Half cries of the Valley

Half cries of the Valley

The title of Urmila Deshpande’s novel, Kashmir Blues, is evocative—of the tragedies of dislocation and loss, and the melancholia of a people torn into two. Sadly, the book itself does not quite deliver. Deshpande’s plot offers itself up to criticism far too easily. Her characters are too insipid to inspire any kind of empathy.

Naia, an American of Indian origin, is a cold protagonist. She can hardly be described as the central or lead character because although her story is the focal point of the narrative at the start, she starts to fade away halfway through the novel, disappears completely towards the end, and resurfaces only in the epilogue. By that time, you don’t really care enough about her to want her back on the scene.

The scope of Kashmir Blues is intended to be a vast landscape of stolen identities and lands but its execution is rather trite: Naia discovers that she was “stolen" as a baby from a well-to-do Indian family by her American mother who misguidedly assumed that she was saving a child from the fate of being a mutilated beggar. Naia, luckily, has a friend named Leon, by far the most interesting character here, who urges her to return to India and discover her literal roots. They fly to Mumbai: The taut observation that, “This city had the smell of humanity, naked. You could smell the people in all their living", is quickly dampened by clichés: a garrulous, unpunctual taxi driver, and a train journey with dismal lavatories are two of them.

There are also some highly improbable coincidences—a random drug-dealing denizen who had been known to Naia’s parents, the helpful family friend who happens to know Naia’s birth parents. Her parents, for which the novel journeys to Delhi, are more lively as characters than their daughter but only because tremendous detail is thrown in their direction, very little of which is then synthesized into a coherent, meaningful narrative.

Saroj, Naia’s mother, is introduced as a frail woman, bordering on depression, never having quite gotten over the loss of her daughter and unsure now what to make of this grown woman. A brief detour into a hidden affair with an Irish spy in Spain is introduced although its relevance to the novel is unclear. Saroj goes off on a pilgrimage halfway through the book, communes with a green hallucination, and returns to Delhi cured. Naia’s father, Viren, who welcomes his prodigal daughter more easily, is a RAW (intelligence agency) operative with a taste for fine carpets.

If you’ve gotten this far with your credulity intact, then meet Samaad: a posh England-educated Kashmiri carpet dealer who stumbles upon a mine of sapphires near his mountain home. He decides that this mine will buy some peace for his corner of Kashmir—one hopes with some measure of irony given that he brutally murders the young man who unwittingly aided in the discovery of the ore—and organizes his own militia and smuggling operation. Leon, magnetically drawn to Samaad (who in a bizarrely anti-Semitic affectation nicknames him Yehudi)s, follows him to Kashmir whereas Naia initially remains in Delhi and promptly develops an addiction for crack.

Moth smoke is used as a device to portray a drug-addled mind that cannot be wholly trusted and the illusory escape offered by intoxicants in a politically tremulous world. Kashmir Blues has no profound vision and Naia merely shakes off her addiction aided by powerful pills provided by Samaad. After a brief affair with him, described in a manner devoid of any poignancy, she melts from the narrative and the political drama takes over. The climax is only notable for its genuinely anti-climactic nature.

Deshpande switches between the voices of her characters with little warning—a technique used by writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Mohsin Hamid to great effect. In Kashmir Blues, the effect is disorienting and misleading since none of them are distinct enough to hold their own.

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