extract from Siddhartha Gigoo’s novel, ‘The Garden of Solitude’
SIDDHARTHA GIGOO‘s The Garden of Solitude [Flipkart / Amazon] is the first novel in English by a Kashmiri, on Kashmir. As it starts arriving in bookstores, I am grateful to him for sharing an extract.
‘Life teaches us that there is beauty in ugliness,’ Sridar said.
Then Pamposh said something that Sridar was not prepared for.
‘Every day I lead the life of a centipede. I crawl. I lick. I hide. I sting. I wake up to the fumes of kerosene in the morning and the sting of speeding ants, feeding ravenously on the sugar spilled on the floor of the tent. It feels as if I have never had a morsel of rice for ages. I wake up hungry and go to bed hungry. I lead the life of a centipede, I crawl. All around the camp, there is stench of human excrement and waste. People wake up in the morning, hungry and muddled.
The awakenings are pallid. The water in the water tanker smells foul, and children lie whole day in their own vomit. The quivering smile on my mother’s face is false. I want to peel off that false smile from her face, so that she is beautiful once again. Father spends most of the time playing cards with the other migrants near the highway tea shop. I am a mute spectator to the horrors of the life inside my tent. The air inside is squalid. My grandfather barely speaks. He lost his voice while leaving the village. A young man had shown him a gun as he was returning from a butcher’s shop.
He still thinks that the young man is hiding around a corner, with a gun, waiting to scare him. He stopped talking after we crossed the Banihal tunnel. I saw him look sadly at the fading mountains for long, till they disappeared completely, one by one, into his frozen dreams. And he swallowed his fright. Today I cannot hear what he says. His words do not come out of his mouth. When we are asleep, we cannot even stretch our arms and legs. There are no hangers to hang our clothes on. No cupboards to keep our personal belongings in. We have no portraits of our gods and goddesses. No pictures of our ancestors. During the day, we hide from the blazing sun. At night we live from one insect bite to another. Centipedes, millipedes and spiders are our companions. We must learn how to live with them.
‘My grandmother does not recognise the insects. She confuses a lizard for a plastic toy paralysed on the wall. Her gaze is fixed at the crucified lizard. For hours and hours, she just gazes endlessly into a dark nothingness! It is a vacant gaze into a world of oblivion and amnesia. Petrified with a sense of desolation, she does not even feel the presence of hundreds of mosquitoes circling her head constantly, while she stares into blank space. I do not know if she is hungry or thirsty. When asleep, she resembles a corpse. She perspires. I wake up to feel her pulse and feel happy that she is still breathing. She would be happy in her death, I pray. My mother and sister wash their clothes and the utensils in a puddle of water outside our tent. They line up for hours in the morning to use the makeshift toilet made of torn shreds of canvas, pieces of cardboard and tin. They await their turn at the filthy and stinking toilets while the loitering men watch the women wait to relieve themselves. Many women prefer to go to the stinking latrines at midnight, away from the stare of men. Even the mosquitoes keep away from the foul smelling latrines. Sometimes, I hear women shriek, fall silent and then cry in solace behind the filthy tank. The nights bring squalor, pallor and heat. We live in fear of the mangled and naked electric wires, crisscrossed around wooden poles that hold the canvas of the tent together.
‘There is a large rash on my grandfather’s leg, a rash perhaps from the bite of a millipede. The rash has swollen and become a sore now. It oozes puss and resembles a horrifying wound. He scratches the wound with a knife. The festering wound will never heal. I want to burn the wound. The old man looks at my sister change clothes at bedtime. She puts out the light. There are no curtains to hide behind. She sleeps in snatches, sandwiched like an insect between her mother and her grandmother. She dreams nervy dreams of crawling insects in the sun and the shade. The old man wants to touch her clothes hanging from the hook. He smells the clothes of his own granddaughter. And he relishes their putrid smell. We lick the hours that weigh heavy on our half-asleep existence, and tread laboriously into an endless strain of nightmares. The earthen pot in the tent is empty. A discarded plastic bottle used for the toilet contains a few drops of water. I grab it and empty the drops into my parched mouth. My tongue is dry. It can fall off anytime. My grandmother shrieks when she sees the sun. She dreads stepping out of the tent for fear of fainting in the sun. She soils her clothes every day. She can’t even use the bedpan which my mother got for her. From morning to evening she clings to the old box, which she brought along. It sticks inseparably to her chest. I wonder if there are any ornaments or valuables left in it.
‘Never before have I felt the desire to unknow myself and others. The smell . . . the touch . . . . the breath . . . the sigh!
‘In an adjacent tent a family of five torture an old man, their foster-grandfather, who lost his mental balance upon seeing his house fade away in a hazy distance. The old man is a burden for his son and daughter-in-law. Another mouth to feed, they feel! He moans at night constantly, and intermittently wakes up to a cold shiver – a nightmare. His son and daughter-in-law taunt him for their amusement. They whisper in his ears that his mother was dead and that she was beaten mercilessly to death. The old man groans and pleads them not to utter the atrocities. Every evening, the torment continues. The maddening laughter of the men ricochets from the tattered canvas tent. Every night the old man cries. He gapes at his son and daughter-in-law and gives them his blessings.
‘I wonder what is moral and what is immoral.’
Sridar stopped breathing for a while as Pamposh described his experience and condition. He picked up Pamposh’s pack of cheap cigarettes. For the first time, he lit a cigarette and took a puff. The smoke danced its way into the air and disappeared in the whirl of the ceiling fan.
That day Sridar wrote his thoughts in his journal. He wrote about Pamposh and the horrid mine of his consciousness.
‘What would it be like to be Pamposh?’ Sridar mused. He remembered the last words Pamposh had told him the previous day. ‘I long for a child’s laughter,’ Pamposh had whispered in Sridar’s ear.
Pamposh never spoke of his days in Kashmir. Sridar tried to strike such conversations with him to get to know about Pamposh’s childhood days in his village in Kashmir. Pamposh’s family came from a village in Kashmir. Some students in the camp told Sridar that Pamposh’s family owned an orchard in Kashmir and grew pomegranates, cherries and walnuts. Pamposh’s childhood may have been full of pranks, Sridar thought. Someone mentioned that Pamposh’s family was the only Pandit family in their village, and that they had to run away from their home in the most horrifying of circumstances. No one was able to narrate what had happened. Pamposh had lost one home and he was not in search of another.
The migrants sat all day long on a rocky mound and discussed the affairs of their community. Days were spent sitting and talking about whatever came to their minds; their plight and their sordid condition. Waiting kept them busy. For many it was a lacerating wait. They had not yet realised that this waiting was not to end. They did not know what they were waiting for. This waiting was not for returning to their homes, not for peace in the Valley, but for a new day to dawn and the new evening to descend. They prayed for a day without a sunstroke and a night without a snakebite.
Pamposh met Sridar every day after school near an anthill. He wished to demolish the anthill with a spade and to render the snakes homeless, so that no snakebites would take place in the camp.
There was only one question to be asked during the funeral processions that left the camp every day.
‘Snakebite or sunstroke?’
In the coming days Sridar and Pamposh saw many camp dwellers line up, one by one, in the crematorium. Between them breathed words bereft of any meaning! Words! Silence!