‘Kashmiris must recount their countless stories’

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2015 recently announced its regional winners – one each in Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific.
‘Kashmiris must recount their countless stories’
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The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2015 recently announced its regional winners – one each in Africa, Asia, Canada and Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific. Srinagar-born novelist Siddhartha Gigoo's story 'The Umbrella Man' was declared the winner for the Asian region. Open to citizens of the 53 Commonwealth countries, this year's prize saw nearly 4,000 entries, 22 of which, from 11 countries, were shortlisted for the regional awards.

Siddhartha Gigoo studied English Literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He is the author of two books of fiction, The Garden of Solitude (2011) and A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (2015). He has also written and directed two short films, The Last Day (which was selected for several international film festivals) and Goodbye, Mayfly. Two books of his poems, Fall and Other Poems and Reflections – written as a student – were published by Writer's Workshop, Kolkata.

In an interview with GK Features Editor Majid Maqbool, Siddhartha Gigoo talks about the inspiration behind his stories set in Kashmir, his interest in filmmaking, and why younger writers should read a lot, reflect, and then write and rewrite. 


Congratulations for winning the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Asia region for your story 'The Umbrella Man' chosen from the 22 stories shortlisted from nearly 4000 entries. Tell us how you came to write this story, and is it inspired from a real event, someone you knew…?

Thank you! Am delighted. The story 'The Umbrella Man' came to me last summer in the most bizarre circumstances. I used to go to my balcony at midnight to watch the planes land at an airstrip nearby. And during the day I used to see an army of ants carry tiny food grains into their holes. In the evenings, I would narrate these scenes to my wife, Aishwarya, and daughter, Amia.

Amia would tell me ghost stories, in which a one-eyed-crow always made an appearance. Delhi was burning that summer. And rain was nowhere in sight. One night, I dreamt of a solitary man who chances upon an umbrella. I wrote about this man and his conversation with his only friend. No one knows what happens afterwards. I wish to meet the Umbrella Man once in my lifetime, although I know, he may have no interest in meeting me.

After winning the award for this story, you said: "Most of my stories are about Kashmir, where I was born and spent my wonder years. The place now is just a faded image. Yet there are moments when it sparkles and comes alive. And thus, stories are born." Why is that Kashmir is now a 'faded image' for you but at the same time an inspiration for your stories, films, and not your home anymore you can return to?

I was born in 1974 in Downtown Srinagar. My childhood was quite adventurous. Gardening in spring, cycling trips in the summers, and skiing in the winters! My grandfather, Omkar Nath Gigoo, would take my sister Henna, and me to the woods to listen to the songs of the hoopoe.

My father, Arvind Gigoo, would take me to the coffee house. He taught me how to read and write. My mother, Sarla Gigoo, taught me how to knit. Sadly, I have forgotten it now.

I see Kashmir as a faded image now. Although I go to Kashmir, partly for tourism (for a day or two) and partly to shoot short films, I'm only able to dream of Kashmir, which once was mine. These dreams are a bit fragmented, and the place and the people come alive in the most magical and mysterious of ways. A few years ago, when my grand mom was still alive, I went to Kashmir.

I hadn't told her about my trip, thinking she might get worried. But when my father told her that I was in Kashmir, she insisted on speaking to me on the phone. She called me and said, "You didn't tell me that you were going 'home.'" I was struck by what she said.

She referred to Kashmir as her home. Twenty years in exile, yet Kashmir was home. I'm not sure if I see Kashmir the same way as my grand mom did when she was alive. But I wish to keep this fabulous memory of her home alive. I don't think it will ever cease to exist. This borrowed memory throws up different images. And I use these images in my writing. 

In a way, nothing is mine. These stories are of my parents and grandparents, and of people I've known.

Apart from your writing novels and short stories, you have also made a short film "The Last Day" and now you are doing another film "Goodbye, Mayfly". Tell us about these films and what attracted you towards filmmaking? Did you train yourself for making these films; do these short films originate and in a sense compliment your short stories?   

I wanted to study filmmaking. Sadly, I wasn't selected by the FTII. The test was not difficult, but perhaps my answers to the questions weren't good enough. So I learnt script writing on my own. I started reading film scripts, and then wrote a script based on one of my stories. The film 'The Last Day' was made. 'Goodbye, Mayfly', my latest film, is a children's film. I hope to screen it in Kashmir this summer. The film is set against the backdrop of the conflict in Kashmir.

These stories originate out of a deep sense of longing – for Kashmir. And also out of anguish! I want to make a full-length feature film set in Kashmir. I have a script in mind. It's based on a story, which is unpublished so far. I don't want to publish it. I want to see it come alive on celluloid. The moving image, with sound and music, is more fascinating than the written word. 

A lot of young Kashmiris are writing in English, a lot of creative writing is happening in English prose and poetry touching on things past and present, and some of it also gets published.  Do you see this encouraging for expanding the reach and audience of the story of Kashmir and its many truths and experiences as lived by Kashmiris in the past few decades?

I do. Agha Shahid Ali continues to remain an inspiration. Kashmiris must recount their stories. Each person has a story to tell. I'm not sure of things like 'truth' and 'untruth'. But I know a lived experience is all that matters. One of the greatest storytellers I've ever known was my grand mom. Had it not been for her, I wouldn't have written a word.

What is your advice to younger writers who would want to tell their own stories? How important is learning the craft of writing, giving it some time and not hurrying, so as to allow the stories to come out well?

Many young Kashmiris keep on messaging me, asking me to share my experiences. My advice to them is to keep reading – novels, stories, poetry. When in doubt, pick up a novel, read a passage, reflect, learn and then write. Read again and then re-write. Keep on chiseling and polishing. Never rush. Pickle the writing. It took me five years to write 16 stories. I kept on revising and revising. I am still not satisfied. The other day, I read a passage from one of the stories and I felt like changing it. Watching movies helps too. I'm a film-buff. Just one image can transport you to a world of fantasies. And one is always a learner, a beginner, no matter how many books one has written. Every new sentence is a learning experience, a new challenge.

In Kashmir, everyone is a storyteller. We've an age-old tradition of storytelling. You look at a stone, a pebble, a paper-boat, a stream, a face, a house, a temple, a mosque, a bridge, and you see countless stories. 

Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2015) for Asia

The Umbrella Man 

An excerpt of Siddhartha Gigoo's prizewinning story 'The Umbrella Man' originally published in A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories, Rupa Publications, India (2015).

He unfurled the umbrella, held it aloft over his head and stepped out of his ward again that evening, thinking that it would rain. Rain had evaded the place for several months. Only in the evenings were the inmates allowed to go out of their wards and stroll in the compound of the asylum. But he was the only one permitted to saunter out of the gates and spend some time in the street nearby.

This limited liberty was not an entitlement, but a privilege that had been granted to him by the doctors for his obedience and calm disposition. It had taken many months for the doctors to grant him this freedom which, if one were to measure, ended either at the wall around the one-hundred-and-twenty-square-metre compound of the asylum or the ninety-something yards in the narrow avenue outside the gates that ended at another wall. Beyond that wall, there was nowhere to go. For the inmates, the world ended at that wall. Beyond that brick-and-stone wall was a vast darkness, an oblivion.

Somehow, Number 7 was hopeful of the rain that evening as well. He felt lucky to have chanced upon the umbrella with yellow-and-red stripes. It had become his playmate. Like him, the umbrella too, had not seen the battering of rain at all. What good was an umbrella if it had not been used in the rain?

Thedance of the raindrops on the nylon cloth held together by slender aluminium strips was a distant dream. It was the rain which defined the umbrella, gave it its purpose, its essence and meaning. The umbrella was utterly worthless without the rain. But then there was the waiting—a long and lacerating wait for the clouds and the rain. On many evenings, Number 7 had seen the swelling clouds waft by and hover over the asylum compound. And without fail, he would excitedly unfurl the umbrella and leave his ward with hope in his heart, thinking of the rain, expecting it to come down.

It was not an unusual umbrella, as one might think, given that no one knew how the man had come to possess it. The man did not have any visitors in years.

None of the inmates had visitors. No one in the asylum remembered how the umbrella had become an inseparable companion of this man. Except for the two sets of clothes—one made of cotton and the other of wool—the inmates lived bereft of any worldly possessions. Perhaps the umbrella was a gift from one of the asylum orderlies or doctors. Or of someone no longer alive.

A thing which had been discarded and, instead of having been disposed of with the other useless things, had found refuge in the solitary ward of Number 7! It was the most beautiful thing in the entire asylum, more beautiful than the bed of wild flowers along the wall of the compound.

The very sight of it in the mornings brought a smile on his lips. On sunny afternoons, he held it aloft and took leisurely walks in the compound. Through the windows of their wards, the inmates looked at him with awe and wonder. They wanted to hold the umbrella in their hands and be in its shade. But no one was as attracted to the dazzling beauty of this dainty yellow-and-red striped umbrella as Number 7. Not many in the asylum knew what beauty was.

Number 7 had forgotten the count of days and nights. With one arm resting on his chest and the other holding the umbrella firmly over his head, he stepped out of the gates, and hummed a tune. His gait was unsteady owing to the degenerative ailment he had been suffering from for months. But his disease was the least of his worries. He didn't experience any physical pain or discomfort.

All he wished for was the arrival of rain. Yet he never felt disappointed when he returned to his cell from his evening walks, not even when he ate alone in the mornings and the afternoons and the evenings. He was served food in a brass vessel, mostly rice and vegetables. Meat was served occasionally and he had no taste for it. He would leave the meat dish untouched.

Sometimes during the lonesome nights, he imagined that he was not alone in his cell and that someone else was also present. He would see the image of a child.

And then he would wake up from his nervy sleep and watch the child mumble some words in an alien language. He would imagine the child dreaming a dream, not a pleasant one though.

He would comfort the child as if he was his own. 'It is just a dream,' he would say, stroking the child's hair tenderly. 'Go back to sleep. I am by your side.' Then he would sleep. Night after night, he would talk to the child.

There was not even a single night when he did not worry and fret for the child. All he wanted was peaceful sleep for the child and a smile on his lips. He even prayed in silence, convinced that some powers would heed to his prayers and bestow their grace upon the child.

'You are not alone, my dear,' he would say to the child. He didn't realize that he had become a father and a mother. For years, during his life in isolation in the asylum, the child never grew up. The man grew old. White strands of hair covered his face. He was left with little strength in his bones.

Number 7 would sit in front of the barber, once in a month, for a shave. The barber narrated humorous anecdotes to the inmates while shaving them. 'Any rain in sight yet?' the barber would say to the Umbrella Man, knowing his fascination for the rain. 'It is going to rain soon,' the man would say, full of hope.

That evening when Number 7 was strolling in the narrow avenue hedged with tall eucalyptus trees, he stumbled against the bench placed halfway between the asylum gates and the wall where the lane ended. As soon as he sat on the bench, his most favourite place, the conversation began. He began with the usual greeting.

'So, mister, hoarding for the coming winter? So sure of its arrival?'

The puny little fellow paused and looked up at the trespasser, without placing the burden he carried on the ground. The fellow didn't betray displeasure, knowing that the man had come for a friendly chat.

'And what makes you think the winter won't arrive this year?' the fellow blurted. 'You will always remain a pessimist. Look around you. Nature is bountiful. Look at the bees, the flowers, the beehive, the leaves…'

(Read the full story here http://scroll.in/article/723820/the-umbrella-man-siddhartha-gigoo-is-the-asia-winner-of-the-commonwealth-short-story-prize)

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