Lost in Tenor

The novel seeks to juxtapose male authoritarianism, driven by caste in India and tribal pride in Pakistan, on to the social milieu of Kashmir.
Lost in Tenor
Representational Pic

George Bernard Shaw's oft-quoted line "all autobiographies are lies" is actually a half truth. The complete two-and-half sentence reads thus: "All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies: I mean deliberate lies."

Nayeema Mahjoor's Lost In Terror may not be adjudged as a volume of "deliberate lies" yet the 305-page saga, conspicuously autobiographical, seems a tad too close to "unconscious, unintentional lies." That being the inherent flaw with the memoirs weaved through a story which the author happens to be part of, Nayeema's debut novel is of course an evocative throwback to the cataclysmic beginning of armed uprising in Kashmir. The story, however, moves back and forth with the narrator's own life transitions through a cinematic narrative that laments the consequences of the conflict but skips the causes.

Baba, the protagonist's father, appears a scholarly, spiritual and politically conscious person who has had his innings of activism during Sheikh Abdullah's Plebiscite Front days. Yet, we don't hear him once recall the past causes in order to put the present consequences in a proper perspective. His beloved daughters would ask how Sheikh's political somersaults had affected those who supported his Quit Kashmir and Plebiscite campaigns, but he would "never give us satisfactory answer….Instead, he would always praise Sheikh's fight against the Maharaja of Kashmir" Serious novelists hardly leave the vital questions unanswered in a story with the backdrop of a chronic politico-military conflict. Lost In Terror, however, can be excused for being a debut work that too in the genre of a memoir; It's largely a journalistic reportage with a dash of imagery. But that doesn't make it putdownable.

Although written in a strict urban setting, the story takes us briefly to Bandipora where Sadia, the sister, goes in search of her disappeared son. When the family learns about unmarked graves in Kupwara, Sadia decides to settle there, endears herself to the village folk as she starts looking after the unmarked graves and one fine afternoon miraculously meets her militant son. Aziz, being an IT graduate from Bangalore, doesn't speak a word about his motivation for becoming a militant.

The author has been too unforgiving to Asad, the husband and a "suspected militant". His separatist leanings seem an unwanted blot on the dignity of his wife who often blames the movement for creating a "wide gap between me and my husband." The affiliation with the movement is projected as a cause of hubris among the activists like Asad. "He…displayed his power and influence to such an extent that he turned into a berserk elephant, trampling  everyone who came in his way." Unlike his acquaintances, who are "the henchmen of mujahideen and exploit the Azadi movement to make their own fortunes and empires",  Asad is someone who "did not make a fortune" but is so harshly caricatured that the movement or affiliation with it emerges something of a disease that would turn sober minds into ruthless zealots, loving husbands into rabid chauvinists and conjugal men into debauched fanatics.

Throughout the story the Azadi movement looks like a crude, crazy dream and Asad its frightening representation. We hear Asad's voice only when he browbeats his wife, shouts her down or cajoles her into helping him with the release of a militant friend. Nowhere does Asad speak up as committed activist or even a 'misguided youth'. Narrator's is the only dominant voice, which acts as judge , jury and hangman. Such treatment makes a work of fiction at best a homily, at worst a one-sided dirge.

The novel seeks to juxtapose male authoritarianism, driven by caste in India and tribal pride in Pakistan, on to the social milieu of Kashmir. "Whether your husband was a rogue, an alcoholic or an offender, his actions in most situations would never be considered shameful. Society mandated that norms , customs and restrictions be followed only by the wife, not the husband. We were living in a society that was against the womankind." Talking of 1970s, the narrator concludes that the parents who chose to send their daughters to school or college would become pariah within their neighborhoods.

Despite an orthodox veneer around Kashmir's society, religion has never come in the way of women education in Kashmir. On the contrary, we have produced woman crusaders like Lal Ded who would fight till death to liberate women from the yoke of authoritarian clergymen. Women in the top echelons of higher education far outnumber their male counterparts, thanks to the society's readiness to break free from whatever was prevalent those days in India or Pakistan. Projecting the narrator's case as a general rule is like creating the norm out of an aberration.  Notwithstanding such sweeping verdicts, there are heart-wrenching scenes wherein women resist the arrest of their husbands or sons , with inspiring wit and courage. Crackdowns, frequent raids, checkpoints, ubiquitous images of Indian armed forces and their free pass to comb any house from attic down to the basement make for the novel's texture. 

Throughout the story, the narrator straddles the positions of a visible victim, a dormant supporter and a selfish deserter of the Kashmir's latest phase of resistance movement. The novel lays bare some of the impalpable contradictions in our  social and political behaviors yet the tone it adopts seems way out of sync with the realities of life in Kashmir. A very powerful plot, therefore, seems lost in tenor.

The protagonist, obviously the author herself, is a career-conscious, outgoing and a confident lady who gets trapped in a vortex of state and non-state violence, perceived patriarchy and orthodox social milieu. She endures militarization of her native land, suffers eccentricity of her 'revolutionary' husband and seems pained at the freedom movement's descent into a chaotic self-destructive abyss. Her entrapment is much like a "butterfly in the small crack of the windowsill, struggling to free itself" but "its feather was stuck in the crevice" causing it a lot of pain. "What does 'liberation' mean exactly?" she asks herself and soon concludes , "it can mean life, it can mean death or it could mean the end of marriage." Such tone sounds like a bourgeois attempt to belittle or unnecessarily mystify Kashmiri aspirations.

The years of militarization see the lead character being abandoned by the pro-freedom husband, literally hounded out by the 'envious' colleagues at Radio Kashmir, suspected by neighbors and relatives for working with the "central government" and mentally bruised by not just the anecdotes of ruthless treatment meted out to Kashmiris by the security forces but also by the soul-crushing murders of Muslim actors and Pandit officers associated with the state-run media organizations.

Towards the climax, the protagonist's troubled marriage shows signs of repair, her husband comes to terms with life and the liberation from lifelessness seems real, yet she nurses another hope; breaking off the shackles and telling the world how she was "Lost in Terror" and finally found a way out of it.

Before boarding a flight to London for a lucrative job, the narrator asks herself, "Shouldn't I stay with my flock?" But her ambition overpowers her inner calls and she decides , "I will be back soon…the situation will become better and I will live my life as I lived earlier, without fear and terror." So far so good. The open-ended climax makes serious readers look forward to the novel's sequel wherein the key character will "do wonders in journalism here in Kashmir" 

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