Kashmir, of contested space and troubled lives, of complicated narratives and numerous players with politically motivated agendas or objectives of personal gain – or both – that are often at odds with one another, sometimes converging and mostly diverging. Kashmir, of lives that are too fragmented to be able to admire the scenic landscapes which tourists exclaim over and label as “heaven”, but which have been a living hell for inhabitants. It is all of this in the context of Kashmir that is the setting of Shabir Ahmad Mir’s novel The Plague Upon Us.
Shortlisted for The JCB Prize for Literature 2021, Shabir Ahmad Mir’s debut novel captures the vortex that Kashmir has been in over the years, leaving a trail of people traumatised beyond repair, dead bodies beyond recognition, and forced disappearances. It flags the political flashpoints of what keeps a militarised state going, along with the fault lines, by employing strong character arcs and their background stories.
An invocation from Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex sets the tone for the book:
By such death, past numbering, the city perishes:
unpitied, her children lie on the ground spreading pestilence,
with none to mourn:
and meanwhile young wives, and grey haired mothers with them,
uplift a wail at the steps of the altars, some here, some there,
entreating for their weary woes.
The prayer to the Healer rings clear, and blent therewith
The voice of lamentation.
Four perspectives, one timeframe
Mir’s writing is striking: it reads like poetry, almost like a ballad on suffering, with staccato bursts of pain and anger. The economy of words throughout the narrative can come across as mere storytelling, but read between the lines of the conversations, and there is much more. The tone is reflective, at times a rant or, at least, politically charged and then, deeply philosophical. But mostly, the novel asks how you look at truth and reality when you have been played and then placed in layers of what could be truth or falsehoods.
Following the fate of four childhood friends over the same timeframe and largely across the same turn of events, but with each of them filling in an additional layer, the narrative brings in a host of characters occupying various vantage points. In the process it asks some questions repeatedly: What is truth if it can be manufactured? What is life it you are fated to suffer? What is free will if your wings are clipped and the sky torments you out there, beyond your reach?
The four protagonists cuts across socio economic backgrounds and it is only in their names and trajectories that we can see whom they represent – a device that effectively stays away from pigeonholing them into particular sides, right or wronged, credible or unreliable. Each of the main characters and those around them are impacted by violence both physical and psychological, and reach a point where the male protagonists in turn perpetuate the same violence on others, to devastating effect.
The four narratives touch upon a number of things: Old feudal power structures in Kashmir adapting to change by playing dirty to stay in the game, exploiting nomadic communities across the generations; the aspirations of youthful ideolists stranded at the crossroads with no way out except to pick up the gun, either for the government or against it; the fate of women and young children and the trauma of men bruised raw by circumstances around them; the collective anger and trauma of suffering, the burden of survivor’s guilt, the saviour complex that the armed forces bring to the table.
This novel is an assured debut that says what it wants to with an insight that is both nuanced and fiercely honest. The book works on many levels: the writing; the character arcs; the depiction of lives lived in the shadows, wary and unsure of how events around them; the dashes of magical realism punctuating narratives of political history and ideology.
The blurring of fact and fiction is done just right. Those who know a bit of Kashmir will find the facts: the brief political and electoral history covered through the background stories of a few characters, the shift from calls for azaadi by many to blurring it with the ones for jihaad, and the infamous PAPA II interrogation centre operated by the Border Security Forces from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, fictionalised as TALK 1.
Albert Camus’s The Plague looked at the affliction of the mind, depicting the darkness that was the reign of the Third Reich as a cholera epidemic. And in The Plague Upon Us, Shabir Ahmad Mir goes directly for the jugular in the very first passage of the book, with the red and black mirroring the mood in Kashmiris: red for rage, and the blood being shed, and black for the bleakness, the indescribable horrors and the weight of trauma, the unsure footing of everyone caught in a precarious setting, the blackness that consumes everyone in a cesspool of not knowing what comes next, the black following the red in a helpless dance.
Mir’s main characters are compelling and one cannot help but feel bad for them as they emerge from childhood games to fatal ones, each a victim of who and where they are and how they don’t matter in the larger scheme of things. The plague in Kashmir is both red and black. It is an affliction across generations, a curse to be avoided if only one knew how.
The Plague Upon Us is all of 232 pages long, and yet it brings out not just the complexities of Kashmir and its people but also the more universal concepts of morality, the quandary over what are rights and what are wrongs. The latter is done, for good measure, through literary allusions that include not only Oedipus Rex, yes, but also a surrealistic setting where the conversation is akin to the Arabian Nights, that begin and end each of the four segments.
A main character who starts out as a simple young man stumbles onto an article that his journalist father had written about Nicholas Gogol, a writer known for his surrealism and the grotesque. In another instance, Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment becomes a topic of discussion between two characters.
What makes Shabir Ahmad Mir’s hold on the reader complete is how the beginning and the end are tied together, all the while holding the pieces in between: The descent into personal hells that touch upon one another to become a poisonous collective hell, the incoherent blabber of a character hinting towards the futility of words that emerge from and around Kashmir, the trajectory of a character in a headspace that is selective about what he has done, and bordering on madness, the loss of the grip on reality.
And no, he offers no hope, not in the narrative and not through his characters, he offers no solution – for surely, that would be akin to the empty promises that have been flung at Kashmir throughout its history.
Chitra Ahanthem is Former Editor of Imphal Free Press, published in Manipur. She is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She is also a Manipuri to English translator.
The Plague Upon Us, Shabir Ahmad Mir, Hachette India.