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“Where No Daffodils Grow” by Sandeep Raina

On 24/25 August 2019, Sandeep Raina’s “Where No Daffodils Grow” was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. Here is the link. Given the space restrictions in print, the article had to be edited. Reproduced below with the kind permission of the author is the unedited version.

Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Baramulla, Kashmir. He studied engineering in Srinagar, and when in 1990 militancy gripped the Kashmir valley, he finished his education and left for Delhi. He lived in Delhi for 10 years and then in Istanbul for 3 years before moving to Surrey, England where he has been living for the past 15+ years with his wife and 3 children. Sandeep’s wife is a doctor in Surrey, their daughter studies medicine at the University of London, and their twin sons are studying engineering at the Cambridge University.

Sandeep has worked as a senior engineering executive in mobile telecoms for the past 28 years and travels globally for his work. As a mobile telecoms evangelist, he has been invited to speak at many conferences across Europe and the USA, and has published numerous professional articles. Currently, he works for a French-American telecommunications software company in London.

Sandeep has written a novel based on Kashmir, which took him over 11 years to write. The reason to write a novel was that it worked as a slow cathartic process to counter the traumatic and violent experiences of the early-90s Kashmir, and the harsh life of being a migrant/refugee in Delhi. As part of his life and travels outside Kashmir, he has acquired different perspectives of the Kashmir conflict. Through his writing about the Kashmiri people, of all communities, caught in the long-drawn, brutal conflict, he aims to present a better understanding of their predicament.

Sandeep has also published short stories about Kashmir, which reflect the exchanges with people caught in conflicts like Kashmir. They not only highlight the broken relationships, the loss of trust, the rising communal politics of Kashmir and India, but also offer introspection and a hope for the communities that have been disadvantaged because of the strife.

His stories have been published in several magazines and papers, including, The Hindu, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of India/The Economic Times.

****

Men in tall black hats and flowing black robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long side burns and some had long beards.  It was a summer afternoon, hot, and they were quite overdressed. I was visiting a friend in Golders Green in London and asked him what was going on, who were those people, why the costumes?

“Nothing, they are our Jewish neighbours back from a synagogue,” said the Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews live here since the 40s.”

Why were they dressed in such a pronounced manner? I wondered. Here was I, trying my best to assimilate, just landed in London. It didn’t make sense.

We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan josh, yakhni and matsch. I had met him and his wife after many years. We chatted for long on the table, reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed a small ornate candle stand in the window and asked what it was.

“It is a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles in the Jewish festival of lights, Hanukkah.”  

Until then I had thought Diwali was the only festival of lights.

 “Everybody in this apartment building is a Jew, most of them old,” said my friend. “And they are very nice people.”

The next day, I told Mike, my colleague in office, about the Jews in costume. Mike was a small young man, who once had said that being Jewish, Catholic and French was the worst one could be in England, and he was all of them. One of his parents was French and Catholic, the other English and Jewish.

“There are other interesting things that we do, such as not doing anything on Sabbath,” he laughed. “Not even switching on a light.”

“Why?” I said.

He didn’t want to explain or didn’t know.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Kashmiri Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian meals, cleaning and praying, and not doing much else. And the fasts followed the moon’s wax and wane.  Punim, aetham, mavas. On full moon, mid moon, and no moon. There seemed to be much in common with the Jews.

 “We are also really good with money,” laughed Mike.

My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar, a landowner, in Kashmir. My mother said that he was so rich that he didn’t count coins, he weighed them out of hand balances. But, my grandfather was not rich, nor us. My mental comparisons with the Jews ended at this thought.

Years went by. In which my grandfather died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept on coming back to me in many different ways. By now we had moved into a new house, and I worked for a different company, in a different town in England, where I became friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.

It was the Persian new year, on spring equinox, when the day equals night, and the opposites balance out, when I told Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How on the eve, we filled a thaal, a deep plate with rice, milk, yogurt, a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. Bits that made life.

“We do something similar on Navroz, and we call it haft seen,” he said, surprised.

I felt a sudden connection build. We discussed Navroz and Navreh in snatches between meetings, across our office desks, on the coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, and the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and the origins of rogan josh. Things began to tumble out. I even snatched a paper napkin and wrote my name in Nastaliq, the script that had travelled from Iran to Kashmir.

“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.

I didn’t know either, when growing up in Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather. I remembered his bold loud voice, his very sociable manner, his rambling conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi.

Grandfather used to recite Farsi couplets when he was in a good mood, when he had an audience, which could be my reluctant father or a hapless neighbour who had chanced to step by. Grandfather rolled off the Farsi couplets with the same verve as chanting mantras in Sanskrit, when he did his puja every morning, with lots of flower petals and incense sticks, in front of an array of gods. I was small, the Farsi and the Sanskrit both sounded magical to me, inspiring awe.

I told Paymon all this in the office canteen, and he listened to me with an older man’s patience.

My euphoria was unabated. For a Foodie Friday in the office, I woke up early and cooked rogan josh in the morning over low flame for three hours.  My wife wasn’t happy that I hadn’t let her cook. I packed the rogan josh carefully in a large plastic box, with a sticker on top and wrote- Kashmiri Rogan Josh in my wobbly Nastaliq, and sped to office, just in time for lunch. My colleagues had already begun eating, and there were foods of all kinds on the large canteen table. Italian, Greek, English, Brazilian, Welsh, Indian, Iranian. The rogan josh was late. Then Paymon saw me.

“So, you can read and write Farsi?” said Paymon, looking at the sticker, asking me to put some rogan josh on his plate.

“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and write Kashmiri.

Rogan josh disappeared fast, everyone ate it. It was declared the best cooked food on that Friday. I brimmed with pride.

When I left that job, on my last day, Paymon wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Under those he wrote in English: Thank you for enlightening me about Persian Kashmir. It has been great talking with you. It is sad to see you go but I wish you all the best.”

I think Paymon said something about those Farsi words in the card, but in my farewell hurry, I didn’t hear too well.

The card remained unread for years. Later, I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nastaliq from my grandfather. I wonder why I didn’t. My question took me back to a faint conversation from my childhood. I was reading out two Kashmiri words written in Nastaliq on a ten rupee note. In those days, currency notes in India had the value written in 15 official languages, each in its own script.

“Dah ropiye,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls, whirls, and dots.

“It’s not dah ropiye, its duh ropiye,” said my mother.

“What’s the difference?”

“Muslims say dah, but Pandits say duh, because dah in Sanskrit means cremation. And Muslims bury their dead.”  

My mother also told me that the ancient script for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.

Pandits and Muslims had other differences too.  I was aware of some. My pheran, the long woollen garment that I wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh, near its hem, while Bitta, my Muslim friend’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My great grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim women wore knee length pherans, and shorter sleeves.

Many differences, all small. Until someone powerful outside Kashmir, heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit? Whether its script was Nastaliq or Sharada? When the powerful became more powerful with this knowledge, a powerless man in a tempo bus, after a squabble over a seat, called my grandfather a kafir, godless. Hurled the word like a weapon. I was with my grandfather in that bus. I had seen him pray to God every morning, in fact, many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid, his complaint to the bus driver a mere mumble. I remember my own inertness, the tremble in my fingers.

Not much later, a powerless young boy, just out of teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s cousins, with their partners, inside their home. We fled Kashmir.

It’s been 29 springs since that happened. This year, in London, I forgot to fill up the Navreh thaal. Or look up the new panchang, the Hindu calendar book, which my mother posts from India every spring. On Navreh eve, when I was small in Kashmir, I would run out to pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, that grew in our garden. They had the sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to sniff; they were meant for God. And on Navreh morning, when the April air pinched my winter-chapped cheeks, I would wear a new kurta-pajama. Forgetting the thaal has brought sweet nostalgia and tremendous guilt.

Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook, on cue. Rice, milk, yogurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang said the year is 5094 by the Saptrishi calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.

“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.

On the cover of a panchang, I saw a script that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes or like engravings on stone. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.

I had read a book long ago about the revival of Hebrew after the Jews had fled from European towns. How Hebrew was invoked to string the scattered Jews. How they would all go home, with a common language and a new script to a land they could call their own. In a desert.

I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran border. I grew up with snow and mountains, I grew up with lush fields, streams and lakes. What would I do in a desert? What if someone powerful traced my roots to the Aryan Iranians? And sent me to Kharan in Balochistan. Would I go? Would my children go? Would my children’s children go?

I am sure the Jews had said this too.

I thought about Iran. I remembered my conversations about Navroz and Navreh with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card from my last job and found it in a stack of birthday cards that our children had given me over the years. Among dozens of messages written in English was the quatrain written by Paymon in Farsi, in flowing Nastaliq. Asking to be read.

I messaged a photo of the lines to Paymon, asking him if he could translate it for me. Paymon did not reply, I don’t know why. I had thought Paymon would be a friend for life. Friendship’s a promise. I thought of who else could help me: Grandfather. But he was not around anymore to fill me with the awe and magic of his Farsi. Not hearing back from Paymon, not able to read his message brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like a broken promise.

I asked an English friend to help me. He sent a photo of the Farsi message, all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law. A week later, I received the transliteration and the translation in my inbox. Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:

Yari keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist

Dar maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist

Ma ra gham e on yar che bayad khordan

Koo ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist

(Rumi)

“A friend who sees no difference between a flower and a thorn,

In whose religion, the Quran and Zonnar are the same,

Why should we worry about him?

As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse are the same.”

Zonnar used to be a girdle which Jews wore to distinguish them from Muslims, long back in time.

Paymon had not forgotten, he had kept his promise, he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend, he knew me more than I knew myself.

A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from my clothes cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader many years ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it does not have a Pandit fold near the hem. I had never worn it.

That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up. I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes. Now I knew why they were dressed like that.

What they were holding on to.

Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill up a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a pound coin, a pen and an idol of a god in the thaal. Some milk and yogurt too. And pray. That I’m not sent to a desert.

Note: Names changed to protect identity

17 August 2019

Elif Shafak’s “10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World”

Zaynab122 nodded as a cloak of sadness engulfed her. Religion for her had always been a source of hope, resilience and love — a lift that carried her up from the basement of darkness into a spiritual light. It pained her that the same lift could just as easily take others all the way down. The teachings that warmed her heart and brought her close to all humanity, regardless of creed, colour or nationality, could be interpreted in such a way that they divided, confused and separated human beings, sowing seeds of enmity and bloodshed. If she were summoned by God one day, and had a chance to sit in His presence, she would love to ask Him just one simple question: ‘Why did you allow Yourself to be so widely misunderstood, my beautiful and merciful God?’

Elif Shafak’s latest novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World is about a prostitute, Leyla Afife Kamile or Leila, who has been killed and her body dumped in the city waste bin. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds also alludes to the time it takes for the brain to remain active after a patient has been declared clinically dead. While the clock is ticking to the final 10 minutes 38 seconds, Leila in the dumpster, begins to recall her past — her childhood, her family and the group of five friends in Istanbul she considered her safety net — Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra. It is a motley bunch of folks in Leila’s inner circle consisting mostly of runaways like herself. They are on the fringes of society which gives them the freedom to move and comment easily. But for Leila five was a special number. It was a number found across all faiths. Five were the number of books in the Torah, Jesus suffered five fatal wounds, Islam had five pillars of faith, King David had killed Goliath with five pebbles, Buddhism has five paths while Shiva had five faces, looking out in five different directions and Chinese philosophy revolved around five elements — water, fire, wood, metal and earth.

In the patchwork of memories that Leila chooses to share with the reader there are instances of conversations between women in her village. There are conversations between the two wives of Leila’s father. There are conversations in the police station or waiting lines at the public hospital. There are conversations between clients and her pimp. Leila even reflects upon the sexual abuse she faced from her paternal uncle that the whole family chose not to acknowledge even though they, including her father, knew that Leila was telling the truth. There are the stories of her friends and their migration to Istanbul. Her friend the Somalian Jameela of mixed parentage ( Christian and Muslim) escaped ethnic cleansing and sexual exploitation who “like all foreigners, she carried with her the shadow of an elsewhere”. The other friends had similar stories. While these are stories that add up to create a fascinating narrative, what is truly remarkable is that Elif Shafak uses her literary skills to tell the stories of women and the marginalised. These are groups of people who are “normally” silenced in fiercely patriarchal societies. Using Leila to tell these stories is a magnificent literary device. For Leila’s voice is strong. It has an authoritative tone while sharing her story. It cannot be challenged for she is dead. Leila is free to share her experiences and opinions without any judgement being passed on her whatsoever. She is telling her story in the manner she likes. It is liberating. It also holds true for her friends who to some degree have the same freedom of expression as Leila as they are dismissed as “lunatics” by the coroner, so are not necessarily heard. They are free to express their opinions on even sensitive topics like religion. They are “devastated” with the loss of Leila but it is not something to be considered in the State’s opinion as they were not blood relatives. Instead the decision is taken to bury Leila in the loneliest graveyard in Istanbul — the Cemetery of the Companionless.

Elif Shafak said in the 2018 New Statesman / Goldsmiths Prize lecture “Why the novel matters in the age of anger” that in a world ruled by fear and division – novelists no longer have the luxury of being apolitical.

The novel matters because it connects us with the experiences of people we have never met, times we have never seen, places we have never visited. The novel matters not only because of the stories it brings alive, but also the silences it dares to explore. As novelists we keep our ears pricked all the time, attentive to the rhythm of the language, the usage of words, the stories and legends swirling in the air – but we must also listen carefully to the silences. Here we find the things that cannot be openly talked about in a society; the political, cultural, sexual taboos.

The novel matters because, like an alchemist, it turns empathy into resistance. It brings the periphery to the centre, it gives a voice to the voiceless, it makes the invisible visible. And it also distils the deluge of information into drops of wisdom – as argued by the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Writing at a time when Nazism and the ideology of hatred were on the rise, and the world was turning upside down, Benjamin repeatedly made a distinction between “information” and “wisdom”. He believed that the writer, in the depth of solitude, shared his or her own experience or the experiences of others, and by doing this, shed light on “the perplexity of living”. But here is where Benjamin’s theory becomes all the more relevant for our world today. The more information is available and the faster it spreads, he thought, the deeper was the perplexity of living. The proliferation of information at the expense of wisdom, and the widening gap between the two preoccupied Benjamin. He was worried that this might bring along the demise, and eventually the death of the art of storytelling.

The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised. As many who have lived through horrors have told us, including the Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the opposite of love, kindness or peace is not necessarily hatred and war. The opposite of love is numbness. It is indifference.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World exemplifies much of what she Elif Shafak said in her lecture. As a feminist she makes visible the domains of women and the marginalised by looking into their very souls. She makes the invisible stories visible and gives a voice to the voiceless. By dipping into the stories of her characters Shafak unveils the multi-culturally rich stories that exist all around us in a “comforting harmony”. These stories abound irrespective of the toxic politics of ultra-nationalism or religious fundamentalism or authoritarianism that are on the rise and with them misogyny and sexism. This is why she firmly believes that the age we are living in is an important crossroads for global solidarity, global sisterhood.

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When politics becomes toxic and countries slide backwards, we women should be all the more concerned, because every time ultra-nationalism or religious fundamentalism or authoritarianism are on the rise, so are misogyny and sexism. This is why, the age we are living in is an important crossroads for global solidarity, global sisterhood…. I love this photo, together with the wonderful Delphine O, who represents the city of Paris and the person taking the picture is the great scholar Cas Mudde 📚📚📚 Ne zaman siyasetin sert ve hoyrat dili toplumları yapay fay hatlarıyla bölse ve memleketler geriye gitmeye başlasa, kadınlar ve azınlıklar çok daha duyarlı davranmak zorunda, çünkü aşırı milliyetçiliğin yahut bağnazlık ve köktendinciligin yahut otoriterliğin artışa geçtiği topraklarda muhakkak ki cinsiyet ayrımcılığı ve tüm farklılıklara tahammülsüzlük de yükseliş gösterir. Kadına yönelik şiddet ve önyargılar ve kabalıklar artar. Öyleyse yaşadığımız tarihsel dönem global kızkardeşliğin, dayanışmanın daha da önem kazandığı bir an. Bu fotoğrafı çok seviyorum , Fransa'nın önemli kadın hakları savunucularından Delphine O ile, fotoğrafı çeken de çok değerli bir akademisyen, Cas Mudde, belki görebilirsiniz yansımasını… #womensrightsmatter #sisterhood #hopeeveryone #genderequality #cinsiyeteşitliği #kadinyazarlar #bethechange #değişim #edebiyatvesanat #ideasmatter #diversityandinclusion

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Read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World !

28 May 2019

Salil Tripathi, “Detours: Songs of the Open Road”

Detours( Noted London-based Indian journalist Salil Tripathi’s third book, Detours, is a collection of his column/essays on travel writing. This book is meant to be savoured. I was able to read one, maximum two, essays at a time. There was so much to absorb and appreciate in each essay in terms of the rich cultural experiences, the noises, colour, smells, details about the landscape, socio-political characteristics of the places he visits at that particular time with some history deftly blended in. Every single element seems to have his attention for detail. For instance, each chapter heading is carefully selected, it is appropriate for what follows in the essay but also resonates with the reader at many levels. It is rare to find such craftsmanship in a book today. Salil Tripathi has been a man of letters for some decades giving him immense practice in relying upon words to share, comment, dissect and analyse an experience but he does so without ever being dull. So reading Detours is infinitely pleasurable since not for a second does one miss the lack of photographs, sketches or any other form of illustration to support the travelogue. Just focus on the man and his words. This is armchair tourism at its finest!

I am posting an extract from the introduction reproduced with permission from the publishers.) 

As I started working on the essays, I looked back at the great travel writing I had read—Mark Twain, Eric Newby, Salil TripathiPaul Theroux, Ian Buruma, Pico Iyer, and William Dalrymple are among the writers through whose words I began to look at the world differently. I had also read many entertaining accounts, of an American or British writer abroad—like S J Perelman or George Mikes—and enjoyed the tragicomedy that followed. But getting off the beaten track and travelling on roads not taken to reach quieter places seemed so much more enticing. I also read many accounts of the outsider looking in at India, the western gaze trying to make sense of the mysterious east. Mine was an attempt to look at the world through Indian eyes—not as if it was an empire-striking-back, for that would be too presumptuous: how can anyone born in India claim to speak on behalf of a billion people? Rather, mine would be an attempt to look at the world through a sensibility that had been shaped by India and later tinged by other cultures.

I hadn’t left India until 1975 when I was still thirteen, on a tour organised by my school to Nepal. In 1979 I spent a few weeks in Scotland on a student exchange programme. In 1983 I went to the United States to study and returned home in 1986. I moved abroad in 1991, when I left for Singapore, and then in 1999, for England. Each journey affected in some way how I saw the world. My work—as a correspondent first, and later, as a researcher/advocate for human rights organisations—has taken me to fifty-five countries (including India). I’ve learned something new from each visit; I’ve made lasting friendships in many cities and towns around the world. It is impossible to write down each experience. This book attempts to reveal the world I have seen.

The book is divided into three parts: War & After, Words & Images, and Loss & Remembrance. The first section, War & After, deals with places that have been deeply affected by armed conflict or have had human rights challenges—Bogotá, Jakarta, Berlin, Yangon, Mostar, Phnom Penh, Cape Town and Johannesburg, Singapore, Lagos, and Istanbul. In the next section, Words & Images, I write about places that I have understood better because certain writers or artists have made those places more vivid: Bombay (now Mumbai), Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Nairobi and Naivasha, Arusha and Kilimanjaro, Granada, Valparaiso and Isla Negra, Kyoto, Srimongol and Shilaidaha, Shanghai, and New York. The third section, Loss & Remembrance, is the most personal; it is, in a sense, about Karuna Sirkar, my wife who died in 2006. I have written about the places I had travelled with her in the two decades we were together, or where I could feel her presence on later visits; or the places where I went with my sons Udayan and Ameya after her passing, as the three of us tried to pick ourselves up to understand the meaning of our shattering loss: Ludlow and Proctersville, Collioure, Geneva, Stockholm, Venice, Beachy Head, Ålesund and Oslo, and San Francisco.

Salil Tripathi Detours: Songs of the Open Road Tranquebar Press, an imprint of Westland Ltd., 2016. Hb. pp. 380. Rs. 695 

16 Feb 2016