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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the June 5, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Sudha Koul’s Memoir of a Peaceful Kashmir

Time unravels like a dog’s tail, then it curls right back into

a circle, and you start all over again. As we live out our lives,

we gaze at the heavens and stumble on the nearest rock. If we were

to look back we would see a disappearing line of predecessors whose

lifetimes we have unknowingly mimicked. We look up eagerly at our

gods instead and we live in hope.

So Sudha Koul begins her exquisite, lyrical, and endlessly

fascinating "The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir," published

this month by Beacon Press ($24). The book is gracefully packed with

memories of extended families, legends handed down through generations,

magic and superstition, religious festivals, gods and goddesses, witches,

smells, fragrances, foods, and — at the beginning — easy days

of pleasure. In the days of Koul’s youth there was harmony, peace,

and friendship between the large Muslim and small Hindu populations

in Kashmir. All Kashmiri Hindus are Brahmin, the top caste.

Koul, a long-time resident of Pennington, will read from and sign

copies of "The Tiger Ladies" at Barnes and Noble, Marketfair,

on Thursday, June 6, at 7 p.m. She is also author of the user-friendly

cookbook "Curries Without Worries" and "Come with Me to

India: On a Wondrous Voyage through Time."

Kashmir is located in the Himalayas between India and Pakistan; the

two nations created by the partition of India when British colonial

rule ended in 1947. Sudha Koul, nee Dhar, was born later the same

year. She grew up in the high valley of Kashmir, surrounded by the

mountains. Hindu (Brahmins) and Muslim were strongly bound to the

same language and culture. "We were all Kashmiri and we lived

in the most beautiful place on earth," writes Koul, adding that

a Moghul emperor once said, "If there is Paradise on earth, it

is this."

"The Tiger Ladies" is Koul’s unique story. Writing in the

present tense, she imagines the personalities of her mother’s parents

as a young couple, longing for children. Her grandmother, Dhanna,

lost 11 children before a dream revealed how to keep them. She bathed

in a deep well monthly, for a year, returned to her husband, and gave

birth to Koul’s mother, Katyayan. Her mother was named after a manifestation

of Shakti, the Tiger Lady.

In a phone interview from her Pennington home which she shares with

her husband, Kishen Koul, Sudha says "I’ve stayed away from being

too autobiographical." Some of the characters in her book are

composites to protect family members and, this being "a literary

memoir," she has taken certain flights of fancy. Kishen Koul is

an engineer and a consultant, and the couple are parents of two adult


This is also truly a memoir of the Vale of Kashmir. "Kashmir,"

to westerners, conjurs a beautiful, contested land surrounded by rugged

Himalayan mountains that has been fought over by India and Pakistan

for 50 years. Back in the headlines, the two nations are facing off

yet again, but this time both are armed with nuclear weapons.

Koul’s book is divided into three sections — "Grandmothers,"

"Mothers," and "Daughters." They flow seamlessly in

and out of chronological time, stories, legends, experiences, foods,

and Koul’s imagination.

Parts of the book were written 18 years ago, and her work on it accelerated

in the last few years. Kohl says she wrote it out of nostalgia and

pain and to give an account of the peaceful life in Kashmir that has

been lost. The Kashmir Koul knew as a child and youth was a land of

ease and beauty. Ominous signs came later.

We are introduced to the need to keep warm ("The snow line encircles

us and we are always making sure that we are warmed by wool and firewood"),

to pashmina (a silky wool), to the kangri (a small, individual fire

pot carried everywhere), to impending weddings of young girls, to

Izmat, the Muslim shawlmaker’s daughter, to the fishwife, to Rice

Blind, to local fruits and flowers, to a Mother-Goddess, and the tiger

lady, Shakti, who sits on a tiger and who fears nothing.

A powerful concept, Shakti is the embodiment of positive energy, the

female half of the cosmos who energizes Shiva. He is dormant without


Koul writes of the chaos of Kashmir in 1947 in the present

tense: "At the height of the madness. . . Pakistan sends Afghan

hill tribes to invade Kashmir." Yet unborn, she learned about

the chaos and invaders from family stories. Muslim friends take her

family in and feed them. Back home, Koul’s mother goes into early

labor and Sudha is born at an auspicious time, according to the horoscope.

She grew up with pictures and shrines to the Tiger Lady all around


After the chaos, the lives of Muslims and Hindus in the valley are

once again "harmoniously mingled." Although we don’t intermarry,

nor normally eat each others foods or from their dishes and cups,

writes Koul, we have "mutual acceptance of our established customs"

and acknowledge each other’s seers and mystics.

Her primary residence is at her father’s father’s house, which is

just down the street from her mother’s mother’s house. But it is maternal

grandmother Dhanna who is a great influence on Koul’s young life.

Her grandmothers are co-mothers. Koul’s mother married her father

at 14; he was 19 and soon went off to engineering school. After the

death of her grandfather Babuji, Koul lives for a while with Dhanna

and "together we make the slow move out of sorrow and into life."

Shyamji, her paternal grandfather, a retired professor, is her teatime

and porch companion. The family cook cooks for the spirits. Earthquakes

require pouring water on the verandah: the tremors mean that spirits

of the departed are thirsty. The Indian pandits’ major festival, Shivratri,

celebrated unchanged, is the wedding of Shiva and Parvati (another

manifestation of Shakti). Often in summer the family visits the temple

for the god or goddess, then picnics by Dal Lake. At age 10, with

a Muslim friend, she sees youngsters burning the Indian Prime Minister,

Nehru, in effigy. Her same Muslim friend comes to her house to celebrate


Meanwhile her mother no longer follows her father, an army brigadier

in the electrical and mechanical corps, on his postings but stays

with Sudha, preparing her trousseau. Sudha is unmarried and the trousseau

becomes a source of tension for her mother.

Many of the book’s details are fascinating. "We have also heard

that when they (`Shiva wannabees’) reach Shiva’s cave . . . they meditate

naked in the freezing temperatures wearing garlands around their erect

penises" and "The presence of stone depictions of sexual intercourse

in our temples does not embarrass us . . . the business of fertility

and life is so vital."

Koul, grandchild of Western-educated Indians, goes to a convent school

run by nuns, gets a Western education, reads Western literature and

history, and learns about Satan. She notes that Hindus have no creature

equivalent to the devil: "All we have to be careful of is us,"

she writes.

In summer the family, "ever ready to disregard any discordance,"

goes to the mountains as usual, camps in tents, goes horseback riding,

trekking, bathes in icy rivers, goes fly-fishing for trout," only

to learn that they camped minutes away from a guerrilla training camp.

"The anti-Indian political movement had broadened and spread underground."

After the convent school, Koul goes to the Government College for

Women in Srinagar, around the corner from where she lives, where she

studies political science. She and her friends are "heavily into

theater." At one performance the vacationing Jawaharlal Nehru,

his daughter Indira Gandi, and her two sons attend.

After earning a master’s degree at the University of

Jammu and Kashmir in 1969, Koul teaches a year at a woman’s college.

Then, as the first Kashmiri woman in government administration, she

takes a traveling intern magistrate’s job working with land disputes.

As a 25-year-old single woman, she passes out condoms to villagers,

explaining that condoms "will not be interfering with the dance,

only changing the choreography a little." She takes men to a government

clinic for vasectomies. But she wants to write and paint and have


That year, 1974, at 27, she does marry. She is distantly related to

her husband whom she has met over the years at family gatherings.

Both are Kashmiri Brahmins. He has a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and lives in

the United States. Two weeks after a formal meeting, they marry and

she follows him to the United States. "When we arrived here we

understood what it meant to lose your caste when you crossed the ocean.

You lost your place in the world order." As a new immigrant "I

was constantly seeing myself from the outside, as if I were in a play."

Here the couple becomes parents of two daughters.

After six years the family moves to New Jersey. It was the children

who, as they grew, brought America into the house. In America, everyone

is an individual, writes Koul. Her children "think they are free

and don’t know that eventually they will come looking for us, and

for those before us, no one is really free." She still lives in

the same house where, now, she paints and is writing fiction about


Though at first she went home to India for vacations with the children,

Koul has not been back since the mid-1980s. Soon after they returned

to America, with the Afghan war exploding over the border in the valley,

"Kashmir started deconstructing," she says. Afghan tribesman

came "to liberate Kashmir from infidel rule. The life we had together

now belongs to the dreamtime." Rebel Muslim boys are tortured,

shot, and thrown into the lake by government troops. Indian women

are raped before husbands and children; men are killed or set afire

like effigies.

Sometimes Koul is kept awake by contemporary events in Kashmir. "It

was not so long ago that we had a beautiful life in Kashmir. Everyone

hopes that time will come full circle again, like a dog’s tail."

Or is her book an epitaph to a lost way of life?

— Joan Crespi

Sudha Koul, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, Route 1

South, 609-897-9250.The author introduces "The Tiger Ladies: A

Memoir of Kashmir." Free. Thursday, June 6, 7 p.m.

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