Sandeep Raina's debut book, A Bit Of Everything (Context/Westland), which released on 22 October, opens with a suicide attack in London before rewinding to the past. We are in Varmull (Baramulla) in Kashmir in 1986—the town on the banks of the Jhelum and on the border between two countries that was raided and looted by tribal invaders from Pakistan in October 1947.
The protagonist, Rahul Prakash Razdan, lives on Tashkent Street, which "straddled beauty and ugliness, knowledge and ignorance, wealth and poverty, politeness and rudeness, dog owners and people who did not own dogs. Its contradictions ran through them all, weaving through their homes, keeping them together”.
It could be the story of any other street in Kashmir in the years before militancy.
Raina, who is also from Baramulla, left Kashmir in January 1990 at the age of 22 to look for a job in Delhi after graduating from the Regional Engineering College (now NIT, Srinagar). His parents left the valley soon after as the violence escalated. Raina lived in Delhi for a decade and in Istanbul for three years before moving to England in the early 2000s.
While it has taken him over a decade to give shape to this book, he has in the past written short stories for various publications. One thing is constant though: There’s usually a reference to Kashmir.
His protagonist, Rahul, a professor of English literature, flees Kashmir as chants of "azadi" (freedom) get louder and the word "kafir" (infidel) is scrawled in Urdu on his gate. The other Kashmiri Pandit families, on the street and elsewhere in the valley, also leave that night, "leaving behind homes, gardens and Firozes".
As Rahul is learning to jostle, push and squeeze his way through Delhi and its torrid weather, his house in Varmull, which overlooked green fields, the Jhelum and the Pir Mountains, is burnt down.
He feels increasingly alienated from the city and his wife, Doora. His escape comes when he gets a scholarship to an Austrian university. From there, he moves to England, his link with his family becoming more tenuous. It seems Rahul is forever on the run, but the further he goes, the more he's haunted by his memories—he's never far from Varmull.
Lounge spoke to Raina about his own journey to Kashmir and his hometown after 24 years, its effect on him and if the future holds hope. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
How long has the book been in the making?
I began to write long back; almost 14 years ago. In the beginning, it didn't start as a novel, it was just anecdotes, snippets and passages, as they came to me while we lived in Turkey. I was just reminiscing my past then. Stitching those bits into a story took me some more years in England. It finally took the form of a novel in the last few years.
Was it a cathartic process?
It was an extremely cathartic process; reliving the past through words can be a beautiful experience. It's about getting it out of one's system, however, with a lot of care. And that care is for one's own self. Recollection is a process in itself, over which we have control—that is, what do we want to remember, what needs to be let go. By doing this, we prevent ourselves from hurting all over again. By allowing myself to emote through my writing, I opened myself to empathy, to relate and to connect better to people.
Your late father was an English professor in Baramulla, and you have inherited his passion for gardening. The book’s protagonist, Rahul, is also an English professor who likes his garden to be colour-balanced. How much of the book is drawn from your own life?
Yes, my father taught English literature. I learnt essay writing from him and preparing speeches for debates, when I was at school. In those days, it was always easy to get a sentence corrected for grammar or to know the meaning of a new word; help was just a hand away! He spent a lot of his free time in the garden we had in Baramulla, and I used to be his willing assistant. The book is a work of literary fiction, and I think all fiction derives from the real world. There can't be any fiction which is completely made up. Fiction writers do tend to use their own experiences, conversations and feelings in their books.
You visited the valley in 2014. How difficult was that journey? Was there an instant connect that “this is home”?
I visited Baramulla after 24 years. It was one the most memorable and pleasant journeys of my life. There was absolutely a connect with everything that I saw and heard in the valley; it didn't feel that such a long time had passed since I had been in those places or been with those people. It was definitely home. I am sure this is the feeling of all who revisit their childhood homes after many years. And the best part of that trip was the warm welcome we received from our old neighbours, with whom we had tea, wazwan (an elaborate Kashmiri meal) and so many hugs. That's what made it feel like home again.
Rahul returning home is surreal, the scene moves between the past and the present. It seems like that the bubble will burst and the whole thing will turn out to be a dream.
Yes, the switches between the past and the present are bound to happen when we revisit spaces and places that we have inhabited over two decades ago. Even when I reflect on my own journey back home, it still feels like a dream, but like all dreams, it reveals something important, almost transformative, to help one overcome or resolve a problem.
In what way was it transformative?
In so many ways. By revisiting my past, mentally and physically, I could recollect events, reflect on my perceptions, sift fact from fiction, and carve a way forward for myself. Emotional connections with the past can unleash very powerful insights, along with a deeper understanding of our own psyche and behaviour. When we cast our minds back in an open way, it doesn't just reveal our relevant experiences, but also the holistic outlook required to resolve or mitigate complex issues of the present.
Rahul’s garden in Varmull had a mulberry tree, which is still there when he goes back. The cover of the book has a blazing 'chinar' tree—an intrinsic part of the Kashmiri landscape. You have a maple tree, similar to the 'chinar', at home in England. Is it a bit of Varmull in Surrey?
The maple tree in our garden in England was planted by the previous homeowners and turns beautiful shades of orange and red every autumn. In October, when the entire maple blazes red and the leaves drop to the ground, I do remember the chinars of Kashmir. I think all those who live so far away from their native homes remember them in so many different ways. And look for these small reminders almost every day; they are such deep connections, and the memories give one so much peace.
In the book, you write that "it would take a lifetime to fill in the gaps and the silences, to uncover, unravel and understand". In the current scenario, where two generations have grown up without knowing what it means to be "a bit Pandit, a bit Muslim. A bit Sikh, a bit Christian", what hope do you hold out for the future?
Hope lies in doing exactly that. If young people haven't been able to meet and know people different from themselves, for whatever geographical, political or personal reasons, then it's time for them to step up and seek the company, friendship and understanding of different kinds of people. It will only help them all grow better, together.
How do you see that happening? There are strident voices on both sides.
Strident voices have been allowed for too long by too many. Now is the time to recover from this, to reach out and look forward to a world where many voices, many viewpoints can co-exist in harmony. It is quite possible. Don't we have that in our own families?
With Article 370 effectively revoked, and the recent government notification allowing anyone to buy land in J&K, do you see it as a way forward or, as some fear, the start of a process of dilution of Kashmiri identity?
Cultural identities are held closely within our hearts and minds; in spaces that no geographical borders, political aspirations or immigrations can invade. Refugees, immigrants and travellers carry the identities of their native lands with them. And as those lands change in temper and flavour—which happens all the time in history—the culture of a place evolves. Now, it is up to the individual (one who has left the native land and one who still lives there) as to how much of that change they would like to adopt and accept. However, all changes in one's life, including those of culture and identity, must occur naturally and with the will of the individual. Only then would the individual and society blossom.
And finally, "do you belong to Kashmir or does Kashmir belong to you"?
A bit of both, I think!