Realism Books

Yet the pity of it: Tabish Khair reviews Sandeep Raina’s ‘A Bit of Everything’

It is in the class nature of Indian English fiction that it aspires towards certain stylistic felicities: these include the use of fine language and a certain elaborateness of description. At its best, this gives us the brilliance of a novel like The God of Small Things . At its worst, it results in what Terry Eagleton politely dismisses as “fine writing” when talking of literature in general.

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Sandeep Raina’s A Bit of Everything shows both these tendencies. It is finely written and elaborately described. These can be deadly attributes. But A Bit of Everything escapes the fate of being condemned with faint praise, as “fine writing”, for two major reasons. The first is the obvious intention of the author to capture the beauty of a lost Kashmir. This makes the descriptions necessary.

Stolen past

The second is the sensitivity of dispossession that impels the narrative. It moves the concerns of this novel far beyond the realm of genteel refinement that sometimes engulfs Indian English storytelling. This novel is driven by something much more than personal refinement or genteel creativity; it is driven by the need to confront, record, attest, understand a never-ending tragedy. It marks the arrival of a voice to watch.

At the heart of this novel is the sensibility of the main Kashmiri Pandit protagonist, Rahul, a professor of literature, married to the daughter of a local landlord. To say that Rahul belongs or does not belong would be to force Raina’s brave attempt into foreign moulds. Because Rahul belongs in different ways. In this, he is similar to many of us in India, who have belonged in different ways, and then have been press-ganged into just belonging or not belonging.

Much of A Bit of Everything takes place in the 1980s in the small town of Varmull, nestled between the Pir mountains and the Jhelum river. But the beauty and tragedy of Varmull are framed within Rahul’s later travels as a refugee in Europe, a present of deprivation and Islamist terror that forces him to look back on the past that has been stolen from him.

Even though the moments in Europe are few and far between, I found them at times more moving than the complex drama of Varmull, because they brought home Rahul’s loss with greater precision. Perhaps distance does that to loss. Or perhaps context, as when Rahul visits the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, where “the old memories begin to crawl out”.

The European sections are far less crowded than the Varmull ones, which teem with characters, sometimes overwhelming the reader. But that, I suppose, is inevitable in a novel that attempts to record and recover. The characters are like jigsaw pieces, and need to be assembled at the end to make some sense of the loss that Rahul — and the land — suffered.

Shored against the ruins

Like every book on Kashmir that I have read, fiction or non-fiction (with the exception of Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry), this one can also be faulted politically. For instance, when the third person narrative tells us that “Azadi was a new idea”. As the reference is to the 1980s, this is a surprising statement, because an independent Kashmir had been discussed on all sides in the 1940s.

In July 1947, at a convention of the Muslim Conference in Srinagar, this matter had come to a head, with followers of Acting President Choudhry Hamidullah supporting independence for the State, and those of Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah supporting accession to future Pakistan.

It appears to me that everyone involved in and with Kashmir can face up to only some aspects of a tragic and confusing reality. Raina sees this, once memorably talking of “elaborate cause-and-effect chains”. This insight does not offer a political resolution.

Despite his imagination, his love for Kashmir and his empathy, even Raina cannot shore up all the fragments of that torn State against its relentless ruin. But then, this is not a book that asks to be read for its politics because, finally, there is no pure political solution. There might, however, be a human solution, and this is a novel that should be read for its humanity.

A Bit of Everything; Sandeep Raina, Context, ₹599

The writer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.


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