The world of exile has spawned literature of various hues. Residue, the debut novel of academic, poet and author Nitasha Kaul is an important contribution to the literary works on exile, providing a rare insight into the prejudices, inhibitions and the litany of woes associated with it.
Like the author herself, the protagonists of the novel are Kashmiris who grow up outside of Kashmir. Leon Ali is born in Kashmir but grows up in Delhi. Named after the revolutionary Trotsky by a Communist father who vanishes just before his birth, he is brought up by his mother in the Delhi of the 1990s. Life is tough for a mother who single-handedly tries to bring up her son; it gets tougher when they are Muslims and hail from Kashmir. From being bullied and taunted to having trouble finding accommodation on account of their ancestry, Leon and his mother see it all. An escape to England, the country of his birth, seems like the perfect solution to this sense of disenchantment. A comfortable life with a decent living is what follows, however, beleaguered by thoughts of the unknown father, Leon soon moves to Berlin. His mission is to find the man who deserted him even before he was born.
Keya Raina is a Kashmiri Hindu who also grows up in Delhi. Her parents are hard-working professionals and do their best to send their only child to a convent school with a hefty fee and inculcate the right values and ideals in her. Keya’s knowledge of her father’s early life in Kashmir is at best an assortment of stories coaxed out of him during winter evenings and summer night power blackouts. Her fragile ties with Kashmir dissolve after losing her father at the tender age of seventeen. Her education takes her to England and her profession to Berlin where she is a “scholar of exile, an insecure immigrant who collects other people’s stories“. It is in Berlin that she runs into Leon and endearing thoughts of the father that she has lost serve as the bond of empathy, eventually giving way to a passionate affair.
What first seems like searching for a needle in a haystack gains momentum when the duo manage to make headway and find traces of Leon’s father Mir Ali’s relationship with Shula Farid, then stuck in a loveless marriage with an Indian diplomat. There are multiple layers to Kaul’s narrative – amidst the number of exasperating setbacks, the piecing together of clues and leads, the kindling and rekindling of hope, there are Leon’s insecurity about turning out to be an absconder like his father and his inner struggles around it. Mir Ali is never found, but one has to wait till the very end to see if what began as a torrid affair reaches a logical conclusion.
Kaul’s narrative is easy and free flowing, her language lucid and lyrical. She is adept at describing places, particularly busy and bustling metropolis. She is known to have travelled to more than fifty five countries and undoubtedly the keen eye of the traveller enables to lend a visual delight to her narrative. There is also a vivid portrayal of class struggles cutting across geographies, be it in urban India consumed by consumerism, Berlin divided by differing ideologies or England entrenched in complications of identity. However, there are a few places particularly in the beginning, where she lingers a tad too long on inconsequential objects or incidents. Her storytelling does pick up after this initial slackening and goes on to weave together a poignant narrative.
What is perhaps disappointing for the reader is only a cursory, slipshod association with Kashmir. Kaul must surely have a lot to say about Kashmir and its endemic crisis, however, that does not come out clearly in this novel. There are some brilliant portrayals of life of a Kashmiri Pandit though these are few and far between. There is the underlying disgruntlement, disquietude and dejection associated with living away from one’s homeland, though it could have been any land, not necessarily Kashmir.
Residue, notwithstanding this loose end, makes for an intriguing read. Kaul’s forte lies in the creation and resolution of crises, leading to the emergence of well fleshed out characters. This book is all about overcoming prejudices, discovering startling truths about self and going back to one’s roots.
Residue leaves behind a residue of hope, ambition and aspiration and the resolve to triumph over one’s inner demons.