Dr. Kundan Lal Chowdhury

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Homeland after Eighteen Years: A 48 hour Travelogue in Kashmir

BOOK REVIEW

by Prof. K B Razdan (Phd. Ex- Prof of English Jammu University)

Name of the book: Homeland after Eighteen Years: A 48 hour Travelogue in Kashmir .

Author: K L Chowdhury

Publisher: UBS Publishers Distributors Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi

Year of Publication: 2011.

Price: Rs.170/-

Dr. K L Chowdhury’s poetic travelogue, narrating his 48 hours stay in Srinagar and its environs, in early October 2008, constitutes a significant first-person singular narrative of the author’s experiences and perceptions when he went there to receive the ‘Lifetime Award for the Best Book in English’ for his anthology “Enchanting World of Infants” (2008), from the J&K Academy of arts, Culture and Languages. 

Going back to Kashmir “after eighteen years”, “nearly a generation”, the author explains in the “Introduction”, “was a hard decision to make”. After “having been violently thrown out”, as he says, going back would be “a painful proposition”. Yet, the irresistible pull to visit the homeland after nearly two decades, proves eventually impossible to ignore. A “burning desire” to go up the Shankaracharaya hill and visit the Shiva temple at the top, along with the magnetic tug of Rajveri Kadal in downtown Srinagar , his birth place “to walk the lanes, where i spent my childhood,” become catalytic factors which conquer Chowdhury’s initial doubts before he decides to go and give it a try.

The travelogue, opening with the first poem on 3 October 2008 “On Board Jet Airways, Jammu-Srinagar”, develops into a gripping narrative in the annals of diasporic literature. The reader finds it virtually impossible to put down the volume, once he or she starts to read it. Chowdhury, thanks to his racy poetic profundity and rapidity, makes the reader accompany him all through his journey till his return flight on 5 October.  His deceased friend’s son, Rauf, drives him to diverse places before the Award receiving ceremony, and the author acknowledges that “With young people like him, there is hope for Kashmir ”. 

Rauf’s car becomes the contemporary Noah’s Ark, taking the author to all those localities of Srinagar city which remain still dear to him, churning memories, associations, and ties, hanging like finest silken threads in the innermost chamber of his consciousness, and exposing the tragedy of an ethnic minority, the Kashmiri Pandits, who were “driven into exodus of unparalleled magnitude in modern times”. As the narrative “unfolds in short episodes”, when the author moves from one place to another, the reader comes to know about “the truth beyond the rhetoric that has marked the real tragedy of ordinary Kashmiris”. A climactic query is posed: “What hope for a reconciliation and reconstruction of the devastated social and cultural edifice that was the hallmark of Kashmir ?” Two decades after the outbreak of secessionist insurgency in Kashmir , the author feels that though “terrorism has beaten a retreat for some time, and threats to life receded, yet the consolidation of an aggressive religious mind-set and a relentless trend to cultural and religious exclusivity”, still pose problems and challenges.

“Homeland after Eighteen Years” also serves as an arresting, poetic compendium of historicism which projects the author into the past, an investigated past which functions as a historical agent. Chowdhury - the doctor in real life that he is - dissects, anatomizes, and eventually diagnoses, the ills, afflictions and the tribulations which have plagued and sought to tear apart the multicultural pluralistic ethos and the socio-cultural ambience of Kashmir , Mauj Kashir as Kashmiris call it reverentially.

In poem after poem, the verse pieces even qualify as a hypertext, a text that builds on or contains traces of an earlier text. Though “Homeland After Eighteen Years” can by no means be called as a sequel to Chowdhury’s maiden work “Of Gods, Men and Militants” (2000), yet it does awake in our minds as readers, the agonizing apostatic events recorded in the author’s very first work as an infallible specimen of diasporic literature written in exile. To quote some lines would be appropriate to illustrate this writer’s point-of-view.

A debate is sparked in the poet’s mind:

Kashmir has never left my thoughts /ever since I left her, 18 years back.

I roam the lanes and by lanes/ of the home where I was born,

the school I learnt my three Rs,/and the hospital I worked and taught.

That was my small beautiful world/that I would loathe exchange

even for paradise”.

How poignant these lines become in conveying to the reader the sheer metaphysical and psychological agony of separation from one’s homeland and the resultant rootlessness, anomie and angst. 

Look at these lines, unforgettable ones:

“I often recall my friends in Kashmir /and remember them

beyond their religious identities,/ and before the time

there was anything like/ ‘them’ and ‘us’.

And again: 

to receive an award in person/is an honorable proposition;

stronger is the urge for a reunion/ with people and places

where I spent all my childhood and prime/and my middle years…..

where all my forefathers lived and died,/where my soul doth residep; 

 

That the award is just an excuse/thrown my way by providence

to fulfill my intense longing/ for a rendezvous with the valley”.

About the vitasta (river Jehlum), the author feels what one can feel and say about the demonic degeneration of the mineral world of pastoral symbolism:p;

Alas, what offers the sight/  is a lazy, almost stagnant stream,

duckweed and refuse, and an occasional animal carcass

floating on her sullied surface.

There is no evidence, whatever,/  of her youthful voluptuous way

And the river n deep depression/bemoaning the valley’s transformation…

In the quoted lines we witness the formation and creative expression of a diasporic identity, anchored in narrative brilliance - a form of interpretive activity, a process of storytelling constrained by cultural and social upheaval. Chowdhury’s verse pieces across the pages of “Homeland after Eighteen Years”, cumulatively, form a narrative spectrum, an autobiographic collage ranging from recollections of specific events and individuals to an extended account of virtually a lifetime experience. The connection and the relationship between narrative and identity, has been fruitfully explained umpteen times. Yet, the realistic phenomenological auspices employed by the author, vis-à-vis his undying nostalgia and love for his lost homeland, transform the present work as a narrative in the form of an epistemic structure that makes reality intelligible to us. Stories may not be lived but only told; all the same, Chowdhury’s supple, pliant, lucid and free-flowing lines as travelogue, traveling back and forth in time, grip the reader’s mind with a hypnotic tide of emotions, recollections and attachments. Realism combines with a distinct communitarian streak, the author’s life in spite of enforced exile, is narrated as a consequence of the embeddedness of individual lives in the existence of a community:

“People have seen through the militants,

and the leaders who stoke their passions.

Be it the subversives and separatists,

be it the politicians and the ideologues,

they all have their axe to grind;

they give a damn for the common man

who is dragged into this

for no fault of his.”

Pathos mixes with agonizing helplessness when the author narrates that the gods and deities feel abandoned and forgotten by their devotees who left the valley during the enforced exodus, almost two decades back:

“I have no heart to go in/and seek a darshan,

for I will have a lot to answer/to the deities inside

that we worshipped every day,/and a lot to hear from them.”

These lines refer to the famous Ramchander Temple , near the Barbarshah Bridge in Srinagar . About the Ganesha temple at the foothills of Hariparbat fort, the lines become a virtual dirge lamenting a lost divine glory coupled with the absence of eager devotees and worshippers, who would once flock to pay obeisance to the elephant god:

“Smeared with deep vermilion, the mound of rock here

is naturally shaped, like the potbellied Ganeshap;

with an elephant head and  a curled trunk,

who has evoked such adulation down the ages.

But, now, the rock is defaced and laid bare,

the image tarnished beyond repair,

and dear Ganesha, deserted by his devotees

looking worn, forlorn and melancholy.p; 

After a visit to Pokhribal, the poet in Chowdhury wonders:

“Who is worse off, I wonder-

the gods here sans their flock

or the flock in exile sans their gods?”

At Makhdoom Sahib, the author finds

“men, woman and children

praying, shedding tears, tying knots,

their faces lit up in faith.”

Yet, he fails to understand:

“how one faith can thrive on the damnation of another;

how can love for one nourish on hatred for the other?”

Toward the end of the book, when the author is back in the Circuit House after the Award Ceremony, he speculates about the Mindset of a top government functionary “Who rues that good doctors and teachers have become scarce in Kashmir after the Pandits ‘fled’.” The word “fled” as a misnomer, a blatant travesty of truth about the reason behind the enforced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley, makes the poet in Chowdhury register his reaction in no-holds-barred poesy: 

“I was incensed by that word/ for it is a common canard,

a myth perpetrated……../ that the Pandits ‘fled’ Kashmir

that they deserted their homes and hearths/for the unknown terrains of exile”

Deliberate disinformation and falsehood is sought to be dispelled in these words:

“For, it is not the common man/ but the bureaucrat and  the manager,

the politician and the minister,/ who do not want the Pandits back”.

it is they who are the worst offenders/of our human rights

and not the common Kashmiri Muslims/who, like Rauf, would want us back”.

The climactic poem in the collection “The Return Flight” sums up, what Leslie Fielder said about creative, realistic technoscapes: “Cross the border and close the gap….” On landing back at Jammu airport, the author, himself now enriched by the tribulation of an ‘anonymous’ identity in what once was his homeland feels, and truly so, that the place which has hosted him for “full eighteen years” (Jammu) is in reality now his home:

“How come we never owned it

as it owned us?

……..

Suddenly, I get a feeling,/

first time in these long years,

that I am returning home.

No, I am not a refugee;

this place belongs to me,

and I belong here.

A homeland for me/is a place

which gives me back my identity.”

Thus, as a postmodern ‘time-traveler’, Chowdhury not only experiences the ironic, paradoxical self-reflexivity in those 48 hours of his hurricane visit to the valley, “the paradise” turned into hell that man creates on earth, these 48 hours, symbolically epitomize the 48 years of his life at the time of his exodus from the place of his birth. The entire verse pieces in “Homeland after Eighteen Years” constitute dialogism of utterance and of the text as utterance. Chowdhury’s 48 hours sojourn in Kashmir becomes a carnivalesque capsule of the first 48 Years of his earthly existence. The author was nearly 49 when he had to bid adieu to his dear homeland. “Homeland after Eighteen Years”, qualifies as a work which fuses, and poetically blends, the metaphysical and geographical terrains of an author, who, like Albert Camus’s Sisyphus, arrives at his own existential resolution. 

K.L. Chowdhury's Index Page

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