Formidable and imposing, confounding but stunning, subtle yet weighty, The Lion of Kashmir is a pathbreaking work, in its surreal narrative, the fluid/static narration, and the unreliable narrator. Kashmir’s territorial conflict has percolated into the psyche of its people, leaving ordinary minds struggling to find meaning of their troubled existence under warped conditions while holding on to vestiges of their crumbling sanity.
The Lion of Kashmir, a winding labyrinth of the human mindscape, explores this convoluted life. On the surface, it is a daughter’s account of trying to comprehend her relationship with her father within the frame of her “home” – “Kashmir has become a strange place…It seems unreal and hypnotic like a movie set or a fantasy. It entices with its false pretence…” At another level, however, the novel also documents an alternative history of a derelict paradise and its people’s fragmented existence, conflicts betweem identities, ideologies and affiliations.
What makes Siddhartha Gigoo’s third novel remarkable but also taxing is the portrayal of the inner psychosomatic processes of the protagonist, Zooni, who returns home from her more secure life in London to look for her missing father, Abdul Aziz, a commandant in the Special Forces. In the process, as the internal rhythms of thought and experience are unravelled, the novel fortifies that what we believe to be reality has a contrasting shadow too, especially when it comes to Kashmir.
Stream of consciousness
The Lion of Kashmir, divided into three sections, opens with a prologue – a dream sequence where Zooni plots to kill her brother, Zubair, by throwing him into the river on the pretext of teaching him to swim. It sets the pitch of the novel: exploring reality through the unreal. As Zooni says, “Your dreams can’t compare with mine…I knew they weren’t true but I believed them.”
Bringing forth Jorge Luis Borges’s idea of how the mind organises elements for a different realm, be it that of memory, hallucination, illusion or dreams, in which an individual can shape, share and confide their inner thoughts, Gigoo seems to reiterate the implication of Borges’s works – the “creative act of Being is one that alters the totality of Being, it alters the past and the future”. Neither of them can be exclusive.
The very setting of the shadow boundaries, “Penumbra” and “Umbra”, as the names for the first two sections – though the third is simply titled “The Journal of Abdul Aziz” – hints at the prosaic acceptance of incomprehensibility of what perhaps exists beyond the physical. Gigoo blends realms of dreams, imagination, memory and delusion into everyday experiences, blurring the line between reality and fabrications of the mind while deconstructing the truths of reality.
Through the technique of stream of consciousness, he offers a unique perspective on life, situations and events in Kashmir, resulting in what French philosopher Henri Bergson enunciates as the principle of giving “a direct quotation of the mind”. While Zooni recollects her past, the delusional interfaces reflect not only the complexities of her relationships with her father – “Dad is talking to me. But I can’t see him. He says I’m in his sight.” – but also the interstices between power struggles and contrasting ideological affiliations in the Valley – “He knew survival was almost next to impossible. The very people he fought were his own people but he still fought them because he knew they were wrong.” However, as the real and the fictitious overlap in this text, a sense of ambiguity takes over, even as readers are acquainted with new dimensions of the novel and its world.
Memory and time
Indeed, reality need not be confined to rationality, and for an individual, it may simply be an elaborate illusion. As part of the workings of Zooni’s consciousness, random images are conjured up which are part-real part-imaginary: “A woman standing next to me is looking at me with mischief in her eyes…Her nose is flat…In the sky float small reflections of people familiar and unfamiliar. One such face is of the flat-nosed girl looking intently at me with a strange expression and a desire to make me remember her.”
Zooni comes across the flat-nosed character again later in the safe-house in her mindspace where she awaits Uncle Dar, her Dad’s subordinate, to come for her and Zubair. She is the rustic girl, Muknas, who saves calves, even Zooni, only to cut her wrist subsequently – “Look at what you have done, Flatnose. You have mistaken me for yourself.” Identities blur; who is saving whom?
It is through the interface of these two female characters that Gigoo renders into language some of the nuances of mood and existence amidst a conflict, the countless fleeting shades of meaning, in order to capture the sentiment in its tainted essence. The next morning’s newspaper reports the killing of Salim Dar by the militants and his daughter’s suicide: “Uncle Dar’s daughter, whom I’d spent the night with and whom I called flatnose, is smiling and happy.” The border between wakefulness and sleep, dreams and reality, calls into question the degree to which liminality actually exists, persuading the reader to quest
Zooni feels the need to “assess the present” and “hold someone responsible for everything”, but the “only way forward is going backwards”. And yet she must navigate the past to make sense of the present. The narrative oscillates between the past and the present, bringing to mind Bergson’s interpretation of the phenomenon of memoir par excellence, whereby the involuntary memory, unlike the voluntary memory, “stores up past by the mere necessity of its own nature”.
It is through this kind of memory that Gigoo conveys a sense of reality that is both vital and dynamic. It is, in fact, in memoire involuntaire that one can witness a perfect juxtaposition of the past and the present. The novel negates linearity in an attempt to replicate the constant accumulation and reinvention of memory.
An engaging corollary drawn is the idea of time in relation to memory, underscoring how past, present and future resist definitive distinctions, all three existing simultaneously in the act of remembering. As the symbolism of time acquires greater significance in the novel, one is reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment: “Man’s misfortune lies in his being time-bound…time is your misfortune.”
As with Gigoo’s earlier works, this one too exudes the traumas and presents the inward textures of consciousness in a prose that is woven with intelligence, unpredictability and tough truths. The Lion of Kashmir is a work of profoundly moving depth, intriguing and mystifying at the same time. Though disconcerting, the dialogical intersections make it a powerful narrative, with the effect diffusing through the reader’s contemplative psyche. There is to the discerning reader a distinct paradox at the centre of Gigoo’s writing, the ontological question, called the Borgesian conundrum, of “whether a writer writes the story or it writes him”.