Hindus and Muslims once lived in peaceful coexistence in ‘Kalhana’s paradise’. And, then, they had a bitter separation. The circumstances changed, equations changed, relations change, and friends became foes overnight.
The debut novel of Sanchit Gupta takes us to the point where it all started in Kashmir, almost three decades ago. It takes us to the days when Kashmiri Pandits lived happily with their Muslim neighbours, when they used to share their happiness and grief with each other. It brings alive their joys and what they had to go through in later years. The story takes us through that tumultuous journey. While one community suffered away from home, the other was condemned to suffer at home.
The author doesn’t discriminate, or support or oppose anyone. He doesn’t demonise anyone either, or judge or take sides, but talks dispassionately about the overall human sufferings, of those who lived on this land, who belonged here, who stayed and who left.
Gupta weaves his story around three friends, one of whom is a Pandit. He is the link among their lives. The plot revolves around the lives of Bilal, Safeena and Deewan. The three are distanced by circumstances and engulfed in a vortex of violence. But they are destined to meet again, and to pull each other out of the quagmire. They all have their share of grief. They all have grim, sordid tales to tell as they ‘come from the land that has no identity’. It is also the story of two neighbours who live in Srinagar — the Bhats, who are Pandits, and the Maliks, who are Muslims, and who are like one big happy family.
And, then one day, everything changes — for worse. As the chorus about ‘azadi’ gets louder in the streets of the Valley, one night the Bhats take refuge at Maliks’ house. In that long, unending dark night, everything loses its meaning or rather the meaning as understood till that point in time. And dreams, lives and everything synonymous with Kashmir — Kashmiriyat, friendship, brotherhood — are ripped apart, shattered, mauled.
That night, death changes all equations, it changes the way the two families look at each other. It fills their hearts with sorrow and hatred.
The book details the transition from the times of peace to the times of war. It talks of fear — the fear of living in one’s homeland, the fear of living away from home, the fear of being labelled a terrorist. It talks of murder, torture chambers, rape, conflict, crackdowns, destroyed homes, killings, Army brutality and militant excesses. It talks of the plight of Pandits and the plight of Muslims, doing a fair justice to the story. The book covers almost all aspects of the Kashmir conflict. It gives us an overview of everything that Kashmiris have had to go through since armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir.
The author, though not a Kashmiri, seems to have his finger on the pulse. He gets the intricacies and the tenor almost perfect. He seems to have done his work well, giving readers an unprejudiced story from a conflict zone.
It is not one of those lopsided stories. It does justice to the big story that is ‘Kashmir’. It spares no one, neither the Army, nor the militants. It is unforgiving, vivid, well-written, profound and well-paced for a debut novel.
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