“If I do speak, if I do tell what happened six years ago in that village in the mountains, a village so small it appears only on military maps, it will not be for reasons of nobility. The chance for nobility is over. Even this, story or confession or whatever it turns out to be, is too late.”
The novel is narrated by Shalini, a young woman from Bangalore, in south India, who travels to a small village in Kashmir in search of a man she believes will bring her closer to her dead mother.
Shalini’s mother is an unconventional, fiercely independent woman, a woman who speaks her mind without worrying about whether people will like her or not. “She could be vicious, and yet there were times, especially in a crowd, when she was pure energy, drawing the world to herself. She was already tall but at those times, she became immense.” Her presence permeates Shalini’s life—and the book—even after she dies.
One afternoon, when Shalini is a child, a salesman rings the doorbell. He is Bashir Ahmed from Kashmir, selling clothes. There is an instant connection between Shalini’s mother and Bashir Ahmed—he is one of the few people who seems to understand her. Nothing happens between the two, but he becomes a regular visitor.
When her mother dies, Shalini is 21. She managed to get away from home to a university in another town, but her mother’s death leaves her bereft; Shalini feels that she has left behind secrets and unresolved issues. She moves back in with her father, who throws himself into his work. Shalini drifts, half-heartedly taking up a job and attending parties that only serve to fill the void within her.
Then she decides that the only way she will really understand her mother is to find Bashir Ahmed, who had since returned home. She tells her father that she is travelling for work and heads north across the country to Kashmir.
Shalini lives in a bubble, unaware of anything that does not impact her directly. So she is ignorant of the politics playing out in Kashmir and is therefore completely unprepared. She seems to think that she can go there, somehow find Bashir Ahmed and reach some sort of closure about her mother.
But things are never straightforward in Kashmir. Tensions are high between the Kashmiris and the Indian army, and a lot of young Kashmiri men have disappeared. Shalini first stays with Abdul Lateef and his wife Zoya, who seem to run some sort of guest house. But Shalini finds out that it is a place people come to looking for their loved ones or that young men pass through. The couple offer to help find Bashir Ahmed.
Bashir Ahmed’s son Riyaz comes to see Shalini to tell her that his father is dead. She returns with him to his village and forms a bond with his wife, Amina. Shalini dreams of settling down in the village and teaching at the little school. But instead, she finds herself caught in a situation where her actions could put the family in danger. She has to decide whether to go back to Bangalore or risk staying in the little village.
This is a powerful book. It is intricately structured: it moves between Shalini’s childhood of and Kashmir, and the two sections are, in a way, mirror images of each other. Both Riyaz and Shalini are haunted by their parents.
The reveals in the book come slowly; the reader becomes gradually aware of the whole truth about the characters, in the way that Shalini becomes aware of the realities of the politics of Kashmir.
The characters are completely believable. I expected to be much more exasperated with Shalini than I was: she is nuanced enough to be sympathetic. She is clearly lost, and her attempts to imagine families as her own is an attempt to try to set down roots, to find a place she can belong.
Madhuri Vijay also makes a point about well-meaning people blundering into situations that they do not entirely understand. Shalini wants to give something back to the Kashmiris, but she misjudges situations time and again, not realizing just how her actions can harm the people she cares about. And in the end, she is free to leave but they have to stay to face the consequences. As she realizes later, “For people like me, safe and protected, even the greatest risk is, ultimately, an indulgence”.
I was very impressed with this debut novel: Kashmir is not easy to write about, but Vijay pulls it off, capturing the tension and the beauty without becoming sentimental or strident. She gives a real sense of the rhythm of life in a Kashmiri village and the way ordinary people try to make the best of an impossible situation. The sections in Bangalore, especially Shalini’s childhood and her mother, are also extremely well-done.
This is a compelling book, and I would recommend it.