Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Book Review: Residue, by Nitasha Kaul

In a world riven with prejudice, hatred and sectarianism, Nitasha Kaul, through her first novel Residue, gives us a host of characters who do not wallow in such muck. Leon Ali, the main protagonist, is a Kashmiri who grew up in Delhi. Despite an Islamic heritage, Leon is an atheist who doesn’t take sides easily. There’s a scene in London where Leon meets a number of Kashmiris from “Azad” Kashmir. Spurning their invitation to join them, Leon thinks, ‘honestly, you are not Kashmiri.’ Then there’s Keya Raina, a co-protagonist and a Kashmiri Pandit, who too grew up in Delhi and later moved to Bristol, in the UK, to become a liberal arts Professor. Agni, born Agnes, a Christian from Orissa, is a dancer who has broken through a number of barriers and is equally at ease with the world. Shula Farid who plays a very vital role in the story and its plot, lived a generation before Leon and Keya, but is equally secular and nice. Born to an atheist Muslim father who teaches mathematics at Shantiniketan and an East European mother with a Jewish heritage, Shula made the mistake of falling in love with and marrying Abhilash, a clever and successful civil servant, the odd man out amongst the various characters in this debut work, standing out on account of his orthodoxy and inflexibility.

Leon’s father Mir, an engineer and a communist, had deserted his mother and left for Berlin even before Leon was born, when the couple lived in the UK. Leon’s mother returns to India and brings up Leon single-handedly, the only contribution from her family being the occasional taunt or other unhelpful comment. Life in Delhi is tough for a single woman bringing up a son on her own. It gets even tougher if the mother and son are Muslims. From bullying and name-calling at school, to trouble finding decent accommodation, Leon and his mother see it all, but they persevere and survive.

Leon is inclined towards the liberal arts and he makes it to St. Stephens, where for a brief period he is part of the posh crowd, eats hot sams and g-jams with friends from the Rez and watches the ShakeSoc fellas do their rehearsals in the open. At Stephens, Kashmir is but a Led Zeppelin song. But the honeymoon period at Stephens doesn’t last for long. Leon’s lack of money and social status forces him to seek the company of his equals. Post graduate studies follow, but Leon is no longer motivated. Since Leon was born in the UK, he is British or rather, he is entitled to a British passport. Leon moves to the UK.

Just as at Stephens, Leon has a good time in the UK initially, until shit happens in the form of 9/11. Leon is forced to avoid certain areas and roads. Once in a night bus, he is called an Arab Pig and a Paki Terrorist. The internet chat rooms are full of hatred for Muslims, Islam and the infidels. The anti-Islam wave is contagious. Back home, Gujarat boils overs post-Godra. Leon needs to re-discover himself. He decides to go to Berlin to trace his father and in Berlin, he runs into Keya.

Kaul writes in simple Indian English which works well for her characters. There were a few times in the beginning of this 324 page book when I felt Kaul was digressing or dwelling too long on something instead of moving on, but on the whole, Kaul does get on with the job of telling a story and a very good story it turns out to be. Teaming up with Keya in Berlin, Leon manages to find traces of his communist father Mir Ali and his relationship with Shula Farid, then unhappily married to Indian diplomat Abhilash. Mir and Shula had found each other and plotted to get away from their respective worlds. It wasn’t an easy task since Mir was a communist, living and working underground, always on the run. We see Mir and Shula communicate with difficulty, at times leaving messages on the Berlin Wall! Kaul doesn’t tell us till we nearly reach the end whether Mir and Shula succeeded in breaking free. Also, in a way, the relationship between Leon and Keya mirrors that of Mir’s and Shula’s, with the further complication that Leon constantly worries that he might turn out to be a deserter like his father. You need to wait till the very last page to find out where that relationship is headed to.

On the whole, Residue left a very pleasant aftertaste in me and I recommend this book to all those who want to see this world become a better place, free of sectarian prejudices and all those who like to read a good story.

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