The Tree with a Thousand Apples
New Delhi: Niyogi Books. 2017
Pp 282 | Rs 350
One of the best fiction works on Kashmir
Do we live in a world defined by binaries or are there any ‘grey zones’ – where the boundaries of good and evil are blurred and sometimes overlap? These questions haunt the reader from the beginning to the end of Sanchit Gupta’s debut novel The Tree with a Thousand Apples. The lines in the blurb, ‘If a criminal was once a saint/ and a saint was once a criminal/ then who is the criminal and who is the saint?’ challenge the absurdity of ‘fixities’ and the reader is forewarned not to be swayed by any preconceived notions about the right and the wrong or the good and the evil since these words are divested of all absolutes. The novelist portrays a world where quest for truth, ethics and morality is as elusive, bewildering and fluid as is the effort to hold ever-slippery sand in the palm.
Meandering through the dark alleys of Kashmir insurgency during 1990, the novel delves deep into the pitfalls of misguided zeal of patriotism and nationalism spanning almost two decades. This is a poignant tale of camaraderie and apathy, crime and catharsis, retribution and atonement, and belongingness and alienation in which these values and feelings keep swinging on the pendulum of its characters’ lives. The novel is a tribute to all the Kashmiri civilians whether Kashmiri Muslims or Kashmiri Pandits who have suffered endless miseries for decades and till this date, their safety is shrouded in the dark clouds of terrorism hovering over the valley.
At the heart of the novel is the intertwined fate of three childhood friends Safeena Malik, Bilal and Deewan Bhat (Kashmiri Pandit). When chaos engulfs Kashmir with the insurgents spreading anarchy and terror in the name of ‘azadi’, Deewan’s brother Ravi (a soldier) is killed during the bomb attack on the army barracks. Deewan’s family is forced to flee Srinagar when the zealot Muslims spread terror by plundering the homes of Kashmiri Pandits, killing them brutally and defiling their women. The peaceful lives of three friends are turned upside down in the aftermath of the fateful night when Safeena loses her mother Saira after the Army Major opens fire killing the innocent Saira apart from the suspects.
The army crackdowns become commonplace in the years following insurgency. What is disturbing is that many a time, it is the guileless people who are victimized to the extent of stripping them off their essential human rights. The power which AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) granted to the army in Kashmir gave them liberty to resort to the lowest level of persecution with full impunity. Though the centre may have denied any such charges leveled against the army officials, the references to fake encounters in Machil, district Kupwara, unlawful detention, rape and sexual abuse, electrocution, forced disappearances of the suspects are founded on the facts and information provided by the people of Kashmir and ingeniously integrated into the plot. Bilal’s older sister, Rehana becomes a victim of double oppression – for being a Kashmiri Muslim and a hapless woman. It is ironical that “She is a prisoner in her country which Allah has chosen for her. She is a prisoner of her identity, which Allah has bestowed upon her” (p 100). There is no accountability for the violation of women’s honour and her murder is trivialized to the extent of making her a complete non-entity. The officer’s brutal remark: “She never existed anyways” (p 104) rips her off the last vestige of the meaning of her life as well as death. The incident compels the reader to come out of one’s comfort zone and witness a harrowing spectacle of desecration as Rehana’s corpse is shoved in a sack. How can the abuse of the act be condoned? The life of the then 16-year old Bilal spirals out of control as he treads on the treacherous path of terror to seek revenge and justice. Eventually, this pursuit leaves his body and soul tattered. Though he yearns for redemption after having witnessed the futility and excesses of ‘jihad’, he knows in his heart of hearts that there is no possibility of coming back from the quagmire of militancy.
The air of disquiet and violence is so contagious that it engulfs even the peace-loving and compassionate nurse Safeena who is forced by circumstances to take the route of militancy as a pathway to justice. As a zombie, she endures the tortures of being raped night after night by an Army General in the hope of finding the truth about her brother Tariq’s whereabouts. Though released from this excruciating trauma by Deewan, her life is scarred forever and the life afterwards in Mumbai with Deewan and his family remains stigmatized. The author without loading his dice in favour of any religious or political orientation brings out the multi-faceted and multi-layered truths of oppression in the garb of ‘jihad’ or ‘nationalism’. “All they want is a hero to worship, and a villain to condemn” (p 278) are Bilal’s words which make one question the intentions and operations of the ideologues whether they belong to the army personnel or the religious extremists. However, the silver lining amidst the grey clouds of pessimism is the flag of selfless friendship and love that stands aloft till the end. It is for the sake of this friendship that Bilal sacrifices his life so that Deewan and Safeena survive, though that might as well be just a flicker of hope.
The cover page of the novel with a prodigious tree loaded with red apples against the blue background is captivating. The cover does full justice to the contents and one can rightly judge the book by its cover. The title is equally rich and suggestive. The tree loaded with a thousand apples becomes a metaphor for the land of bliss, exuberance and opulence which ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Kashmiriyat’ once stood for. The bond between Safeena’s and Deewan’s family transcends the narrow confines of religion and the tree in the backyard corroborates Praveen Bhat’s faith in peace. The author writes, “The tree with a thousand apples stands tall amidst the hedge, with its roots and branches spreading to both the houses, the way it had always been” (p 63). However, this is only a utopian state envisioned by the Kashmiris who become crestfallen when the same terra firma of fulfillment and amity turns into a pandemonium of ideological odium and violence in the hands of fanatics. As the situation becomes tense between Hindu Pandits and Muslims, the apple tree in the backyard becomes a ‘mute spectator who has a million words to say, yet would prefer to remain silent, always” (p 64).
Though the plot of the novel is controversial, yet credit goes to the author for not being skewed in his treatment. The plight of the innocent Kashmiri victims unfolds through the acts of barbarism inflicted on them not only by the militants but also by the armed military and paramilitary forces. The novel has been inspired by some real life incidents which have been woven so seamlessly into the narrative that not even once, any incident seems super-imposed. The author succeeds in synchronizing racy narration with rich and evocative imagery. He has kept the cultural nuances and references of ‘Kashmiriyat’ intact by using the vernacular words and statements. The reader is apprised of the same through footnotes as well as a detailed glossary at the end.
All in all, this is a novel which will leave the readers with many unsettling questions, which will make them cringe in fear, and compel them to cry for its characters. Leaving aside slight discontinuity in narration, this can be ranked as one of the best fiction works written about Kashmir by an emerging writer in the contemporary times. Way to go Sanchit Gupta!