24 August 2017
Curfew is never over
Review of ‘The tree with a thousand apples’ by Sanchit Gupta
24 August 2017
Who would contest the idea of the ‘beautiful but tormented valley of Kashmir’ not being a part of India? But when Safeena, one of the prime characters in the book talks ‘about the people’ and asks if ‘the land is ours or are the people ours?’, the very premise brings in a new perspective. In its own special way, this book raises questions because sometimes in certain circumstances ‘they won’t even ask any more questions, because questions may not have the answers they want to believe. Questions terrify us, they bring us closer to the truth’. ‘The tree with a thousand apples’ by Sanchit Gupta, let me hurriedly add, isn’t just asking questions but telling a tale and a lot of questions pop-up in the reader’s mind. Fiction today, at least the kind of fiction that is written by most Indians writing in English, has become a series of frivolous plots and sub-plots where neither history meanders nor are paths for the future envisioned. But this story, for a change, weaves in curfews, killings, torture and romance in a setting that travels from Lal Chowk to Lohagad and demolishes one boundary after another.
The book is quite literally a Molotov cocktail as it redraws ‘a hero amidst tragedy’ and targets truths to bring them to the fore because ‘no matter how much you try, you won’t find truth among marinated pieces of zafrani kokur’. The fact of the matter is that ‘truth is what we make of it, not what exists’… and what exists or what has managed to exist is ‘cancer everywhere, cancer of the mind’. And curfews. And Machil. And Papa-II. And torture… because ‘remember if you torture a man who has a secret to hide or is aware of his sins, he won’t tell you anything. A criminal or a terrorist is that kind of a person. He has already decided to forsake a life of dignity. He has nothing to lose. But if you fill his head and heart with the fear of losing his innocent loved ones, he will break.’ And innumerable eyes that dream of all things good but first need to extricate themselves from the dark intrigue that surrounds both the terrorists and the martyrs.
There is something fascinating about every tale that has adopted Kashmir as the base but Sanchit Gupta has seamlessly connected ties, friendships, rivalries, animosities, emotions, and revenge that binds Deewan Bhat, Safeena Malik and Bilal Ahanagar in a way that makes it easier for a reader to go a few steps deeper into the real issues. And it is done in readable prose and not the language of a researcher. It appears that the author has seen everything almost agreeing with what a minor character in the book means when he says that ‘the heart dies first. The eyes die last. They see everything else pass away. They know everything, what the mind and the heart don’t. The eyes know.’ Yes, the eyes know it well and understand it all and we know than that ‘evil exists when good men fail to act’. Acts. Actions. Perceptions. They are all in the same basket and it is the way they interact with the reality that we see what we see. This book is certainly about the reality that not many have seen. For instance, only those who sit huddled inside a room with all the curtains drawn would know that there ‘is a thing about curfew in this town. It doesn’t matter what the loudspeaker says, the curfew is never over. This town is a prison, a prison with lakes and flowers…’ and only a select few will realise what it is to go on living when ‘the lights in the homes are switched off, the streets never had any. Crows caw on the defunct poles, rats scurry around the cobbled road. Dead leaves fall off the sleepy trees; his torn shoes crumple them with their hasty steps.’
I think it is time to tell the readers of this review that the book isn’t just a poetic rendering of reality but has a gripping tale that pulls in a gamut of human emotions, walks in and out of turbulence that comes alive on its pages, and gives both sides of an argument a patient hearing. The book is a terrorist for those who strike terror in other’s lives for no other reason than personal greed and tells them in no uncertain terms that ‘they shall die, and be forgotten’ because their life is never ever going to inspire anyone. But there is also a poetic charm in the sort of prose that Sanchit has the power to write and it is obvious in small doses all over but as a reader one zooms into it, as was the time when a terror-accused in a make-shift prison, talks about tears: ‘…there is water, there is salt. It tastes nice. Like lemonade. You remember? We do not get that here. Sometimes water is finished. So we make up with these. You don’t even need to ask. Preserve them.’ And it is images such as the ones that such lines invoke that stay on with a reader for long.
Sometimes readers write to me to ask if they must look into some sort of takeaway from a book that they are reading and I always tell them that if the pages compelled you to go on reading, you have anyway got far more than what you have spent. But then, talking of takeaways, I must quote from the book when it tells me that ‘one can’t win anything by force, ever. It will only delude us, for some time maybe, but that victory, that idea of achievement will not last forever. Because it’s not real, not genuine, not true, not civil.’ A book cannot force you to like it… but this one simply spreads all over you – sometimes like a lover pleading and sometimes like a shadow of gloom that wouldn’t let you think of anything else. And as you travel on with uniformed men, terrorists, and innocents who must necessarily have an opinion even when all they want to is to live their own life, one pauses to think about all that has been happening in Kashmir with a wish that life normalizes in the region and doesn’t remain in the quagmire of conclusions of those who are ‘lost, illiterate, ready to kill or get killed’ because when the cause is unknown, only terror survives.