Book Excerpt from A Long Season of Ashes

-Published by Penguin Viking (2024)


A pall of thick smoke has engulfed the hall. Henna has been thirsty the whole night. We have spent the night sleeping in snatches. Some of the Koul family’s household belongings are in the trunks. Ratni Aunty begins setting things up. Bedding, a bundle of clothes and some utensils.

I explain the two compartments of the bag to Henna. ‘This is your compartment and this is mine. Your clothes and things are in this compartment and my things are in this one. Here are your toothbrush, soap, cream, towel, water bottle . . .’

I don’t reveal that the soap, cream and towel are to be shared.

‘I want my own things and my own bag,’ Henna insists, throwing a tantrum. She has always wanted to have her own things. But I know her tantrums are short-lived.

Henna is nine. Six years younger than me.

Now that the sun is up, I survey the building. This place is a buffalo shed. There are cows and buffaloes on the ground floor. There is a large hall full of hay.

Is this where we’re supposed to live? The entire place is smelly. I remember the day, years ago, when I asked Pa if we could keep cows in the new house we were going to build that year in Ompora, a posh neighbourhood on the outskirts of Srinagar. And Pa had agreed. I had then made plans to get a cow and a calf from Pampore.

Kuka Bhaiya works for a pharmaceutical company. He misses his Yezdi motorbike. He left many things behind. Among those things was his bike, too. ‘I will go back soon to get the rest of the things,’ he says.

Everyone has practically left all their belongings behind. Babli Didi taught me Hindi. But now there is neither adequate space nor time for Hindi lessons, although she ensures I devote some time to studies every day. Chaman Uncle is full of love. He offers Henna his share of food and so does everyone else. Such is their love for her. She is everyone’s darling here. She was everyone’s darling in our neighbourhood in Srinagar, too.

‘Keep aside some morsels of rice and vegetables, especially for the stray dogs in the compound,’ says Uncle.

An old man is constantly looking at the ceiling, wondering what to do next.

‘What is the point of getting up?’ he thinks. ‘What is to be done with the day?’

What are Ma and Pa doing right now? How are they? How is everything at home? Should we have stayed behind and not rushed off? Should we have waited for one more day? We would not have landed up here at this place. This place that has no drinking water. This place that belongs to cows and buffaloes. This place that is not ours.

Perhaps I will be able to return after a few days. Henna and I can’t continue living here. We will board a bus back to Srinagar in a few days.

The voices of children and the moos of cows waft in from the backyard downstairs.

A woman from the adjacent room starts talking to me.

‘What is your name? Where are you from? Is she your real sister? Her eyes and skin colour are like those of a foreigner.’ A child is playing with a wooden toy. The woman’s father- in-law hums a prayer and breaks down, unable to recollect it. ‘Thank God the governor saved us. He is our saviour. Otherwise, we would have ended up like Roshan Lal,’ blabbers a man.

‘You seem to be from the city,’ the woman says. ‘Where is your family? Are they alright?’

‘Don’t look so sad. You are safe now.’

‘We are ruined. What shall we do now?’ wails another woman.

The Pandit families have set up at least a dozen makeshift kitchens in the hall. There is also a common kitchen for new arrivals. Even now, people keep coming here looking for room in this building. But there is none, though some people believe that space can be created if we are a bit more ingenious and accommodating.

‘We can’t take in any more people now,’ a man tells a group of men who keep bringing in new arrivals. ‘Not even an ant! What will it take for you to understand this simple thing? Don’t bring any more people here or else we will . . .’

‘Where do I take them? The ground floor has some room, right?’

‘You mean next to the buffaloes?’

‘The hay room? The landlord is happy for us to bring some more people to be adjusted in the hay room. He is giving us a discount.’

‘Look around! Look at us! What do you see? Do you see any space?’

‘We have to put our children on our laps.’

The argument is endless.

‘Both parties are right . . .’ mumbles an old man. ‘But let them sort it out amicably. I must not intervene in the affairs of the young people. They live in a world of their own.’

Another family starts placing their luggage down the hall next to other people’s belongings. Odd things emerge from baskets and tin cans. Electric fittings, bulbs, lanterns, keys, clogs, idols, photos, ornaments, a stone mortar, a pestle, a radio, a winnowing basket, a broom, hand fans made of willow stems, brass vessels and some strings.

‘Come, I will show you the way to the toilet,’ says one person.

‘There is only one latrine–bathroom for the entire building. It would be best if you could wait until the afternoon . . . Let the elders go first, as they need to go out and get on with their day. And the women need to do their puja and then begin cooking. There is another bathroom downstairs in the backyard, but it is not as clean as this one. But it’s okay. It is only a matter of a few days . . . We will have to get hold of a sweeper . . . the regular sweeper hasn’t shown up for days . . . Until then, we will take turns cleaning the latrine ourselves . . . Tell your sister to cover her nose when she steps inside. Ask her to be quick when she has to go to the toilet. Don’t be long. Use water judiciously. You will have no more than two bottles per day. There is no regular water supply here. We have to pay for the tankers . . . You can go to the canal to take a bath, but be careful. Three kids are already missing. Maybe they drowned . . . Stay away from the strays . . .’

There is a guava tree in the courtyard, but it hasn’t borne any fruit yet. It’s the first time I’ve seen a guava tree.

Two men are talking.

‘We can’t let any new families in now. There is no room left.’

‘We will die in this heat.’

‘But . . . what if we . . . ? Let’s try and make some room on the ground floor.’

‘That’s for the buffaloes.’

‘I think we can create some extra space.’

‘At least there is a basin full of water.’

‘Would you drink that water?’

‘Not for drinking, but for washing purposes.’

‘It’s better to go to the canal! The water is cold and fresh.’

‘Have you noticed how men gather there to ogle at our women?’

‘Ogling is the least of our worries.’

‘But still, you know what they did to . . .’


A newborn, wrapped in a sheet, is crying incessantly. The child’s parents are distraught. The mother seems to have forgotten everything. She can’t take her eyes off her baby. She clings to the baby as if it were all she had. She sings a lullaby—a song of home.

                                     We’re going to take you home.
                                     Are you ready to go home?
                                     O prince of Pampore.
                                     Your grandma and grandpa have been waiting.

She places the infant on an old man’s lap. A smile flashes on the newborn’s lips. The old man’s lips quiver. A new lease on life to a man whose journey is coming to an end. His 100 years are almost up! Grandson and grandpa have the same smile and the same blood. Their histories converge here, but their destinies will part in the time to come.

‘What will we give our children?’ asks the father.

‘These are the times when our children will have to give us a reason to live,’ the infant’s grandpa mumbles.

Three other women are pregnant. They have the same look on their faces. They talk to one another while attending to their daily affairs. What will they do when the day comes? I don’t want to be around when … But what if?

Some Days Later

More families have arrived. Some men are talking in hushed tones. The same refrain.

‘How is the situation in Kashmir? Any more killings?’

‘No. Not in our neighbourhood. All the Pandits have left. No one is left behind . . .’

‘Did you bring along everything?’

‘Almost everything!’

‘I saw Shadi Lal and his wife in the temple last evening.

They were alone. They don’t know where their sons are. They have nothing with them.’

‘Where are they staying?’

‘They got into a similar camp near the Raghunath temple, but they can’t adjust there. So, they spend their days in the temple and go to the camp only to sleep at night.’

‘This will not last forever. We will return home soon.’

Many elders have been abandoned by their sons. They have been left to fend for themselves. They are alone and helpless. They have nowhere to go. They have nothing except hope. The hope that their sons will return. There is only one wish on their lips: ‘Our children will come back for us and take us with them.’

Baisaab has no means to shave. He can’t locate his shaving kit.

‘Maybe it is hidden among the other things,’ Aunty reassures him.

‘Why fret over a shaving kit? The kit should be the least of his worries,’ she mutters to herself. The truth is not to be disclosed.

‘I will find it for you,’ Aunty says to him.

Kuka Bhaiya takes me along to explore the place—the vegetable market, the grocery stores, the dairy and the water tankers supplying drinking water. We go from one area to another, from one camp to another. There are people everywhere. It’s as though a mela is taking place here, with a gathering of people from all over Kashmir.

In the hall, children are running around playing hide- and-seek and other games. Their mothers and fathers are constantly yelling at them for creating a din.

‘This is not a picnic, you brats . . .’

‘Do they have any idea what’s going on?’

‘We are better off with their ignorance. Let them be. They are kids, after all . . .’

An old woman sits still the whole day with beads in her

hands. She counts the trunks to know which family has the most household items. There are families who came with just one or two pieces of luggage and others who arrived empty-handed.

‘The end is here,’ a man says.

‘Stop this nonsense. Have faith!’ the old woman shouts. ‘Faith in what?’

‘God, who else? Be a man. Stand up on your feet and stop whining . . .’

‘She is right,’ another man says, adding, ‘you must do something.’

‘He is such a useless man,’ the old woman says. ‘We’ve lost everything—our house, our shop and our orchard. We are finished. And here is this maharaja, sitting here all day, doing nothing, thinking that his servants will come and serve him. Go and do something worthwhile, Mr Maharaja. Find something useful to do. Be a man.’

‘What do you want me to do? Is there anything worthwhile left for me to do?’

Another woman starts humming.

At least we haven’t been evicted . . . At least we have this bread to share . . . At least we haven’t been made to part . . . This will be over soon . . . At least we are still . . .

‘Are you mocking me?’ asks her husband, sitting in a corner. ‘You and your “at leasts”. That’s all you do the whole day. Recite verses . . .’

‘These are my verses. I am a poet. What do you want me to do? Dance to your tunes?’

‘Help me chop vegetables . . . The least you could do is arrange for some rations instead of wallowing in poetry . . . Go to the ration ghat [shop] now . . . We have mouths to feed . . .’

‘There is no ration ghat here. Ration ghats are in Kashmir. Here, we have the relief office.’

‘Go to the relief office then. Get us some more relief.’ ‘The 6 kilos of rice allotted to us for the month are over?’ ‘I am having to feed the ones who are yet to register at the relief office to be eligible for the monthly relief. Where will the poor folks go?’

‘Because they couldn’t bring along their documents . . . ?’

The argument doesn’t end. One thing is certain: we don’t exist without our documents. We are nothing. Documents mean food and shelter.

‘How would they have gotten documents? Their houses were torched. They have nothing.’

Who are these people? Where have they come from? What’s going to become of them? I think Ma and Pa are better off. At least they are home.

A little girl plays tirelessly the whole day and creates a din in the hall. Her brother sits in a corner. He seems mentally disturbed and keeps making strange voices continuously.

‘Be patient. We will leave soon and go to a better place,’ the girl’s mother says to her.

‘When will your soon come, Ma?’ the girl asks. To me, she will always be the soon girl.

Siddhartha Gigoo

Siddhartha Gigoo won the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his short story ‘The Umbrella Man’. He has also written a short-story collection, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories, which was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
In 2021, Siddhartha won the New Asian Short Story Prize for ‘Elephant’s Tusk’. His short stories have been long-listed for the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Prize, the Royal Society of Literature’s V.S. Pritchett Short Story Prize and the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize. He has also co-edited two anthologies, A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits and Once We Had Everything: Literature in Exile. He has written two books of poetry—Fall and Other Poems and Reflections, as well as four novels—The Garden of Solitude, Mehr: A Love Story, The Lion of Kashmir and Love in the Time of Quarantine. Siddhartha’s short films, The Last Day and Goodbye, Mayfly, have won several awards at international film festivals.