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'For Now, It Is Night': Ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances

Hari Krishna Kaul’s short stories deal with Kashmir’s tragedy with nuance—they are rife with universal elements that breach the narrow strictures of time and place

Hari Krishna Kaul’s book is about the loss of the city and self. (iStockphoto)

By Kinshuk Gupta

LAST PUBLISHED 28.11.2023  |  10:00 AM IST

The reasons for the violence in Kashmir and its aftereffects have been poignantly explored in recent accounts such as Madhuri Vijay’s award-winning novel A Far Field, Shahnaz Bashir’s blistering tale about a lost son in The Half Mother, Mirza Waheed’s moving story of love against the backdrop of political insurgency in The Book of Gold Leaves. For Now, It is Night, the erudite translation of Hari Krishna Kaul’s Kashmiri stories, uses yet another vantage point: the lives of common people struggling with crackdowns, political anarchy, and a deeply unsettling sense of loss of the city and the self.

Hari Krishna Kaul (1934–2009), who received the Sahitya Akademi Award for Kashmiri fiction in 2000, began writing in Hindi and Urdu but shifted to Kashmiri in the mid-1960s. His debut collection of short stories in Kashmiri, published in 1972, won him immediate acclaim, delving as it did into minute details of Kashmiri Hindu life. “Children who gave meaning to my meaningless life," he remarked in the preface about his writing. Soon, his life was enveloped by meaninglessness as he had to flee his beloved Kashmir in the well-known Pandit exodus of 1990. Such was the hurry that he lost most of his manuscripts.

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In language that is sparse and often alludes to mythical elements (chosen from mystic poet Lal Ded’s couplets), Kaul’s stories are replete with bursts of self-reflection, witty remarks and humour. He is adept at using surreal, absurdist elements. In one of the collection’s best stories, The Tongue And The Egg, two men are rummaging through refrigerators, toppling the baskets for any hint of eggs. When the news of houses being raided reaches the local leader, eggs, the reservoir of vitamins and proteins, become the metaphor for fundamental rights. Passes are being issued by the government to allow entry to the royal mansion whose floors are smeared with egg yolks. Thousands of civilians crouched on the ground, licking the floor to get a smidgeon of nutrition is a deeply disturbing image, and somebody in the background guffaws—the humiliating mix of saliva and egg yolk makes for a spotless floor that can’t be achieved with machines. When the tongues are busy satisfying primal hunger, how would they be used to speak up and assert?

A similar metaphor is exploited in The News, which details how propaganda turns into news when the omniscient narrator remarks about a dead Bab, "But his mouth, kept tightly shut for so many years, was now open." The way the desire to procure basic rights turns people into cogs of an exploitative regime is apt and prescient—and stands testament to the writer's craft.

The translators—Kalpana Raina (Kaul’s niece who spearheaded the effort), Tanveer Ajsi, Gowhar Fazili and Gowhar Yaqoob—handpicked the stories from four of his collections, Pata Laraan Parbat (1972), Haalas Chhu Rotul (1985), Yeth Razdanay (1996) and Zool Apaerim (2001). The translation feels natural, with no forceful embellishments, maintaining the sparseness of Kaul’s prose. A more comprehensive introduction trying to map the writer’s literary journey or situating the stories in the broader sociopolitical unrest, however, would have helped a reader unfamiliar with the terrain.

For Now, It Is Night: By Hari Krishna Kaul, translated by Kalpana Raina Tanveer Ajsi, Gowhar Fazili and Gowhar Yaqoob, published by Harper Perennial, 216 pages, 399.

Another interesting craft point is the use of weather to delineate emotions. While Western writers tend to use the cold to invoke a glum, depressive mood, here, the metaphor extends to silencing by brute force. In A Late Winter, an ageing couple keeps returning to Kashmir at the end of winter, only to realise that the stormy weather, a metaphor for political unrest, stretches. While the son, forced to work in Delhi and hating it, complains about his father’s illnesses, the father suddenly says, “The winter won’t be for long," referring to Kashmir’s weather as well as his own decline.

In the first story Sunshine, we meet Poshkuj, a white-haired, wrinkled woman who shifted to Delhi from Srinagar. While basking in the afternoon sun is a definite respite, she grapples with the dichotomy of “traditional" and “modern". In a telling scene, when the daughter-in-law wants to work, she is suddenly aghast. Why would you want her to work, she questions her son, when your salary is just enough. The son’s desire to scale the social hierarchy is deemed as greed by her. In an acutely observed scene, the difference between Miss and Mrs.—the mannerisms and subtle hypocrisy when they can be called by name—unnerves her. She feels like a misfit and begins to think if she should return to Kashmir, and the story, like most others, ends on an indecisive note. But one thing's for sure—she wants to take baskets full of sunshine with her.

Nevertheless, some stories take the worn-out, cliched plot points. Like the plain remorse of parents for a son who doesn't wish to return from abroad in the story The Lights On The Other Side, or a husband who was otherwise a good man but never consummated his marriage in The Saint And The Witch could have been saved by fleshing out the psychological dilemma of the central characters or by subverting the accepted narrative.

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Even as Kaul’s stories deal with Kashmir’s tragedy with measured detachment and nuance, they are rife with universal elements that breach the narrow strictures of time and place. His steadfast belief in humanity makes these stories urgent, compelling, and relevant even after half a century.

Kinshuk Gupta is a resident doctor and writer of Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chor Darwaja, a book on LGBT short fiction.

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