Corrections or additions?
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
"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,"
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
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
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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