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Sudha Koul (Photo/Evan Wolarsky)

 

From The Asian Reporter, V13, #35 (August 26-September 1, 2003), page 13.

Too close to shiva

The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir

By Sudha Koul

Beacon Press, 2003

Paperback, 218 pages, $15.00

By Polo

I saw Kashmir once. A long time ago. I saw her through awful pain, broken bones. When I think back on it, now, I see only my memories, as if through sheer silk — her deep-rilled Himalayas pasteled, her arid soil softened.

Kashmiri author Sudha Koul’s sensuous account of her beloved homeland is exactly opposite. Her childhood memories are wrapped in sweet-sweet reverie. Her later narratives are so sodden with sorrow, only a Hindu god like Lord Shiva could make any good of it.

But on this everyone will agree: there is no bluer sky, no broader expanse of brilliant azure, reaching all the way to heaven, god-absent or not, than when looking up in Kashmir.

Tiger Ladies is the first English-language memoir by a Kashmiri woman. Writer Sudha Koul now lives in New Jersey with her Kashmiri physician husband. Their two girls have grown out of their house. The daughters’ departure may in a way or two be just as drastic as Ms. Koul’s dislocation from her mother’s home, but in every other way, in each of a hundred meticulously rendered recollections of four generations of tiger ladies who went before those American girls, there is no way to measure the distance or the difference.

This is a beautifully felt memoir, full of rich sights and insights. Deeply scented — dense charcoaled ceiling planks, aged green tea, lanolin-sweaty pashmina shawls folded and stacked and tucked away in deep steel trunks for a far-off wedding day.

"Sometimes my grandmother fries brook trout in a small pan on a hissing kerosene stove. The stove is set on a reed mat in her cold, dark kitchen, and all the windows are shut … Like so many others in our valley of Kashmir, she does not want a stranger’s glance falling on her fish.

"She tells me, ‘Of all things fish are the most susceptible to the evil eye.’"

The evil eye, as ingenious as everyone’s grandma has been over Kashmir’s long-long memory, has fallen with atrocious regularity on this gentle people’s valley.

With less than a quarter of her book to go, Ms. Koul’s heavenly Kasmir goes to hell. Twenty years ago, Kashmir followed many other quiet communities by disintegrating into sudden and unimaginable sectarian violence. About a year ago, U.N. cease-fire lines notwithstanding, neighbors India and Pakistan barely backed away from a nuclear face-off over the Kashmir Valley.

Ms. Koul writes "Muslim and Hindu houses, are so close together that the owners can pass things to each other from the windows. Everyone knows everyone and their business, and the housewives share domestic woes and gossip, talking loudly across windows." And later she tells us: "We did not think that Muslims and Hindus were natural enemies. In Kashmir, we were more preoccupied with the fact that we were all Kashmiri and we lived in the most beautiful place on earth."

In Tiger Ladies’ closing quarter, Ms. Koul is in her quiet suburban American study, at her silent computer monitor. She turns to the Internet for news of home. She comes upon a picture that floods her with tender memories of a short walk up a hill to a small bakery. She recalls the old baker and his four sons pulling piping hot loaves of bread from their oven. And the scent. But instead of childhood peace, there are tortured corpses "scattered across the photograph. Women cry and beat their breasts and their screams are soundless … Kashmir is back into the beginning of time. The valley churns once again like a ghastly primeval soup."

In the final pages of Tiger Ladies, Sudha Koul nods to her eight-thousand-mile-away mother. "Chaos is good, Mother. I will take only what is real from the murkiness that surrounds me." She mutters it under her breath, but adds, she doesn’t worry because New Yorkers talk to themselves all the time.

"My mother used to have to redo my braids until I felt they were identical, balanced equally, one on either side. She does not have to worry about that anymore," Ms. Koul writes, surrendering in that weary way only ancient Hindu wisdom will allow. "I have learned to live with many disharmonies."

Tiger Ladies is as beautiful as anything in print can be. Sudha Koul engages every sense. Her recollection of her dreamy youth is beautiful. Her reflections on Lord Shiva’s dark side are just as spell-binding — and yes, as the Tiger Lady would insist — just as beautiful.

 

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