A necessary, beautiful novel, written from a place of love. Sandeep Raina has the great gift of memory and empathy. It is a novel that has been in the making for decades, a novel Sandeep had to write to be able to live,” says journalist Basharat Peer about A Bit of Everything (Rs 599, Context) in the blurb on the back of the cover. Inside, we enter English professor Rahul Razdan’s life with the young and old in Kashmir’s Varmull (also known as Baramulla), nestled amidst the Pir Panjal range and the Jhelum river. However, when violence overwhelms the streets, Pandits begin to flee to the sweltering plains in 1990. Rahul, Doora and their young son find Delhi rude and alien, where the landlord calls them Muslim-Brahmins, and their Pandit relatives want them to join a Hindu extremist group. Soon Rahul flees again, this time to England. Decades later, the past meets the present when he makes a visit to the Valley.
Born and raised in Kashmir, where Raina graduated as an engineer, he has spent much of his life in Delhi, Istanbul and London. Based in Surrey, after penning several short stories for news publications, Raina has written his first novel. Excerpts from an interview:
From thinking about writing on migration in Turkey to penning the novel after moving to England, what drew you towards writing?
In our years in Turkey, I witnessed a very special reunion. Our family went on a holiday trip from Istanbul to Athens. All other families on the coach were from Cappadocia in central Turkey. We stopped at a café in Komotini, Greece, where a group of very old Turkish Christians came to meet the Turkish Muslim families from our coach. 75 years ago, these Christians had fled from Cappadocia to Komotini. Over coffee and baklavas, they all spoke about the families and neighbours in Cappadocia, exchanged gifts, sang Turkish folk songs, and wept. The reunion of the two communities, after seven decades, was a heartbreaking yet uplifting event that stayed in my memory. When we moved to England, I decided to use my writings on Kashmir and expand them into a novel. The reunion of the Turkish Muslim and Christian communities, split because of war and strife, played an important role in my Kashmiri story.
What were those initial writings about?
Mostly about the relationships of people who lived in a small town in Kashmir. Of the desires and ambitions of its young people, of loves and weddings. Of how Pandits, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians lived together, of their common culture and innate humanity despite the differences.
An English professor, who wants to fix the lives of all teenagers on Varmull’s Tashkent Street, he leaves his wife and son in Delhi to live a lonely life in England. What did you want to explore through Rahul Razdan?
Rahul Razdan wants to help the teenagers of his street. But like all humans, he is constrained by his own limitations, and despite his best intentions is able to only do so much. This is when life is normal in Varmull, Kashmir. In peace times, we seldom realise how little is needed to keep things ‘as is’. But when things crumble around us, at many levels, as happens to Rahul, it is much harder to rise and hold things together. So, in such difficult situations, would one choose escapism instead of stepping up and taking responsibility?
In the novel, Rahul remarks about how it is hard for refugees to write. Was it difficult for you too?
It is easy to write about happy memories. Releasing unpleasant memories on paper can make you relive those difficult times, unleashing anger and bitterness. For a refugee to write without becoming sad or angry could be a tall order. But my experience was different. Writing about Kashmir was extremely cathartic. Doing it over many years and reflecting deeply, perhaps, brought about the healing. Recollecting life in Kashmir, writing about it in small details through the novel’s characters, especially about its colours, scents and flavours, gave me tremendous happiness, almost like a return. The challenge was not knowing how it was after I left Kashmir, what happened of its people in the decades that I had not lived there.
Rahul consciously pushes away Kashmir and its memories from his mind. How is your relationship with the memories from life in the Valley?
In the early years of migration from Kashmir, I did block out memories, including good ones. It was as if that chapter in my life had closed forever. Perhaps, a change of place leaves you no time to think of your past, survival in the present matters so much. Memories from Kashmir started trickling in only after 10 years of having left Kashmir, when I felt more settled, and more at peace with myself. I began to derive much joy from those memories. Now I remember Kashmir with a lot of love with pleasant memories of my childhood spent with family, friends and neighbours.
In the novel, you make limited contact with the political events of the late 80s that led to the rise of militancy and the exodus. Why is that?
When you are caught in an impending political upheaval, you don’t always realise what is happening, or what its outcome could be. It is like background noise. That is what comes across in the book. Not many, at my age then (or Rahul’s age in the book) were overtly preoccupied with the political events or elections, which contributed to militancy and the rise of fundamentalism in Kashmir. Also, there was no private television, social media or internet at that time. So, in reality, the impact of political bungling was not so apparent to an ordinary person.
You briefly highlight how the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits is used and misused by right-wing organisations, which feeds Hindu-Muslim polarisation in India. What is it that they miss understanding about the issue?
Any vulnerability of a community that feeds the ideology of an organisation will be used by the organisation. I have seen this play out in Kashmir in the late 80s, and now elsewhere in India. Such organisations do not care about the splits that such positions cause and the loss of a composite modern society. They deny that the world is becoming increasingly heterogeneous, not monolithic. Preying on the pain of the refugees and scratching their wounds makes them bleed, not heal. It also creates a ripple effect in the larger communities sending signals of fear, anger and insecurity across a nation, which creates further divides.
Why did you want to tell this story?
Because love must prevail, which sees us through the most difficult of times, the worst of tragedies and bridges all divides that we bring upon ourselves.
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