The novel that Speaking Tree published early this year is a good attempt to tell the Kashmir story but could have been told better, writes Khalid Bashir Gura
Journalist Shakoor Rather’s debut novel Life in the Clock Tower Valley skims through Kashmir’s uncertain life. It takes off with a 2008 love story, unspools in the city landscape and soon nosedives into the troubled history of the place, the plot is set in.
As the new generation, Kashmir has started telling their stories, they mostly revolve around the situations in which they grew up. Rather’s story is no different. It also offers mundane realities and emotions of life, records daily experiences and otherwise ignored observations. As the love story races through it, the plot stops the reckless lovers from the public display of passion.
The novel is elements of romance, indifference, loss, nostalgia, innocence, and politics. Narration is plain prose. It knits various characters with different stories, their individual joys and sorrows, dreams, and nightmares to the central theme. Outdated matadors, checkpoints manned by soldiers, urban and rural scenes offer details of the almost- placid life of the protagonist.
It is the story of Samar’s infatuation with a co-passenger, Rabiya who ultimately turns out to be his classmate at the University. After initial inhibitions, the story pans out to commitments and finally, villains get into the Romeo Juliet affair. Owing to the two families’ holding opposing political allegiances, the love story withers with a predictable end without any real resistance to villains. It succumbs to societal norms and pressures, strictly as happens in real life.
The prose, however, details the greenhorn’s beginning in the art of storytelling. At times, it fails to captivate and capture the emotional texture and depth of characters it seeks to represent. The narration struggles with the spool of the story unfolding between the lovebirds.
However, the story highlights the costs that the two pay for the imposed communication blackout, and that is where Kashmir’s real-life crisis gets visible.
The plot thickens as the story moves to another world mired in different stories and struggles. A famed metal craftsman, Sheikh Mubarak, Samar’s neighbour is battling indifference and is stuck in a loveless marriage with his wife, Naziya. A reprieve and the glimmers of hope appear for him with the arrival of Rosaline, a tourist from New York for whom he falls to fill the vacuum created by his wife. And the visitor was sailing in the same boat.
Regardless of what happens to this cross-cultural union, the author uses the tourist to speak about Kashmir and question the presence of guns, razor wire, check posts, and deployment of khaki-clad men. The plot sends Mubarak to fend for his lost pregnant cow when Kashmir is under curfew. The plot does move around decaying Dal Lake and other water bodies.
Sana, the five-year-old daughter of Mubarak and Naziya, shares a bond of friendships with Pinto Ji and the two seek to react to the situation they are in. Sana is worried that her school picnic will get cancelled because of the unrest, and both of the children question why adults indulged in the ‘stone-throwing game.’
The author has restricted to a sort of euphemism to manage the stark reality of the Kashmir situation of the era it tries to represent. “A flock of pigeons sat in a straight line on the wires, as if they had been lined up for a military crackdown,” reads a sentence.
Towards the end, simpleton Pinto Ji is seen going to Lal Chowk, near the Clock Tower.