The Plague Upon Us breaks new ground in creative writing about Kashmir and comes up with fresh insight into the trauma and chaos caused by its occupation. It provides compelling insight into collective trauma and also puts to debate the question of collective truth brought forth by a false narrative.
This book employs the style of Holocaust writing to narrate four accounts via the main character. The book dwells deep into the complexity of life in a conflict-laden land and captivatingly traverses through the different life dimensions of the helpless populace of Kashmir.
While doing so, the book makes manifest how the people living in a conflict zone don’t have the luxury to choose. We see love, loss, betrayal, hopelessness and Frankenstein’s monsters getting born of the world’s longest-running conflict. However, the book fails to take us beyond what is already known and experienced in Kashmir.
Shabir Ahmad Mir hails from Gudoora, Pulwama and was the first runner-up in the FON South Asia Short Story Contest for his short story, The Djinn Who Fell From The Walnut Tree, in 2016. He won the Reuel International Prize for Fiction in 2017 and his short stories have been published in various journals of repute.
Set in the ’90s, the story of his novel is told through four different perspectives in four tales. In the introductory tale, we meet Aziz Pohl and his son Oubaid. There is a tormenting voice inside Oubaid’s head which has been with him ever since things took an ugly turn and he lost all his friends.
Oubaid’s father, Aziz Pohl, was a poor shepherd who loved to go into the mountains along with his flock of sheep. Oubaid’s life was going normally until the day his father’s dead body was brought from the mountains. The body bore cigarette burns, the nails were plucked, and the teeth were broken.
Iftikhar Wani, a local journalist, believes that Oubaid’s father was killed in a fake encounter. He tries to probe into the killing but very soon he is himself picked up, tortured, and shot dead. Iftikhar’s son, Muzzaffar, becomes Oubaid’s friend and later on, after joining college, Muzzaffar meets an enthusiastic teacher, Ashfaq. He is also killed one day as protests take over the college when news of the rape of two Kashmiri girls surfaces. Muzzaffar, later on, joins the armed movement under the banner of ‘Tanzeem.’ He then becomes one of the main characters in the story.
Being Muzzaffar’s close friend, Oubaid gets frequently summoned by Major Gurpal, the mastermind of the army. There is hardly anything that goes unnoticed by the Major. He has close local allies to give him up-to-date information. He is invested on both fronts, with arms as well as with his sources among locals. He is a ruthless murderer and rapist but yet people are working with him with or without their choice.
As Oubaid is tortured, he shares his knowledge regarding Muzzaffar with Major Gurpal and agrees to cooperate in the future, too. Oubaid’s life witnesses a paradigm shift after that as things start to take a grotesque turn.
The same tale is then told three more times from three different viewpoints. The second tale introduces us to Hamid Puj and his daughter Sabia. The third tale starts from Lateef Zaeldar and his son Tufail and at last, we meet Iftikhar Wani and his son Muzzaffar. All the tales start from these different characters but overall the story remains the same.
There is a vintage web of love between Tufail and Sabia. The opportunistic Zaeldars (landlords) bewilder Oubaid and the defiant Muzzaffar. The author has also tried to reflect on how Pakistani and Kashmiri aspirations meet to form a common ground but his stand remains debatable as the author hasn’t talked much about it. What is Azaadi to Kashmiris is seen as a holy war by militants coming from across the border.
The technique that the author has chosen to tell this 229-page-long story is new and interesting. The author uses first and third-person narration in the book. The four tales are interlinked in a sense that the background of some characters is unveiled in the later stories. This approach has indeed worked well for the book as it introduces the same characters time and again in addition to a few others. Thus if one fails to remember any character in the previous tale, the next tale comes to aid.
The story runs at a moderate pace and keeps the reader hooked. At some instances, it seems as if we are watching a movie due to the thrill it generates at certain points, like:
People fell off like leaves on the bridge, and off it. Hit, Injured, Crying, Running, Bleeding, Falling, Dying, Pretending to be dead… Twenty-one people dead, the official count declared. (pg 104)
The language is lucid and easily comprehendible. Though the absence of hero/heroes may be because of some well-known reasons, but that has definitely affected the overall story. The book somehow gives a numb feeling, especially towards Kashmiris. It sounds like an oriental but empathetic historical account of Kashmir. But yes, that may have been what the author wanted to achieve. That’s a different debate altogether.
There is Oubaid’s obsession for Jozy and there are Tufail’s feelings for Sabia, who is more comfortable with Oubaid. But what made Tufail fall for Sabia when initially he didn’t like her required more elucidation. There should have been some additional scenes where the shift of Tufail’s feelings would have been properly justified.
Further, the description of the characters is missing because we differentiate between Jozy and Sabia only by their names. We don’t know how they looked.
The book highlights some important aspects of Kashmiri society. The class struggle is evident from Hamid Puj’s desperation to bid farewell to his ‘Puj’ title. The author has accentuated one dark truth of Kashmiri society where people follow the custom of treating people as per their professions.
Another key factor that has been touched upon is the versatility of occupation: how it plays different roles for different people. There are some people like Hamid Puj who collaborate with the army and ultimately become rich, while, on the other side, you have people like Oubaid or Muzzaffar who suffer ruthlessly at the hands of occupation.
The author uses memory as a testimony to narrate the story, which is the case with almost the entire literature produced from Kashmir under the banner of resistance literature. And like this resistance literature, it sources from the memory of collective trauma generated both by dissension and militarisation. This book does the same thing by bringing to life the trauma of ’90s again.
The most beautiful thing that the book does is that it convinces the reader to reflect upon the idea of absolute truth. In this book, different characters have individual truths to offer and the book ultimately presents a collective, chaotic truth. Whose truth should be or not be considered? The author successfully portrays the dilemma of truth, that trauma is itself a truth and is always incomplete. This is one of the important dimensions of Kashmiri conflict that the book has explored.
Tufail’s character development is poor because throughout the book he is not shown as someone with a poetic bent of mind. But as he gulps down alcohol while sitting with the Major of the army and Nisar Puj, he comes up with a Ghalib couplet.
There is a fundamental flaw in the very basic philosophy of the book where every side is shown as a sufferer and all suffering is labelled as truth. But the suffering of all the sides is different.
Also, the arrival of the book is obliviously too late because this book is just an account of the happenings that are again already well known. If the same book had been released earlier, in the 2000s, it might have been a benchmark work, but today an author has to come up with something new to hook his audience. This book walks on the general pathway which is more than acceptable but that still remains its biggest flaw.
The paper quality is fantastic and the cover complements what is inside the book. Though I found the price of the book to be high, but this book deserves a place in the beginner’s list. Saying all this, I want to congratulate the author for his debut novel and wish him good luck for his future.
The writer is a graduate in Media Studies from University of Kashmir. He is a poet and author of ‘Prisoners of Paradise’. [email protected]