Jaffna Street is essentially unsettling. Not because it talks about the horrors that war brings upon its causalities, but because it is neither a testimony nor a polemic. It's very easy and convenient to take sides, when you talk about conflicts; but that's not what literature is meant for. To tell stories as they are require a certain amount of grasp at things; on the ground. Khalid not only had his ears to the ground, being born and brought up in downtown Srinagar, what substantially was the hot seat of an armed revolution that began in late '89, but he also has his heart in place. Jaffna Street is written with tremendous panache. It's like the famous designer from Italy Enrico Coveri taking to word-smithery. Detailing is to the point, editing crisp, without really dragging ever.
From the political evolution of the 1980s generation coming of age and seeking to lay their claim on the 1931 ethno-religious political project, their flights across the LoC into the arms training camps and their encounters with idealistic long forgotten pioneers of the insurgency. From the story of a survivor of the Jammu pogrom in 1947 to the unknown political face of Meerak Shah, the celebrated mystic, From the travails of an NC worker who suffers bereavement in state inflicted violence and in the end dies a violent death, the Bakra diehard Fayaz whose life is totally altered because of his devotion to the Mirwaiz family and its politics, Khalid suffers no biases, everything is exhaustively dealt upon even the long dead prophesier of Safakadal whose utterances still provoke messianic undercurrents in that area.
The part about the student gangs and professional gangsters, existing in the 70s and 80s of Srinagar, seemed to me like watching Sergio Leone's epic gangster movie Once Upon a Time in America. The brazen use of knuckledusters, shootings, substance abuse and the introduction of word Mandrax in our daily vernacular. The fierce rivalry between the Gaw Kadal-Batmalyun gang on one side and the Dalgate gang on other, throws up characters like the eccentric James Wood's Max in the movie did. 'M' as he is referred in anomaly in the book, fits the bill perfectly. Fond of extravagance, gadgets and high life, M treads on a path full of danger. Growing up in a marginalized family, in a city-side ghetto, M rises up on ladder of crime, carving a niche amongst wise guys. If M is ambitious and boisterous, then there is a De Niro like Noodles Mac too- the old gang leader of the City Side boys gang, who though later on, given an opportunity, after stint in insurgency and prison refused to dabble in politics, admonishing the loathed separatist politics. Mac in his days may have been ruthless with his Kukri and chains, but he carries a conscience. There was a certain air about those guys, of that generation. Men of honour. It is something any downtowner can tell you. I'd my share of my cousins too, from this generation; driving their Yamaha's, adorning their walls with George Michael posters, sporting aviators, wooing girls. For me they were John Rambo clones. How I wished to be like them, like any fan would.
There are moments where the book absolutely lights up. Story of Nazir Gaash, the Marxist of Safa Kadal remains my favorite part of the book. The part is dealt with tremendous maturity by the author. A nonconformist, Nazir Gaash's self searching forays early in his life takes him to Buddhism. Unable to satiate his existential crisis, Gaash's intellectual pursuits, piqued by a curious mind, take him to the world of Marx and Western philosophy. The author mentions how his own intellectual growth took shape on Gaash's shopfront, appropriately named Edible Link, where he would often engage in the world of ideas. The city could still bear a nihilist son. But all this changed at the throes of the war. People like Gaash wisely kept to themselves, for the bullet had no respect for ideas. His sphere of Sartre and Kant was somehow washed down Jhelum.
It must have been around 2ish in the morning, when I was reading Gaash's story. I closed the book on my chest and kept gazing at the chandelier on top of my head. I don't know for how long was in this state. The abject absurdity of life and a long abyss that we look through occupied my mind, with Gaash's convictions and intellectual odysseys at the back of it. I don't know what beckoned my wife. She woke up from her sleep, turned the lights on at the corner of our hall, where I've my library and where I usually read. She jolted me. It was quite a moment, in the introspection of a man and the world he saw largely at. Lost in the oblivion. The existential desertion. And the larger futility of life.
The story of Ijaz, son of a artisan, fondly called Ija: a well behaved, soft spoken boy, is very poignant. Though it's short but it pierces one like a bullet. Buoyed by the calls for arms revolution, Ijaz like host of others disappeared in the summer of 1990. He had joined a group that was going to cross the LOC for arms training. Contaminated water had made Ijaz sick. Dehydrated and feverish he couldn't continue with the rest of the guys and was abandoned in the forest. Ijaz didn't die of enemy bullets. He was a consumption of war. A mere statistics in the end. A number. And that's the misery and the truth of a war. Khalid has narrated it, as it is, which is not only brave but also a far cry from the beaten victim card played by us.
Khalid has spoken a language unknown to those who read about Kashmir conflict. He is not only brazenly honest but also bitter. Bitter at the mediocrity surrounding us, which we unfortunately and shamelessly celebrate too often.
A quarter and a century ago, writer David Bellos says he was talking to a French friend about paucity of literary material on the Algerian War, accusing France of voluntary amnesia. He reached to his shelf, pulled down a tattered paperback, and said without any words: There was a literature of the Algerian War, and here it is. The book was Daniel Anselme's La Permission. Jaffna Street is right up there.