Monday, July 8, 2013

'Ailan Gali Zinda Hai' by Chandrakanta. Translated by Manisha Chaudhary

A Street in Srinagar (2010)
Ailan Gali Zinda Hai by Chandrakanta. Translated from Hindi by Manisha Chaudhary.
[Earlier published as 'Between the Seven Bridges' (2009)]


On the night of Khech Mavas/Khichdi Amavas/Yagya Amavasya/Yech Amavas /Yaksha Amavas a thief breaks into a house in a street in Srinagar. A woman raises an alarm. Neighbours come running. The thief while trying to make a hasty escape, tumbles down a window and dies. The brotherhood of thieves swears revenge. The street fears obliteration, of wealth and women. A settlement is mediated. A declaration is made that henceforward all the households in the street shall pay a small monthly payout to the brotherhood of thieves. Since that day, that street where no thieves shall venture, came to be known as Declaration Street or Ailan Gali. Hence, the strange unidentifiable as Kashmiri title of Hindi novel by Chandrakanta.

 In the first chapter of 'Ailan Gali Zinda Hai', author Chandrakanta while giving the story of origin of the street name beautifully merges the ancient folklore associated with Khech Mavas, about peace treaty between the demi-gods and humans, a war settled for a bowl of Khichdi, and the modern treaty amounting to blood money in instalments, or a ransom paid out to thieves with honor for being left alone. The ancient code merging with the new. Much like Ailan Gali, where the ancient and the new merge to form what may be called day-to-day life. In the end, thieves prove to be of least worry to the streets, the real threat to the street comes from within. The new struggling to be newer, and sometimes old, and sometimes both. While the old, their ancient wisdom struggling to explain the conundrum, their only self-comforting explanation - 'Kalyug'.

It essentially a growing up tale of a kid in a typical Kashmiri neighbourhood in downtown, on a street which hasn't seen sun's light for ages. Where the old guards hold on to hope like they hold on to faith. But where the new guard is losing both. But maybe there is hope. Maybe the street will live and the circles of life continue. The light shall indeed be born out of darkness. Or may be not.

The reader is drawn intimately into the lives of the people who live on this street as the author tells us about their most intimate secrets, shows us their private wounds, walks us into their dreams and nightmares, and describes their public rituals of joys. And that makes these characters flesh and blood. And what characters: an orthodox mother who wishes her son be adopted by a friend, maybe for the money; a woman who can't bear children loves a neighbourhood kid like a son; a husband-less 'keep', a feisty woman who raises a daughter in an unorthodox way;  a beautiful daughter who withers away as she tries to keep an old long dead love alive by not marrying another; a 'refugee' girl who runs away to marry a Muslim boy; a wise old Masterji, a tailor, who wouldn't see the face of his grandson even as he wants to because his son broke the "neighbourhood code"; old men who try to feel alive again by getting young wives, sometimes getting unlucky and sometimes getting lucky; ambitious young wives who want to live their own lives, run their own kitchens; a priest who steels temple money to raise his children; a sagely Master ji, a teacher who abets his own son's suicide and drives a daughter man; a son who doesn't go anywhere and looks after his own parents; sons who dream of crossing seven seas and sons who go off to distant lands.

Although, the stories are told though the mind of male characters, and the drama unfold due to actions of men, since the tales are from a Kashmiri household, we soon realize that the actual stage on which the drama unfold is held on the strong shoulders of women. Even the dislocation painfully felt by some men over loss of home, on some scale is felt by all women after marriage. Probably explains why the book has been published by a feminist publication (Zubaan). It is the women characters in the book that really stand out for their ways of looking at life and its challenges.

Towards the end of the story we read, "If you look back, you'll find the longest journey will flash before you in an instant. But if ou try to look into the future you'll not be able to see even an instant."

Ironically, it seems this book wasn't just looking into the past, but also into future. This most poignant yet funny tale of Kashmiri displacement was first published in 1988. The characters that bravely or disquietly stayed put in the street, probably got displaced in 1990. The street is now gone.

At a later point in the story, the text from the novel crosses from the domain literature and into the familiar Kashmiri domain of 'other world' that famously pre-occupies the mind of most Kashmiris. The text offers a prophecy and it offers an ancient advise by great Grand-mother of the land, Lal Ded. Al though the book is sprinkled with lot a Kashmiri says, old song, even long forgotten persian one, this particular time the text moves into sacred domain.

Ratni, the feisty 'keep', a throbbing pulse of the neighbourhood, is dying of cancer. Her son-in-law has come to take she away. Away from Ailan Gali so that her daughter can take care of her in her last days. As she leave, in a half-dead state, her  only last words to tearful residents of the Galli are the famous verses of Lal Ded:

Shev Chhuy Thali-Thali Rozaan
Mo Zaaan Kyon Hayond Ta Musalmaan,
Trukhai Chhuk Pannui, Zaan Parzaan,

[Shiv is imbued in eveyone. Make no difference between Hindu or Muslim. Know yourself first and that wil be really knowing Shiv]

It offers us scenes from future, it foretells the question that our hearts now ask. The question that in the end a history loving madman named Bhoota alias Lambodar Prasad Kakpori ask our main protagonist when he is about to start a new life outside Kashmir:

"Kalhan Gani te Sarfi, sairab kari yami aban, suy ab sanya bapath, jehre hilal astha?" (The water of the land which nurtured learned men like Kalhan, Gani and Sarfi, will that water turn to poison for us?)

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Chandrakanta now lives in Gurgaon. I write this living next to the Arabian Sea. We were both born next to a Himaliyan river. My mother told me stories of a woman named Savidhaan Ded who once pushed down a thief from third floor.

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Buy A Street in Srinagar from Flipkart.com [You can also read extracts from the book there]

Oddly, the copy I ordered came signed by the author. Probably a complimentary copy meant for someone.

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 Two houses in intimate conversation. Somewhere in downtown Habba Kadal, 2008
Last night food had no salt. When he enquired, she told him, "Old fool, you have lost your mind. Just Eat." So how was your last night. No they don't share bed anymore. So how was your last night.

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