NEW DELHI Once the backdrop of romantic Bollywood movies in the 1960s and 1970s, Kashmir's idyllic image has darkened since a separatist rebellion broke out two decades ago, forcing many into exile from a beloved homeland.
Siddhartha Gigoo's debut novel, "The Garden of Solitude," is a poignant story about a boy named Sridar who belongs to a Hindu sect called Kashmiri Pandits -- like Gigoo -- and flees with his family from the divided, mainly Muslim Himalayan region.
Weaving together dreams, memory and reality, the book follows Sridar through his search for identity until he eventually returns to his homeland to seek out stories about ancestry in danger of being lost forever.
Gigoo, born in Kashmir in 1974, spoke to Reuters about his book and what it is like to live in exile.
Q: What prompted you to write this book?
A: "I was always interested in writing. Essays, poetry, short stories mostly. I knew writing a novel was a daunting task. One needs to know the craft well. But my dream was stubborn.
"What happened in Kashmir in the late eighties and the early nineties had a profound impact on me. Events such as militancy, the migration of Kashmiri Pandits and their plight in exile. It was all bizarre and too real to be true. Some events refused to fade from my memory.
"Years after I migrated, I began writing a story. The story grew, and I went on writing for a couple of years. I dangled between patience and impatience, and memory played truant with me. But my wife supported me. She didn't want me to give up."
Q: To what extent do you resemble Sridar?
A: "Perhaps there are shades of me in the protagonist. But there could be shades of the protagonist in me too. Maybe I always wanted to be like the protagonist.
"But now that many people have read my novel, they all tell me that this is their story. There weren't any migrants whose share of misfortunes was less than the others. The same conditions, life in camps, the torment, the struggle, the shattering of dreams, the torment of the aged, and then the dementia... Many perished, longing to return to their homeland, Kashmir. The young generation still suffers from an erosion of identity and a sense of rootlessness.
"The protagonist, Sridar, is someone who wants to find his 'meaning' in a world riddled with chaos. He finds it hard to see his community, while his parents come to terms with their 'migrant' status. He finds himself torn between permanence and impermanence. He does not seek salvation. His story is not consummated in any way. But the world looks at him and mocks him and decides for him."
Q: How have you changed after you were forced into exile?
A: "I reveled in life's vicissitudes. I reveled in the strangeness of life. I grew tired of doing the mundane things. I read novels. I learnt music. And sometimes, I squandered away time just carrying on with the usual things."
Q: Have you been actively involved with any movements or organizations by or for Kashmiri Pandits?
A: "I am the last person on this earth to join any movement. They only movement I would like to join is a movement of lazy people who love to recline on a couch for hours together.
"My interest is only human stories. Stories about people, their dreams, their loves, their perfections and imperfections. I don't want to stand for any causes."
Q: How have your relations with Kashmiri Muslims been?
A: "I do have some friends from Kashmir who are Muslims. I share jokes with them. But if the discussion turns political, I try to bring in more jokes. Strangely, I have never known any bitterness. I don't have any prejudices. And I have never viewed my relationship with friends through the prism of religion.
"I am more interested in life and its funniness. Religion gives rise to funny incidents, which is good for artists and writers, I guess. I always feel that God invented religion so that there could be art."
Q: You have written poems. How difficult is writing prose?
A: "I used to dabble in poetry. It was more of a hobby. But no one wants to read poetry in India these days. I had difficulties in writing prose. I wanted to learn how writers handle characterization, plot, structure and the passage of time.
"The education never stops. It is a learning process. A few days back I was flipping through the pages of my novel in print and I was tempted to make a few changes, here and there. Is that what people call evolution?"
(Editing by Elaine Lies)