Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Homecoming

For somebody who made a mark for himself with fast paced thrillers like Night of the Krait, The Orphan and The Sniper, Shashi Warrier has taken a remarkable turn in his last 2 books which are quite dark and deeply introspective. His Hangman’s Journal was a compelling story of the life of the unknown Hangman (is one of my favourites) while his latest book The Homecoming is a dark and disturbing tale of betrayal set in the backdrop of the Kashmir Valley.

Javed Sharif is a Kashmiri widower who is into a lucrative carpet and shawls business, living and working in Bangalore, having moved out of the Valley, early on. He falls in love with a widow, Sujata, but the relationship ends because of his refusal to convert into Hinduism. He decides to settle down by returning to Kashmir and as a start, he returns home on the occasion of his father’s eighty-fourth birthday.

His carefully constructed dream starts going rapidly downhill right from the birthday when the family is rudely interrupted by a knock on his door on the birthday and as he watches, his world spirals rapidly into dense pools of turmoil. His younger son Irfan, is suspected to be hobnobbing with the Lashkar and is arrested under POTO. But Javed refuses to believe this and spends all his money and energy in getting his son out. Meanwhile, his elder son, Fawzi, gets married to a Christian girl and swindles him of nearly all his wealth.

The Homecoming is essentially a story of betrayal- Javed is deceived by everyone, right from his family to the State. Irfan turns into a religious bigot, with very less concern for his father’s thoughts; his own brother, Muhammad, who becomes an influential State minister, compromises his principles and keeps his own interests intact, never really trying to help him; Fawzi betrays his trust and cheats him of his lifetime earnings ; Javed’s own father hides from him till the very end the fact that Hassan is his half-brother and bequeaths him money, whereas Javed himself does not get anything.

His mother blames him for all the misfortunes and moves away from their own house to Muhammad’s, in spite of the fact that Javed has run the family all these years. His love, Sujata, dissolves the relationship because he refuses to convert into Hinduism and later on avoids him so that their relationship does not affect her son’s marriage. Towards the end, he realizes that his daughter,Razia, has all the while remained in touch with her brother Fawzi, despite his action of cheating his father. The parting shot comes when he realizes that Irfan is probably mixed with the wrong crowd and is not innocent and the realization slowly seeps in-This is the house that I built for my family. My whole life has been a lie.

At one level, Shashi Warrier explores the father-son relationship across 3 generations. Javed wonders if he could ever do to his father what his son did to him, even if he were to resent him. There is an element of truth when he remarks that he feels pained by his son’s incarceration but that he probably would not have felt the same surge of emotions when it comes to his parents.

The selfish gene finds its place strongly in all of us and I wonder what would happen if ever a situation arises when we have to decide between our children and parents.He carries the guilt of not being around when his children grow up and he tries to make up for it by his blind love for them, only to be deceived by his lack of judgment.

It is a deeply disturbing novel which explores the failings of a family as it struggles with the spectre of violence and gloom which had become an integral part of the Kashmiri psyche since the late 80s. Javed meets people with different view points on the Kashmir issue – people who want it to an independent entity, those who want it to belong to Pakistan, India loyalists and those who just don’t care and want to be left alone- and is bewildered by the reactions of his son and brother to the problem. He slowly begins to understand the reality of the situation but is shattered by the deception of his near and dear ones.

It is very convenient to dismiss the entire struggle as a Pakistan conspiracy but while the Pakistan hand is true and very much visible, what has strengthened the factional struggle is also the dishonesty of the State, which failed the Kashmiris. A foreign hand acts as a catalyst when there are conditions created which facilitate such intervention. However, he also questions the raison d’etre of the struggle when he says that it is not just the Kashmiris who have been let down by India and that their struggles are not entirely new and original –

“The Indian bureaucracy has treated Kashmiris no better and no worse than they’ve treated the rest of India. Administrators in Kashmir are, if anything, better than elsewhere in India because Kashmir is always in the spotlight. From my visit to Manzoor I realized that Kashmiri oppresses Kashmiri with as much impunity. Will throwing out the Indian element of the administration cure that? I doubt that.”

Years of violence, fear and anxiety has a very visible effect on the surface but deep inside, the harm that is caused is hidden. Just like the horrors of the Bhopal gas tragedy which continue to haunt its people even today, the destruction that has been caused is quite numbing – reflecting in families that live in a pall of gloom and mistrust.

Family fabrics may not always be so strong as we think – a small tug and the entire warp could possibly come apart. War is catastrophic and the people who survive its aftermath have a very heavy price to pay- whether it is the Kashmiri Muslim or the Pandit.

Shashi Warrier’s prose is simple, to the point and does not involve any element of verbal jugglery which creeps in most books written by Indian writers nowadays. The journalist in him stands out as he manages to create a politically personal story which is stark and does not hover around inane considerations of the Valley’s beauty. The pathos and inevitability of the ending make for compelling, albeit depressing reading – almost reminiscent of Malayalam cinema of the 80s...

1 comment:

  1. Your superb review has revived the urge in me to read this book. I read a review of it in The Hindu and was impressed. There is another excellent book on Kashmir – ‘Curfewed Night’ by Basharat Peer – that was published at almost the same time as this one and received rave reviews too. I have not had the opportunity to read that either, unfortunately.