Kashmir's history and politics often overshadow the human aspect of what it means to be living in a conflict-zone. Here is when debutant author Shakoor Rather's book Life in the Clock Tower Valley presents itself with the narrative of common Kashmiri citizens who are caught up in situations bigger than themselves. The voice of the ordinary in the Kashmiri discourse is defined by absence, and this book is a welcome step away from it.
The universe of the book is Kashmir in the summer of 2008, and traverses the journeys of several characters as they try to negotiate life in unusual circumstances. At the onset, the cover page of the book grabs the attention of the reader " similarly for its novelty and its convention. While the Chinar leaves are present in the cover, they do not occupy an overwhelming space. Instead, there is a matador that grabs the eye; the first chapter, "Matador Conferences" acting as its appendage.
Even though the text is not autobiographical, it derives heavily from Rather's lived experiences as a Kashmiri " be it the description of a scene in a matador, the depiction of a quotidian way of life in a Kashmiri household, or the concerns of love and relationships that young people from the valley are met with.
Samar and Rabiya read as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet owing to their families' mutually opposing political allegiances. Much like the erstwhile Montague-Capulet dichotomy, Rather's characters find themselves engulfed in the smaller conflict within the society that is divided between the Sher-Bakra tussle. Audiences must read on to find out if their fate was similar to their literary ancestors.
Another very interesting character group is the triangle of husband-and-wife Sheikh Mubarak and Naziya, and the American tourist Rosaline. The couple has grown comfortable in a marriage that sometimes manifests as lovelessness, and then Rosaline is introduced to Mubarak and the readers alike, and both the entities wonder what this newness will lead up to. Rosaline, too, is not a unidimensional character, it is clear that a lot of thought went into her creation, she is not a tourist who arrives out of nowhere but has her fair share of history in the larger depiction of Kashmiri history.
Sheikh Mubarak and Naziya's five-year-old daughter Sana presents herself as a delightful character who is instrumental in tying the characters to a central plot-line, and also, in her innocent wisdom, manages to keep the readers tethered. Sana acts as the extended metaphor that underlines the apprehensions of those Kashmiris who cannot understand the situation: "But little Sana had no idea that tulips wilt away by the time one realises they have bloomed " just like the peaceful days in Kashmir." Pinto Ji (the simpleton) and Sana " both read as "child characters" " say in their simplicity the things that adult characters would not have the license to say: Sana is worried that her school picnic will get cancelled because of the unrest, and both of them question why adults indulged in the "stone-throwing game" that leaves so many injured. All of these are very important issues that would sound inappropriate if given an adult voice, but they nonetheless retain their standing in the minds of a major chunk of the Kashmiri voices.
Symbolism litters the pages of the book, more pertinently so, Sheikh Mubarak's "loss" of a cherished pregnant cow on a curfewed day is symbolic of the many individual and collective losses that Kashmiris go through on a daily basis.
I found the language of the book very interesting because even though it is written in English " and it is made amply clear that it is "thought" in English " it retains Kashmir in it. Much like Toni Morrison not "translating for the white audience", Rather has retained Kashmiri phrases, an act that, on accumulation, might add up to formulate and canonise Kashmiri Literature in English at a later time. English also makes the text accessible to a much larger audience, something which would have been majorly compromised had the language been more local. Rather puts the extraordinary situation of Kashmiris in a way that the population has gotten used to, and everything is an observation, and not an imposition. He writes more than several sentences like: "A flock of pigeons sat in a straight line on the wires, as if they had been lined up for a military crackdown," denoting how a parallel violent story is ever-present in the Kashmiri mind.
Marquez's influence is clear in Rather's writing, and he also discloses that he was reading Marquez while he was in the creative process of writing the book. "Love in the Time of Curfew" is the title of one of the chapters, and it pays homage to the literary giant in a localised way. One of the best things about the book is its believability " be it the idea behind the book, the language, the characters and their stories, they are representative of life itself. Towards the end, Pinto Ji is seen going to Lal Chowk, near the titular Ghanta Ghar or Clock Tower at the time of an ambush " we wonder if he survives.
Overall, a new writer's anxiety of form and language is present, but it does nothing to take away from the storytelling that Rather has revealed. The writing style of the book is nostalgic in that a very vivid picture of Kashmir is painted, and the reader feels part of the narrative. Even though the author writes in the book that "[Kashmir's] aura could now only be recalled but certainly not re-created", he has managed to do exactly that by virtue of his writing. Anybody who is interested to take a deeper look into Kashmir must read Life in the Clock Tower Valley.
Life in the Clock Tower Valley by Shakoor Rather | Fiction | Price: Paperback " Rs 350, Kindle " Rs 235 | Speaking Tiger | Pages: 176