Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Review of Shikargah

A novel in Punjabi by Surinder Neer

Published by Chetna Parkashan, Ludhiana, 2010

Price: Rs. 300

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Surinder Neer's maiden novel Shikargah shows she is a gifted story-teller. I choose the word 'gifted' to indicate her ability to tell her story engagingly and without straining herself. Besides, she has a profuse invention: she does not run out of absorbing situations and manages to sustain the reader's interest in most of them.  She has as much strength to dwell on sorrow and death as the sensibility to register the magic of everyday life. Dying and loneliness do not scare her, which is no small virtue in a writer in these days of profit-driven cultural production.
            Romantic situations are not her forte: the conversations between lovers are generally stilted and unexciting, and the colours of passion are faint and borrowed. But she is at her best in handling encounters across the generations, even when these take place only in memory. Among the most memorable of her characters are the lonely figures struggling to hold the moldering ruins of memories. Relying on their power and human vulnerability, she weaves a tragic epic, albeit somewhat unconsummated, of human relationships blighted by 'all too human' considerations such as those of politics and religion.
            Neer could have been more attentive to the tempo of the novel in its totality. The earlier part is over-paced: a good deal happens, without being allowed to sink in and find its space in the text. There are moments when the narrative demands to enter stillness, to turn inward and step into reflection. But the writer squanders these moments in her race to reach the next post.
            This, however, probably suggests that Neer stands on the edge of another order of artistic reality. She has to listen to the story her story-telling tells. If she knocks, the doors may open. And  yet, she may just never knock. Many do not, only to wither on the threshold, unaware where they happen to be standing. For example, the hasty and somewhat evasive treatment of sexuality, class and war points to the political unconscious of the novel's text which could have been unconcealed in its concealment with some more art. Instead of touching sexuality (including lesbianism) and running away horrified, she could have allowed her ambivalence to work itself into the texture of the novel. Likewise when class forces itself into the landscape of the text, she tries to pull a cover over it with the promptness of an embarrassed housewife:

Muslim men and women worked day and night in the fields. The landownership of the Sikhs depended on these Muslim wage-earners....
...                     ...                     ...
So these diktats did not work and the cultural and economic sharing between Sikhs and Muslims continued the way it had been going on for centuries.

Similarly, when it comes to dealing with war, Neer is in an unwriterly haste. The Kargil episode is disposed of in less than two pages. In fact, she writes more than once that no one knew how all this (political turmoil and violence) had come to happen. The novel would have been better if she had tried to figure this out and not evaded an encounter with history.
With a kind of run-of-the-mill treatment of some 'sequences', the novel as a fictional artifact appears to have succumbed to the cinematic spectacle: a point of contact between the fictional and the cinematic which could have been turned to better creative advantage by bringing out the simulated nature of reality itself in these times. Who says life isn't filmy at all these days? Why shouldn't fiction, too, be such then? But yes, on its own terms – consciously, artistically, politically.
            Neer has earned the gratitude of lovers of Punjabi fiction by extending its canvas in terms of both its thematic-political concerns and its language. Kashmir and Kashmiri deserve a greater presence on the Punjabi literary scene. If she has not been able to do greater justice to the long, complex and rich history of her subject matter, the fault lies equally with the Punjabi academic culture. How adequate is Punjabi language in resources on Kashmir? We cannot reasonably expect the writers to read in all languages except 'our own' yet write in no language except 'our own'.


Badri Raina said...

she must take this fine review as a thoughtful input to her next one, since she clearly has the concern and the stamina to represent significant issues and contradictions.
the review underlines with empathy both her promise and strength, and the areas of experience where might in the future give herself more freedom and latitude.

S. Malhans said...

Dear Rajeshji,

As you will recall, I'd the opportunity to briefly comment on your review of "The Sikh Memory".

I would begin by reiterating what I had said then: You do not introduce the text you mean to evaluate, often harshly. In consequence, the reader is unable to judge whether or not your criticism is fair and legitimate.

You will agree that any particular
detail in a fictional or non- fictional narrative needs to be grasped in relation to its stuctural logic. Therefore, one would first like to ask what the structure of Shikargah is. Does your essay answer this question at any level or at any stage. No.

Take one example about the presence of lesbianism in girls' hostel at Srinagar. In what manner is the reaction of a traditional village girl to what she had seen inappropriate? Now, relate her response to the later observation in the text that probably Rashmi - the helpless Pandit girl - was a victim of the ill-reputed Naheed and you have the exposure of 'terrorism'in all ts brutality and grotesqueness.

Your comment on lesbianism makes no sensee at all. So do many of your other observations, e.g., 'Romantic situations are not her forte'! This is a gratuitous if not
altogether absurd observation, given the way Nikky-Raj relationship is delicately handled
and described.

I ask you an all-important methodological question: why should
the reader accept your interpreta- tion of the novel as objective, accurate or plausible? Why must not he dismiss it as subjective, impressionist and dilettantish? I am not passing a judgement but posing a question to someone adept in literaty theory.

Your writing often reveals a good
grasp of western theory, in particular deconstruction, but
not equallyimpressive applications of it.

S. Malhans