Close call in Kashmir

BOOK REVIEW

A MUST-READ NOVEL FOR ALL THOSE ENGAGED IN MAKING SENSE OF THE PRESENT-DAY KASHMIR, WRITES ASHOK OGRA

“Terrorist violence and a nightmare drive Shamsuddin Bandey, head priest of a shrine in Aishmuqam village in Jammu and Kashmir, to find out more about some of the 300-year old scrolls kept in his family’s custody for generations.
But his actions arouse the suspicions of a top bureaucrat and a history professor. The corrupt duo believe the scrolls may point the way to a vast, buried treasure – and they will stop at nothing to get it.
Elsewhere, militants break into a museum in Srinagar and steal valuable artifacts to fund their war against India. They also kidnap a woman scientist.
Along the way, others are drawn into action: Michael Zutshi, an American professor  nostalgic about his childhood spent in Kashmir, and Ashok Dalela, a CBI officer on the trail of the masterminds behind the illegal trade in antiques.”  
This is how the Penguin Books introduces Close Call in Kashmir by Bharat Wakhlu – a proud son of the soil. A “gripping thriller set in a time of trouble, to keep you on the edge of your seat.”
In his  maiden novel, Bharat highlights the tragic situation in the Kashmir Valley through his protagonist, who mentions that the news from Kashmir has not been good at all and that the violence perpetrated by armed foreigners with support from across the border was causing terrible restriction. The novel documents the ruthless and orchestrated bombings, shootouts, kidnappings and gruesome decapitations without remorse, not to mention the exploitation of hapless women who are always at the receiving end in such situations. 
It is said that the fundamental aspect of a novel is its story-telling aspect -  a narrative of events arranged in time-sequence. By this definition, the author has been successful in weaving events operating at multiple levels. Developing a story within a story, the novelist highlights the role of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which virtually runs the government in Pakistan, in aggravating and accentuating trouble in the valley.
There are pointed references to the dubious role of the intelligence agency at various places – “dozens of militant group operating in Kashmir, all of whom having the blessings and support of the ISI, foreigners trained to obliterate anything that they consider outside their narrow interpretation of religion and culture, ISI handlers who get them going, and the Pakistani leadership and the ISI who offer diplomatic, political and moral support to the militant while pretending to have nothing to do with the special training camps of terrorists”.
In similar strain, the novel highlights the role of foreigners in fomenting trouble at the behest of the ISI, the foreigner use of  the power of guns to settle scores, extort money, to eliminate critics, and to silence the voices that call for peace, an end to violence and a return to sanity.
A story, however, is not the same as a plot, though it may form the basis of one. A plot is also a narrative of events; however the emphasis here is on causality. Also, the forward movement from a story to a plot is best expressed through characters.
( However, we need to acknowledge that the problem of creating real people in real situations can be challenging. It is difficult to capture a ‘‘true human being’’ on paper. One of the great American novelists Henry James summed up this challenge by posing a question : “ What is character but the determination of incident? And what is incident but the determination of character “ ? )
A novelist is, therefore, expected to not ask ‘what happened next’, but ‘to whom did it happen’; the novelist has to appeal to our intelligence and imagination, not merely to our curiosity.
In “Close Call in Kashmir”, the author ought to have been more generous in ‘illuminating the events’ - as he has done in ‘structuring a story’ - and thereby forged and developed a plot around the events to be expressed through characters. The impact thus achieved could have been more profound.
The author solicits the protagonist’s support to convey that the militants who were operating in Kashmir were “damaging the spiritual ethos of the religion, and that Kashmir has changed much over the years since the armed militants introduced the frightful language of guns into the peaceful place.” 
Making judicious use of fact and fiction, Wakhlu deplores the connivance of the local police and the administration (referring them to as UE - unknown enemy), who play to the tunes of the Pakistani masters and subvert all attempts to restore normalcy and tranquility in the trouble-torn valley.
Bharat has a lot to say about Kashmir where he was born and brought up and which continues to be his homeland, notwithstanding the fact that his job demands his presence at other places. In that sense, his is an account of an ‘insider-outsider’. That is why the author invariably feels intimate with the characters. 
There is surplus of meaning  It is the story of the beautiful vale in decay. The valley that has kept its nuances of courtesy and grace intact even though it has grown old and despondent.
The author makes passing references to valley’s pristine culture at various places – Srinagar being named after the goddess of fortune, Pari Mahal being a distinctive architectural beauty, the holy Chari-i-Sharief and attempts at its desecration, the reservoir of ancient artifacts etc. Given his deep attachment with the valley reminiscing comes naturally to the author.
The imaginative and creative cover design by Maithili Doshi Aphale appropriately reflects the current turmoil in the state.
I must admit I felt deeply attached with the book as the author has  dedicated it to late Dr.S.N.Dhar, the noted chest specialist of Kashmir, who refused to leave the valley even though he too was kidnapped by militants while attending patients at a hospital and held captive for 83 days.
( I first got to meet him as a patient in 1978; this turned into a friendship that lasted till his untimely death last year).
Bharat Wakhlu describes himself as a “writer, an artist, a facilitator for beneficial change, a mystic and a wanderer”. But in actuality he is more than all this put together : senior executive with the TATAs and someone engaged in ushering ethics and values in our polity. ( He has also co-authored a book with E.Sreedharan of Metro fame titled “Restoring Values: Keys to Integrity, Ethical Values and Good Governance”.
To me Bharat comes across as a ‘cultured mind’.
Close Call in Kashmir is his first novel, and he has promised to serve us with many such writings in future. I strongly recommend it to all those interested in unraveling the meaning of many complex narratives that define today’s wounded Kashmir.
Or as best expressed by Shamusuddin Bandey the head priest: “ What are these militants trying to achieve? Kidnapping is bad enough. Now they abduct a woman, that too a Kashmiri woman; one of us! They claim to be our friends, these rogues with guns, but they are our worst enemies!” 
The novel has been published by Penguin Books under the ‘Metro Reads’ series. Moderately priced at Rs.150, it is worth a buy.

(The author, a native of the valley,is a noted Management & Media Educator, and is currently Director, Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication. He was till recently Vice President, Discovery Channel & Animal Planet ( South Asia). Feedback at : ashok_ogra@hotmail.com)

Lastupdate on : Fri, 28 Jan 2011 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 28 Jan 2011 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 29 Jan 2011 00:00:00 IST




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