Our Moon Has Blood Clots | Rahul Pandita
A memory overdose
Our home in Kashmir had twenty-two rooms. This is a Hindu Pandit homemaker’s constant refrain in exile in Our Moon Has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, journalist Rahul Pandita’s memoirs of his family’s flight from the Muslim-dominated Valley during the onset of the violent insurgency. It is a common lament of refugees trying to reclaim a happier past that is cruelly and irredeemably lost.
Wrung out by the pain, drudgery and hardship of exile, the homemaker withers away. Her son, the author, picks up the pieces in this account of his family, one of thousands who were forced into exile. In remembrance lies redemption. So this is a timely memoir about the often ignored and “unfashionable” story of the purge of a thriving minority community backed by Islamist militants in Kashmir.
Pandita recounts an unexceptional childhood in a Kashmir “so beautiful”, according to his grandfather, that “even the gods are jealous of us”. Then comes the rude awakening: a page torn from the school magazine in class with a picture of a Hindu goddess covered in snot, celebrations when Pakistan win cricket matches against India, cries for aazadi renting the air—all “well-orchestrated”, writes Pandita, to “frighten the Pandits into exile”.
The descent into fear is swift. Pandita’s father decides to leave the Valley after a chilling night in 1990 when a group of neighbourhood boys noisily distribute houses to loot and occupy among themselves. “At least go inside and piss; like a dog you need to mark your territory,” one of the boys tells his mates. “It’s over,” Pandita’s father, a government worker, says. “We cannot live here any more.”
The escape is fraught with tension. Pandita writes evocatively about passing trucks filled with scared Pandits escaping to Jammu, the women “herded like cattle”, and a man showing the family his fist and wishing them death. What follows is a tale of the indignities of exile: exploitative landlords, unkind neighbours, severe hardship, creeping xenophobia.
Pandita recounts how the Pandits became “nobody’s people” with considerable acuity. He is less successful in providing critical context and trying to answer some key questions. Why did the minority Pandits also end up as “punching bags” in the hostilities? What provoked Sheikh Abdullah, bitter with India, to deliver a prescient warning to the Pandits in the 1940s, telling them to be “one among us, flee or be decimated”? Were the Pandits merely easy, soft targets or were there deeper forces and provocation at work? Pandita simply mentions that the killings of the Hindu minority “turned into an orgy; a kind of bloodlust”, and the “armed terrorist” and the “common man on the streets” participated in some of the murders.
Though Pandita chronicles some of the brutal murders of Pandits, some elementary details appear to be missing. In a familiar sophomoric flourish that actually hurts the otherwise terse narrative from time to time, Pandita writes that he has memorized the name of every Pandit killed in the violence and registered as a refugee because it is his mission to talk about the “other” sordid story of Kashmir.
“In hundreds of cases of Pandit killings, not a single person was convicted,” he writes. But some of these vital numbers don’t feature in the book and it is only the black cover blurb which mentions that “hundreds of people were tortured and killed, and about 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes and spend the rest of their lives in exile in their own country”.
The journalism is actually the weakest link in what is a largely engaging memoir. Pandita skims the surface during a visit to a squalid Pandit refugee township on the outskirts of Jammu in 2011 and misses an opportunity to mine even more compelling tales in exile. He also visits one of the five resettlements set up for a few hundred Pandits who have returned to the Valley and finds them leading bleak and fearful ghetto lives, but the account is over too soon.
The Pandits have been been in exile for two decades, and Kashmir, for Pandita, remains “a memory, an overdose of nostalgia”. For the writer, who lives in Delhi, exile and homelessness is “permanent”. It cannot be a happy state of mind.
Soutik Biswas is editor, BBC India Online.