Excerpts from the interview
D R: What made you think of writing the novel The Garden of Solitude? How did you weave the plot and where did you learn the art of writing from?
SG: It all started as a hobby. I knew I was a beginner and, therefore, I had no fears. I struggled with the craft though. It was difficult at times when I found myself dissatisfied with my writing. I learnt along the way. I did not lose patience and had the courage to go on, despite the loneliness.
In a novel, negotiating between history and imagination is not that much of a challenge. One has just got to be creative and make good choices when it comes to portrayals, characterization and events. Literature needn’t draw its inspiration solely from history. As a novelist, I reveled in creating an alternative world.
I was passionate about classical music. So, I learnt how to play the flute from two gurus — Prof Bushan Kaul, a sitarist and Anil Raina, a renowned flutist. They taught me how to do ‘riyaz’.
Sadly, I gave up music and writing in Delhi. I went through an existential crisis of sorts at one point of time. Studies bored me and I started fretting about what to do next. I didn’t want to pursue higher education. I wondered if I would be able to get a job. Years later, I started writing again. Every evening I would write a page or so. A novel took shape, slowly. It was a struggle to find my ground and be disciplined. But that phase was wonderful. I was living in an imaginary world, surrounded by characters and events. That’s how it all began. Writing is not a profession, but a hobby. And I enjoy being a hobbyist. Sometimes one writes just for oneself. It is the joy of writing for the sake of writing that excites me. Every time I begin a paragraph, I feel I am a beginner.
I was conscious that there weren’t any stories or novels written in the English language about the exodus of Pandits in 1990 from Kashmir – their homeland. I was worried that many stories about identity and ancestry narrated verbally by the elders would fade away with them. Ironically, a fading and fragmented memory was all they were left with – despite a collective struggle to retain and hold on to this remembrance.
As a writer, I felt a tearing urge to preserve what was on the brink of extinction.
D R: How did the Pandits, Kashmiri Muslims and non-Kashmiris respond to the novel?
S G: Many readers and reviewers said good and interesting things. Some not-so-favourable reviews also came out. Given the responses, I feel people read my book at different levels – particularly in the context of the divide between the Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri Pandits (which is a debatable topic even these days) and the perceptions of the two communities on Kashmir’s troubled past and present. There is so much divergence and ambivalence in these perceptions.
Some readers pointed out that the novel was ‘too balanced’ so far as ‘representations’ were concerned. Inevitably, there were a couple of reviews too, criticising me of bias and prejudice. With fiction one can do anything. So I enjoyed reading the reviews. I took all criticism positively. Some scholars wrote academic papers on the book.
I was overwhelmed when some migrants from the camps said that this was one of the few books they had ever read in their lives and that they found their lives in it. Such responses are a source of inspiration. Reviews don’t matter much.
Overall, so far as responses are concerned I am satisfied. So far as writing is concerned, I have got to work towards improvement.
D R: Are you fully satisfied with the novel?
S G: Satisfaction can never be attained in writing. There is no such thing as perfection. One has got to chisel and polish till one can polish no more. Yet some flaws will remain. However I am happy that I was able to narrate a story. There are several more to narrate. The forgotten ones in particular!
D R: You participated in the Jaipur Literature Festival. How was the experience?
S G: I was on two panels and got to speak in front of a captive audience. Felt humbled. It was an enriching and rewarding experience to be among some of the giants of world literature. I wanted to see Salman Rushdie in person. I am a huge fan of his.
D R: You have directed a short film The Last Day. How did the idea of making a film on Kashmiri Pandits come to you? What is the film about?
S G: The film is based on one of my short stories. The film is set against the backdrop of the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland, Kashmir. The exiles lived in wretched conditions in the canvas tents in migrant camps for more than two decades (1990-2011) and continue to be. Several old men and women perished because of mental and physical ailments.
The film explores themes of loss (of memory, privacy, physical intimacy and identity), shattered human relationships, fears and longing in the lives of the exiled families who spent decades in scrawny 8 x 10 canvas tents. There was nowhere else to go. No homes, no security, no love, no hope! Just an endless waiting, battling alienation and anxiety!
The exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits is one of most tragic episodes in the history of Kashmir in modern India. Even now, Kashmir continues to be a boiling flashpoint in India.
D R: The Last Day was screened in many cities in India and will be screened in some other countries. But, ironically and mysteriously, it has not been screened in Jammu. What do you have to say about it?
S G: I’ve been trying to take the film to Jammu. It belongs there. Hopefully I will be able to screen the film for the migrants in Jammu. I am grateful to the cast (Mr M L Saraf, Bharati Zaroo, M P Sharma, Kusum Tiku) for their patience. I am going to have a screening for them at Jammu shortly.
D R: I read in the national dailies that when The Last Day was to be screened in Hyderabad about sixty miscreants entered the auditorium, destroyed the equipment and assaulted some filmmakers including you? Who led the miscreants and what did they want? The screening of the films in the Three-day Film Festival on Kashmir was cancelled. Give the details.
S G: A bunch of hoodlums turned violent and ransacked the venue. They were objecting to a few films part of the festival. But violence and manhandling of filmmakers is barbaric. Films and other works of art must be critiqued and not attacked. The screening at the venue in Hyderabad was cancelled, but the show went on at other venues there.
D R: Many Kashmiri Muslims and some Pandits write novels, produce other writings and make films. What do you have to say about them and the senior and established Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim authors?
S G: While the contemporary writing in English coming out of Kashmir holds immense promise, it will be interesting to see how this literature evolves in the time to come, in terms of genre and themes.
D R: Do you think that the Kashmiri Pandits will go back to their homeland Kashmir some day?
S G: I’ve thought about this several times. We sold our house for a small amount. Now only emotional ties remain. A memory! A longing! I live in Delhi now. I wonder if we will ever get to return to our homeland. I imagine the future and wonder what it will hold for us.
DR Kashmir is a conflict zone. And it is believed that good literature is produced in these times. Do you think the literature that came up in Kashmir is of good quality ?
SG: Not many novels have come out. But having read most of the books that have been written recently, I can say that stories are emerging. These books have generated a debate and people across the world and Kashmiris in particular have received the books well.
DR Do you think that the young generation writers have been able to present an objective view point through their writings?
In novels, objectivity is not of great importance. The art of the novel is about a higher truth. Humanism and a human experience are at the core of it. In journalistic writings, facts are important. Objectivity and historicity become non-negotiable. Whatever i have read so far is of immense relevance. Stories are being told. Forgotten stories.