About ten pages into Sandeep Raina’s novel, the Kashmiri Pandit protagonist is asked if he would like to watch a film about the history of the concentration camp he is visiting. Rahul Razdan has just arrived in Europe after six despairing years in Delhi, and walking around Dachau has already filled his mind with thoughts of his homeland. Something about the Austrian stranger’s innocuous question jolts the usually subdued young professor out of melancholia into sudden rage. “I have seen it all, I have felt it, I have been the film. Why would I want to see it all again?” he snaps.
A Bit of Everything is punctuated by incandescent moments like this one, where the light – and heat – from a still-smouldering bit of memory suddenly illuminates the drab, papered-over present, sometimes threatening to set it on fire. But such sparks are rare, because they are dangerous. Most people, most of the time, prefer to view the past nostalgically, and Rahul is no different. In the nostalgic mode, too, the mental analogy is with a film – but a film one watches over and over because one yearns to inhabit it again.
“The past could be recalled easily, it could be comforting. He could rely on it. He could replay his fondest memories. Sitting here in a cold lounge on a cold leather sofa, he could recall a summer garden, a breezy afternoon, a book aglow under a winter candle, the smell of a wooden bukhari, warm toes in woollen socks, the scent of apples in straw boxes, pine-needle charcoal smoking in a kangri, Doora’s fluttering sari. The past could be relived as he wanted. The problem was with the present.”
A slow souring
Raina understands the workings of memory from the inside out. His book is a self-reflexive take on how we craft the narratives of our lives: as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations. It is no coincidence that Raina’s fictional narrator, the mild-mannered Rahul, has the rare ability to accept himself – his bafflement, his grief, his anger – without denying others his empathy. That empathetic quality is particularly valuable in a paean to a lost Kashmiri Pandit homeland, because the granular personal memory of that loss is too often dissolved into a politically expedient history of collective Hindu victimhood.
After they were forced to leave the increasingly communalised valley in the early 1990s, the Pandits’ painful and legitimate grievances have been sucked more and more into a narrative not of their making. The community is now a crucial pawn in the Sangh Parivar’s game of whataboutery, a game which politicians benefit from keeping alive.
We live with Rahul and the others the wrenching violence of the Pandit experience, of having been uprooted from the only home they had ever known, with little notice and few avenues for return. But their fear and hurt and befuddlement is not marshalled into some easy post-facto rationalisation. Raina’s protagonists refuse to play the static parts assigned to them in that never-ending majoritarian game: Pandits are not perpetually wounded victims, Muslims are not perpetually ungrateful traitors. (Even those from the “forces’ families” are allowed complicated inner lives by Raina – though he makes it clear that India’s defence establishment is its own social category in Kashmir.)
Instead, Raina’s narrative burden is the slow souring of once-warm relationships – and like his professorial narrator, he takes it seriously. If he revels in the sights and smells and sounds of his beloved house and garden, painting a often-idyllic picture of the sleepy small town of Varmull (I had to google to realise it’s the Baramulla of news reports), Rahul is equally punctilious about recording the fault-lines beneath the surface. The cross-community connections of Tashkent Street are real, but they contain within them the seeds of discord.
On Tashkent Street
So, for instance, we learn that Rahul and Doora build their “Haseen House” on a spur of the fields belonging to Doora’s family. It’s a detail, but one that helps understand how historical resentments brew: Pandits own all the arable land for miles, while it is poorer Muslims like Firoz and his brother who know how to cultivate it.
Rahul’s relationship to Firoze lies at the core of the novel: their bonding over the garden; Rahul’s awkward silence when Firoze takes the blame for a theft that his brother may or may not have committed; his attempt to compensate by teaching Firoze English literature for free. The inequality once tempered by neighbourly attachment becomes unbridgeable as social distrust deepens.
Then there’s the story of Kris, originally Krishna, who lives in one of the derelict houses on Jadeed Street where most of Varmull’s Dalits lived, “no one knew since when”. After his father dies cleaning a gutter, he comes to work in Rahul and Doora’s house at 13, hoping to acquire some education alongside his domestic duties. But Doora catches him pilfering and sends him away, launching him on a series of adventures in religion. First disallowed into the temple on Gosain Hill, then offered a new name and a Koran but barred from the mosque as “napaak” (impure), the Dalit boy finally becomes a Christian at 14.
Tashkent Street enables unlikely connections, but also watches them with suspicion. If the relationship between Kris and the poor Pandit girl Ragnee raises eyebrows, so does the fact of Firoze’s and Asha Dhar’s mother becoming friends over their daughters’ weddings – and the Ramayan. “I can’t understand the trittam-krittam, trit-pit Hindi they speak in the show, and no one at home tells me anything,” says Firoze’s mother to her son to explain why she goes to Asha Dhar’s house to watch the Hindu epic on Doordarshan every Sunday.
“Mother, focus on your Pashto, not your Hindi,” laughs Firoze, while telling Rahul privately that it’s the Dhars’ cooking she can’t stay away from. Asha Dhar’s husband Pt Dhar, too, is unhappy with the friendship, which brings the Khan family – including their younger son Manzoor – into unnecessary proximity with his teenaged daughters.
Over and over, Raina catches cultural and linguistic undercurrents that are the waves of the future: Iqbal Bano playing at a Pandit wedding before being turned off for its Pakistani-ness; Arun Dhar averting his eyes when asked about his friend Manzoor, or Pt Dhar dropping his voice to a whisper when he talks about his son-in-law’s “Shankhi” leanings so that the shopkeeper can’t hear him, or telling Rahul that he should say “poshte” because Muslims say “mubarakh”.
Raina’s radar may be stronger in Varmull, but it is alert to signals of contradiction even in Delhi and London – the intra-Muslim divide between Pashto-speakers and others; his Babri-destroying cousin Chaman who assures Doora that Rahul won’t fall into bad habits abroad, while winking at him and talking about marrying a mem; the Trinidadian Hindus who toast “Raoul” with beef doner kababs and whiskey while enlisting his services as a pandit for their planned Sanatan temple in Tooting.
Rahul’s final return – to India and to Kashmir – is the only unconvincing part of the book, perhaps because Raina’s attempt to unravel all the knots of the past at once feels more like wish-fulfilment than reality. But this is still a book to be read for its closely observed, deeply felt sense of Kashmir: a world seen from the inside, and then sadly, painfully, from afar.
In this, A Bit of Everything is the complementary opposite of Madhuri Vijay’s award-winning 2019 novel The Far Field, in which we travel into Kashmir alongside a privileged young woman for whom the place is just a name. It is her slow and revelatory transition, from clueless to tragically embroiled, that helps forge ours.
Unlike Shalini, whose understanding grows as she embeds herself in Kashmir, Rahul begins to understand many things as he is removed from them, once he is no longer a “god of education” in Varmull. Distance and time help recalibrate the familiar.
The British section of the book is powerfully evocative, offering a rare glimpse of the South Asian immigrant experience in all its trials and excitements. As someone who studied in England at an age and time close to the fictional Rahul, I found much that felt deeply recognisable: the insufferable white academic who generously “simplifies” his name for the brown person (while not even thinking to ask how to pronounce yours), the sad, desperate search for ingredients to cook your own food, and the unexpected intimacies with other brown people.
Sometimes these connections with strangers feel stronger than with one’s known people, like Rahul and the man who sells Kashmiri noon chai on a London street. In a world governed by whiteness, brown skin can stretch to cover the bones of class and caste, religion and nation. The differences magnified in the sameness of Varmull can shrink to nothingness in London. That, too, is a revelation.
A Bit of Everything, Sandeep Raina, Context.