Kashmir and its conflict, has churned many narratives of broken lives over the years. But as the violence impressed itself over entire generations and obliterated some of their histories, there seem to be many more such tales hidden in the Valley, waiting to be told. Meer, written by Humra Quraishi, is one such story— an eponymous novel where the protagonist is a rootless individual haunted by the violence wreaked by the State who goes through further denigration at its hands, stripped of the last shreds of human dignity that civilisation promises.
The story is told through the eyes of a woman, Husna Haqeem, who flees her hometown Bareilly after the riots that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid. Though set in a complex backdrop mired with communal and political violence, it appeals to the lay reader with its focus on the basic template of human emotions. More than anything else, the novel’s leit motif is one about finding love and the eventual loss of it.
Leading a simple life in the town of Bareilly, Husna’s family made do with a small bakery. Little did she know that life for her was about to change within an hour when kar sevaks and RSS activists enter her house and tear everything and everyone apart. The two boys of the Kashmiri shawl seller who were staying with her family are also killed. She runs to the nearest madrassa for refuge but her pleas go unanswered. Another maulvi throws her a pack of Kashmiri shawls and some money to aid her escape. Eventually, she embarks on a trip to Kashmir to locate the shawl seller.
On reaching Srinagar, she finds herself on the streets, in the middle of a crackdown, without any leads to the shawl seller’s whereabouts. It is while looking for him that she finds Meer, sitting in his dunga (boat made for living on the Dal Lake) and she is held by his gaze. Her dynamics with Meer move from the intellectual to the physical, leading to her conceiving a child with him, out of wedlock.
It is through Husna’s experience with Meer that the faultlines in the novel manifest. Once a collector and seller of rare books, he was ordered to sell books that had been modified to suit the government’s agenda. To him these were books manufacturing lies as histories, so naturally he refused. It unleashed an onslaught of fire and wreckage and the loss of Meer’s livelihood. There he sat, in his dunga, muttering under his breath and living as an outlaw on the margins of the society, still reluctant to succumb to the State’s demands.
As if the previous conflicts and uprooting witnessed by the two were not enough, one night when Husna is about to deliver the baby, they (the stooges of the State) walk in, pull the baby out of her, strip her naked and check her while Meer stands as a helpless witness. Carnage and conflict ensues as Husna finds her way back to Bareilly. She looks in vain for the unmarked graves of her father and brother. There is no ground now that can root her. She is paid a sum for her house which is now occupied by State agencies. The sum is enough for a bus ticket to Jammu and a flight to Srinagar. She goes back to look for her child and Meer.
She finds them but it is not what she was expecting. Her child is dead and the Meer she knew is dead too. He is reduced to a man who cares only about survival. He who once prided himself in being vegetarian has now been reduced to being a butcher. During her quest, she comes across a host of characters, from both sides of the political divide, and with all of them she has experiences that leave her further disoriented. She meets one of Meer’s sons from a previous marriage, Shukoh, and has a physical encounter with him, ignorant about his parentage.
With its wide canvas spanning from Bareilly to Srinagar, the author adeptly probes sexuality vis-a-vis women in such conflict zones. While it is clear that the novel comes from a place of deeply felt pain, its plot can seem slightly obscure and abrupt at times. However, that may be deliberate as the author tries to convey the loss of clarity that arises out of fragmented identities. Meer leaves the reader uncomfortable, raising questions that do not have easy answers.