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‘Camp memories’ from Jammu in the 1990s

Siddhartha Gigoo’s memoir, ‘A Long Season Of Ashes’, captures life in the Udhampur ‘migrant camp’ in the 1990s and the trauma of Kashmiri Pandits

Abandoned houses in Nadimarg village in Kashmir, where 24 Kashmiri Pandits were shot dead in March 2003.
Abandoned houses in Nadimarg village in Kashmir, where 24 Kashmiri Pandits were shot dead in March 2003. (Getty Images)

Siddhartha Gigoo was 15 when he left the Kashmir Valley. Despite securing admission in DAV College, Chandigarh, he chose to study—much to the consternation of his mother—in “camp school” in Udhampur, Jammu.

The school—five tents as classrooms—was set up for the children of Kashmiri Pandit families living in the “migrant camp” on Dhar Road, after fleeing the valley in the winter of 1990. There were 1,200 families, some from remote villages of Kashmir, living in 12x12ft canvas tents, sharing three toilets. In the initial few years, many died in the harsh conditions, which included heatstroke and snake bite.

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“It was a conscious decision to study in camp school, and then camp college. From the conditions I saw in the camp, I knew this was not a matter of months or years, and that I should capture this—I maintained a journal,” says Gigoo, 49, winner of the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his short story, The Umbrella Man.

Gigoo’s memoir, A Long Season Of Ashes, to be released next week, chronicles the story of exile through his eyes—the alienation, deprivation and the loss of a sense of identity among the people living in camps in the Jammu province. People lived in tents for over a decade, and were then moved to one-room tenements (ORTs). Some of these ORT colonies still exist in Jammu. Gigoo has also authored two books of poetry, and co-edited two anthologies of stories on Kashmiri Pandits, including A Long Dream Of Home.

Gigoo’s non-linear narrative is turbulent, choppy, going back and forth between time and places: Srinagar of a happier times; the fear and upheaval of 1989-90; a day in June in Udhampur, when his father sat with his head immersed in a bucket of cold water unable to bear the heat; in Delhi of 2012, his grandmother saying, “Wumber ha gayam zaeth (My life has become long)”.

On 19 January, it will be 34 years since Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave the valley. Gigoo raises some pertinent questions: What will become of us years from now? How should we understand our history and its impact on us? He perhaps answers it too, when he writes, “Some life stories must be told a thousand times.” In an interview, Delhi-based Gigoo talks about the importance of preserving camp memory. Edited excerpts:


How difficult was it to write this book?

This book is basically a selection of my diaries and letters (between him and his father) written from 1990 onwards about what we have gone through as a community, as a family, and at the individual level. I have tried to retain the language, keeping it raw. It was also my own exploration of how human memory works. So, in one sense, the book was easy to write because much of it was already written. But I had never thought of publishing it because it is so deeply personal. What was difficult was trying to capture camp life—to depict that inner trauma is almost impossible. It was not a one-month, two-month thing, a decade of living in camps in Udhampur and Jammu, from 1990-2000, and then ORTs.

Why is it so vital to document camp life?

That camp life of 20 years destroyed people. Nobody knows that inner destruction, the psychological scars because nobody cared. It destroyed our way of life. If you visit Muthi or Jagti camps in Jammu, people there won’t talk—it’s painful, they don’t want to relive that horror. Even at the community level, we don’t talk about those inner scars. I don’t see any book or film depicting that inner trauma. Words can’t capture what it was to go down a hill several times a day for five years to fetch water because our rented home had no running water. My grandmother used to collect water in katoris (small bowls), pressure cooker, any empty vessel she could find.

The camp in Udhampur does not exist now, I don’t think there is even a photograph of it. Of all the camps in Jammu, there must be at the most 10 photographs, which we keep floating on social media every year. We should have had 1,000 photographs. Fifty years from now, if somebody wants to know about camp life, which book will they turn to? In the history of modern India, students should know that this was the largest displacement of a community after Partition.

How does one preserve this lived history for the future generation?

There is borrowed inherited memory. The question is how should we treat our memory? Should we preserve it or discard it because it is so painful? When there is no memory, there is no history. And without our history, we are nothing.

'A Long Season Of Ashes', by Siddhartha Gigoo, Penguin Random House India, pages 480,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799.
'A Long Season Of Ashes', by Siddhartha Gigoo, Penguin Random House India, pages 480, 799.

Fifty years from now, it’s possible people will say nothing happened to Kashmiri Pandits. So, then we are neither Kashmiris nor Pandits. Who are we? An entire community will be wiped out from its land. Our children and their children will be speaking in Hindi (or some other language), assimilated. Somebody will ask them, “What about your grandparents?” They will have no memory—the horror their grandparents/great grandparents went through.

Ideally, we should have, if not 100, at least 60 books. More people should write, however painful it is. If it’s not written anywhere, it does not exist. All we have is this remembrance day (19 January). In that context, my book is only a footnote.

What was the reason for highlighting the plight of Kashmiri Pandits employed in Kashmir under the Prime Minister’s rehabilitation package, in a book which is essentially a memoir?

Because they are living as refugees in their own homeland. Their transit quarters have asbestos-sheet roofs and four families share a bathroom. Is that rehabilitation? That’s what it has come down to—we are a package. In 2021, there was a spate of targeted killings of civilians. Terrorist outfits issued threats that they would turn the transit quarters into graveyards. What does that threat convey? It basically means you are not welcome here. I see no action (being taken) as far as the community is concerned.

Why is it misleading to call Kashmiri Pandits migrants?

Semantics, language, is very important. I am very careful when I am writing: we did not go through an ordeal, we were made to go through an ordeal. Somebody did not care, that’s why we were made to go through that. I care about the grammar of displacement. The camps were all called migrant camps. Migrant quota, migrant student. We are not migrants because we did not leave of our own accord. It’s not a diaspora. It’s not like people immigrating to Canada or migrants seeking employment in Mumbai. It was a forced displacement. We should not have been called migrants, maybe internally displaced people (IDP). Maybe only then the UN and other international agencies might have recognised us and our plight. All we have right now is paper domicile. But anybody who has lived for a certain number of years in Kashmir can get a domicile certificate.

Do you think there should be an acknowledgement of what the community went through?

Somebody makes a film in 2022, and suddenly India wakes up: “Oh, you went through this?” We went through a thousand times more. You don’t need that. This acknowledgement should have been there every day.

Acknowledgement has to be at our own level also—we are now thought of as this elite community. I want to acknowledge what happened to me. If I don’t, then maybe I am responsible for destroying my own 5,000-year-old history as the original inhabitant of Kashmir.

Now we are all celebrating peace and normalcy in “naya” (new) Kashmir. Are we imagining a Kashmir without Kashmiri Pandits? Or has the Kashmir problem been solved by removing Kashmiri Pandits? In that case, it’s over for us. Which means in the future, we will go as tourists.

You write that camp life did strange things to people. To what extent does “exile memory” haunt you?

Every single day. My dad keeps talking about our ancestral home in Nawa Kadal, Srinagar. He has a photo of that house. He will always remember that home, while he will struggle to recall the house or sector numbers of all the rented houses we have lived in since leaving Kashmir. It was the same with my grandfather, who lost his memory. This might be true of all our elders. If you read the obituaries of Kashmiri Pandits, even now they state “original resident of so and so place in Kashmir”. Why do we do that? Because that place is our umbilical cord.

(Disclaimer: The writer contributed to the anthology Once We had Everything, co-edited by Siddhartha Gigoo.)

Also Read: Kashmiri Pandits and stories of the state of exile


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