Tuesday, April 24, 2012

17 tomatoes : tales from Kashmir by Jaspreet Singh

17 tomatoes : tales from Kashmir by Jaspreet Singh
First published 2004. 
Publisher : IndiaInk (2006)
Rs. 225

It is one of those book in which something really strange happens exactly on page 30. In this one, an ageing Sardarji who is about to Umpire an India-Pakistan cricket match in Srinagar gets kidnapped by a bunch of veiled Kashmiri women who want him make India win so that a vengeful Army does not destroy their homes in case India loses. The episode ends with Sardarji getting fatally hit by a ball to his head and the match ending in an nail-biting towards an Indian win, a win decided by the dying man trying to save his recently one eared daughter. This is just one of the many strange tales told in this book about two Sikh boys growing up in an Army camp.


The stories draw on the time tested formula of telling 'growing-up' stories and 'Kashmir'. So we have spin-offs on events that really happened, in this case Kargil war, The Cricket match, the 'milk-guzzling-Ganesh', (and I suspect Top Gun?) things like that. For Kashmir, we have silent un-speaking Kashmiris and we have Kashmiris who have strange view of the world, which include its poets. There was a time when no book on Kashmir could be published without a line or two from Thomas Moore. It seems that literary space have now been accorded to our very own Agha Shahid Ali. So we have a tale about a captured Pakistani ISI Intelligence officer and an Indian Intelligence officer, his interrogator,  both lovers of  Shahid. And in between the author pays tribute to master story-tellers. Author does a little number on Manto - in one of the stories, in a obvious allusion to a Manto story, we have a bewda Major named Manto who is haunted by thoughts of his run-away wife.  Then there are tales that are inspired by Rushdie's work - there are passages that offer what seems to be magic realism, or it's just that the realities offered here are just oddly unrecognizable as they unfold in Kashmir that is almost unrecognizable (even the geography of it) in these tales. (What would one call a pregnant woman who develops a fetish for jumping down from hill tops. A parachute aunty). Oddly enough when the action shifts to Indian plane, even though the oddness continues, the canvas on which they unfold become recognizable with all their madness and violence.

Strange set of stories, almost like 'The Wonder Years' meets 'The Twilight Zone' meets Kashmir meets India. Nah...I exaggerate. Just another book on Kashmir. But this one about two Sikh boys growing up in an Army camp. And yet a happy read because the writer has deliberately kept things simple. The real problem is that as not all these tales were written originally to be part of a single tale, reading them together is a bit confusing, if for no other reason, just the timeline of the stories.


P.S. I like the fact that in one of the stories that old villain of Kashmiri women, Victor Jacquemont is made butt of a joke. How did he get away with saying something like this, 'In Kashmir, my friend, I find it difficult to disrobe and make love until I have satisfactorily explained to my beloved Kepler's laws of planetary motion.' But to be fair, in this particular case Jacquemont was making a fool of himself by talking about a French actress named Mademoiselle Schiasetti.

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