Published in 2014, An Isolated Incident by Soniah Kamal is an English novel with incredible depth about the lives of Kashmiris, both inside Kashmir and outside, and how their plight is forgotten in the tussle between between India and Pakistan for the region. The story takes place during the 90s in Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan and USA.
Zari Zoon, a vivacious girl from Kashmir, is looking forward to marrying her fiance when tragedy strikes. Next thing she know, she is on a plane to America to stay with distant relatives who have offered to give her a temporary home to help her stitch back the tatters of her life.
Billy Nabi, fiercely tender-hearted, longs to help Zari but the choices he makes will jeopardize them all.
An Isolated Incident is a story of haunting memories and yearnings of a home lost, of a faith continuously tested and questioned and of a love that blossoms against all odds.
Bliss Vs Knowledge
18 year old Zari Zoon is living with family in IoK (Indian Occupied Kashmir) where her sister Kiran comes to visit, bringing her son Baz as well, from Dubai. Zari remembers a time when she could move around freely, but now military and police are everywhere and it’s no longer safe. Her best friend Sonea often visits and share both good and bad times. Zari’s family gets a surprise visit during the night where they are bundled into a room by freedom fighters who leave in the morning. Few days later, when Zari’s fiance Imran comes for a visit from Australia, unknown men murder the whole family (including Imran and Sonea) and gang rape Zari.
She survives, carrying a bullet wound and lifetime’s worth of terrifying memories. She goes to her aunt’s place in Rawalpindi, Pakistan but doesn’t find peace. Finally, she is sent to distant relations place in USA, the Nabis. Amman and Shahla are very accommodating Kashmiri couple who take Zari in until she heals. Their own children, Billal and Salsabil, are close to Zari’s age with an American lifestyle; but while Billal is brooding for being denied the history of Nabi family back in Kashmir, Salsabil has wholeheartedly embraced American life. The youngest sibling is Miraag, 4 year old who reminds Zari of her nephew Baz.
The story primarily follows Zari’s perspective until she reaches USA and from there it switches between Zari and the Nabis’ a lot. Billal and Zari are the protagonist of the story, each with a history in Kashmir, and Billal tries to find that which Zari is trying to forget. Zari has memories … memories so painful she has to cut herself to bear; memories she wants to forget and get over. Billal has a peaceful life but he wants to know the truth that he is being kept from by his parents Amman and Shehla … the truth about his freedom fighter grandfather Abdullah Nabi. This ultimately takes him to Kashmir to train with the Mujahideen and the whole experience is affected by global relations between various nations.
Attention to details
Be it Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan or USA, the author has clearly made efforts to make the description as realistic as possible. From Zari’s encounter with Indian army men to cultural shock in US, all have been incorporated effortlessly in the narrative. Not just the physical aspect but also philosophical, psychological, cultural and geo political elements strongly enhance the story. The following passage about freedom fighters give a good idea about author’s command over these elements:
She watched through the window as the intruders, having stuffed themselves with breakfast, and packed the leftovers, walked out the driveway and disappeared into the morning mist as if they were college boys stooped with books and thoughts and not weapons and a cause. Militants. Guerrillas. Insurgents. Freedom Fighters. Zari didn’t even know what to call them anymore. She remembered a time when they’d invoke safety, not terror. A time when they’d genuinely belonged to Kashmir, when they had been indigenous fighters and not men overtaken by foreign forces with agendas of their own to push. Now their knocks – whether in a remote village or in her upper-middle-class neighborhood – were met with curses and their forced recruitment with suicides. No one knew which group was knocking, native or outsides, asli or naqli, real or impostor. Which group will shoot you for sheer practice, sheer sport, sheer rage at someone or some other situation that the laws of transference had delivered to your door.
These fighters, once rising to fix what was broken in the land, now a part of the shards themselves, breaking apart as they were into different groups fighting for supremacy amongst themselves; some pro-independence, some pro-Pakistan, some under the Indian government’s counter insurgency payroll, and some neither for nor against, just that it felt good to be powerful, thanks to the gun in their hands, the gun that enabled them to bleed each other for different goals although the end results were identical: injecting misery into the lives of ordinary Kashimri citizens.
While story in Pakistan is not that descriptive, the feel of the land and culture is good. It is rather unclear how Zari reaches Pakistan. Kashmir and USA have been described in detail and the culture of both locations oozes from the pages as the author illustrates the neighborhoods, shops, people, behavior, relations and expectations. Lifestyle is similarly covered and an illustration on media’s role provides stark image how narrative is affected the way things are described:
Billy sat absolutely still. If he moved, he would fall. If he looked at anyone’s face, he would crack. If he allowed himself to crack, he would die. Everyone rose for the last prayers of the day and Billy rose too, stumbling through the prayers, through the words, the motions. Nothing virulent had ever been shown at any meeting back home and even the media made sure that death and destruction were cleansed of guts and gore. A fence lined with teddy bears and ribbons and flowers represented hit and run. Shocked neighbors represented the body of a murder victim. A camera panning the outside of a house represented the lair of a serial killer. War, too, was sanitised. Soldiers returned in flag-draped coffins, while battlefields were marked with cenotaphs and bereft relatives looking away from the camera into sombre skies. Nothing like this continuous footage of carnage Billy has just been force fed.
These, and many such passages throughout the novel, exemplify the realities touched upon time and again to make sense of the world Zari and Billal were now living in. Most of these are brutally honest, holding wide spectrum of realities threaded through conflicting cultures and making sense of a mess that otherwise eludes the common person. One example is Fahad’s family when they visit Zari and bring their grandmother along. The authority of grandmother, how her approval of Zari despite knowing her background, leaves the family powerless despite an American upbringing.
Some of the areas were not so well detailed. A particular example that stands out is Billal’s trip from Peshawar into Afghanistan. Although vivid, the description of his journey lacked the x-factor which is apparent in other description of other areas.
Since the story takes place in the 90s, at one point Salsabil asks Zari to email her the grocery list. Although email systems such as Yahoo and Hotmail were becoming common, it is unclear if it was part of lifestyle to regularly check emails at work. Also, right after emailing the list, Zari searches “Rape” terms and is disgusted by the results and images she finds. It should be noted that during 90s the search engine frequently used was Yahoo and porn or rape fantasies was not something easily available over the internet. How Zari easily find them (and which search engine she used) is not explained.
Nationhood – Safety – Irrational Love
Kashmir is the central point in this novel. The love for the land and for the people has led people in various directions. It is a source of pride, nationhood as well as irrational love. Zari’s father loved the land so much it bordered on madness, and that irrational love ended up with the death of the Zoon family. Mauj Ji (sister of Amman’s father) loved the land irrationally, her own life ruined as a result. Nearly every Kashmiri experienced irrational love of one kind or the other.
Pain, loss, suffering dominate the lives of Kashmiris living in Kashmir and painful memories for those who migrated abroad. Those who moved abroad settled for a life of peace and safety, a far cry from their experiences back home. Amman’s description argument aptly sums it up:
“Nullify differences, ignore them, celebrate them, find a balance … this is the new trick the old dog must learn if it is not to blow itself up. I just do not believe that breaking countries up on communal or religious or ethnic lines will lead to the ultimate happiness of all those involved. I like to believe that diverse people can live together as long as law and order and justice are meted out equally. But then again,” Amman said, “I live in the United States of America; I must believe in this.”
In similar fashion Amman also deals with realities of life where idealism fails:
“Let me tell you!” Amman sat up. “The end of insurgency does not necessarily means a government better than the one being resisted. It does not mean an end to the bribery and corruption that are rampant in state systems; it does not mean the institution of measures to reign in poverty, or programs to teach ex-freedom fighters a profession. Instead, these unsung ‘heroes’, as I am sure you’d like to call them, are left high and dry with no education and no practical skills to support themselves and their families in the new world with its changed order. Eventually, these discontented men either turn to overthrowing the very establishment they helped put into place or else, they turn to crime because crime pays better than some menial, back-breaking, reward-less job.
“Look at me Billal,” Amman stares into Billy’s eyes. “Freedom fighters don’t get medals, they don’t get any honours. My mother made sure I understand that, and I will make sure you do too before you get caught up in romancing an exaggerated idealisation of a lie.”
Strong feelings and emotions about loss are expressed at various points and they are not limited to Kashmir alone. At one place when Shehla’s brother and his wife Barbara come to stay for a few days, Zari inquires about the loss of Barbara’s son to which she replies in heart-felt words:
“Children whose parents die are called orphans, but there is no such word for parents who have lost their children. Omissions like that used to frighten me. As if the world was Godless just because my language was incomplete.”
Kashmiris to the core
Most of the characters in the novel are Kashmiris, though there are sizeable number of non-Kashmiri people the reader comes across. They all share a sense of longing and belonging, cultural confusion, search for peace and safety, camaraderie and a sense of loss that has evolved with the passage of time. The people are very real with problems, aspirations, queries, opinions and stigmas.
Zari is a broken orphan girl trying to mend itself in a foreign land and culture. Billal is in love with the idea of freedom and freedom fighters. Amman has blocked out previous life in order to peacefully live in the USA. Shehla does not want her children to suffer what she and her elders suffered. Salsabil is practical and bold person who doesn’t skip a beat to call spade a spade. Various other people they interact with have their own lives and motivations and they have been meticulously described.
Amman’s character, one of the major characters, is fleshed out after nearly half the book is done. Compared to others he really has an interesting past that lends credence to his current behavior as a father and son of a freedom fighter.
Most of the perspective is through Zari eyes while Billal’s life takes dominance for the last quarter of the novel. We also get to see the world through Shehla and Amman’s perspective though not for long periods. At some places, sometimes within the same paragraph, the perspective shifts between the characters and it requires a double take to make sure which character are we looking through.
Blunt and Honest
Soniah Kamal has used simple and straight forward words to describe incidents and events, involving the reader with whatever was happening in the story. Where ideas and philosophy was used, there is a complete absence of flowery language. The words are used with brutal honesty, hitting the nail on the head at every turn. Words of Urdu as well as Kashmiri are incorporated efficiently within the narrative without breaking the flow and are followed by their meanings.
Cultural references are skilfully placed, proving the author’s knowledge and understanding of various places. The dialogues are well crafted and words spoken are authentic enough to highlight general mindset of the character. Salsabil was blunt, Billal too idealistic, Shehla being practical, Zari quite introverted and Amman conflicted.
This is the first novel on Kashmir that is capable of irking everyone around the line-of-control, be they Pakistanis, Indians or Kashmiris. Perhaps there in lies the path to better understand each other. An Isolated Incident is not so isolated as it covers lives of Kashmiris across the globe. Albeit slow, it’s a must read novel to better understand the plight of Kashmir and Kashmiris.Tags: An Isolated Incident, Novel on Kashmir, Pakistani fiction, Sonial Kamal