Shabir Ahmad Mir finished editing his first novel for publication through the hard days of the covid-19 lockdown. For the writer, this period was not entirely unfamiliar. Born in Gudoora village in Kashmir’s Pulwama district, he studied at a local school, and then a college in Srinagar. Frequent curfews and internet blackouts have been par for the course for Kashmiris for decades now, and so it was for Mir.
But, on 5 August last year, as the Union government revoked the special status of the region guaranteed by Article 370 of the Constitution, an unusually long spell of communication blackout descended. Even by the draconian standards of suppression experienced by Kashmiris, this extended period of darkness was uniquely harrowing.
The Plague Upon Us, Mir’s powerful debut, distils the current bleakness of life in Kashmir, the pent-up historical rage of his people, and the enduring sense of betrayal that haunts generations. The story has the urgency of a Greek tragedy and the ambitions of an experimental novel. The epigraph harks back to a scene of devastation described by the Greek writer Sophocles in his play Oedipus Rex, where the city of Thebes, ruled by Oedipus, is reeling under a deadly plague. In Sophocles’ graphic description, “unpitied, her children lie on the ground, spreading pestilence,/with none to mourn”.
Apart from being visually arresting, the imagery resonates for its ability to capture a moment of truth that stretches its long arm into our times. “Whoever has witnessed a Kashmiri funeral where women—young and old—mourn the untimely loss of their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, would find it difficult to believe that those verses by Sophocles were written for anything else,” Mir says on email. “Perhaps grief speaks in the same language: across time, across space. And perhaps grief always asks the same question: Is survival worth the suffering?” It’s a question that his novel asks, too.
The Plague Upon Us tells the interlocking stories of four childhood friends, who grow up close but drift apart due to the force of circumstances. Oubaid, the son of Aziz Pohal, a shepherd, is one of the quartet, fated to be mocked for his lowly origins, a pawn in the hands of the army as well as the insurgents fighting for azadi (freedom). If his predicament is an accident of fortune, there are others around him who are playing a more deliberate and dangerous game, where commercial interests mingle with patriotic fervour.
Oubaid’s mother’s adoptive family, the much more privileged Zaeldars, for instance, have an equal stake in keeping the army on their side and the militants appeased. Much depends on maintaining this fragile balance—their business prospects, social prestige and, most of all, matters of life and death. Oubaid’s personal safety, for instance, is tied to the goodwill of the Zaeldars, and also to the covert protection offered by his friend Muzaffar, who turns to militancy after his journalist father is killed. And finally, there is Sabia, the daughter of a local social climber, smarting from her thwarted affection for Obaid, who introduces an inadvertent love triangle into the plot.
“I wanted to start with a core story, a stereotypical black and white one,” says Mir, “then challenge the readers by making them revisit the same story after changing the character dynamics through a change in the perspective, as well as by revealing a different aspect of the story (each time).” Not only is such a narrative architecture, reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, tough to construct, it is just as challenging is to keep it fresh in the reader’s mind.
Each section, designated as a “tale” in the manner of the story cycles of yore, allows the reader a deep dive into one situation, which is then revisited from the perspective of a different character in the one that follows. The process is repeated multiple times, relentlessly, “so that by the end, readers challenge their own understanding and comprehension of facts presented to them through various narratives”, Mir explains.
Such a narrative analogy also sits appositely with the very nature of the conundrum that is Kashmir, experienced by each stakeholder from a different, usually contradictory, vantage point. Mir not only exploits the philosophical underpinnings of this uncertainty principle for aesthetic reasons, he also makes such radical instability a fundamental aspect of his plot. There are as many truths in his story as there are realities, and everyone, including the cruel army officer, is vulnerable to it. None of the characters is an unqualified monster or a selfless saviour, a cardboard villain or a copybook saint.
It’s the transformative power of fiction, its ability to open up the grey areas that the black and white facts of non-fiction cannot reach, which gives The Plague Upon Us its special edge. “As a writer from Kashmir, or for that matter simply as a writer, fiction provides me with a portal that can lead me to such realities which are far beyond the attestation of facts,” Mir says. “Such realities that non-fiction may never be able to apprehend.”