Tale from a valley

Tale from a valley

Humra Quraishi’s novel Meer is set in the 1990s, right after the Babri Masjid incident. The protagonist, Husna Hakeem, finds herself travelling to Kashmir amidst strife and chaos and her own fears.

Oftentimes, Husna is an unreliable narrator. Her memory switches between the past and the present, and the past again, creating a confusing morass of characters, incidents, and reminiscences. When the novel opens, Husna is in a cell. She has been captured and is under the suspicion of the authorities. Her mind, though, wanders quickly to the preceding incident. For Husna, the Babri Masjid episode begins with the “saffron brigade” invading her home along with the “khaki-clad knickerwallas”, displacing her and her family and throwing them into disarray. Relatives and neighbours are murdered in her hometown of Bareilly. Her father, already stricken with Alzheimer’s, is brutally killed. In Husna’s memory, there are trishuls that poked around here and there. There were also goons, “…the charged goons had barged into the courtyard…” of her home, “…converting the alive into the long list of the dead.”

These events force Husna to move. She learns of a certain shawl-seller who, despite his sons’ murders, might have escaped, leaving his wares behind. She decides to follow him to Kashmir with an armful of shawls that he used to sell. Instead of the shawl-seller, though, Husna runs into Meer and his houseboat. And almost right away, she is fascinated by this intense man and his books. She is intrigued by his ideals, and soon finds herself pregnant with his child.

The trouble with Meer, the novel, is that it wavers far too much between the past and the present in the most confusing ways. Husna’s point of view is also told in jerky, broken prose. Her memories lead her to believe that she lives in a strange, warped world filled with fears, paranoia and weird dreams. It is a world of terrifying “saffron brigades”, a world of pogroms and willful capture of individuals because they “look like a Kashmiri”, and by extension, must therefore be a terrorist. The Kashmiri Pandits of Husna’s world are supposed to be lucky because, by virtue of their religion, or perhaps because they do not look Kashmiri enough, they are allowed to move around India freely and live in peace.

It is also singularly peculiar that nearly every other character in the book speaks with a similar voice. Meer is almost as hysterical as Husna, as are Shukoh and Bimal Basu. None of them come across as particularly realistic or convincing. It is difficult to discern what exactly these characters are talking about — most of them rant and rave in half sentences and peculiar utterances. Meer himself believes that history has been distorted to suit propaganda — and his expertise ranges from a history of the region to an admiration for Aurangzeb. Characters interrupt each other with alacrity and leave sentences half finished with a liberal use of ellipsis. None of these help convey the intensity of the situation.

Words that rhyme are frequently thrown together, like ‘mark’ and ‘remark,’ ‘names’ and surnames’. On page 29, Meer observes, “Nobody discusses the impending segmentation of the state to be bifurcated and tri-furcated.” There are many, many phrases that threaten to turn a serious scene comical — “quacks quaking” on page 8, “two inter-clasped front teeth” on page 117. There’s “gingerly sugar” on page 13.

For a book that attempts to capture the turmoil of a region, Meer falls short. Husna’s story could have been captured poignantly and effectively. Instead, the book offers a bewildering series of events that do not necessarily come together to provide the best reading experience. Coupled with that is a cast of characters that are flat and require better dialogue to even them out. In the end, Meer might have been so much better.

Meer by Humra Quraishi
Rupa 2015, pp 162 295

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