‘A Fistful of Earth; and other stories’ by Siddhartha Gigoo is a collection of short stories, they say. The beauty of good literature is that while they are right in their own way, so am I to believe that the 16 stories in this book flow so seamlessly into each other that it is difficult to ascertain when one ended and the other began. Much like listening to people’s tales sitting around a common fire where one man carries the other’s thread forward and a third gives it his own ending, with most of them in the twilight of their lives. Just like how memory works. Or grief survives.
Siddhartha’s work is about characters pregnant with remembering and reminiscing, and hence reviving and resurrecting bits of their histories which their memories preserve. We’re being painted a picture of a shared history which was violent, yes, but more importantly which displaced and dispossessed whole communities and changed their idea of identity in an exodus. Now, there are ample references which will clearly connect this book to Siddhartha’s Kashmir (of walnuts and large earrings, of sharp noses and weeping willows, of training camps and estranged youth, of two religions and conversions) but that is just one of the points, if a point at all. Siddhartha’s lyrical and oft philosophical stories take the politics of marginalization and monarchical authorities and the ensuing narrative of homelessness, grief and death to a universal level of global memory. You could be reading about Kashmir’s bleeding heart here, but you could well be remembering the many Partitions always under way somewhere in the world, never to be left behind in the ‘tunnel of forgetfulness’.
Just like for the young doctor in the story ‘A Fistful of Earth’, it became important for Siddhartha to ‘delve into the very essence of their (his characters’) existence in order to understand the nature of their ailments’. The ailment? His characters are imprisoned in the inevitability of their circumstances; just like humanity everywhere. It is for this reason that this Indian literary book will find echoes in many lands ‘ravaged by political upheaval and war’.
Let me tell you what made ‘A Fistful of Earth’ an unforgettable read for me.
Pain of Dispossession - Problematics of Identity
‘First, it was the dormitory in the temple, then the barn, then the tent, then the hovel, now this flat which is ours.’
Siddhartha’s characters are proverbially ‘The Banished People of the Nowhere Kingdom’, the name a researcher studying a near-extinct clan gives his treatise in the first piece, ‘The Search’. Through the stories one comes across camp dwellers, new owners of flats, men in uniforms, sons in cities, migrants, mad old men in villages, ailing men in tents, tending women everywhere and lonely writers. Mostly, the characters have not been given names by their author, as if they are all a continuum of consciousness beyond creed - displaced from their homes, dispossessed of their sense of belonging and politically shoved into a space where identity is always at crisis between the past and the present, between old age and youth. Each story is either an incident in their lives or reflective of their whole lives lived. What rings true in most of them? The idea of what dispossession does to not just people but also to their memories, leaving them not entirely bereft of hope for a better future but still in a state of suspended animation.
Life for most of them is wondering, like the two prisoners in ‘End of Time’, if the ambient peace means – ‘We may have been pardoned. Or is it that we have been left out by mistake?’ The younger generation is being reminded that ‘you don’t know what pain is’ by an older one which is increasingly losing the will to live. Or simply not knowing how to, because ‘I detest this borrowed life of mine.’ Parents and their children from ‘the valley’ are often shown living differently because while the former have memories alone to keep them company (good or bad) their children still have jobs, cars, lives in big cities. What does invade both generations is this conflict, expressed in a surreal scene in ‘The Debt’ –
‘His own identity evaded him…Nothing of him remained which he recognized any more. His name, his voice, his thoughts, his memory, his shadow, his identity and his heartbeats had become alien.’
It is a homelessness passed down generations, almost, because of forces which marched into their ‘paradise’, or took birth there, and changed it forever. Passed down in the form of memory.
Memory - History
‘Memory is such a burden … (but) the torment of forgetfulness is beyond my endurance.’
So is this the only role of memory in these stories, to pass down the umbilical cord a painful baggage? No, it is not as bleak as it sounds. Particularly when it comes to the collective memory of the marginalized, because it is made up of those very images which find no voice in the documents of History and which still need to find space.
Think about it. How apart is memory from history, after all? How important it is for writing the history of the sidelined, the evacuated, the exiled, the executed. It is their memory that Siddhartha frees through his characters and gives voice to. Of a certain section of humanity which was forced to form, live with and hand over ‘longings that pervade within’. They had been asked to keep silent and incidents ‘had been erased from their remembrance. But it summoned itself up’, as if the past does not want to fade and wants to be remembered. And ‘the exile will die with me’, not before that! By using the uncanny and supernatural, Siddhartha gives bodily form to repressed memories through dreams and apparitions in order to make them heard. While some characters want to escape this ‘liminal space between forgetfulness and remembrance’ others give meaning to their meaningless lives through it.
So, there is a lot of remembering and a lot of forgetting going on in this book. Simultaneously, for the reader, it is an act of being reminded and a request for resurrecting a history that never got written down. It is what Siddhartha is doing, and asking us to do too.
‘Exit is not a good option. Besides, who knows if the door exists at all.’
For those who are acquainted with Post-modernism and Existentialism, just too many stories will remind you of them and of a post-war devastation. The idea of knowing that life is meaningless yet working hard to give it meaning, or to believe there is meaning. Just like it was the rain in ‘The Umbrella Man’ which ‘defined the umbrella, gave it its purpose, its essence, its meaning’ it is these people’s pain which defines them. Different kinds of pain. Physical and mental. Say the woman in ‘Poison, Nectar’ who kept applying ointment even on ‘sores which were beyond healing’. For some characters who we would call mad it is poignant to repeat ‘Are you dead or alive? Dead and alive are both one.’
‘So long as they are in their cells, there is hope’, and who will not be reminded of ‘Waiting for Godot’? Who will not be reminded of that glimmer of hope that keeps us all waiting, even if endlessly?
Language - The Author the Rebel
Language has not just been used as a subversive weapon by Siddhartha to show us the human faces of political tragedies. It has been taken to such levels of metaphor and magic realism as would keep the reader wavering, wondering if what they were shown was beauteous, barbaric or plain bizarre.
Like what Garcia Marquez is known for, Siddhartha has married the real with the mystical with an ease which bespeaks his skill as a writer and lends the book with a lingering, often disturbing, feel. Much is open to interpretation, as happens with any good literary book and the reader is constantly alert to not just intrusions of the other world into the world of his characters but of his own interpretation being reflected upon the written text. Dreams are as real as reality and voices in the head no less real than those of humans actually sitting around. The world that Siddhartha creates is sad, spooky, sombre, savage, surreal, all at the same time. Omens and signs, spirits and folk rituals merge to create a tapestry of meaning that may escape you, yet not let you forget it. And madness, that constant metaphor for alternative realities, is always round the corner.
It is almost as if such wrongs have been committed in these places that other worlds are colluding to help human agency in coping with them, or escaping them. Just like in the story ‘The Coronation’, ‘the rationalists fell silent’, so will they on reading these sixteen stories.
Like the researcher in the first story, perhaps Siddhartha realized that ‘some traces are indestructible. They are all over the place…the walls narrate the tales’ and sought them. He shows characters coming upon make-belief books, letters, journals, parchments to impress upon his readers the importance of the written word in all its forms. So many stories find their roots in a place called Nagbal; an epicentre of these stories much like the epicentre of an exodus - where stories and memories merge; a dot on a map, tucked away from popular view and opinion but no longer from ours.
‘Sometimes the temptation to talk about the hard times can be irresistible, especially when one is at peace with oneself.’
‘A Fistful of Earth’ was not written to please. It was written to shake, shock and remind us of parallel universes in our backyards. It will sadden you, for hope is faint though there, by leaving impressionist images of grief in your minds. I cannot recommend this to just any reader, to be honest. The reader looking for pure entertainment might come away midway from the book calling it heavy, too depressing, too dark, too deep, even when it is only partially that because after all it is a text being savagely true to the life it is imitating.
But I cannot recommend this beautiful piece of literature enough to those who like to be stirred out of their comfort zones, of normal living and happy books, and not just via 'twists in the tale'. It is a book meant to be read and kept safely on a shelf in the memory.
'A Fistful of Earth; and other stories' by Siddhartha Gigoo is a Rupa Publication, 2015.
[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]