Kavita Suri

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Koshur Music

An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri

Panun Kashmir


Symbol of Unity


Exclusive Interview: 

Sudha Koul:
The Tiger ladies: A memoir of Kashmir

WOMEN : How green was her valley

Section: Accent 
Date: Mar 31,2003

For someone who happened to the first Kashmiri woman IAS officer from the state of Jammu and Kashmir but had to quit her high-profile job to marry and settle down in the United States of America, the haunting memories of Valley of Kashmir - those excursions in the highlands, those narcissus flowers blooming in the beautiful countryside, the snow-clad Himalayan ranges, those shikara rides and the lotus flowers in the majestic Dal Lake- are too unbearing. Though after marriage, Sudha spent her initial years in America raising her kids and started writing only when they were little older, her first book which she wrote in 1989, however, turned out to be a bestseller while the second one is being taught in American Colleges. Sudha Koul has just finished her third book The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir which has already been rated as a bestseller. Koul recalls a charmed childhood in the Kashmir valley in this smart and poignant coming-of-age tale narrating the story of Kashmir through the lives of four generations of women in her, from her maternal grandmother who smokes a hookah pipe to her American born daughters. 

Koul grew up immersed in the colorful folk tales and centuries-old rituals of her valley, which sits, she writes, “like an infant in the lap of the Himalayas.”   Raised by adoring grandparents in a close knit Brahmin family, Koul recalls a magical childhood, marked by days-long Shivrati celebrations and elaborate weddings, shared, as is almost everything, with her Muslim friends and neighbors.  She brings alive sensuous details of a bygone era; sweet green tea served from ornate samovars, her grandmother’s fried brook trout cooked on a kerosene stove, the treasured pashmina shawls tucked away in a girl’s trousseau, and “the madness of perfumed air” that arrives with spring.  

Sudha Koul who also writes about the loss of innocence and of paradise that once was Kashmir in this book, was recently in Jammu on the invitation of Jammu University for presenting a lecture on her latest bestseller. She spoke to KAVITA SURI on her creative works. Excerpts.

You have been living in United States for the past over 25 years now. How much of the stereotype image of Indian women that exists abroad, was instrumental in writing this book on Kashmir ?

No, nothing exactly. It was written without any agenda . And I don’t think the stereotypes exist. These might exist in certain pockets but not in majority of the areas. Indian women force are everywhere, Information Technology, software etc, moving forward in every field. This book wasn’t written keeping in mind anything except my children.

You are visiting Jammu and Kashmir after 15 years. You actually left this state years ago immediately after you became the first Kashmiri woman to join Indian Administrative service in 1970. There was no militancy, terrorism or insurgency when you last visited Jammu and Kashmir. How does it feel coming back to Jammu and Kashmir after so many years ? How is this homecoming in the shadow of gun after years?

Well, I am here in connection with my book on the invitation of the University. I cannot comment on the situation here. In normalcy, though Hindus formed a minuscule minority in the valley, but it did not worry us in Kashmir as we were more preoccupied with the fact that we were all Kashmiri and lived in the most beautiful place on earth. Its good to be here.

No, but I actually want to know how do you see this change, there has been so much of pain and agony in all these years for the people living here and you being the creative writer, you book is about Kashmir, your memoirs, nostalgia, the beautiful paradise on the earth which evokes strong reaction while reading. So how do you see this change as a creative writer ?

Oh, Kashmir has gone through very sad painful times. And there is quite a change, a big change in the times since I was here last and now. But in terms of what is going on today, I am not really qualified to talk much on it much. My book is not a political analysis but it really does speak about something that no one really wants to talk about. Everyone has the views on insurgency and this and that and the other but nobody thinks about the life that we had, the rituals, the culture, the way we interacted and lived together, my book is about that. And I would be wrong to say that nothing had changed, it has all the more reason that I am having this book.

Are you going to Kashmir also?

Not in this trip but hopefully in very near future I would be going there. But insurgency in Kashmir has nothing to do with my not going to the valley. I wanted to go there last year also but then I was busy with my book . Prior to that I was somehow busy. I have some relatives there, I would be going there soon.

How did you get the idea for writing this book on Kashmir?

This is my third book. First book in wrote in 1989. You know I was in IAS. I resigned for my marriage and family. I went to US and realized that I wanted to write but I could not write because I had small children. I could not writing anything which required sustained intellectual involvement. So I wrote a book entitled “Curries Without Worries” which turned out to be a bestseller. It was an introduction to Indian cuisine. It was selected by Book Of Month Club in the USA and finally is now finally published by Warner Books. The second that I wrote was “Come with Me to India on a Wondrous Voyage through Time”.

Is it a travelogue?

No, its not really a travelogue although it is sold in the travel section, It is an introduction to the Indian culture, history, languages, festivals, etc. Like I was telling you about my children. If I do not put all the facts about India in one book, they will not find time to collect. This book is now actually being used as a text book in American colleges. There are so many South Asians in the US and so they have actually started courses on South Asia and they are using my book.

Was it a conscious decision to write a book on Kashmir? 

After I wrote these two books, I thought okay, now they know about India, let me write something on Kashmir. Also I was getting very nostalgic about Kashmir .Things were changing fast and I thought I must note down what I remember of Kashmir before it is gone. And that was the reason that I wrote The Tiger Ladies

As you yourself just said that it was an urge to write something about Kashmir  “before its gone”. In the past 13 years since the exodus of Kashmir Pandit community from Kashmir valley, only seven lakhs Kashmir Pandits are left worldwide. Their next generation is forgetting their rituals, culture is getting diluted, they are getting away from their roots because of insurgency in Valley. Do you think this book would be kind of reference book for the next generation of Kashmir Pandits who crave for their homeland/motherland very strongly?

I got your point. My book is an archive but if someone is looking for a detailed guide to the rituals, it is not that. Essentially it is a memoir of all the things that we, as Kashmir Pandits, used to do  but it is not an introduction to the rituals of the Kashmiri Pandits. Rituals are one of the things that I have included in it. Now as far as for as KP identity is concerned, I think our Kashmir culture is so unique because of our unique geography and so it is something to think about. But one does wonder that if Kashmir Pandits live everywhere but Kashmir, how long they will be able to retain their KP identity. But I do not have any answers to that. 

Do you think The Tiger Ladies would be a turning point for the younger generation of Kashmir Pandits who strongly crave for their motherland? How can it influence those youngsters who are drifting apart from their roots because of Kashmir turmoil?

Well, one is worried about it. That is this unique Kashmir culture that we have, how will it be transferred to the next generation. It is difficult because KP have gone to different parts of the world. I hope my book would help in that. I hope at least for my children it is going to provide a continuity and I hope it does for other KPs also. Not only for KPs but also for Kashmiri Muslims as it reminds us of the time we used to live together in harmony. So ,for our next generation, I hope it is an archive which they can read and realize how their elders used to live because none has written about it.

I do not think my book alone would be able to help them to retain their KP identity. But I hope it helps.

You have said that you basically wrote this book for your daughters. How much of KP influence you have on your daughters? How far they have been able to retain their Kashmir Pandit identities as they are born and brought up in the United States.

I run a Kashmiri house in the US. My daughters love Kashmir, they love Kashmir food, Kashmiri music but on the other hand they are very much Americans, their peers are all Americans and I haven’t consciously tried to pull them towards KP culture. They themselves like it and so do other KP children in foreign countries because they have seen their parents strong bonding with India.

But then how you yourself have been able to strike a balance between the cultural disparities?

Well you know America is the country of immigrants, They celebrate ethnicity and diversity and from that point of view , it is not the problem for me. Various KP groups get together and we try to do whatever we can. But some subtle little changes do take place. Its not a such a big problem.

Have you been reading the writings of Kashmir writers in exile?

I must confess, I would love to. But I have been so busy writing . I have a whole stack of South Asian writers which I would read once I go back from my book promotion tour. But at the same time, I have read some of them . I am fully aware of the pain and agony that they have gone through. 

You said in your recent lecture at Jammu University that you chose this title : The Tiger ladies as in Kashmir the goddess rides a tiger and is a powerful deity. It symbolizes Kashmiri women. How far you see the changes in the status of women in Jammu and Kashmir now and early seventies?

Well, the women of my region have attained their extraordinary power and place in their culture. “The Tiger Ladies” also  tells the story of Kashmir through the experiences of ordinary women. 
I must say that I have come to India and I am thrilled to see the women. Its just wonderful to see them . In all kinds of job they are so wonderful, doing all kinds of jobs. But the empowerment of the women is not complete. It is still a long way to go.

But how far things were different in your time and now?

Ohhh. Things in my time!! It was a different time. We thought we would conquer the world, Women gave up the burqa, women became doctors and engineers in Kashmir. Nobody even thought twice about it. There was no job  we couldn’t do, we were free, we used to  go on mountain-hikes, we went on excursions, It just been amazing to see that for a while Kashmir has gone back to a dark era.

Three books….of which two are bestsellers. What next?

I will be going back to US in mid-February. This visit to India and my alma-mater have been fantastic. The interest and the response of the people has just been wonderful and as much as one was gratified by the response in America and England, but nothing to beat coming home and people telling you that they enjoyed, they loved, they laughed, they wept while reading this book. Already I have started working on my next book. Its a fiction on Kashmir. I have just made a little beginning. 

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