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Rallying for the valley

Pragya Tiwari rediscovers pre-militant Kashmir in a Hindi classic

ONCE UPON a time in Kashmir, it was easier to tell your story. Growing up in the 1940s and married at 13, Chandrakanta started writing at a young age. She was first published only in 1967, but it wasn’t till the 1980s that all her unpublished work began to come out, catapulting her into the thick of the Hindi literary circuit. Her prose has documented the dilemmas of exile, social change and femininity in long, revelatory sentences. Her novel, Ailan Gali Zinda Hai(now reissued in English), was first published in 1984 — a time when, as Agha Shahid Ali wrote, memory could get in the way of history. Today, they are inseparable. Today, our best Kashmiri narratives run rudderless in their lunatic asylum of stories.

In the dark alleyways of downtown Srinagar’s Ailan gali, Chandrakanta’s exiled community of Pandits live together with Muslims. The immediacy of her characters couples with their nuanced conversations to present a genial, microscopic view of the society. Chandrakanta doesn’t romanticise any ‘brotherhood’ between communities. Strains flicker freely. Human weaknesses coexist with deep bonds. A strong sense of belonging trumps differences, but doesn’t eradicate them: they bubble under, surface and dissolve, never quite interrupting the flow of community life. In the space of this novel, it’s hard to imagine that this well-oiled ancient machinery would soon explode through the heart of Kashmir.

Throughout, Chandrakanta peppers her narrative with local flavours — food, rituals, songs and idioms unique to a language and culture that is the only surviving link between the two communities. Over a decade, we see the dense, cocooned lane suffer from casual cruelties of time. This change doesn’t portend the political tragedies to come. Only age weakens the body, friends die, children move on — and you realise your time could be over. Equally subtle is the struggle of traditions against new social values and the condition of women in a patriarchal society.

Chandrakanta weaves her themes into stories instead of presenting them as conflicts. The plot centres on the daily lives of a dozenodd characters like Ratni chachi, the lissome widow with a secret lover; teenage lovers Rupa and Kundan, who are destined for heartbreak; and Anwar miyan, the compassionate mediator for all troubles. Their intricate stories — told in a slick, wry tongue with kindnes — account for the book’s enduring reading pleasure.

This form of telling, reminiscent of folk traditions, is the first casualty of the translation. Also lost is the rasa of colloquialisms executed literally in an alien language. The translation doesn’t carry the original title anywhere. And this might be the worst oversight of all, for the significance of this novel is enhanced in a world where Ailan gali does not live anymore, anywhere except here.

Originally published in Tehelka.

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