Today, Kashmir is a topic discussed in almost every Indian household on a daily basis. The pictures of the neo-Islamists of Kashmir – young boys and girls who grew up more in the shadows of Kalashnikovs and Grenade Launchers than of Chinar or Devdar grab the maximum eyeballs in the media. In these times, when the tradition of tolerance, of peace – “Kashmiriyat” – that was native to Kashmir has remained little more than an academic term, Kashmir Blues deals with the struggles of a man to revive, retain and preserve that tradition in the part of the Kashmir valley that is his.
The story begins with Naia, a young American woman, who discovers through her dead parents’ letters to her that she was lifted from India by her mother. Turmoiled, Naia leaves for India to find her biological parents. She is joined by Leon, her photographer friend, always on the look-out for adventure and with a penchant for discovering life beyond the cocoons of the safe American life.
They almost immediately meet up with Naia’s biological parents – the stiff, hard headed diplomat Viren and his neurotic wife Saroj, who had never really got over the loss of her baby. While Naia trying to bond with her biological parents and individualistic, self centered brother Karan, Leon meets up with Samaad. Samaad has a front business of selling carpets, but in reality, he is the leader of a group of villages, who, having stumbled upon a mine of precious stones, are now trying to use that bounty to fight off outside infiltration, to preserve their traditional way of life.
Things have been interesting and tight till here – the premise at the start of the story having reached its conclusion – Naia having met her biological parents, Leon having a whale of time clicking the diversity and cohabitation of India. At this point, Leon befriends Samaad and leaved with him the beautiful, treacherous mountains of Kashmir.
The story changes completely here, and the story loses plot. Among the majestic mountains of Kashmir, the character of Leon loses his individuality, and gives himself up totally to Samaad, forgetting who he was in the beauty of his surroundings and in the power of conviction and strength of Samaad’s character. Similar is what happens to Naia who had joined Samaad in Kashmir in a lopsided love, and even with Karan, to a certain extent, who joins them later.
While all these happenings show the power of Samaad’s character, it does so at the expense of the other characters, who become passive, almost irrelevant to the story. This thread drags, and the simplistic goings – on in the corridors of power in New Delhi do not help. The experiment in the villages is ultimately found out and politics wins over love and emotions.
While the novel starts with Naia, her characters itself is not fleshed out in detail. She is a passive character, things happen around her, to her, rather than she making them happen. Leon is perceptive, but even he is too engrossed in experiencing and capturing what is already there, rather than making things happen. These characters ultimately become very diffused and give themselves up to Samaad, and remain so till the end of the story.
In the absence of a central protagonist and with a meandering, diverging storyline, it is Deshpande’s perception of groups of people and places that hold the reader’s interest. Her observations about the feel and smell of the cities of India, the food, the sights is uncanny. The common thread of the metaphors of brown dog and characters smoking Hashish and references to Lord Shiva are the high points of the story, and maintain a continuity.
All in all, a novel written through a keenly observant eye for detail in places and objects, but one which could have done with more coherence in the core areas – central theme and core characters.
Title: Kashmir Blues
Author: Urmilla Deshpande
Publisher: Tranquebar Press.
Price: Rs. 325/-