Story of Fierce Cruelty Yet Fiercely Redeeming Love and Friendship

Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times

As the pains continue in Kashmir and of Kashmiris, this new novel brings an honest narrative on broken threads, which otherwise were critical for Kashmir’s inclusive identity. The novel, written on Kashmir by someone who is not a Kashmiri, tells a story of fierce cruelty yet fiercely redeeming love and friendship. Both transform the lives of three friends and both keep them together amidst a world falling apart. They come of age as the riveting narrative takes us from the insurgency days of 1990 to the most recent 2010s, all through the paradise turned battleground of Kashmir.

Well-written and fast-paced, the narrative pulls the reader into the life stories of Kashmiri Pandit Deewan Bhat and Kashmiri Muslims Safeena Malik and Bilal Ahanagar. It questions about why they are forced to make the choices that they do, and how they face up to the consequences of their actions. It is Deewan’s guilt that overpowers him when he couldn’t save Safeena’s mother, and it is Bilal’s agony that makes one shudder when he cries like a girl on the floor of Papa-II. ‘No one lives long in a war, I don’t want to lose you as well’, Safeena’s words ring true for both her friends who have chosen different paths, while she is left to put the pieces together of their broken friendship, just like the Kashmiriyat of paradise around her.

Not just of Kashmir, The Tree with a Thousand Apples (Niyogi Books, 2017) is a story of universal emotions that stays true on so many levels in the world we live today. We’ve always been fighting someone else’s war. Imposing our perceptions on other people because we find safety in stereotyping. The author gives us a vivid and engaging story that reminds us how long the people living in a conflict zone have been struggling to triumph over the forces of violence – forces that continue to threaten them even today. What makes the book remarkable though is the sensitivity with which he has brought together the agony of the Kashmiri Muslims, Kashmiri Pandits as well as the Indian Army in one masterfully interwoven narrative.

The rhetoric today is filled with blame game and it is in this environment that this book finds immense meaning and significance. It makes you wonder who is right and who is wrong, and forces you to look at things from the person’s perspective, just like the friends in the book need to, and you can’t help but feel compassion towards the loss of each one of them.

The narrator uses motifs to deftly create a world that is both vivid and enchanting, both haunting and unforgettable. Be it the tree with a thousand apples, the Chai Kahwa, the locket of the prophet wore by Deewan, the bracelet gifted to Bilal, the hidden blue jean of Safeena or the subtle poetry woven amid the prose in between, everything draws you in and hits you with its sharply pointed wit and punch.With a heart and a soul, the book stays with you long after it has been read.

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Going further from putting a critic’s views, recently The Dialogue Senior Consultant Atul K Thakur (AKT) spoke with the author Sanchit Gupta (SG), here is the edited excerpt of the conversation:

AKT: How do you view your own book?

SG: A lyrical narration with an alluring style, raw characters and stark realism, The Tree with a Thousand Apples highlights the perspectives of four different points of view – young directionless militants, Kashmiri Pandits exiled from their homes, duty-bound army officers and innocent civilians rendered as collateral damage, without passing a judgment to any. It unravels the right vs right conflict that exists in the region, and the ignorant apathy which the citizens outside this jannat live with.

A story of cultures, belongingness, revenge and atonement, the book revolves around the lives of three children and their friendship that battles the sides fate forces them to choose, and not of the land they live in. The question this film asks is simple but not an easy one to answer: Is the only way to pay for our sins to commit another?

AKT: What inspired you to write it?

SG: The answer, in one word, would be- Empathy. I lived in Kashmir in 2009 and saw a 12 year old Kashmiri Muslim boy sit beside a 20 year old Indian Army soldier sipping cups of Kahwa together. My very good friend and roommate in college was a Kashmiri Pandit. I have heard stories from all of them, and I could see that they were all right in their own world, yet their viewpoints were so apart each other’s. I think the world needs the power of fiction to diffuse prejudices andpromote compassion for the people affected by the conflict in Kashmir and I just wanted to tell their story as honestly as I could.

AKT: Why the story is told from the point of view of three children?

SG: When ideologies clash in the name of religion or identity, it is the common residents who suffer the most and it is the children and their childhood that we truly destroy. This is what I try to bring out in my novel.Children don’t have a prejudice for the right and wrong. They don’t live amid barriers of caste, religion or borders that we have created for ourselves. In spite of the world asking them to choose sides and make judgments, our children in the book know only how to love each other. You can say I have been inspired by Scout and Jem from ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’. What one learns and does in their childhood is innocent, driven not by worldly hate but only compassion for everyone around us.

AKT: As your novel is closely linked to the families and generations, including youth as sufferers – how would you like to view Kashmiri youth living on their land or away?

SG: This book is dedicated to the Kashmiri youth who has struggled through the past 26 years. The character of Deewan is dedicated to every Kashmiri Pandit who had to leave their home in 1990 and live in a refugee camp for all these years. The characters of Bilal and Safeena are dedicated to all those Kashmiri Muslims who got their lived shattered for no fault of their own and had to live in a bloody cage for all these years. They have both suffered and forced to chose sides against their will, made to sacrifice their friendship for questions they didn’t have the answer of.

When we call Kashmir a paradise, I don’t think it is about the lakes or snow capped mountains. I think it has always been about this extraordinary communal harmony called Kashmiriyatthat existed between Hindu Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims for thousands of years, something which the bond of friendship between Deewan’s and Safeena’s families represents in the book. Today, it is not that piece of land which is a battleground, that is immaterial, it is their friendshipwhich is.

AKT: What you think on an inclusive idea, Kashmiriyat?

SG: Over the past 26 years, Kashmiri Pandits, Kashmiri Muslims as well as the Indian army have suffered by the hands of the conflict, by a common enemy that is terrorism. The first step is to understand that no one’s suffering is smaller or greater. That is what the book attempts to do. Through it’s characters that belong to different shades of the conflict, it brings them all on one common platform of compassion. I think that the question we first need to ask is, do we have compassion for all three alike, and know that hatred towards each other or indulging in ‘but what about them’ arguments will never bring us closer, only an ability to understand the other person’s point of view will.

It is then when we can answer or even raise the question of separate nation or radicalized segment or going back of Kashmiri Pandits or Kashmiriyat or militarization of the valley. These are the very questions that the book raises and answers, be it through the militant Anwar, his leader Captain, the coy soldier Kamal, the self-indulgent General Choudhary, the exiled Deewan, the innocent Safeena or the vengeful Bilal.

I don’t think building separate areas for Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims is a solution. Walls will always divide and separate areas will always mean the same, be it in Kashmir or any other part of India. I am of a strong belief that Kashmiriyat can and will return to the valley. However, what it definitely needs first is to build confidence among the local citizens that they are our own as any other people in any other part of India. The local people itself are also the key to capturing the militants that destroy the social fabric of the valley.The second aspect is to provide security to the returning Pandits, because the terrorists will want to use this as an opportunity to further create the divide between the Pandits and the local Kashmiri Muslims, which will eventually harm them both.

People who have not been to Kashmir and only heard/read about it through social media may find it strange to know that Kashmiris (both Pandits and Muslims) are in fact one of the most coy, polite and good natured human beings. A popular movie once showed that many youth of India don’t take birth with a desire to become an engineer, but circumstances make them so. Likewise, a Kashmiri kid doesn’t take birth and decide to be a stone pelter, circumstances make him so.

The local Kashmiri doesn’t want to pick up the gun and kill their Kashmiri Pandit friends who may return to the valley, just like Bilal doesn’t want to when Deewan comes back. Does Deewan fear Bilal when he returns twenty years later? Yes he does, it is natural to. He also knows, however, that there is a difference between Anwar and Bilal, between a terrorist and a civilian that the book shows us, and our common enemy is that terrorist lurking under the garb of a civilian, no one else.

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Atul K Thakur is a public policy professional, management consultant, journalist, and writer who specialises in the interface of politics and economics. His research and writing interests extend to macroeconomic polices and international affairs, with special focus on South Asia. He is an alumnus, inter alia, of Banaras Hindu University and has worked across sectors, spanning policy research, management consultancy, publishing and media