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Residue: The unfaltering remains
By Mantasha Binti Rashid
Residue is a novel by a Kashmiri academician, economist, poet and novelist Dr. Nitasha Kaul. Kaul teaches in the University of Westminster, London, and is currently visiting Kashmir, after many years. This is the second time when she is delivering public lectures in Srinagar, first being earlier this year. Many local newspapers published from Srinagar describe Kaul's interactions with Kashmiri community and especially young Kashmiris in detail in December, praising her. Analysing the postcolonial practices of the state, Kaul challenges the rising trends of neoliberalism and hyper-nationalism in India through her writings and talks.

Dr Kaul often emphasizes on how knowledge and history are shaped and created by the powerful and are now threatened on an everyday basis in the contemporary India. Kashmiris have been historically oppressed, in Dogra regime or Afghan regime, and continue to live under oppression even today. Summer of 2016 witnessed deaths of more than 85 young people, leaving thousands badly injured. This on one hand and the growing Hindutva political agenda on the other side is shrinking the spaces of dissent, in India, and in Kashmir, in particular.

Kaul is a Kashmiri Pandit, one of the very few Kashmiri Pandits who discuss and engage with the victimization of Kashmiri Muslim identity in addition to other issues. The pain of both the communities although shared still remains contested and members of both the communities discuss the oppression they faced, either discounting the oppression of the other community or competing for the entitlements of being more victimized! The communities, which shared syncretic traditions, even when the fire of partition engulfed the sub-continent and resulted in gory killings of more than one million people, are portrayed to be at loggerheads. In the contemporary times, not much gets reported positively about the ways in which Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits relate, at least in the Indian media. Nitasha (and intellectuals like her), in such times, is like a ray of undying hope, much like the meaning of her name.

Nitasha gives hope to Kashmiri youngsters, especially to Kashmiri women: to read, to write, to travel, to stand against all the forms of oppression. While Nitasha encouraged young Kashmiris to create alternate discourses and narratives about Kashmir, other than the narratives of competing victimization, I, yet another Kashmiri woman found myself compelled to revisit her novel, Residue. More so because I heard some people discuss on social media how Nitasha is a liberal and they need no lessons from an outsider, outsider in both ways, by ethnicity and by geography. Nitasha lives in London but her solidarity to Kashmiri people is more than what I have observed in Kashmiris and she is as much Kashmiri as self-styled, patronising and supremacist few among us are, who know nothing but to hate and divide. Last week, Nitasha spoke to students in Srinagar, telling them how words are not only better than weapons in the adage pen is mightier than sword but are actual weapons on their own, insisting on not undermining the creation and perpetuation of ideas, thoughts and knowledge. Here is a review of her Novel, Residue. I insist that Kashmiri youngsters who like to read books must read Resiue.

The novel 'Residue' was published in the year 2009. It tells a tale of identities which are shaped by weaving together of the political conditions and the existential upheavals of the characters in the novel, making one reiterate the feminist adage, personal is political. 'Residue', Kaul's first novel was shortlisted for Man Asian Literary Prize.

The novel takes the reader to multiple places: across the territorial borders of the countries and emotionally dwells in a deep sense of bereavement and abandonment. Kashmir, a Himalayan valley where Hindus and Muslims lived in peace and harmony a few decades ago, now bears witness to the absence of lost men and the presence of unidentified mass graves. Kashmir is an ever-present part of Leon Ali and Keya Raina's identities, the two protagonists in the novel.

'Residue' attempts to describe the multiplicity and complexity of identities. Leon's identity is challenged by the anti-Muslim racism in London and an anti-Kashmiri sentiment in Delhi. The assertion of an independent woman's identity requires the rejection of the acceptable social norms of marriage and one love, as is done by Keya. As Kaul writes, it is difficult, especially in a land where "a woman is (imagined as) a paragon of virtue trained in oriental docility and family values." (116)

The shared identities of Leon and Keya are teased by the hidden secrets of a love affair in the city of Berlin: the secrets of love that managed to cross personal tensions but still remained unrequited during the time of the fall of Berlin wall. Much like Anita Desai's Inheritance of Loss, Kaul's novel is geographically divided and yet emotionally connected. It is a novel that explores divisions: of nationalities, identities, religions and of political conflicts.

The personal turmoils in this novel are subtly gravitated or are portrayed as an actual fallout of the political events: disappearance of Mir Ali (Leon's dad) for his being a communist activist in Berlin in the late 1980s, the longing of Veer (Keya's dad) for his homeland and traditions especially after militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1980's again, victimization of Leon after the 9/11 and the subsequent anti-Muslim sentiment in the West and his living in paranoia of identifying as a Kashmiri Muslim (multiply-subjugated identity) in the capital of a majority Hindu country, India.

Residue is based on a desire to chase and own these identities and yet a desire to deny them.

All the characters in Kaul's novel are described through their emotional journeys and in doing so, pain and hurt are reclaimed as yet another normal emotion. It is this sense of loss that connects all the characters in the novel and yet each grapples with their loss in their own ways. By the end of the book a strange acceptance was planted in my heart; an acceptance of hurt, unmet expectations and trauma, being a part of our life, not necessarily something odd or bad. Some characters in Residue experience these emotions through perceived personal incapacities/weakness while as some come about due to pure political compulsions. The fear and insecurity which is reflected in Leon's leaving Maya, his first girl-friend, who he loved dearly is one such weakness. "Could I stay loyal? Would her parents accept a Muslim son-in-law, even if I bore them a grandchild? Would I get a decent job? Could I be able to hold off having sex for a few years? If not, what would we do if she got pregnant? Would I go away with another girl if I went to another city?" Leon thinks with himself (232). For Mir, Leon's father, abandoning his wife, Albeena, who's pregnant with Leon is described more like a choice, difficult but yet easy. As Shula, writes in her journal that Mir had left the woman he married when she was pregnant with his child. It was necessary sacrifice. Mir had no choice. She (Albeena) would manage, she was capable. Mir had felt respect but not passion for her; she was dull and immune to the fire of his ideas. He never saw the child (Leon). It was easier that way (298).

While as Mir Ali's leaving Shula, his beloved and the wife of an Indian bureaucrat in Berlin, is certainly not portrayed as a choice. Mir is being abducted, possibly killed, with Shula ending up in a treatment facility for people with nervous disorders which eventually leads to her death (303) is brought about by purely political circumstances. Leon's struggle to find his father and Keya's sense of nostalgia are again shaped by a myriad of personal and political reasons.

The treatment of multiple emotions in the novel is profound and detailed. The untimely death of Keya's father is one such moving episode that Keya understands as desertion. Keya's mother and relatives insist that she, an adolescent girl, whisper in her sick father's ear, "Go away papa. I will be fine. We will be fine. End your misery. Leave this body. Go away". It is followed by Keya's not being able to challenge the males who cremate her father's body, to let Keya cremate him, as her father had wished. This sense of loss of a parent can be seen as a dominant theme that binds Keya and Leon, apart from being Kashmiri. The build up to their lovemaking reminds me of Arundhati Roy's description of comfort between the twins, Rahel and Estha in God of Small Things. "The kind of universe in where lovers and good friends and old friends dwell; a generous universe where I can forgive with ease, smile at little things and see pleasant hidden meanings… We walk aimlessly, our hands touching, our bodies close (128). The intense tensions of intricate human emotions as described by Kual reflect her being someone who has lived these emotions, sharing a part of each character's pain.

Leon Ali, the protagonist and the narrator in the novel tries to continuously escape his precarious Kashmiri Muslim identity. Leon lives in Delhi with his single mother, Albeena, who is unwilling to discuss Leon's father with him. Leon, as a young man moves to London and is overtaken by an urge to travel to Berlin to look for his long lost father, Mir Ali.

Looking for his lost father in Berlin, or any clue as to why Leon and Albeena were abandoned by Mir, he stumbles into Keya. Keya Raina is an academic in London and is also a Kashmiri; a Kashmiri Hindu whose family also lived and reared her up in Delhi like Leon's mother, having migrated from Kashmir. Keya is nostalgic about Kashmir. In fact, Keya's love for Kashmir is a part of her love for her dead father who longed for his land and traditions, whereas for Leon being a Kashmiri Muslim is a burden that he wants himself to relieve of constantly by being an unknown and unidentified 'nobody' but fails to do so. He sees himself as a fatherless Kashmiri Muslim man who in an attempt to escape this baggage finds himself in possession of more, new and unwanted identities of being a Brown and a Muslim in The UK who is only a hair's breadth away from being seen as terrorist at any and every incident of violence. Keya, on the other hand tells Leon that her work is to collect stories of people in exile. Keya's engagement with diasporic identities seems to plug her own emotional void of un-belongingness. Both meet in Berlin where Keya's contacts help Leon find things about Mir's life, which he had never imagined that includes Mir's affair with an unhappy married woman, Shula.

Leon is unable to make peace with his being abandoned by his father, Mir, and in that he interrogates his deserting of his ex-girlfriend, Maya, wondering if desertion is in his blood, as Maya said to him once, in anger. The generalizations and prejudices associated with an identity somewhere compel to be owned by the person, which leaves one with a sadness and confusion of understanding themselves through other's prejudices of that subordinate identity.

Leon finally visits India on Albeena's insistence as she incessantly worries for Leon's safety in London due to the victimization of Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. Albeena, on knowing about Leon's attempt at finding Mir and his past life, suggests him that people may not always want to be found and one's life shouldn't be lived in reaction to even the most loved person. Albeena also denounces Leon's understanding of her as a victim who was left broken by Mir but tells him to respect her for the choices she has made. Her insistence to be recognized as a woman with agency instead of a wife-in-waiting portrays the strength of character, shades of which Keya also is seen to don in her personality. The shift of strength to women characters and vulnerability to men in the novel is another feminist challenging of the normative understanding of the display of emotional strength as masculine and vulnerability and emotional worry as inherently feminine.

The conversation between the mother-son duo and even Leon and Keya implore to be transformed into a play or a movie as they are visually imaginable and complex. The characters reflect a high degree of self-awareness, which leaves one wondering if it is it Kaul in all these characters or do they belong to a more emotionally aware place. It could also be the narrative descriptions that make the reader feel so. The emotional analysis and seriousness in the novel also leaves one craving for some light elements of humour and jocularity.

Leon and Keya unearth Shula's life as well: her rage and her unfullfilment which is all mentioned in her journal. It forms the second last chapter of the book which again deeply touches on the theme of love and un-fulfilment, the recurring themes in Kaul's novel. Leon comes to think of Shula differently after knowing more about her. Shula had appeared nothing more than a beautiful seductress when Leon first got to know about her affair with his father, Mir. Understanding that there is a human side to all the heroes and villains is another strategy employed by Kaul in her novel, which in a way actually breaks the binary of hero and villain and compels the reader to understand a character as ordinary but still unique in their experimental journeys. This tool of moral neutrality is utilized by Kaul in describing individual characters whereas the systems and institutions are not treated with the same sympathy. Discrimination, prejudice, racism, unequal norms, all commented on by Kaul through Leon and Keya.

Towards the end of the novel, Leon decides to visit Kashmir, where many unnamed graves of the people killed in the political conflict exist. He wants to treat one of those graves as Mir's grave and derive a closure to his sense of loss. Keya decides to accompany him to stir her nostalgia, the nostalgia that she inherited from her parents. "The three of them could not share these fragments of Kashmir during Keya's adolescence, since the insurgency in the state meant that they could not even visit Srinagar as tourists…. Keya heard the stories of Kashmir, grasping at them as precious fragments of her authentic identity" (97).

The oscillation between the present and the past, hopping between countries, swirling between emotions; all have been utilized by Kaul, to tell this story reminding the reader of a desire to move on in life and yet hold on to certain things which are so intertwined to our being that leaving them is as painful as possessing them. It is a dichotomy we all face in our lives that is shaped by our identities. And our identities in turn are not a matter of chance but are un-innocent creations of cartographic imagination that divides the world, creating borders, thriving on the difference that breeds a sense of insecurity generated by the religious and the racial other. This novel, Residue, challenges these narratives subtly by taking the reader on emotional journeys of its characters.

(The author is Kashmiri woman, Civil servant, Fulbright fellow, started Kashmir Women's Collective and writes when the soul stirs and the words accompany. She can be reached on: mantasha.fortunate@yahoo.com)


News Updated at : Friday, May 12, 2017
 
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