“Torch Bearer”

Not telling the truth candidly is disappointing. That too, when literati, writers and poets submit to expediency and fail to sing songs of compassion for their compatriots. Of late, I have started believing that the looming clouds of disappointment have started vanishing from our literary scene and we are on threshold of a renaissance – a literary renaissance in our own right.  One, after another book telling the peoples tale are added to ‘Kashmir literature   shelf.’ Some two or three weeks earlier Shafi Ahmed’s novel ‘The Half Widow’, narrating woeful tale of hundreds of Kashmir women whose husbands were subjected enforced disappearance was released in Srinagar. This was second in queue, to internationally acclaimed ‘stunningly poignant’ story of Kashmir- The Collaborator by Waheed Mirza.  Now a third novel ‘Torch Bearer: In Dark Circles’ by Ghulam Nabi Gauhar published by Raider Publishing International, New York, London and Cape Town has internationally hit bookstalls.

The 1183, pages novel that perhaps is the first-ever voluminous novel written in English in Kashmir is epoch making, not for its volume only but for its canvass as well. It encapsulates the social, cultural and religious ethos of the land and heroic struggle of its people for freedom from oppressed rulers. To write an epic novel of this magnitude needs ‘energy, a prodigal, exuberant energy of creation that works almost like a force of nature.’  The story weaved around romance between Areg, daughter of widow maidservant and Ashud (Asad), a poor boy Mashali (torchbearer) at marriage party of a middle class family, where Areg is one among the troupe of the girls and women singing greeting songs to bridegroom and Ashud is heading Mashalis torchbearers accompanying the marriage party.

The novelist has used this important literary genre as medium to tell the story of Kashmir in its all subtlety without imposing it on his readers. The author at the marriage scene with all fineness tells us how loss of Kashmir’s sovereignty is deeply embedded in Kashmiris psyche that even at most hilarious moment it pinpricks them. The bridegroom   on the horse, bewitched with the beauty of daughter of maidservant, remembers Yousuf Shah Chak, the last King of Kashmir falling in love with a peasant girl – and regrets for her beauty and thinks Areg also deserves to be a queen but suddenly remembers:

“We Kashmiris by now have no royal families, we have since that last monarch ceased to be rulers we are now only subjects to be ruled.”

Locale of the story is old Srinagar city;  the crucible of Kashmir’s culture and social ethos, cradle of its literary traditions, the abode of greatest mystics and saints,  capital of greatest Sultans of Kashmir and epicenter of all the resistance movements. The drama of love story unfolds in this part of the city, around the same time when struggle against the autocratic, bigoted and discriminatory rule is striking roots in the shaping of a Reading Room. The novel for minutest details, peeping into the minds of the leaders, providing an insight into their thinking is more than a book on history of Kashmir freedom struggle.

The novel on more than one count is comparable to ‘Shalimar the Clown’. In this best international seller, the love story between Boony Koul Kashmiri Pandit girl and Noman Band, son of ministerial couple unfolds during the Kashmir struggle. The novelist in this work of art also deftly weaves real characters from Kashmir struggle in his plot. The story goes far beyond the confines of Kashmir and travels along with the protagonist from continent to continent. In the Torch Bearer Gauhar also artistically allows full role to real characters of Kashmir Freedom struggle along with his fictitious characters, thus tells the story of Kashmir with its melodramas and tragedies.  Allowing his characters role outside Kashmir valley, he extends his story to the undivided Punjab, not only second home to Kashmiris but also the bastion of Kashmir struggle for freedom.

On July 1931, when soldiers of autocratic ruler shot down unarmed Muslims like coots in lakes outside Srinagar Central jail, killing 26 of them and wounding many others, it also becomes personal tragedy of Areg. Her darling now fiancé Ashud disappears on the same day never to return. This personal tragedy catapults this girl of humble origin to the Central stage of Kashmir to play a role in the freedom struggle along with real characters like Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah and Ghulam Ahmed Ashai and imaginary characters like Zeerak Shah.

Every character in the novel is true to life. The author through his characters brings out the economic scenario as it obtained in Srinagar during thirties. Giving a kaleidoscopic view of trade and commerce in Kashmir, he exposes machinations of the feudal rulers by establishing traders Khataris from Punjab and giving monopoly of Kashmir traders to fifteen Hindu families from Punjab:

“The cream from profit goes by way of commission to those wholesale suppliers – the Lalas in Maharaja Gunj, originally from Punjab. Local traders earn meager as to be equated to what they could earn as wages of the labour put in.”

On many, an occasion the novelist   involves his readers in very complex intellectual discussions that might have been part of Kashmir’s political narrative during past eighty-one years. At times, we see a researcher in the novelist interplaying in the story. Narrating the story of 1931 happenings, he reminds us how Mongol desperado in 1380 had killed scores of Reshies while they were in deep meditation.

At places, it is disturbingly provocative, if one was reading a novel or an authentic political commentary on the faux pas of protagonists of the Kashmir Freedom Struggle. Through his characters  the author brings out stark realities about changing Muslim Conference into National Conference, the 1947 happenings, story of accession and baton and hoodlum rule after 1947, that most of contemporary historians out of expediencies have avoided to record with honesty.

The novel has all the elements of good novel. I will not shy away from stating that is a magnum opus that should be read and enjoyed. It holds readers grip like the best of novels. 

(Feedback at zahidgm@greaterkashmir.com)