By the weave of the book, the author has reclaimed the past of his generation. Does the weft of his narrative frame the future for the next generation? Haseeb A Drabu discusses The Plague upon Us, a novel by Shabir A Mir, a Kashmiri storyteller 

A painting – Look Beyond The Canvas – by Kashmir’s celebrated artist, Masood Hussain

This is a book long overdue. About time someone wrote it, and how! With this quality and skill of writing, there is more than just hope. There is a promise of a storyteller who loves narrating stories, in the process raising questions which have to be asked before they get answered. It is an important contribution to the growing corpus of literature in the genre of literary fiction on the post-1990 Kashmir.

The sub-text is laced, without any ideological standpoint or value judgment, with issues that confront the society of Kashmir. It is not as if the book is “politically correct”. No, far from it. It is morally honest. And that is what sets it apart.

Shabir Mir takes the reader into the “wastelands” of the Valley to explore the elusive “real” reality. By the end of it he discovers that there is no one reality; there are many. In fact, there are as many realities as there are perspectives. These multiple realities are explored in the novel by characters who emerge from diverse backgrounds; politically, socially and economically. Each character in the book is essentially etched as a perspective on the existing situation; coexisting, conflicting, engaging, and even denying each other.

The craft

The interwoven structure of the novel is complex; one basic tale, told as four self-contained tales, with each tale adding a layer of complexity and completion to the overall story. His method is intricate; short stories that can be read on their own, but together give it the formal form of a novel. In this, it reminds you of Italo Calvino’s allegorical storytelling style that he used in his classic If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

The 296-page novel has not been written according to a complex plan. Instead, it is primarily constructed from a few elements. The meta-themes of identity and existence are made richer and tangible by love, longing, class conflict, social hierarchies and personal aspirations; each one of these adding a layer of completion and complexity to the narrative.

There cannot be a better description of the underlying legal sanction and operational ground rules about the pitched battles on the streets of Srinagar and elsewhere between the: “Boys who don’t have permission to be angry and men who must do their duty. Boys who throw stones and men who must shoot back”.

Kashmir – Paradise Lost: A painting by a US-based Kashmir engineer Zaffar Abbas.

The beauty of this book is that there is no “vision” of the author nor is there a goal. There is none. Or it is left unsaid. Unwritten. Yet, the way the story is narrated, the reader is compelled to complete the writer’s vision.

A reader may read betrayal as a dominant element, as indeed some have, but that is more to do with how they read it rather than how it is told. Did Oubaid betray Muzaffar? All three answers are possible. Yes, he did. No, he didn’t. Maybe he did or didn’t.

In a sordid episode, where Mir’s cultural moorings prevent him from being explicit, which he otherwise elsewhere is, “when he saw Firdous helping them to pin him down, something within him gave way. He no longer had the energy to resist”. Betrayed? Yes, as Oubaid sees it. Survival, as Firdous saw it. Power as the Major saw it. Labelling is easy as it comes from a binary understanding of the issue; the reality is far more complex.

This book not only recognises that reality but also explores some layers of it; not all but quite a few. In maintaining this level of moral ambiguity, Mir displays great skill and craftsmanship.

With the narrative not following a linear timeline – chronologically tale four should have appeared first – the reader is made to join the exploration by the author midway. He is then taken back and forth in an engaging manner. Initially, the reader is left with a feeling of sketchiness in the narrative. But soon, in a subsequent tale, there is the acknowledgement of his query and answers to his questions. The way he loops in the events with the elements, and characters with the circumstances, makes the story intimate.

In some way, the author leads the reader into a trap of seeing what he wants him to see despite showing him all that there is to see. The result is an intricate interplay and intense engagement between the reader and the main characters made richer by literary and historical allusions.

Novelist Shabir Ahmad Mir

Mir is fond of repetition. As a technique, it has been used with great impact. The same incident or event or a conversation is repeated in different stories. And the more it is repeated, the more intricate it becomes; just like the Kashmiri sozni embroidery; the motif is same but its size, placement and frequency make it part of the larger intricate work in many different ways.

The recurrence of events as symbolism for history as a continual return is something that one gets to see in masters of fiction like Milan Kundera, for instance, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Each time the same event recurs, Mir describes it from the vantage point of a different character. These multiple renditions add a different and even contrary dimension to the event, situation and story. It makes the event so malleable that it can fit into the different jigsaw of interpretations. There are very obvious similarities with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which pioneered and patented storytelling through multiple perspectives to question the absoluteness of truth.

However, in contrast, Mir recounts events, for example, the one where Oubaid, Sabia, and Tufail are playing the game of snakes and ladder on the veranda is retold thrice, but stops short of re-enacting it. It is simply retold, rather reiterated. In this process, a different dimension is explored without even changing the perspective. Multiple viewpoints are placed before the reader – all honest and consistent — to reveal a larger or holistic “truthful” account. This is sheer brilliance.

There are some haunting descriptions in the book. The language is powerful and the expressions are evocative. Sample how blood is described, “The redness that they will find, by noon, squirting from helpless veins to form dirty, chaotic puddles in the desolate market squares trampled by stained jackboots”.

Much like Kundera, who very famously considered himself a writer without a message, Mir as a writer, does not judge. He narrates simply and honestly. To do so, in as contentious a situation as in Kashmir shows the maturity of thought. By doing so, he succeeds in maintaining the moral ambiguity not of the situation, but of the behaviour of people in that situation.

The Characters

Even though the reader is told not once but twice that Muzaffar’s father, Iftikhar prefers “Gogol to Chekov any day”, Mir, by keeping an eye on the characters, not the situation, is following the tradition of Chekov. Much is revealed about the situation through the characters. This brings in a richness; someone experiencing the situation in all its toxicity makes it real, not eerie, as it normally comes across in other works of fiction on Kashmir so far.

Shabir Ahmad Mir’s debut novel, The Plague Upon Us was released by Hachette India on August 21, 2020.

Of course, it is scary but for Mir’s cast, it is also safe within the slivers. In describing these situational and social slivers of his characters, there is like Gogol, an element of realism — natural details from the characters daily lives — but unlike him, no elements of fantasy or heroism, except one relating to Ashfaq. This is so because all his characters share one common characteristic; vulnerability. Each is vulnerable in his/her own way which gets magnified and unbearable by the uncertainty of the situation.

By developing characters as expositions of not just the perspectives but also of the themes within a looming uncertain context without in any way marginalising their humanness and its frailties, Mir shows himself as an accomplished storyteller, not a debutant. This being his first book.

Most interestingly, the visual specifics in regard to the characters tend to be rather vague. There are hardly any physical descriptions. Nowhere do we know whether Oubaid is tall or short, stocky or slim or Sabia is beautiful or a plain Jane. It is only for two characters that physical attributes get used; the moustache for Capital Gurpal, who becomes a Major and brown hair of Fayaz Kachur. Otherwise, as a rule, Mir makes words spoken by the shape of the character or mould the characters.

While men appear in all shades, women are very stereotypical. They are important insofar as they contribute to the detailing of the male characters and their life in the novel. Not as themselves. Muzaffar’s mother is killed early, the pohael women are conspicuous by their absence; so are the Puj women. Mir makes little effort to penetrate the social veil and as such doesn’t get to detail the consequences of the actions in the male-dominated arena on the women.

A panting by Abbas Zafar

How does, for instance, the transition from a Hamid Puj to Abdul Hamid – his life-long aspiration — change the lives of the wives? And more significantly, of the daughters. Does it trigger a change in the family value system?  The family sanction which could have juxtaposed to bring to the fore the social acceptance or otherwise of the male actions, be it rebellion, collaboration or compromise. It would have added a lot of depth to talk about how the unconventional Mona becomes Maimoona with no self-identity or spunk. Or for that matter, Sabia, hanging between Oubaid and Tufail and Oubaid; infatuated by the latter aspiring for the former.

Even the fleeting love stories, nice and innocent as these are, are layered for men; the longing of Sabia for Oubaid is not dwelt upon, even as Oubaid’s passion for Jozy is dealt with in sharp contrast. “So visceral was his obsession that it deluded Oubaid into believing that his grief had been buried forever, but in reality, it metastasized into a dark passion and now coursed through his veins, instigating his longing for Jozy into a wild adolescent frenzy. But this is not all. The emotions get more complicated, as “for him, she was not just a girl for whom he felt affection and longing; she was the distillation of the Zaeldar blood and flesh that circumstances had conspired to deny him”. The political ideology and personal angst are not only engendered but enmeshed and intertwined indistinguishably.

Mir doesn’t let the reader get comfortable or complacent. Just as you begin to enjoy the normalcy of life – love, food, banter – he shakes you back with a sharp and sudden change. The softness in the description of Oubaid’s and Jozy’s love affair is shattered with the piercing wails of Oubaid’s mother. The scene is transformed from one of love and joy to panic and grief, all in two lines. Exactly as it is in the daily lives across the length and breadth of Kashmir.

Or when Oubaid becomes an Ikhwani minutes after wanting to become a mujahid but is not accepted. As, Mir explains, “Stripped down to the most primaeval instincts of man – savagery and survival was a space-time singularity in the fabric of the cosmos where the laws and lusts that governed men fell apart or morphed into putrefying horrors. In such a place Hamid’s walnuts and almonds and apples and saffron would be utterly meaningless – like sighs in a graveyard”.

Is Hamid Puj’s compromise in transitioning to Abdul Hamid, make him a collaboration? The cardboard characterisation of collaborators is given flesh and bones in this novel. It is neither seen as a defect nor as an infirmity, but a compulsion.

And the way he describes the “humanisation” initiative of using pellet guns makes you shudder, “Not bullets this time, but pellets. Hundreds of them rushing out of each shotgun in a single burst like hungry vultures who no longer wait for death but peck at whatever they can – arms, thighs, shoulders, chests, cheeks, eyes…”.

Masood Hussain’s painting, titled, The Hunt

Mir frames such dilemma, starkly; “Finally, when he could bear it no longer, he worked out a compromise between his guilt and his fear. He would not write about the fake encounter, but he would write about the timber nexus without naming names. Perhaps it would lead someone braver than him to the fake encounter.” At another place, the dilemma faced by students is so captured in one sentence, when Muzaffar tells his friends “May you never have to choose between an exam and a protest”.

The most chilling paradox is when it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two antagonists. As Oubaid shares with himself, “There were times when he could hardly tell Muzaffar and the Major apart”.

The crux

While the reader can see many narratives, often conflicting, being built, all these coexist, at times even converge but stop short of merging. None is accorded primacy. To be sure, Mir not neutral. He is not also objective; he cannot be. No one can be in the situation that people are living and dying in Kashmir. The way he restores the credibility of his narrative is by giving equal voice to competing narratives. And, not be a moralist. There are no sermons, but there is strong corporeality which must be first acknowledged and then answered.

There are some haunting descriptions in the book. The language is powerful and the expressions are evocative. Sample how blood is described, “The redness that they will find, by noon, squirting from helpless veins to form dirty, chaotic puddles in the desolate market squares trampled by stained jackboots”.

And the way he describes the “humanisation” initiative of using pellet guns makes you shudder, “Not bullets this time, but pellets. Hundreds of them rushing out of each shotgun in a single burst like hungry vultures who no longer wait for death but peck at whatever they can – arms, thighs, shoulders, chests, cheeks, eyes…”. Masterly.

There are palpably Kashmiri metaphors evoked graphically, “Then, starting from his toes and working up to his shoulders, they thrashed him mechanically – as a farmer might thrash paddy sheaves”. Or that, “My father’s body had to be thawed before he could be buried. Not everyone could survive such a winter. You had to let the chill pass into your veins or set your blood on fire. Only those who could do that survived.”

What makes this a stunning work is that there is no condemnation. Much like Kundera who famously said, “The condemnation of totalitarianism doesn’t deserve a novel,” Mir seems to think along similar lines.

A painting by Kashmiri artist, Abbas Zafar

In the plot there are no digressions; instead, there are allegorical explorations on a wide range of moral and existential issues; not ideological and political. This is brave. Very brave. It addresses events and delves deeply and incisively into how society organizes ideas about life and society.

The most critical existential issue that Mir deals with a lot of honesty and courage is the disjuncture between private life and public life of his characters. It is captured sharply, mirroring the real-life schism. In his treatment of this issue, he adds a dose of dark humour, influenced by who else but Franz Kafka. How can he not be! Given the situation around him.

Mir, manages to look beyond oppressive regimes and resistance movements as he wanders into the wasteland of profiteering from the extant situation. How the emergence of a new class is inexorably linked to the volatile situation is summed up, as follows, “See, we are at war here, make no mistake about it. But we are not going to win this war by killing the enemy who has the gun in his hand. No, it is not as simple as that. We are up against something very complex here. Something that pits us against everyone out there – those with guns and also those without. So we need to fight on other fronts as well. The timber trade is a seed that will grow into a weapon which will fight battles for us where we ourselves cannot – and it is those unacknowledged battles that will win us the war”.

The entire approach gets summed up by Captain Gurpal in an immortal line to Hamid Puj, “I don’t need people out there to like us, I just need them to need us. And I see nothing that can prevent you from benefiting as much as you can from it.”

The core issue, though pervasive in its looming presence throughout the book, is almost entirely sub-textual. Yet the framing of it is not only bold but brilliant. It is with almost a straight face and a descriptive drone he traces the transition of the struggle for azaadi to a jihad: “Gradually, these new arrivals, the foreigners, took over the tanzeem. The struggle for azaadi was now a jihad – the holy duty of every Muslim to fight for his brother’s faith, and his own when it was in danger. Lines began to blur, and identities to clash. As the battlefronts multiplied, it became increasingly difficult to say what all the violence was about. The violence had lost its purpose.  Who was to pay the price for this outcome? Why, the people, of course”.

‘The Power Games And The Politics Of 1990s Is Too Complicated To Be Unravelled’

He doesn’t stop at this. He digs in deep, incisively, to explain, not judge, “The man’s existence was reduced to the mere instinct for survival. Everything else – azaaditehreek, resistance, elections – was subservient to this instinct. Thus, when elections were held, it mattered little to the man whether he voted or not. He voted if it meant he would survive one more day, and he did not if it meant the same. So the elections were held and the winners announced, and all that the conclusion of the elections meant for the people was that they had one less excuse for playing hide-and-seek with death. Their struggle for survival now meant that they feared the tanzeem as much as any other organization out there.”

The paradox of not knowing our history to justify our politics is yet another anomaly explored in the book through Professor Ashfaq. It gets narrated non-controversially in an engineering college lecture, with Suyya as a metaphor.

Haseeb Drabu

There cannot be a better description of the underlying legal sanction and operational ground rules about the pitched battles on the streets of Srinagar and elsewhere between the: “Boys who don’t have permission to be angry and men who must do their duty. Boys who throw stones and men who must shoot back”.

There is no sense of David versus the Goliath here; nor is there a victim and an oppressor. It is a factual observation, without any ideological bias, that rips open the moral and human dimension of the fight. No Kashmiri, no Indian. No terrorist, no security person. Just boys who can’t get angry and men who must shoot.

This book reminds me of a soulful painting, “Look beyond the canvas” by Masood Hussain, the iconic Kashmiri artist. After completing it, he slashed the painting with his razor. When he looked at the canvas again, “the slash across the canvas seemed an essential element of the work. The canvas remains thus to this day, suspended between the long diagonal tear and the threaded needle”. Masood saw despair and lived with it. Mir sees hope, he too will live with it. Between despair of the past and hope for the future, the present is a “red rosary of angst”.


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