A tragic tale of loss

A tragic tale of loss

The book seems to stand for its name, Residue, by Nitasha Kaul. In its continuous panning of plots and people, it drains and solidifies the dregs of memories, hypotheses and characters, bringing together emotions and events, scraps and sidelined subplots.

Built loosely around the lives and affairs of a Kashmiri Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, as well as their parents, the book explores the themes of loss, identity, sense of belonging and separation of protagonists in India, UK and Germany. They meet, blend, melt away and then come together again in transmuted forms.

Hence, there is no linear narrative or clear-cut charter of events. The central theme, by itself, is not smooth-flowing or straightforward.

A number of stories interweave and clash, then come apart and leak into each other. While the main theme and thrust of the book follows the journeys of characters who dislocate and emigrate, they are interwoven with smaller tales and threads.

At one point, the protagonist, Leon, explains: “I had meant that life is something we have to live in the presence of traces of things alive that are no longer there…But I’ve realised that it is also the residue of a fertiliser that has remained in the earth, and on which the healthy root of a sapling nourishes.”

Thus, through the jagged themes, the flow is not always easy to absorb, as there are so many cross-wires that are pulled haphazardly. Some stories are started, but do not end, while time and location are meandering.

However, while the structure and organisation could be improved, the main theme and thrust, being based on the magnetic pull between a Kashmiri pair and their antecedents — is rivetting. Shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Book Prize, the modern times and history of Kashmir and its emigrants catch the reader’s attention.

The protagonist is a Muslim, but becomes almost an atheist. Ironically, he is named Leon, after a Russian Communist. His father, Mir, deserts his mother, Ameena, for his Kashmiri cause and another woman, so Leon is brought back to India and grows up in Delhi.

Keya Raina is a co-protagonist and Kashmiri Pandit who is also brought up in Delhi but later moves to Bristol, UK, to become a liberal arts professor.

Leon’s quest for his deserter father, Mir, brings him in touch with his past, as well as the cause for which his father betrayed his mother: his fight for azaadi in Kashmir, and his secret affair with Shula Farid, another unhappily married woman.

A number of minor characters abound, such as Agni, born Agnes, a Christian from Orissa, and Abhilash, Shula’s clever and successful but pompous civil servant husband. The manner in which they all clash and co-exist is traced, but while some of the incidents are brilliantly crafted, a lot of it seems confused and incomplete.

Hence, two threads unspool together in parallel levels. There is an external landscape, in which the dramas unfold. Romance, marriage, coldness, separation, reunion and violence — these are the acts that seem to be symptoms of minds caught in storm-tossed worry, clashes and conflict.

The internal emotions are stirred by the loss of identity and location and a general feeling of being dislocated and restless. As Keya says at one point: “If I wanted to understand their lives and gather their stories, I realised I’d have to imagine them from the inside.”

The criss-crossing of these complex loves and lives seems yoked to the Kashmiri backdrop, though it is not mentioned.

Abhilash, Shula’s first husband, is shown up as a pompous, self-absorbed civil servant who does not care for his wife in an emotional way, but is only interested in the social trappings and public image of the marriage.

She tries to escape from him to embrace freedom and passion for another man, Mir, but they are brutally separated and she is incarcerated into a lunatic asylum. While the writer’s feelings and observations about Kashmiri azaadi and Indian tyranny are well-known, they are not overtly articulated.

There is no reference to her political leanings nor her sympathy for the victimised, yet the action seems to draw some parallels with the Indo-Kashmir conflict.

Hence, what makes the book stand out is that the entire tale moves forward with an inner force that unspools the feelings and thoughts of the characters. Long explorations or even snippets of thoughts that are based on what they undergo guide the reader.

For instance: “I have been a Nobody rubbing myself on the fabric of the city the whole day; in its underbelly where the city ingests and digests bodies, I have been circulating like a diseased cell that cannot exist. I chose to be Nobody because I wanted to feel nothing. I wanted to be futile.”

The book ends with tentative observations of contemporary times driven by history. Leon and Keya’s slow movement towards each other and the final trip to Srinagar evokes the memory of their background and history. The writer seems to be suggesting a political resolution.

On hindsight, Residue does leave behind some warm ashes, though not completely. While the intensity paints vivid scenes and memories on the mind, a lot of the narrative is confused and sinks without a trace.