Ensnared in Identity
Book: No Exit
Author: Areeba Nasir
Price: Rs 140
Publisher: Pigeon Books, New Delhi
Areeba Nasir’s debut novel grapples with the difficulties of being a Kashmiri Muslim, writes Mohammad Zeyaul Haque.
Salman Rushdie’s Moor, surrounded by white people, feels trapped inside his relatively darker skin that brands him as an outsider, the loathed “other”. He would readily peel off the hated dark skin to show the white surface underneath, if only he could.
For Nasir’s hero, Ruslaan, being a Kashmiri Muslim is a lose-lose situation, a trap from which there is no escape. In the Valley, the natural habitat itself, being a Kashmiri Muslim is quite a grind: frisking by security personnel, arrests, encounters, disappearances, mindless violence and collective defamation as a relentless, daily routine.
Ruslaan faces a wall of prejudice and hostility in the national capital as well. He is helpless when a Kashmiri friend of his is picked up by security personnel, ostensibly for questioning. The friend disappears, as it always happens, without a trace.
Desperate to help his friend who, he is convinced, is innocent, Ruslaan tries his best to do something about it, going to the extent of exposing himself to the deadly risk of being branded a fellow “terrorist.”
Another friend of his, whose sister he is set to marry, tries to dissuade him from doing this. He refuses to listen to him, ignores the friend’s well-meaning advice and goes ahead. Finally, he is told that his proposed marriage would be cancelled if he does not stop from exposing himself and people close to him to mortal risk. He pays no heed, and the marriage is cancelled (nonetheless, he marries the young woman without her family’s blessings). Despite all the heartache and heartbreak, the Kashmiri friend is not traced.
The troubles of being a Kashmiri Muslim seem to have no end. Ruslaan goes to the United States, and in time becomes a great scientist. He gets high honours for his work, but his Kashmiri identity, like a magnet, draws iron pins, doubts and suspicions of others around him.
By the time he gets back to the Valley, his father is long dead. Ruslaan comes to learn that his father was proud of his achievements in the US and had been keeping a file of newspaper clippings about him. Things have changed a lot in Kashmir. People have got older, some have passed away. The gloom has deepened and nostalgia has given a sad aspect to everyday existence.
The family moves on to Delhi as the emotional baggage seems too heavy to carry in the Valley. And, lo and behold! Once again, the Kashmiri identity and the attendant worries are there to confront them.
What strikes one about the book is the complete empathy with which Nasir writes. She is a Dilliwali, daughter of parents who came from UP. She has just finished her MA in English from Delhi University and has no special connection to Kashmir. Yet, she writes about Kashmiri life, its day-to-day rhythms, its cuisine, its flavours and its strong pull at the heart’s strings like someone who was born and raised in the Valley.
Being a debut novel, the occasional mush and melodrama is understandable. So is the stridency about hijab, a position which could have been stated in milder terms. All said, No Exit makes interesting reading.