Despite the initial promise, the sense of place crucial to a novel is missing in Weed.
Weed, Paro Anand, IndiaInk (Roli Books), p.142, Rs.195.
For writers of fiction who draw inspiration from the same narrow segment of real-life experiences, the challenge lies in addressing readers in a voice unique enough to eclipse others. For those who dare to return to the same, oft-exploited source, the challenge of creating something fresh and memorable without trivialising it is greater still. Especially when that source happens to be Kashmir, an ongoing true-life tragedy replete with sound, fury, violence, grief and despair too deep for words.
Following the success of her earlier award-winning fictional work, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral, Paro Anand is apparently undaunted by the perils of attempting yet another Kashmir story. Weed, her 18th and most recent novel, revolves around the fate of a Kashmiri family trying to come to terms with the tribulations endemic to life in that conflict-torn region. Battling uncertainty, terror, anger, desperation, longing and loss, Umer and Umed’s mother watches helplessly as militancy lures her husband away and nets her younger son by chance. Her first-born too is in grave danger of being led astray. Will he ultimately follow in his father’s “blighted” footsteps and be lost to her forever? It would be a shame to give the secret away.
The strength of this novel lies in the relationship its child narrator, Umer, shares with his brave, principled, oppressively possessive and intractable mother who, for the sake of survival, opts for soul-destroying menial work and withdraws her older son from school to force him into a job as mindless as her own, rather than accept what she contemptuously regards as “blood money” sent by her terrorist husband. Anand is particularly adept at depicting the loneliness that stems from endless drudgery and social ostracism (“…I would whisper my name to myself… Just to confirm I was present, there, alive.”) and sensitively handles the boy’s confusion as he struggles to determine “which the good side was and which the bad” and whether it is wrong to love a father condemned by society.
Despite its initial promise, however, Weed rarely ventures beyond the surface. Anand leaves us adrift in the shallows without offering a meaningful glimpse of what the depths conceal. Despite her half-hearted efforts to recreate Kashmir’s ambience through references to Dal Lake, the Hazrat Bal mosque, to houseboats and phirans, to army raids and charitable organisations reaching out to the “half-widows” and “half-orphans” of families traumatised by militancy, the sense of place that serves as a novel’s crucial anchor is fleeting at best. The colours, smells and sensations a child usually associates with his birthplace and carries in his heart forever are strangely absent from Umer’s first-person account.
Even the author’s prose which initially seduces us with its unusual coinages (“colddark” and “smokesmell”, for instance), its play on words and its liberal use of one-word sentences appears too mannered after a point and lacking in the spontaneity that enlivens a child’s account. The novel’s surface gloss is, unfortunately, not enough to make us forget that its essence is disappointingly hollow.