Monday, December 01, 2008

Novel set in Kashmir

Over a depressing weekend, I found solace in a terrific novel set in Kashmir, The Homecoming by Sashi Warrier. A couple of years ago, I had read Warrier's novel woven around terrorism, Night of the Krait, and had thoroughly enjoyed it.

Homecoming is set in Kashmir but it's not about terrorism or the Kashmir problem. These form the background but it's really a family story. It's about a Kashmiri Muslim, Javed, whose life begins to unravel just when he thinks of hanging up his boots and settling down with his family in Srinagar after having spent his working life as a trader in carpets in Bangalore.

Javed, a widower, returns to find his younger son carted off by the police on charges of terrorism. Bit by bit, he wakes up to his alienation from his elder son (who helped him with his business in Bangalore), his daughter, his mother, his brother and finally his girlfriend in Bangalore.

There's no viciousness or character defect in Javed to which one can ascribe his tragedy- it's just that he's been so wrapped up in himself that it's rather late for him to connect with his family. They simply have no use for him just when he seems to need them. A very ordinary story, you might think, but Warrier's skill as a writer lies in making an unputdownable novel out of it.

Life deals one merciless blow after another on the hapless Javed and one is filled with a profound sadness as one comes to the end of the story. In the ordinary exchanges amongst Javed and his family members, one discerns the underlying unpleasantness that is the stuff of most human relationships.

Terrorism in Kashmir looms in the background. The tension in Srinagar is palpable throughout the novel with the menacing presence of the army and the high-handeness of the local police. With a few deft strokes- little incidents involving his characters- Warrier captures how ordinary people are caught in the cross-fire between militants and security forces.

I find it difficult to read much of modern fiction. Somehow, the art of simple story-telling seems gone and you have in its place verbal gymnastics and streams of images. You pine for somebody who can tell a nice tale- say, an Ernest Hemmingway or a Somerset Maugham or, in our country, RK Narayan and Khushwant Singh. Warrier belongs to this vanishing species.

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