Thursday, February 22, 2024

Reimagining the Ramayana in Troubled Times

[Review of Lindsay Pereira’s “The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao”]

Valmiki Rao is a 70 something retired postmaster who lives in a Ganga Niwas chawl in Mumbai, the same house he grew up in. Never married and with no dependents, he is the quintessential observer. He sees all that happens in his chawl, he empathises with the struggles of people, and he offers no judgement. During his life, he witnessed multi-generational family dynamics among the residents of the chawl. A chawl which had only Hindus families- no Muslims, no Christians, no Parsis- most of them lower caste families from the same area in Ratnagiri. Most of the original inhabitants of the chawl were mill workers who had migrated to Bombay, and without going into the history, the author tells the story of how the influence of the largely communist trade unions on the political landscape of the city was gradually replaced by that of the more militant Shiva Sena.

The major part of the book is set in 1992–93, the period where India in general witnessed religious frenzy of the kind not seen since Partition. Most people in Bombay would have struggled to place Ayodhya on the map, they knew that it was unlikely they would ever visit Ayodhya and pray at the Ram Mandir, yet so many of them was invested in ensuring that the Babri Masjid came down and the temple came up. You see how the Shiv Sena was able to capture the loyalty of the youth, not by offering them anything tangible, but merely by letting them know that they and their frustrations were visible to the party. The book offers a sociological background to the growing radicalisation of youth, and of how they were manipulated into considering people with whom they have no personal interaction as the ‘enemy’.

The Memoirs of Valmiki Rao, is not as much a retelling of India’s favourite epic, as much as it is a re-imagining of the same. The characters can be easily identified. Ramu is a promising young lad born to parents who doted on him. He remains the ‘golden boy’ even after his mother passes away, and his father brings home a younger second wife who is determined to ensure that her step children are cut off. He falls in love with Janaki, the daughter of a (relatively) wealthy shopkeeper, who reciprocates his advances. Ravi Anna, from the ‘enemy’ chawl also falls in love with Janaki and with the help of his sister plots to kidnap her. Sundar is the quintessential boy who lives and works in a roadside chai stall- he has little idea about his family, but he is fiercely loyal to Ramu. The story plays out against the backdrop of the riots that erupt in the city. The story of Ramu and Janaki could be the story of countless others- pawns in a larger political game over which they have no control.

Without it being the central theme, the book speaks of how women are often silenced in society. A woman might do no wrong, yet she is blamed. And she is the one expected to suffer in silence because of decisions made by ‘her’ men. In one of the most poignant scenes of the book, Janaki confronts Ramu who has gone visibly cold, and when he turns around accuses her, in sheer distress, she rushes out into a rioting city. Her’s is the story of many women, caught between the whims of fathers, brothers, and lovers each of whom act as if their honour rests in her vagina.

Like Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance”, the book is an ode to the city of Bombay. It is full of small details which bring the city to life. He talks of how life would come to a standstill on Sundays when entire families would gather around the TV to watch Ramayana. He describes how Govindas would make a human pyramid to break the matka on Gokulashtami, and how families would throw water on them from windows. He talks of carrom tournaments conducted under naked blubs, and chai tapris with unnamed and unseen young boys rushing around. He describes how chawls gradually give way to co-operative housing societies, but how nothing else really changes. The book is set in the past, but it remains a cautionary tale for the present. It clearly articulates how no matter who wins or loses the political battles, it is the common man who pays the price.

This is definitely one of the best books I read this year.

Monday, February 19, 2024

‘Maria, Just Maria’ Makes Us Question Why Some People Are Called ‘Mad’

 [Book review first published in YouthKiAwaaz]

“Madness is often an easy solution for writers to conclude a story, especially stories with a hero or heroine in the grip of an existential crisis. This in short is the world’s relationship with madness. In real life, though, madness is boring. No, actually real life is boring and madness might add a touch of interest to it.”

Thus muses Maria, the protagonist of Sandhya Mary’s “Maria, Just Maria”, a 30 something woman who is being treated in a psychiatric hospital. Most of the story is told from the perspective of Maria as a child- a perspective which is not every common, but which works every effectively in this story.

The book is full of an assortment of characters

Maria, the fourth and not wanted child of her parents, is left at Kottarathil Veedu, her mother’s ancestral home, to be brought up by an assortment of relatives. Her grandfather, Geevarghese, who is considered “mad” by the rest of his family is her best friend who “spends most of his time in toddy shops and gallivanting around the village taking his granddaughter along.”

But the ‘respectable’ members of the family are an equally quirky bunch- a great-grandfather over ninety years old and at death’s door, a great aunt who was in the grip of dementia, a grandmother with few feelings for her husband but who bore him 15 children of which a dozen survived, a great uncle who worshipped his sister in law, an unmarried aunt who was a Communist and in love with a much older man, an uncle who would treat all the villagers even when he was still studying to be a doctor. Each of these characters is sketched with warmth- you love their oddities, you empathise with their fears and feelings. You wonder what is normal and what is not.

To the mix, add Chandipaati the talking dog with an attitude who is more philosopher than mutt, and Ammini a parrot with an almost enviable vocabulary. The village statue of Geevarghese Sahada/ St. George who is bored stiff of sitting still on his horse and protecting chickens when called to do so decides to enliven his existence by entering the dreams of the villagers. Even Karthav Eesho Mishiha / Jesus Christ makes an appearance as a dark man with a darker beard with whom Maria plots a revolution which will give power back to the people.

As the story proceeds from one incident to the next in a non linear fashion, you start to question a world which tries to slot people into convenient moulds. What do you say about the spinster great aunt who knows how to pleasure herself, or the newly married aunt who accidentally locks her husband out of their bridal suite?

The book holds a mirror to society

The book holds up a mirror to society, and forces us to look beyond binaries. People contain multitudes and cannot be put into convenient slots. Life is rarely tragic or comic, it is just life- unexpected, yet deeply expected. The book also questions our political and religious systems. In a passage where Maria is talking to Karthav Eesho Mishiha, she asks-

“Tell me, do you gods really have the kind of power that humans believe you have?’
Maria genuinely hopes that gods exist, desires it with all her heart, except that they should be gods who know how to do their jobs properly. What is the point in having gods who can’t even stop humans killing each other.”

The book makes us question why we can’t be more empathetic, kind and inclusive. It asks why we should want everyone to conform and punish those who do not. It also questions the traditional expectations that society has from women-

“Besides, where is the fairness in what you say? If a man has a good job, he is considered accomplished, even if he doesn’t have any children. But for a woman to be considered accomplished, she just has to produce some children. She can go to Pluto and back, and still you won’t acknowledge her accomplishment unless she has popped out a few children. Truly, Ammachi, I don’t understand your world or its standards!”

“Maria, Just Maria” is set in Kerala- the characters, settings and situations would not work anywhere else, yet there are no sweeping descriptions of any of the elements that we have come to associate with the literary depiction of Kerala.

“Maria, Just Maria” is translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil who in addition to being a writer and translator is also a mental hearth professional. Interestingly, the book, according to Sandhya Mary, did not set out to be a novel. It was a series of notes she wrote to herself, mostly in English.

It was only when she decided to make it a novel that the stories were rewritten in Malayalam- so the translation is almost a homecoming for the book. The translator quotes Edith Grossman who said “A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.” Jayasree Kalathil’s translation certainly feels seamless.

The book ends with the line “Poor Maria.” But who is really “poor”? Should a person be branded crazy because they live life differently from what is considered normal? If a person is happy, who are we to brand them as crazy? Why should success be unidimensional?

What if someone like Maria doesn’t have great ambitions; what if she is content being ‘verum Maria- just Maria’. Should she be judged for that? The book is a plea for a more inclusive world. And it is that plea that remains with us long after we finish the book and stop chuckling over the antics people get into.

The book is published by Harper CollinsI received a review copy. All views expressed in the review are my own.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

‘Swallowing The Sun’: A Family Saga Set In Pre-Independence India

[First published in YouthKiAwaaz]

We have we have this pre-conceived notion that the women in pre-independence India were meek and docile. That they were largely confined to the house and that they did not have any opinions of their own. Yet, if we look at history, we see that there were very many women who participated in a very meaningful way both in the freedom struggle and in various battles to achieve social and economic equality. These were not just privileged women from westernised families, but women from the working class and the oppressed class; women who you would not expect to be out there protesting or even having (much less expressing) an opinion of their own.

In this lyrical work of fiction set in the first half of the 20th century, Lakshmi Murdeshwar Puri has chosen to debunk the myths of the silent Indian women by writing about a family that defies the norms set by a patriarchal society.

At a time when child marriage was rampant, one man fought society to give both his younger daughters an education and forced them to pursue careers. In the society of his day, on the demise of his wife at childbirth, the Maratha farmer would have married a second wife who would have taken care of the girls and the newborn son, but he defied society to put the girls in an Ashram school, where they lived and learnt with other orphan girls. He encouraged them to go to college and trusted them enough to live on their own in Bombay and study in a co-educational institution. What makes the story even more powerful is the fact that it is clearly inspired by the author’s own mother, who was herself a postgraduate in the same pre-Independence period.

The story spans one generation- roughly 50 years of Malati’s life- the time span may not be enough to call it an intergenerational saga, but the story does follow people from multiple generations of the family long enough to see how perceptions and prevailing attitudes change, and how certain things which were not even considered early on in the story become normalised towards the end. Malati herself evolves from an intelligent and headstrong young girl to an empathetic and accomplished woman forged by love, loss and life.

The book’s greatest strength is the powerful characters, especially the women characters. Yes, the pioneering women students, Malati and her sister Kamala, are the protagonists, but the subsidiary characters are equally strong. Their Aiyee, for instance, seems like a silent housewife, but she put her foot down whenever needed, taught her daughters to carry themselves with pride and dignity, and supported her husband when he dreamt crazy dreams for the girls. Their older sister Surekha was allowed to decide whether or not she wanted to be the second wife of an extremely rich and powerful man and did so on condition that he would never emotionally or physically abuse her. Maa Saheba, the first wife of the man whom Surekha married, was called crazy by society, but was she really crazy- she was one in the long tradition of bhakti saints who only wanted union with a Lord Krishna and asserted her agency whenever she could. Sarla and Veena, the two daughters of Surekha’s husband, were both high-spirited young women who craved romantic and sexual gratification. As you encounter each of these characters, you start to realise how much you stereotype a particular time, but that even in those days, women did assert themselves within their limitations.

There are many layers to each of the main characters. For instance, we feel quite indignant when a particular character shows his misogynistic nature by trying to clip the wings of his wife. But soon we realise that the couple hide a secret which both are determined to protect, and his controlling nature is just to ensure that his wife is protected.

Of particular importance throughout the book is, of course, the battle for independence- the different ways in which people participated in the freedom struggle, the different choices available to them, and how some people chose to become lawyers or teachers, thereby providing a continuation of intellectual leadership, of how some people joined the nonviolence struggle, and others joined the revolutionary struggle. People were very different from each other, but each was driven by a love for the motherland and a desire to do whatever it takes to free India from the clutches of the British.

The most stunning part of the book, however, is the lyrical language. Sometimes, it seems a little over the top, but it never ceases to be beautiful. The author quotes abhangs from Marathi bhakti saints, Marathi and English poetry from the period, and verses from Kalidassa’s Meghadoota. The same kind of lyrical beauty permeates the book, and her gorgeous prose ensures you can almost visualise what is happening in front of your eyes. This is clearly a book that will make it many shortlists when literary awards are announced, and rightly so. Few debut novels tackle social themes in as enchanting a way as this one does.

Time takes on very different meanings in this book- sometimes, short periods of time are described in vivid detail over many chapters, and at other times, years flip by in a sentence or two. In the last quarter of the book, timelines get a little confusing when, in an attempt to close certain subplots, the author jumps forward several years before returning to pick up the main narrative where she left off.

Swallowing the Sun, a title taken from an abhang of Muktabai– “the ant flies into the sky and swallows the sun”, is a book about individuals. Still, through their story, we also get a deeper understanding of the socio-economic and political world of the first half of the previous century. A word about the exquisitely beautiful cover- flowers, birds and fruits are painted against a muted gold sky, with the ghats of Banaras in the background, creating a scene as evocative as the book itself.

I received a review copy of the book, but the views are my own. The book has been published by Aleph Book Company 

Monday, February 5, 2024

How Does India Mourn? A Book On Last Rites In Different Religions

 [Book Review of Minakshi Dewan’s ‘The Final Farewell: Understanding the Last Rites and Rituals of India’s Major Faiths’ first published in YouthKiAwaaz]

Death is the only certainty of life, and yet that is the one thing we do not prepare for.

When my father passed away after a protracted illness, without even discussing it with each other, my mother and I knew we would not be conducting any elaborate last rites. We chose the electric crematorium because it was the least polluting option, and then immersed his ashes in the Cauvery. It was all over in one and a half days, and we sought closure however we could. My father was a deeply religious person, and we do not know what he might have thought of it, but that is the case with most people. We plan our weddings, our birthdays, and other assorted celebrations, but most people do not even think about their death, much less plan it.

They don’t need to because all religions have prescribed funeral and mourning rituals, which are often both elaborate and expensive. Minakshi Dewan’s The Final Farewell does a fantastic job of describing the last rites and rituals prescribed in each of the major religions in India- Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and Parsis.

“How does India mourn?” was a question that struck the author while she was performing the last rites of her own father, and this book is a culmination of the many interviews she had with people associated with performing the last rites of the deceased.

What struck me most while going through the narratives was how similar funeral and mourning rites are in each of the religions- of how, in almost all religions, there are specialists without whose assistance the last rites cannot be performed, and of how across religions, the period of mourning ends with an elaborate feast which tests the means of the family of the deceased. The other common factor across religions is how women are excluded from all displays of public mourning, though they continue to perform a role at home.

In the section on Hindu funeral and mourning rites, the author examines the caste hierarchy in performing Hindu funeral and mourning rituals. The task of directly assisting with the cremation in burning ghats is left to the Doms, who are considered the lowest even among the Dalits- for the rest of the world, they are “Untouchables”, yet ironically, the soul cannot attain release. Through her research, the author also found out that there is a separate category of “funeral priests” who only assist in the 11 days of rituals. Once the “mrithyu ka kaam” is over on the 12th day, they are supposed to disappear from sight and let the regular priests take over.

The author also digs deep into how much people spend on funeral and mourning rites. It is not cheap, and we have all heard stories of families which did not have enough money to treat the dying but go into debt to ensure the last rites are performed.

Death during COVID

While all of this is interesting from a sociological perspective, it is the second part of the book which is deeply engaging. The author examines how funeral and mourning rituals changed during the Pandemic. During the first wave, bodies were taken straight from hospitals in body bags, and any ritual that involved touching the deceased person had to be suspended.

While reading her descriptions, which were based on countless interviews, I was reminded of a friend of the family who lost her nonagrian mother to COVID- it was not the death she mourned as much as she did the fact that they couldn’t give their mother a proper funeral- “we did everything so well for our father”, she’d cried. “All we could do was watch Amma being cremated in the electric crematorium over video. We couldn’t even say goodbye”. The massive number of deaths during the second wave also saw many women get involved in conducting the last rites of people whose families were not able to give them a fitting funeral. Though women are traditionally excluded from participating in mourning, many came to the forefront, and it is hoped that now funeral rites will adapt to enable the participation of women.

The book also describes communities at the margins. The sub-cultures of funeral performers who flourish in the margins of funeral and mourning rites- rudhalis, mirasans and opparis, who are professional mourners and parai and gaana, who provide musical performances. The challenges faced by the kinnar community while performing last rites. The lack of access to burial spaces for Dalits in many rural and even urban communities sometimes results in people burying their dead under roads or below their own huts.

The book also provides hope when it describes a few organizations which provide an empathetic and inclusive space for people to conduct the last rites of their loved ones. Lastly, the book examines the environmental impact of traditional funeral rites and throws open questions about whether these practices can continue or not.

I enjoyed reading Minakshi Dewan’s The Final Farewell: Understanding the Last Rites and Rituals of India’s Major Faiths both for the descriptions of the funeral and mourning rites followed by different communities and because it challenged me to think about how caste, gender and social-economic status permeates everything in life, including death.

The book is available wherever books are sold. I received a review copy of the book, but the views are entirely my own.

'The Day I Became A Runner' Delves Into Women, Sports And Rural Poverty


[Book review of Sohini Chattopadhyay’s “The Day I Became A Runner”, first published in YouthKiAwaaz]

“The Day I Became a Runner” begins with how the author took up running. “I was a lump in those days- a squat, easily breathless lump”, she says. Yet, she took up running to cope with the grief of losing her grandmother. Turning up at the neighbourhood park every morning became her mourning ritual.

Even though she stopped more than she ran, she turned up everyday. Like every other woman runner, she tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, when she had to pass someone she would stop running, sidle past and start again even if it disturbed her rhythm.

Through her experiences as a newbie runner, she makes very valid points about how even urban, educated women are excluded from public spaces, and of how women are acutely aware of the risk they take every time they put themselves in public. The chapter sets the tone for the entire book- it is not just the stories of eight elite women runners who represented (and in once case, almost represented) India in the international arena; it is a socio-political commentary on the role of women at home and outside.

The Trailblazers

The first two runners profiled in the book are names that only quizzers and the most devoted sports enthusiasts would know- Mary D’Souza who represented India in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and Kamaljit Sandhu who won a gold medal in the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games.

Two women from very different backgrounds who excelled in sports at a time when even educated women did not have ambitions beyond marriage and family. By juxtaposing the stories of her grandmother and mother on the stories of these two athletes, the author not only reinforces the passion and commitment displayed by them, but also gives an overview of gradual evolution of the role of upper class/ upper caste, educated women in urban India.

PT Usha

PT Usha is well known to every Indian- the story of the young girl who trained on the sandy beach of Payyoli and made history when she missed the bronze medal by a hundredth of a second at the Los Angeles Olympic Games has been told and retold multiple times.

You would think there is nothing new left to uncover, but the author brings out nuances that remain unspoken. For instance, when describing how the attitude of the sports officials accompanying the Indian contingent changed, she writes-
“More than anything else, she noticed the body language of the Indian official who had come to summon her for the phone call from the Prime Minister — the alertness, the eye contact, the slight bending towards her while speaking…Until that moment, the officials accompanying the Indian Olympic contingent had not spoken to anyone other than the hockey team members.”

The author, also, doesn’t shy away from displaying her ambivalence towards PT Usha. The author is clearly disappointed that the woman who inspired countless young women with her sporting prowess and who, post-retirement, started a residential athletics academy for women is critical of “those feminists”, and she articulates it while describing the young women who train under PT Usha- “I saw them being the equals of men, claiming their place in the world without hesitation. But Usha’s perspective was different. ‘I train girls because girls listen to authority’, she told me. ‘They have more discipline than boys. They are easier to mould and prepare. They bring you better results, more medals. And it changes their life too.’”

The author resolves her ambivalence- “It was difficult for me to separate my Usha from the Usha I met. Her politics didn’t take a thing away from her record on the track, from the thrill it was to watch her in action. Nor did it diminish her years of work training young women in athletics on her own, working outside government institutions. It should not have mattered. Yet it did.”

It is this honesty which shines through in the book, and makes it so special.

The Women Accused of Not Being ‘Women Enough’

The author reserves her best for the next three stories — Santhi Soundarajan, Pinki Pramanik and Dutee Chand- and sets the benchmark for how the media should report on gender. All three athletes were accused of not being women (or not being woman enough); accusations of that nature can wreck the personal life of a person, but what made it worse was the sensational way in which each case was reported by the media.

Shanthi, for instance, was accused of “failing a gender test”- clearly the person reporting it did not even know the difference between sex and gender, and was only interested in writing a titillating headline. The author tears apart the uninformed reportage of the media, while also giving the reader an introduction to gender.

Women, Sports and Rural Poverty

The last section of the book talks about how in many parts of rural India, sports is perceived as a way to break out of the cycle of poverty. For Olympian Lalita Babar, sports was the means to escape the grinding poverty of rural Vidharba and create a better life for herself in Navi Mumbai. Even before she became an Olympian, Lalita Babar won a hattrick at the Mumbai Marathon.

It is an event where hundreds of recreational woman runners participate in every year, but what sets them apart are the reasons why they run. Recreational runners run for the joy of running (or to attain fitness goals), but for Lalita Babar running is a passport to a better life. When asked about Lalita’s legacy, a coach said, “Lalita lacks the killer instinct. Most Indians are happy to be good enough.

They don’t want to be the best.” Whether this is strictly true or not, the reality is that as the headmaster of the school where Lalita studied says, “at least fifteen girls who graduated from this school have gone on to get government jobs after Lalita… (she) showed this was possible.” The chapter on Lalita Babar and the next one can be read as a thesis on gender and poverty in rural India, and highlights many issues at the intersection of gender and poverty.


The book ends with the story of Ila Mitra who would have been India’s first female Olympian if WW-II had not intervened, and who went on to become a trailblazer in the Communist movement, but for that, you need to read the book. This book is not just the story of elite women athletes, but speaks of how in a society defined by gender inequity, these women gave other young women the courage to dream big. Isn’t that an achievement in itself?

I bought a copy of the book, and my opinions are my own.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat

"Perumal Murugan the writer is dead," wrote Perumal Murugan after the targeted hate he received from the right wing forced him to quit his job and fear for his life. But how can a writer not write? Or as he puts it, "How long can an untold story rest in deep slumber within the dormant seed? I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods… let me write about animals." He chooses to write about goats, or more particularly about a tiny black female goat called Poonachi.

Poonachi is the smallest goat the old man has ever seen- a gift from a giant of a man who wanted only a "kind hearted man" to have her. The old man, and his wife are themselves struggling to survive, but they take on the responsibility of the black goat. They do not have anything to feed her, and even after several weeks, she remains as small as a new born. She may be tiny, but she if feisty and she forms a bond with the old woman and talks to her constantly though she doesn't know how much the old woman understands.

Poonachi is the story of a black goat, but somewhere along the line, you start to think of her as a spirited young woman. A young girl who ignores dangers because she is fascinated by the world. A young woman who falls in love, and holds the memory of her lover in her heart even when she is forced to mate with an older, more acceptable partner. A young mother struggling to look after her children, yet distraught when the kids are snatched away. A lovelorn woman who meets her lover again and enjoys a few moments of bliss. Poonachi is the victim of circumstances just like a human in identical circumstances would be, and through her experiences and thoughts, the author delivers a scathing commentary on the twin evils of gender and poverty.

Comparisons to "Animal Farm" are inevitable, but Poonachi is a very different book. Both are allegorical and political, but there is empathy and emotion in Poonachi which is missing in Animal Farm. The book speaks of hunger and greed. It speaks of betrayal and cruelty. But people do bad things not because they are bad, but because they are left with little choice. When a human is struggling to stay alive, can you really blame them for slaughtering their goat? It is this sense of helplessness that remains long after you finish the book.

In the introduction, the author says he is "deeply familiar" with goats, he clearly is. I was awestruck by the description of the plants and trees- you can almost feel the landscape, see the plants from the perspective of a tiny goat and taste the stalks and leaves the little goat munches. Perumal Murugan is one of the foremost writers of our time, and this might be his best book!

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Kashmir: Partition Trilogy #3 - A Framework For Understanding Kashmir

[First published in YouthKiAwaaz]

Kashmir is the third and last book in Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s Partition Trilogy, which explores the events, exigencies and decisions that led to Independence, Partition and the Accession of States, which eventually led to the borders of India and Pakistan being what they now are.

Like Lahore and Hyderabad, the first two books of the Partition Trilogy, Kashmir too is a historical fiction told at two levels- the high-level political negotiations between the people whom history books talk about, and the stories of the common people who were being pulled apart by forces beyond their control.

Most people who have grown up in Independent India have only a vague understanding of what is often called the Kashmir issue. We know that the cartographic boundary of Kashmir differs based on whether the map was drawn in India or Pakistan. We know that the Army has been deployed in Kashmir for most of our lifetime and that the area has enjoyed only brief periods of peace. We know that Kashmir enjoyed “special status” till the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019. However, most of us are unaware of the history of Kashmir, and of the conflicting interests which ensued that the issue never achieved a peaceful solution. This book goes a long way in addressing those gaps.

Almost all the historical figures who were involved in the process of decision-making appear as characters in the book. Through her study of archival material the author has recreated decisive moments of history and presented them as fictionalised scenes. Lord Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Sheikh Abdullah and Maharaja Hari Singh all flit through the pages of the book, and literally bring history alive. The invasion by the Kabailis and the battles fought by the Indian Army to defend their land and reclaim lost territory are faithfully rendered.

But what makes the book come alive are the common people. The husband who forces himself on his second wife every night in the hope of impregnating her. The husband who builds a floating vegetable garden and plants rose bushes on it for his wife. The man who ‘marries’ the woman he abducted and tries to kidnap her from the house where she is given shelter. The man who lost his beloved to mob violence and tries to atone by providing a safe haven for other abducted women. There are conversations between two brothers, one of whom supports the National Conference and the other the Muslim Conference. There is an entire family struggling in different ways to cope with the grief of losing a loved one. It is through each of these characters that the book comes alive, because they are the ones who face the consequences of decisions made in cities far away.

History has never been kind to women- they are either erased completely from the pages of history books or they are reduced to victims. Books set during the Partition, in particular, focus on how rape was used as a weapon of war and of how women protected family honour by sacrificing themselves.

Kashmir: Partition Trilogy #3, however, is full of stories of women who are recipients of or witness to senseless violence, but who rise above it to leave a mark.

No history of Kashmir can be written without mentioning the Sher e Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah, but this book notes the contribution of his wife, Begum Akbar Jahan, who, when her husband was jailed, left the seclusion of her home to tour the villages, keeping hope alive in the hearts of the Kashmiri people.

Less well known than Begum Akbar Jahan but pivotal to the book are the composite characters Zooni, Durga Mehra, Kashmira and Margot Parr. Durga Mehra witnessed the murder of her husband at the hands of the Kabailis but kept her family together till she was able to find safe passage back to her homeland. Both in the refugee camp and after her reunification with her family, she, like countless other women before her, applied her empathy and her considerable organization skills to the welfare of other women who were left destitute because of events beyond anyone’s control. Kashmira’s husband was killed “by mistake”- one of several similar mistakes that the Indian Army would make in the coming decades- but even while giving in to grief, she never lost sight of her need to pull herself together for the sake of her family. The state of Kashmir, in particular, is populated by countless women like her, and through her, the author honours each of them.

Zooni, the activist and sharpshooter, is based on a real woman who was the poster child of the Kashmiri resistance. Though not much is known about the woman who inspired the character, Zooni rises over personal tragedy, exchanges her slingshot for a rifle and offers her services to the Indian Army. Her courage, resilience and abiding concern for the welfare of her family is symbolic of the moral force displayed by countless women of Kashmir.

Perhaps my favourite character was that of the US journalist Margot Parr. She faces misogyny in her profession but doesn’t let that come in the way of chasing a story. She smokes, drinks and has a relationship with a considerably older man. When asked for her personal opinion by a politician, she was quick to retort, “My personal opinion is nobody’s business; you’ll agree. But my professional opinion is a work in progress: the more I learn, the better informed I am.” However, despite the professionalism, she develops a deep emotional bond with the family whose houseboat she lives in and goes beyond the line of duty to keep them financially, emotionally and physically secure.

Comparisons with the previous books, Lahore and Hyderabad, are inevitable. Though the storyline of Kashmir concludes a few months before that of Hyderabad, it is fitting that it should be the third book in the Trilogy because the history of Kashmir remains inconclusive. While both the Partition of Punjab and the Annexation of Hyderabad extracted a heavy price, the long-term repercussions are largely personal. The political drama ended once the borders were fixed, and what remained was a generation of people who were left to deal with the trauma they experienced and the almost paralysing ‘what ifs’. Kashmir, on the other hand, remains as much of a contentious issue as it was in 1947–48, and the social, political and personal repercussions of the political deliberations and strategic manoeuvres of 1947–48 continue to be felt even today. Reading Kashmir gives us the framework to understand the Kashmir problem; for that reason alone, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in learning more.

I would recommend reading it as a part of the Partition Trilogy. Many of the historical characters were developed in the earlier books, and Kashmir merely builds upon them. Some of the ‘common people’ from earlier books, too, make a reappearance in Kashmir and knowing the back story will help in better understanding what drives them in this book.

Kashmir would shine as a stand-alone book, too. It is a tight page-turner that takes us through the political decisions made in Delhi, Lahore, New York, Srinagar, and Jammu, and the ramifications of those decisions on common people. It explains why the ‘Kashmir issue’ is as complicated as it is and how there can be no easy solutions to it. Above all, it is the story of human resilience and love, even in the midst of gruesome violence, which shines through is hope, empathy and courage.

Kashmir: The Partition Trilogy III is published by Harper Collins. I thank the publisher for an Advanced Review Copy, but the views are my own. 


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