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A Conversation With: Journalist and Author Rahul Pandita PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pamposh Raina   
Tuesday, 19 February 2013 00:00

[From the New York Times BlogRahul Pandita, an associate editor with the Open magazine in Delhi, is a journalist and author who belongs to the Kashmiri Pandit community, Hindus who had to flee the Kashmir Valley in the early 1990s during a separatist insurgency by the Muslim majority.

In his memoir, “Our Moon has Blood Clots,” which was released last month, Mr. Pandita chronicles the loss and suffering of his own family to narrate the plight of the estimated 350,000 Kashmiri Hindus who were uprooted from their homes during the conflict.

Mr. Pandita spoke to India Ink recently about why his book was important in the Kashmir discourse and about some of the difficulties he faced in the writing process.


Why did you decide to write this book?


Writing this book has been part of the reason that I became a journalist and pursued literature in college. Otherwise, like most people in the Kashmiri community, I too would have studied engineering, which was important for us [Kashmiri Pandits] then, to regain some of what we had lost in the Kashmir Valley in 1992 after the mass exodus. I really wanted to tell this story.


There is a palpable sense of pain, loss and anger in your writing. How difficult was it for you to write this memoir?


This story has been an extremely difficult story to write. I think I started writing it very seriously from 2000 onwards, when I was a reporter with a television channel.

So I would write chapters and then give up completely because I just couldn’t write it. Then I began again in mid-2000s and again gave up because I wasn’t sure what form it would take. What I also found very unfortunate was how our story was relegated to the margins. And I was not sure if it should come out as a memoir. Many close friends suggested that I should write this as a fictional account—the truth but laced in fiction, because that would be more acceptable to the overall discourse of this country.

At one point, I was very seriously contemplating writing it in the form of a novel. But I think over the last few years I have become very conscious of my identity as a Kashmiri Pandit, and what has happened to us in Kashmir. The anger of the early 1990s and the hardships that we faced in exile have come back all of a sudden in the last few years.


What happened in the last few years that led to this seething anger that you are talking about?


I have just become conscious of the fact that nobody is interested in our story. It is so easy to align it with the right-wing narrative. This liberal discourse I feel is run by these 50, 100 people who contain anything coming from Kashmiri Pandit point of view. They say it’s a B.J.P.-R.S.S. [Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] narrative.

The bigger betrayal for us was denying us our truth, that the night of January 1990 “did not happen.” When some of the excerpts of the book were published in The Hindu and my own magazine, people started writing open letters to me, saying it never happened. For God’s sake, don’t insult the memory of 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits who have suffered it in every nook and corner of the Kashmir Valley! It is being made as if talking about Kashmiri Pandit pain will diminish the Kashmiri Muslim pain, which is not the case. I believe that both these pains have the right to coexist, but as a Kashmiri writer I am not ready to compromise on my truth, no matter how inconvenient it is.


Which portions would you say were the most difficult to chronicle?


The most difficult passages to write were of course the brutal murder of my own brother, my mother’s illness, which we are still struggling with, and it’s only because of the hardships of the exile in the initial years.

I think I also hate when I go to Jammu. I love it at one point because all of my relatives are there, and it’s like a mini Kashmir now in many ways. But when I go there, those images of the suffering of  1990, ’91, ’92, ’93 come back to me, when we had to face the ignominy of doorless toilets that I mention in my book and the way we were treated in Jammu in those one-room dwellings. All that was very difficult to write.

When I return to my book, I realize that I cannot read it any longer. Those emotions come back to me — every single incident, every single passage I write comes back to me.


What was your gut reaction when you visited your house in Kashmir for the first time since the exodus?


Till 2007 I never returned to my home in the Srinagar suburb of Chanapora. I went because I wanted to capture those memories. My mother is so unwell, and my parents have never returned to Kashmir after 1990. I have gone to Kashmir since ’98 as a journalist. I wanted to click some pictures and show it to them.

Throughout the book, I have used the word “home” for my home in Kashmir. I haven’t done it consciously; it just happened to me. I now stay in a Delhi suburb and own an apartment, but that feeling never comes back. It’s a house for me. I take care of it as anyone would do, but that feeling of uprootedness is there.

When I go to Kashmir, there is an acute sense of loss — traveling through the same roads, meeting people and a strong sense of realization that you don’t belong here any longer. Your roots are here, but you don’t own anything here. Your house is no longer your house — that’s very painful.

I think it’s going to be a very difficult journey for me when I return to Kashmir now. Because now I will look at Kashmir through the prism of my book, the memories I evoke in the book.

It is very important for the Kashmiri Pandit community not to lose sight of what happened to us in January 1990. It’s like a festering wound, and I will personally make sure that I keep festering this wound. Otherwise, you are completely lost. Then you become a refugee who has compromised, who has surrendered to destiny. My book begins and ends on a defiant note.


How is this book about Kashmir different from the ones written before?


It’s the first honest account.


Honest in what sense?


The previous books have done this balancing act. I am talking about books written in English–there are a couple of good books written in Hindi, especially “Dardpur,” by Kshama Kaul, which is very powerful.

The tendency of balancing out things — “let’s not make anyone unhappy, not talk about their pain” — is a very valid thing. But then you are compromising on your own story.

Right from the beginning there was this bitterness between the two communities [Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims], which would flare up once in a while in the form of 1986 Anantnag riots or they [Muslims] would break the window pane of our house if India won a cricket match against Pakistan. Those portions are ignored, and those are really the signals. And one needs to talk about it.

This balancing act that some of us have gotten into is because we go back to Kashmir and we have friends from the other end. I have so many Kashmiri Muslim friends. I don’t see why my truth should make them unhappy.


How has it been received in the Kashmir Valley?


It was expected to ruffle a few feathers. Only a minuscule population in Kashmir is willing to own up to what happened to Kashmiri Pandits in 1989-90.

One reason I wrote this book and the way I wrote it was to tell the world that, it is not only the Islamist Muslim with a gun in his hand who is responsible for the brutalization of Kashmiri Pandits. Not all ordinary Kashmiri Muslims took part in this ethnic cleansing, but a substantial number of them did. Otherwise, how would have so many people come out of the mosques on one night in January 1990 and raised frightening slogans against Kashmiri Pandits? And it wasn’t just that one day. All of us know how so many of us were killed.

The dominant reaction was expected. But I am also hopeful. I am in touch with a few Kashmiri youngsters who are validating my story because they know what has happened. Some of them are very vocal on social media networks.


If you had not been a journalist, would you have written this book differently?


The advantage of being a journalist is that you know your story well. You know how to present it well. Writing is about the structure, something you learn while you are at it.

I have written this book with a strict journalistic rigor. Memory is very slippery at times, so I have validated and re-validated everything that came from my memory. I have tallied and re-tallied everything from newspaper archives and official documents from that time.

If I was not a journalist or a writer, I don’t think the book would have been so raw.

(The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.)



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