Realism Books

Valley of sighs: Review of Nitasha Kaul’s ‘Future Tense

Kaul’s depiction of contemporary Kashmir and its troubles is affecting and detached by turns

Nitasha Kaul’s second novel, set in contemporary times, follows young Kashmiris as their lives intertwine only to be thrown apart. It follows them as they deal with love and identity weighed down by the burden of their inheritance.

Kaul’s Kashmir is a haunting spectre, desolate in its beauty, where the past is always present, unshakeable. A Kashmir that won’t let two people be together simply because of its complex history.

Tangled web

Through the lives of Fayaz, Shireen and Imran, Kaul demonstrates that for Kashmiris time is not linear; the past, the present and the future exist simultaneously, constantly and inescapably. Fayaz deals with his disintegrating marriage and a disillusioned

Valley of sighs: Review of Nitasha Kaul’s ‘Future Tense

career choice; his nephew, Imran, must choose his future from among limited, predetermined options; Shireen discovers there is nowhere to go unless she knows where she came from. In the evolution of their friendships, Kaul manages to unpack value systems: they must negotiate for personal freedom and space as they come of age, contending with their respective families and the traditions they hold on to.

Kaul makes a few splendid leaps from humour to pathos as she depicts the tangled web of morality that all Kashmiris must come to terms with. As when Bichor, Imran’s friend, realises that the money his friend, Rafiq, had given him for his parents is now worthless, thanks to demonetisation. The Indian Prime Minister is referred to as The Great Leader — a nice touch. Bichor and Rafiq scheme to take revenge against India for what happened to the Valley in the summer of 2016.

Family heirlooms

At the same time, certain events are just irredeemably dark, offering no hope. Ghulam the boatman drowns in sheer exhaustion when he is sent back to get the bags of the three passengers he had rescued after his shikara overturned. Rehan, Fayaz’s friend, reminisces about his childhood in the Valley in the 90s, recalling how children would gather dust in plastic bags and throw it at each other, pretending they are grenades. Such realities won’t be unfamiliar to Kashmiris — they suggest the seemingly innocuous process of radicalisation, the fruitless hope for change, the snobbery of the English-speaking liberals in posh cafés, the crisis of belonging.

In one of the early chapters Fayaz talks about his wife, Zeenat, and Srinagar as one; both harsh, unforgiving, resilient and indifferent to him.

Despite such intricate insights, what might end up irking the reader is Kaul’s prose. In places it is too formal — she assumes a clinical, academic detachedness while describing certain events and characters that gives the impression of an indifferent narrator speaking. The pace of the book is bogged down at times by ruminations and the overzealous use of metaphors and analogies that serve little function. The emotional content gets mired in its long, overdrawn articulation.

However, Kaul does paint a convincing portrait of contemporary Kashmir. The lucid depiction of the robustness of its natural beauty undercut by the emotional turmoil of its people is no small feat, considering that Kashmir is several kingdoms rolled into one. Where political ideology is a family heirloom passed down for generations and the attempt to escape the inheritance is taken as a form of betrayal.

The novel ends with Zeenat’s shikara ride with her adopted son, who looks into her eyes and smiles, which makes her feel alive for once, after all the turmoil of her marriage and the conflict in the Valley — a moment symbolic of the brokered peace, the fissure of calm that her characters manage to shelter themselves in. It’s a fitting end for these troubled times.

The writer is a freelance author and illustrator.

Future Tense; Nitasha Kaul, HarperCollins India, ₹499

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 9:27:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/valley-of-sighs-review-of-nitasha-kauls-future-tense/article31172496.ece

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