Monday, October 6, 2014

An Isolated Incident by Soniah Kamal - A Review

When you see Khaled Hosseini endorse a book right on its cover, the fan in your stops thinking and picks up the book with high hopes and expectations. An Isolated Incident by Soniah Kamal, fell prey to this burden of expectations. One could call it a wrong way to approach a book, or one could hold the endorsement fortunate for it tinges the critical eye with rainbow colours. This novel written by a Pakistan born American author gave me both highs - that of a confused critic eager to verbalise the disenchantment, and that of a fascinated reader, comfortably giving herself over to the deft penmanship of the author. Let us get along to exploring both these aspects of the novel now, shall we?

The narrative begins in Kashmir, which is a land ridden with tensions, but happiness manages to flow in households obsessed with living the daily chores and fulfilling customs and rituals. Zari is the protagonist - a vivacious girl, in a loving family, with a marriage to excitedly prepare and wait for. Conflict strikes at the very beginning when her entire world is ripped apart, and she is uprooted from her native land to be taken to the more liberal and progressive air of the States to heal in the company of her distant relatives. Classic and expected interjection in the plot by an author whom postcolonial theorists would label with hyphenated identity. Diaspora as a literary strain is all too evident here - the distance from culture is what makes the yearning for and awareness of culture prominent - this being further complicated by a tragic heroine mourning the loss of her loved ones and piecing together her identity from a fragmented psyche and erased past.

Memory and History
Writings about lands with complicated conflicts at the very birth of them - a classic example of which is Kashmir - build upon the strains of memory and history to help characters determine answers to the 'Who am I' question. In An Isolated Incident, while Zari deals with the burden of memory and history, her hero, Billy, romanticises both to arrive at a proud and rebellious notion of his identity. His parents deliberately conceal details of his family history which lends him the frustrated feeling of anchorlessness. From conversations of childhood spent in Kashmir that he remembers, he is convinced that he bloodline is made up of great ancestors who fought for the liberation of his homeland. It is in the past that he discerns a destiny and path for future actions. Part of his responsibility towards Kashmir is fulfilled by taking care of Zari, and the other, unfulfilled, burning part is what leads him to the fields of conflict which jeopardise his existence along with that of the family.

Cultural Positioning
I forced a Kashmiri friend to read this novel along with me, for the pleasure of discussion and association. We all like seeing our childhood reminiscences inked as someone else's recollections - and my friend was no different. The novel liberally uses Kashmiri colloquial terms, making conversations rather personal and warm. Cultural identifiers in terms of Kashmiri food, customs, games, greetings are what keep the novel bound together as a unified narrative even as it traverses through vastly different geographic spaces. The keenness to affiliate to your common roots, to draw the source of your existence from there is evident in both the central characters, even as other characters snap or mutilate their past for they see it threatening their future. The political stances taken by the author (through the voice of her characters) is not what Indian audience would be too happy about - but then, if fiction is debated upon within the realm of fiction, then the stances, however jarring, come justified in the fabric of the story.

Characters and Identity

I have a personal proclivity towards novels in which I see characters grow in reaction to the situations around them. What I will laud the author for in her extremely skilled hold over her characters, each of whom had more to it than a mere flat face. The story functions in a non-linear format, and the greater depths of narratives you delve into, a newer shade about the characters are revealed. This applies to the protagonists, as well as all the supporting cast. Also, no character in the story could be called a mere accessory - they all come with a defined purpose, they help further the narrative and each of them make your reflect uniquely in the human condition, the tragedy of never having control over how your life pans out in front of you. I would personally like to congratulate the author for her absolute finesse on creating a pool of characters with unique human identities converging to a common cultural identity.

Narrative and Verdict
Its a good novel. Not exceptional, but an extremely good novel - almost like a rare piece of literary merit that lingers in your head till long after. Soniah Kamal has displayed exemplary sensitivity, sensibility and intelligence while assembling together this beautiful and thought provoking novel on the Kashmir question. In doing so, she has lent a balance to the personal and the political. Her language is leagues above the ordinary, somewhat satiating a literary appetite. The only problem I had with the book was the confusion and fragmentation which surface as the plot jumps between people, perspectives and places. Basically, there were times when the novel refused to hold me together, even thought I was willing to lie submerged in it.  The plot took long to reveal itself to me. For the longest time, I felt that this was Zari's story, but as I put the novel away, I find power in the character and conflict which Billy essays. If that was intended or not, I would not know.

However, no novel has forced me to write a review with such excitement! Since I must stop writing now in order to attend to other chores, let me just give the verdict as 3.5 stars on 5 and a highly recommended label alongside. When you manage to read this one, as you absolutely should, can we get along for a cup of tea and dwell a little on the politics and people of Kashmir, please?

Book Details - 
Author - Soniah Kamal
Genre - Fiction
Publisher - Fingerprint
Published - 2014
Price - Rs. 295
Pages - 379
Source - Review Copy

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