Looking into Kashmir

The Far Field
On August 7 last year, the President of India abrogated all sections of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, except one, after both Houses of Parliament passed his government’s resolution to dissolve the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, dividing it into two Union Territories. In the run-up to the changes, the government detained democratically elected leaders of the state, increased security personnel manifold, and blacked out internet and telephone services in a brutal clampdown that has lasted, in some form or the other, till now. The book under review, which won the prestigious JCB Prize for Literature last year, was written before these developments but manages very successfully to echo all of it.


Kashmiris, of course, have lived with conflict and suppression for decades, since an armed struggled for its independence started in the late 1980s. The repression unleashed by the Indian state and displacement of people have found voice in the poetry of Aga Shahid Ali, the novels of Mirza Waheed and Malik Sajad, and the journalism of Basharat Peer and Rahul Pandita, and films such as  Roja, Haider,  and others. But most of these works are by Kashmiris, revealing the conditions in which they and their compatriots are compelled to live. Ms Vijay’s novel — her debut — is a rare and sympathetic look into Kashmir from the Indian perspective.


The narrator of the novel is Shalini, “young, wealthy, and quite obviously adrift”, a 20-something woman, the daughter of a rich businessman, living in Bengaluru with her father, and — at the beginning of the narrative — reeling from grief at having lost her mother. The character Ms Vijay creates is layered. Shalini is entitled at having never faced scarcity. Early in the novel, she gets a job at a government-run school for children with cerebral palsy, which she loses after a showdown with the mother of a child. One is left wondering if this outburst is not a product of privilege — Shalini can indulge herself because she doesn’t really need the job. Soon after, her father gets her another job with a non-government organisation (NGO).


Ms Vijay makes excellent use of her plot material. The NGO in which Shalini works in Bengaluru — and from which she is fired for being disinterested in her work — is set up as a contrast to another one in Kashmir: “Ritu (the NGO’s founder) was tough and smart and had an MBA from Yale, where, she liked to keep reminding us lest we think her soft and privileged, she had been mugged four times, once at gunpoint. She drank oolong tea from a stained mug and was married to a World Bank man.” The perfect picture of mainland privilege, indulging in social work because they have nothing better to do.


In contrast, Zarina’s NGO at Kishtwar in Jammu feels like “an antiquated library minus its books, or some sleepy backwater government office”. As Shalini gets down to sorting out the mess of the organisation’s bills and invoices, she cannot help being reminded of Ritu “… and I was seized all at once by vertigo, by a sense of how far I’d come from everything I’d known.” Zarina and Zoya, Shalini’s hosts in Kishtwar, are obviously modelled on Parveena Ahanger, the founder of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir. Ms Ahanger has worked relentlessly since the mid-1990s when her son was made to allegedly disappear — like Zoya’s son — by the Indian army, among the many thousands.


Ms Vijay creates a formidable novel, but her prose style appears to slip up occasionally. For instance, very early in the book, she writes: “I volunteered as an assistant teacher — a title vastly out of proportion with my actual role.” The parenthesis hardly makes sense. Similarly, a little later, while describing Kishtwar, Shalini says: “I could not escape noticing, either, the number of Indian soldiers and policemen in town.” There seems to be a desire in the author to explain everything. Surely everyone who knows anything about Kashmir knows about the high presence of security personnel in the area.


Or maybe they don’t. Shalini is not only a product of privilege, but also of the specific post-Liberalisation kind, which includes holidays to resorts and Europe, and an entitlement to outrage. Outrage and anger seem to be the two most common emotions Shalini feels. On seeing the large cupboard of files about disappeared people in Zarina’s office, she can’t believe her eyes, and her outrage seems to drive her to work harder. The novel progresses to an epic ending — but it is not the job of a reviewer to provide spoilers. I can only hope that those Indians still ignorant of the plight of Kashmiris will be as outraged as Shalini when they read Ms Vijay’s book.

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