Review: A Fistful of Earth by Siddhartha Gigoo

by Monica Arora

A fistful of Earth

  • Paperback: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Rupa Publications
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 8129135094
  • ISBN-13: 978-8129135094

By far, short stories have been amongst my favourite genres in prose. Capturing a brief anecdote, tale or fable, these pieces of fiction are usually defined by a beginning, climax and an end, and could be with or without a message. Recently, I have been indulging in the work of several Indian short story writers, and my journey continues with A Fistful of Earth and other stories.

Siddhartha Gigoo, the author, a Kashmiri born in Srinagar, sets his tales of poignancy and sadness in his birthplace. What struck me most was the innate sense of loss, despair, profound grief and sorrow that haunt each story. Such is the lilting quality of his mesmerizing prose that even misery appears ennobling and redeeming in these tales. The manner in which Siddhartha has adopted pain and heartache almost reflects a kind of yearning of an unrequited and unhappy soul. This is very relatable, considering that for long, Kashmir  has been a metaphor for the suffering and atrocities inflicted upon its paradisaical soil owing to terrorism, fundamentalism and mindless violence, bloodshed and killing of native Kashmiris.

The characters and settings in most of these stories are not the usual, run-of-the-mill characters that one may bump into an urban metropolis. Instead, they are old, ailing, longing or simply cut-off from the rest of the world, revelling in the mysteries of the make-believe world that the author sets them in, but always hoping for that proverbial  silver lining or rainbow at the end. And therein lies the beauty of this deep sense of sadness that the author has explored.

Whether it is a set of prisoners trapped in a prison which no longer exists, constantly playing chess and oblivious to their surroundings, or an old woman drawing inspiration from the free-flowing water of the river, or a refugee family stuck in a camp awaiting better days, or a blind man, devoid of family, all by himself in a mansion, or the cheeky protagonist Charukeshwar, who teaches a very important lesson to his impertinent sons, A Fistful of Earth and other stories is full of unusual scenarios and bleak landscapes that can freeze the cockles of the heart and infuse a long-lasting sense of gloom and anguish that may last for days after having read the stories. Such is the power of Siddhartha Gigoo’s writing.

An extract from the story “Poison, Nectar”:

“When not fanning her husband or wiping the sweat off his sore-ridden body, Lalit’s mother took to stitching the torn fabric of her tented home with an old needle which had become her prized possession. She kept coils of thread and some needles in the housewife she had managed to carry with her during their exodus from their village. Because she had cataract, it would take her long minutes to pass the thread through the eye of the needle. Most of the time, she gave up and requested her daughter-in-law to do so. Her son didn’t object to it. He had sensed that this was a hobby for her and stitching the torn canvas gave his mother joy and kept her from falling into a dark oblivion.

‘We left out of fear and now there is no freedom from fear. Freedom has become a prison for us,’ the retired headmaster would rant.”

This little extract somewhat explains the struggle of being displaced from one’s homeland, one’s belongings, friends, familiar surroundings and neighbourhood, and passing time in refugee camps in the hope of some form of redemption for their dismal plight. Refugees from Kashmir have been undergoing this harrowing experience owing to the ugly head of terror and violence that rises time and again in the troubled vale, and Siddhartha has lent his simple, yet powerful words to paint a heart-wrenching image of their woe-ridden tales.

There is no doubt that it is a tough book to deal with, and cannot be imbibed in one sitting as one reads a story, ponders over the fate of its characters and moves on to the next one, sighing. As American author Tahereh Mafi  has written, “All I ever wanted was to reach out and touch another human being not just with my hands but with my heart”. I had this peculiar urge to stretch my hands and touch an anguished being after I finished reading A Fistful of Earth and other stories.

Monica Arora is Kitaab’s Reviews Editor.