Literary Review

Kota, the fortress

The Last Queen of Kashmir; Rakesh Kaul, Harper Collins, Rs. 399.

The Last Queen of Kashmir; Rakesh Kaul, Harper Collins, Rs. 399.  

The story of a Kashmiri queen that bears many parallels to the situation in the Valley today

In The Last Queen of Kashmir, Rakesh Kaul presents a mytho-historical microcosm of today’s Kashmir conflict in events dating to the early 14th century. By sheer fictional coincidence, the saga of Kashmiri ruler Kotarani parallels the dynamics that affect the region today. The Kashmir of the 1300s too is a geopolitical fulcrum that is simultaneously revered yet exploited, beset by the threat of invasion, ideological conflict, civil war, and the consequent erosion of community (with a female leader who straddles personal loss and stateswoman responsibilities, to boot).

Kaul does a fair job of reimagining the emotional narrative of the period leading to the rise of Islamic supremacy in Kashmir. Keenly reconstructing the thought processes of the principal characters — the main point of view is allotted to protagonist Kotarani — Kaul delves deep into the possible motivations and quandaries that drove the power players that participated in the transition of Kashmir from a Hindu-spiritualistic kingdom to an Islamic-materialistic Sultanate.

What we learn is that, at its turning point, Kashmir — at least, as exemplified by its ruler Maharaja Suhdev, the last Hindu Lohara king — was a land of pristine, good-natured innocence of the kind that usually translates to naivety and downfall. Suhdev is a liberal but vain ruler, cosy in the blinding gleam of his profligacy to the point of being an administrative dud. Commander-in-chief Ramachandra’s — and his daughter Kota’s — blood boils at how the dwindling treasury is being squandered on shiny stones while the kingdom drowns in debt and barracks battle decrepitude.

But though the border is nonetheless ably protected by the formidable Ramachandra, the kingdom encounters true jeopardy in the form of internal strife. And Kaul’s story largely attributes this to repeated attacks from Turks and Ghazis, and the influx of Jihadist elements into the region.

Enter Kota. The fortress.

Kashmiri Bhatta society is said to have been pretty enlightened as they come, starting with being a beacon of women’s freedom. And this is Kotarani through and through, with her “fearless symmetry”. Well-educated, intelligent, knowledgeable, Kota is “captivating, never captive”. Powerful yet endearingly vulnerable. A woman secure enough in her individuality to not shrink from deploying her allure to thwart the enemy. Open-minded enough to sit face-to-face with a manual scavenger and arrange his marriage. Wily enough to consort with her father’s killer and transmute her curse into vengeance. Compassionate enough to dedicate her life to the upliftment of her people. Strong-willed enough to — oh, I don’t want to give the ending away.

The story scores high in its subaltern narratives. The manual scavenger — who, by the way, is probably the most articulate unlettered person you’ll ever see — offers some great insights into Kashmiri civilian life from the period. The propagandisation of the disenfranchised, and the deceit inherent in the promises doled out during such times, is given some engaging treatment. The characters are many, but vivid, and the narrator’s voice renders them quite transparent.

In places, though, the narrative seems studiously scripted to the point of being theatrical. Yes, I get that you’re condensing the saga of an entire era into a few pages and have to tell the story crisply and formulaically. But did certain pieces of dialogue have to sound stage-managed, like the director’s just yelled action and the actors are on a call-sheet?

And there is definitely a certain broad-brushed bias in the storytelling. Yes, the Bhatta approach to life is undeniably an awesome mix of intellectual soundness, worldly wisdom and universality. But the author mildly allows his respect for the culture to turn into hagiographical adulation. Rather than allow the story to play out honestly as, say, a tussle between spiritualism and materialism, or even as a stoic tale of the sociopolitical decline of a dynasty, he infuses the narrative with partisan endorsement of the supremacy of the Bhatta world view.

Is that nuance or a rat you smell in how Devaswami is portrayed as the well-meaning preceptor who has to battle Rinchina’s obduracy and yet face posterity’s charge of being exclusivist? I wish Kaul had made a better analysis of the human motivations of the Fakir, rather than merely condemning him as a rabid Jihadist hell-bent on imposing ummah. Why are we made to root for all the supporters of Kotarani as heroes/ martyrs and spit on all her enemies as villains? Surely, 14th-century political intrigue was more nuanced? In so doing, Kaul is guilty of creating the same “division of good and evil” the preceptor condemns.

The mark of good historical fiction is that it should offer insights or solutions that apply to today’s world. And there is a whole lot to ponder in The Last Queen of Kashmir — right from underlining the challenges of vetting immigrants, warning of economic destabilisation through tactical cornering of markets, showing war to be a mindless ravaging of hard-constructed civilisations.

In analogies (that pose as historical revelations) about Devas and Asuras, Kaul attempts to abstract the idea of demagoguery, cull it from the definition of Islam and present it as the timeless megalomaniacal disease that it is. Islam is shown as a religion of peace except when peddled in pursuit of personal ambition or political agenda. The Fakir’s use of violent proselytisation as an instrument of power is starkly distinct from the spiritual Sufism that Bulbul Shah practises. And therein lies the most valuable insight this engaging book has to offer.

The Last Queen of Kashmir; Rakesh Kaul, Harper Collins, Rs. 399.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 3:35:29 PM |

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