Our Moon Has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits
Vintage Books / Random House
Pages: 272 Rs. 499
A partial but important depiction of loss and exile
On the face of it, Rahul Pandita's memoir employs the selective history approach, but his book highlights vital and under-represented parts of the Kashmiri Pandit story, writes Prayaag Akbar.
PRAYAAG AKBAR 7th Feb 2013
Juhi Chawla (L) and Manisha Koirala (R) in a still from Onir's 2010 composite film 'I Am', one segment of which focused on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.
ape runs as a crimson tide through the narrative of Rahul Pandita's memoir of the exile of the Kashmiri Pandit community. Not the act itself, which makes occasional, somewhat adjacent, appearance, but the prospect of it, the looming, lurking fear that this fate will befall the sisters and mothers of the community. It enters Pandita's story from the moment the remembered idyll of his early adolescence is shattered, but the root of this terror seems to lie in the invasion of '47, reminding us that sexual violence can sometimes hang as an instinctual fear, embedding itself into a community's lived experience.
This undertone of sexual menace remains, and it is clear, from Pandita's account, that the community felt its women under genuine threat. On the pivotal night in the book, January 19, 1990, when a mob has gathered in Pandita's childhood neighbourhood and is chanting slogans, his mother is so perturbed by one that she pulls out a knife and says she will kill her daughter and herself if they come close. Similar sloganeering and mob threats took place all over the Valley that night. It is illustration of what I mean by the 'undertone': the perception of impending violence, especially sexual violence, can sometimes be as overwhelming as violence itself. But it also is true that memory, that tricky elf, over the years establishes its own narrative, as the unfortunate comparison to the Holocaust in the next paragraph tells us.
At first I was discomfited by the notion of this overarching sexual threat. Boasts between a band of miscreant boys, mutterings in a market, harassment on a bus—as we are finding, common through India—get equal weightage as incidents such as the horrific fate of Girja Tiku, raped by four militants outside Bandipora. I was bothered because it seemed to hew to the stereotype of the barbaric, lascivious Muslim male so prominent in our books, conversation and film. Later, however, Pandita relates an incident from his own childhood that changed my mind.
Despite these shortcomings, this book is a valuable addition to the record. It is most powerful in its depictions of the personal, of the small indignities and angers of exile—his boyhood encounter with the RSS, a mother's slow decline...
He is fourteen. His family has moved to Jammu, where the local Hindus, at first welcoming, have begun to resent the competition for space and resources the Pandit influx brings. They move from domicile to domicile, indignity to indignity, further into this vortex of betrayal-by-neighbour. In Jammu, Pandita writes that some girls "made the compromise" and eloped with local boys. It is in this climate that the bus driver who takes the author to school befriends him, asking him to write a poem for a Kashmiri girl he has fallen for. Pandita, innocent still, does so. That evening he meets the girl's father, who tells him he is worried about his daughter and asks the young boy to keep an eye on her. At night, Pandita cannot sleep, realising what he has abetted. The next morning he takes the card from the driver and rips it up. Driver and boy begin to fight, and after many blows are exchanged, Pandita is thrown off the bus. But he is happy, because, "Yes, I will keep an eye on her. Mountains can fly, rivers can dry, but she will always remain a dream for that illiterate bus driver."
Ample demonstration, if it were needed, that religion is not our only divider; class, caste, community are beacons to our social patterning. A boy reacts to a seemingly harmless attempt at flirtation after he is reminded by an elder of one of the ancient facts of war and life: the female is the unwitting repository of a community's dignity, the transgression of her body a carried symbol of the failure to protect land and wealth. Sexual violence accompanies war because it completes the humiliation. Not of the women, but of the defeated men.
ur Moon Has Blood Clots is a depiction of the tremendous mental and physical disorientation caused by loss of homeland and family, an attempt to capture the passions that swirl around such grievous loss—raw, unflattering, incomplete, illiberal, human as they are.
It is, decidedly, a memoir. Pandita has spoken about how he struggled for years with which form to give his story. There is some reportage and some historical research, but primarily it is the account of the Pandits' exile that the author pieces together from his own memory and those of his family and other members of the community. As Gore Vidal writes in his own, Palimpsest, memoir differs from autobiography in that it is "how one remembers one's own life." Our Moon gives the story of a painful, vicious excision of people from their home as experienced by an adolescent, while at the same time becoming a collective record, the shared narrative that a traumatic experience has left with a community.
One critique of the book held that Pandita's book is an exercise in divisiveness, absenting completely the problems faced in those hard years by the Kashmiri Muslim, and reconstructing the history of the state to show the Pandits as a community that has borne a series of historic wrongs. There is strength in this argument, though Pandita acknowledges early in the book, writing about a meeting with a couple of Kashmiri Muslim journalist friends, "but we did not share sadness beyond this...that was the point our truths became different." His selective reading of history is problematic (the timeline that concludes the book is immediate evidence), ignoring the source of Kashmiri antipathy towards Dogra rule and the Pandit complicity in some of the horrors of the time, while emphasising injustices perpetrated against them.
Despite these shortcomings, this book is a valuable addition to the record. It is most powerful in its depictions of the personal, of the small indignities and angers of exile—his boyhood encounter with the RSS, a mother's slow decline, a plastic national flag tossed into the garbage, his uncle's purchase of expensive, sturdy leather sandals, how before crossing into Jammu the fear was for their lives and after arrival there material concerns once again resurfaced.
If there is such a thing as objective truth, students of the conflict from various academic disciplines have been squabbling over it for years—the case, in fact, with every such struggle, from Israel to Cyprus. Pandita sets out to present the tale of the conflict in the Pandit telling, and this he does very well. We must read knowing this fact about the nature of the text. We must read also with the author's two stated objectives in mind. The first, in an interview to the Wall Street Journal's blog India Real Time:
"The essential thing I want to portray is that in 1989-90 there was a deep divide between two communities in Kashmir – the Muslims and the Pandits. And the Kashmiri Pandits became victims of the brutal ethnic cleansing which was perpetrated by the majority community backed by Islamist militants, not the other way around. That is one distinction that has to be made very clear."
The story of Muslim-Pandit bonhomie that was written in post-independence India might have furthered Delhi's claims to the territory, but they eventually served no one, and Pandita describes well the distrust that had grown by the late '80s. The second claim, that the ethnic cleansing was perpetrated by members of the community and only supported by Islamist militants, is more contentious. In fact it is downright controversial.
Pandita shows the majority community's complicity in the ethnic cleansing—if not in the actual violence—in a number of ways. His assertion is clear: neighbours, friends, community members and the state actively colluded to create conditions in which it remained impossible for the Pandits to remain. He does this by telling us of little incidents: stray comments passed by the milkman; people celebrating on the street around a dead Pandit woman's body; the insidious acquisition of houses and property; in 1948, the author's uncle being warned by his Muslim best friend, even the children then possessing prior knowledge of the Pathans' impending arrival. This is an assertion that demands investigation. If this degree of complicity is accurate then historians and political scientists must examine it closely, not present the accepted story of outsider malignance.
Pandita's second intention with Our Moon is to correct what he believes a bias in Indian media and intelligentsia. He writes: "for the media, the Kashmir issue has remained largely black and white—here are people who were victims of brutalisation at the hands of the Indian state. But the media has failed to see, and has largely ignored the fact that the same people also victimised another people." This assertion I take issue with. It is only in the last decade or so, after international groups began detailing the level of human rights violations perpetrated by the Army, incidents like the rapes at Shopian came to light, and the horrific mass graves were discovered; that the Indian media establishment has attempted to temper the nationalist aspiration for Kashmir with an understanding of the state's contribution to the conflict. For most of the years since Independence, and certainly during the height of the insurgency, Indian media in fact reflected the Pandit narrative more closely. It is surprising that the same media outlets that sought to redress this reporting imbalance in the last decade have accepted Pandita's interpretation with such equanimity.
Our Moon Has Blood Clots is an important book because it provides a moving, at times haunting portrait of how the lives of a community, spanning generations, can be shattered by exile. It is the Pandits' story, but at its centre it is the emotive story of a boy who had his home snatched from under his feet. Told from his perspective, partial as that may be, it offers many vital truths.