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Book Review June 2018.

     Pleased to announce June 2018. winner of Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize book review contest: Ms. Ronica Wahi for her review of Sanchit Gupta’s novel “The Tree with a Thousand Apples”.
The winner will receive a certificate and a check in the amount of US $100.
Congratulation to Ms. Ronica.

 

The winning review can be read here:

 

Review on Sanchit Gupta’s The Tree with a Thousand Apples (published in 2017 by Niyogi Books)

                                         –     By Ronica Wahi

 

 

THE HELLISH HEAVEN

The tree in the novel’s title – the tree with a thousand apples – was symbolic of the “blessed land” of Kashmir, of nature’s bounty and beauty. It was symbolic also of the beauty of the coexistence with love and peace of different religious communities and so of the nation’s cultural fabric, for the tree’s roots and branches spread to houses of a Hindu and a Muslim family. But this tree became sadly marred – the bounty was lost, the leaves withered and the wood cracked, and such change was not just seasonal. The tree suffers what the valley’s human inhabitants do. It is disregarded, disrespected. This powerful metaphor is reflected also on the book’s cover – the tree becomes a pale shadow of its beautiful self.

This debut novel by Sanchit Gupta commands literary merit – not only for the way it uses the craft of storytelling and brings alive Kashmiri life, but also for the relevance it holds in the discussion of complex social, political, cultural, and economic realities. Gupta employs his wide-ranging experience with language and writing – he has written film scripts and short stories, gained communication development experience across industries, done theatre and television work, besides other accomplishments – to evocatively use words in exploring facets of the outer and inner worlds of the characters.

The central characters of this inspired-by-actual-events novel – Safeena Malik, Deewan Bhat, and Bilal Ahanagar – have a happy childhood, before their lives – as lives of other Kashmiris do that night – suddenly take an ugly turn. The matter-of-fact narration makes the fear of facing such a fate more palpable, and so do the everyday, relatable details: the cricket matches, the inter-school competitions, the hooking of the TV “antenna into its magical position” in 1989, and the drying of clothes with a hot iron when the “sun didn’t come out”. The nightmarish night of the 20th of January, 1990 changes the valley forever. Where it compels Deewan, like other Kashmiri Pandits, to embrace a life of exile – “Memories and belongings of 132 years are packed in one hour and two suitcases.” (p.82), those who remain lead lives of terror as tragedies continue to strike – like one does as suddenly and at the very moment “lightning strikes the sleepy chinar on the white mountains” (p. 103). Existence becomes fearful, human beings insignificant, and evil lurks, with hardly an escape possible. It is 20 years before the childhood friends – who have been compelled to lead sad lives and do what they would have otherwise abhorred – meet again, and struggle to determine how to go forth and if at all possible, achieve some semblance of justice. The struggle becomes one where deciding the right course of action, free from sin, is difficult. As the friends struggle, so does the reader in trying to evaluate the justified and the unjust, and introspect where as components of a society are we all failing.

“Questions terrify us, they bring us closer to the truth.” (p. 278) This narrative boldly poses difficult questions, and brings to surface prejudices, unwarranted hatred, people’s lack of concern about the truth, their need for personal security even at the cost of injustice and their love for sensationalism. It is jolting to acknowledge that we belong to a system that can relegate a grave tragedy in Kashmir to a small corner in the newspaper, for the night was “one of India’s greatest nights” (p. 230); after all, the World Cup 2011 in cricket had been won. People, removed from a particular reality, do not judge fair. Kashmiris are deemed ungrateful – and the reader is forced to ask, ungrateful for what? When a non-Kashmiri asserts that Kashmir is an integral part of India, Safeena, who has been forced to hide her identity, asks, “Is the land ours or are the people ours?” (p.215)

Significantly, the narrative remains unbiased. No side – whether the ostensibly right or the ostensibly wrong, and whether the civilians or the militants or the Army – has all participants good or bad. There are true believers in peace, who, even when opportunities present themselves, cannot take revenge, while there are celebrated ‘heroes’ who are not untainted. While the Army remarkably serves the nation, some cruel figures, when, in seeking to draw militants out do not spare innocents, leave little hope for the civilians to appeal for help.

Evil is not inherent in any belief system but dwells in individuals, “…exists when good men fail to act” (p. 262), and takes yet another birth when injustice becomes unbearable. Evil may be embraced by victims of circumstances – while one embraces violence in retaliation for wrongs done to a loved one, another does so because in the bleak situation, he had no other way to give his life purpose. How circumstances change individuals, cruelly snatching away youth and love for life, is reflected in these words:

“The 70-year-old gardener looks at the two 18-year-old boys engaged in a battle for blood. His grandson is 18 years old. He studies in class 12…plays cricket on the streets…sings a lullaby to his five-year-old sister…Why don’t these boys play cricket? Can their lips ever sing a song? They can stab a dagger in each other’s heart, but can they ever hold the delicate petals of tulip or mustard flowers and caress them with their hands?” (p.153)

Kashmiris are essentially peace-loving, not wanting violence or anything by force, and in the face of continuous threats and unimaginable sufferings, prejudices and lack of sympathy become added adversities. That empathy is non-existent is seen even in small incidents – continuous sneezing triggered by fear in the dark of the night was just an allergy for the neighbours of the individual fighting against the demons of the past.

Suffering also derives from lack of belongingness and questions over identity. The identity aspect furthers financial struggles for those fighting to carry on. For innocents to have to prove their nationality and allegiance to India is unjust and hurtful. That Indian cricket players playing in Kashmir were booed by the home crowd or celebrations occurred on Pakistan’s win indicate a lack of belongingness but the question of the party in fault is not easily resolvable. Families supporting either India or Pakistan together watch cricket and support each other throughout, even risking themselves and their loved ones in that bid to support. Thus, hatred on religious lines does not reside in every heart. There is love for the land inhabited and shared spaces. How and why, then, are the sides different? Who and what must be blamed? There are no easy answers, for there are no specific people or entities that can be blamed. That the night of the 20th of January, 1990 could have been averted cannot with definitiveness be claimed, for fissures existed and these found vent on that night. There had been “sporadic acts of ill-fated barbarism” (p.32) and playing the national anthem even during an inter-school competition had held the possibility of trouble. It is noteworthy that the series of tragedies on that night start with an attack on three soldiers, belonging to three different religious communities. Yet, what ensues becomes revenge centred on religious fanaticism, and men who had been integral parts of the protagonists’ lives turn fiendish, again indicating that evil can lurk anywhere.

Gupta uses the metaphor of nature – not the tree with a thousand apples alone – reflecting the mood and occurrences around. Often, nature, as if, waits in anticipation for what is to occur. Nature is a sympathetic spectator – “The moon and the stars sigh. The days elude them, but they are the ones who witness the sorrows of the night…How they wish they could resolve the unbound grief of the human heart.” (p.146-7) Dark clouds over the landscape as if mirror the dark occurrences and dark memories being created. Where the river Jhelum flows gently “like a mother’s lullaby on a calm night” (p. 27) in happier times, it becomes furious, having seen too much evil, “like a mad bull with shiny horns gunning for revenge” (p.247), resuming its calm stance only with the death of a merciless man. While the bountiful apple tree becomes the support as Deewan’s disturbed father leans against it, leaves of trees become the envy of Bilal as they do not suffer poverty or fear the men around. However, the natural beauty of Kashmir – even though none is a stranger to it – could have been described in greater detail for throwing into sharper relief the contrast with the ugliness created by humans there.

The Kashmiri culture is portrayed well. The dressing, the culinary delights – even discussion of the traditional Kashmiri meal (wazwan), and the expressions that reveal the flavour of the language create the right cultural aura. While certain expressions are explained alongside and certain others as footnotes, a Glossary of culture-specific terms/references is helpfully provided at the end. The stamp of authenticity is the mention in the Acknowledgements of the interactions with people Gupta met in the valley, interactions that helped him “create the landscape, the story, the culture and the characters set in this place”.

Gupta employs the tool of conversation to bring aspects of the landscape or the culture alive. For instance, through a game of naming trees seen on a bus ride, he points out the rich variety in the region’s flora, and through an elder’s instructions to the young Safeena, he indicates what goes into making kahwa, the traditional Kashmiri tea. Dialogue between characters is, of course, central to taking the story forward and providing insights into the workings of the characters’ minds. The narrator provides realistic details, and uses the present tense in the narration; the use of this tense lends immediacy, and makes the reader witness events as they occur and so render the suddenness of the tragedies more acutely felt. Moreover, present tense hints at the presentness of the circumstances. The book uses vivid imagery and resonant language, beautiful and lucidly flowing prose, with the fluidity to some measure enhanced by present tense.

Repeating words or sentiments or a nightmare at seminal points works well. Imageries and places fail to retain the aura or inspire the same feelings as circumstances alter. The grown-up Deewan cannot shake up the world of the mountains, reflected in the Dal Lake, “with just a stroke of his hand” as he could as a child, for “Now even the mountains know whom to bow to.” (p. 193) Certain elements linger in the reader’s mind – an empty chair that provides solace, a bracelet that remains a lifelong companion, crowded places that instil a feeling of loneliness, a tawiz – a locket containing sacred Islamic verses – that becomes a Hindu’s strength, the Line of Control that is seen to be as brittle as a hair partition, and Mumbai that does not know that sleeping with open windows could be a luxury. Symbolism is used wonderfully – a guesthouse in a beautiful Kashmir setting is turned into a frightening interrogation facility reflecting the valley’s fate, and an inhabitant of a house with a fish-shaped bell becomes the prey while one of a house with a tiger-shaped bell becomes the predator.

The book, though by a non-Kashmiri, stands out for its genuine empathy for all sufferers in Kashmir, its showcasing of perspectives that defy rigid boundaries between right and wrong, and its depiction of the intense love Kashmiris have for their home. Gupta highlights that torments do not change all Kashmiris; many remain unblemished, just as the Chandan tree remains unpolluted by venomous snakes around it. He makes an appeal for peace, and for us to participate, learning from the mythological Mahishasura Mardini, in destroying existing and stopping further demons from arising. As the impact of art knows no boundaries, religious or otherwise – indicated through an anti-Muslim character adoring the legendary singer Mohammed Rafi, this book holds the power to positively impact people by showing them stark realities.