|The Srinagar Conspiracy|
"Such is Kashmir, the vale which may be conquered
by forces of spiritual love but not by armed might."
Lest people familiar with Indo-Anglian fiction commit the same mistake that this reviewer fell prey to, on first impression, The Srinagar Conspiracy (Penguin India, 2000) is not authored by Vikram Chandra of Love and Longing in Bombay fame, but by Vikram A. Chandra, News Editor and Kashmir correspondent of NDTV. Debutant Vikram A. Chandra has the benefit of reporting extensively from the Valley during the height of insurgency, the siege at Charar-e-Sharif, the Siachen battleground and the Kargil war. With an insider's insight and impartiality only a professional and highly competent broadcast journalist like him can acquire in a propaganda-ridden and bias-replete theatre as Kashmir, Vikram scores outright in the credentials department for authoring, what is indubitably, the first major fictional rendering in English of one of the most intractable conflicts of modern times. However open the prerogative to chose a theme or a setting is to novelists, it is welcome when an area specialist decides to make a foray into fiction, for very often readers have to endure the lacunae of first-hand experience in conflict zones, camouflaged by lyrical flourishes and linguistic floridity of the pens of dilettantes. Vikram A. Chandra, just as qualified about the bloodstained saga of Kashmir as Upamanyu Chatterjee is on the boondocks of 'babudom', therefore stands on firm ground. For a maiden venture into the flourishing five-decade old genre of Post-Colonial or Commonwealth literature (not to mention the rather narcissistically titled 'Stephanian School of Writing'), The Srinagar Conspiracy is a commendable oeuvre, a thriller admirably based on ground reality.
Protagonists and bosom friends, Vijay Kaul, Habib Shah and Yasmin are Kashmiris of varying backgrounds and religious origins, born and brought up in an era when 'Kashmir was like an oasis', bereft of the communal virus that engulfed millions in other parts of the subcontinent since 1947 and very vaguely conscious of the unending low-intensity war of attrition between the two 'Midnight's Children', India and Pakistan. As newly born 'screaming bundles of humanity', the three are unaware of the 1965 war when Kashmir was the issue and lack strong impressions of the 1971 war, Kashmir not being a central bone of contention. They grow as typical teenagers, quarrelling and dreaming of skyrocketing careers, falling in love and leading carefree lives in the idyllic natural setting of Srinagar. But the age of innocence and indifference could not be forever, not in the Valley whose political relations with New Delhi were fast deteriorating in the mid-80s. Sitting over a tinderbox, the three unsuspecting youths of potentially antagonistic faiths and viewpoints share little secrets under 'the sky that was special, Kashmiri blue'. A pristine welter too surreally beautiful to last.
The two instruments that shake the Shangri-La have had a less fortunate life. First, Qasim the shoemaker's son, bred in poverty and educated in an orthodox madarsa in downtown Srinagar, attains an increasing hold on Habib's mind and introduces him to a JKLF recruiter (Zafar Qureshi, eerily close to the real-life ex-JKLF Hashim Qureshi who is in the news currently for making a dramatic return to India after three decades). Slowly, the 'upper middle class cocoon' of Habib is sundered. He sees widespread Kashmiri 'anger against corruption, against bad roads, against useless phones, against government employees who don't work and against unemployment'. Most infuriatingly, he learns of the malaise of rigged elections that disallow increasingly literate Kashmiris any say in a hustings-game manufactured by Farooq Abdullah and New Delhi.
This is no old-fashioned religious fundamentalist call of the pro-Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami for Kashmir's union with Pakistan, but an indigenous socio-politico-economic mass protest movement against the centre that was to reach maturity by 1989, one based on 'Kashmiriyat', aiming at 'the full and complete independence of the Kashmiri people', accurately described by Professor Sumit Ganguly (The Crisis in Kashmir: Portents of War, Hopes of Peace) as the result of 'discrepancy between political mobilisation and institutional decay'. Habib chooses to swap the cherished IAS dream for a new avatar, the political activist whom we today refer to as the Hurriyat variety.
He has a brush with militancy like Yasin Malik and his real-life prototype, Shabbir Shah, trained by the ISI across the border. He guns down a hated National Conference leader and masterminds the sensational Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping, which triggers the transient mass movement for azaadi (1989-90). But unlike the fundamentalist/terrorist Pandit-massacring Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Habib's JKLF manages to remain 'secular', objective and Kashmiri, ever suspicious of Pakistan's annexationist intentions, qualities not enough to prevent Habib from being incarcerated in 1992 in a cordon-and-search operation of the Indian army. On the spur of his release, beloved Yasmin is accidentally shot in a dramatic exchange of fire. Having failed to do justice to her faith and love when she was alive, the burden of guilt is too mighty for him in her after-life. With the people's movement sniffed out, he becomes an obiter dictum.
The second instrument, by quirk of destiny, is Jalauddin the Peshawari Pathan, who fires an automatic rifle at the age of five and a rocket launcher at nine and crosses the porous Durand line at sixteen to join the Soldiers of God, mujahideen, in the Jihad-al-Dafaah against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. Fighting and killing becomes a way of life for this battle-hardened ruthless decimator of atheism by the time the Communist infidels withdraw (1989). His very existence, inured to cold-blooded genocide in the name of Islam, receives a new undertaking from the blue, the Kashmir valley, surrogate for the now silenced minefields of Zhawar and Mazar-e-Sharif. With able ISI assistance (Pakistani intelligence shift their Trojan Horses from the 'secular' JKLF to the Jamaat-based Hizb once the mass movement petered out, and further still to 'guest militants' from the Afghan war like Jalauddin to bolster the tanzeems and to lead Kashmir 'towards the correct path of Islam') Jalauddin discovers in Kashmir a new lease of life, a new all-consuming mission of extermination. He earns his latest honours at Charar-e-Sharif as a leader of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the 'hammer of Islam' that aims at 'a united Islamic Ummah, from Africa and Europe to India', by miraculously breaking the Army siege of the Sufi ziarat in 1995 alongside the ISI's Mast Gul and fleeing to Pakistan.
Jalauddin the professional terrorist and Habib the self-determinist Kashmiri float in opposing shikaras from Vijay, who successfully pursues his childhood vision of joining the officer corps of the Indian army and progresses to the rank of Major by the time the Srinagar Conspiracy is hatched. In the ensuing Armageddon of conflicting values, old friendships and relationships take a backseat, seemingly consigned to history by the curling fires of attachment to differing causes. Or is it not entirely so?
Interspersing these wagered fates is the alter ego of the author, Varun Mathur, the intrepid TV journalist who convinces his professor during the course of a tutorial in Oxford that political self-determination for minority groups in 'patchwork quilt' nation-states like Yugoslavia and India is disastrous to the peace and permanent security of those very communities as well as the mother countries. Varun and his cameraman Raju defy death by entering Charar-e-Sharif and filming the mujahideen-occupied ziarat complex in 1995; conduct numerous 'raids' into army-prohibited territories of Kashmir for interviewing and photographing 'guest militants', often at the business end of AK-47s; and make weird new friends masquerading as cameramen for a rival TV company. It is primarily through Varun's eyes that the readers scan the entire history of militancy in the valley from 1989 to date, its changing complexions and bearings upon the overall future of Kashmir and the growing Islamicisation and 'Talibanisation' of what began as a Kashmiri urge for independence.
Jalauddin makes a clandestine re-entry into India five years after escaping to Pakistan, this time as executor numero uno of the Srinagar Conspiracy, a diabolical scheme of the increasingly dreaded Lashkar-e-Toiba to unleash chaos and bring India to its knees. An old accomplice-turned-informer of Jalauddin spills the beans by informing Vijay about the sketchy details of the Conspiracy: to begin with, a spectacular assassination with a Stinger surface-to-air missile shooting down an aircraft carrying a very important dignitary in March 2000. “Then the people (in Kashmir?) will take to the streets again, and azaadi, inshallah¸ will follow.” The implications are as clear as the back of one's palm: Bill Clinton is making a historic trip to India in March and the LET is going to make its old mentor, the U.S., and its old enemy, India, pay simultaneously for encouraging occupation of Muslim lands (if the reader recalls, there was indeed an assassination-scare for the President on the eve of his arrival in India last year). The Indian cabinet convenes to take stock of this leaked information and decides to make massive security arrangements for the safety of Air Force One. Vijay desperately tries to plug all possible loopholes in the bandobast around Delhi's airport, but neither the Intelligence sleuths nor the Police are able to hunt down Jalauddin and his men. Clinton arrives, makes memorable anti-jihad statements (who can forget: “This age will not reward those who redraw borders with blood.”), shuttles around in Air Force One and leaves the subcontinent unscathed.
Just as the Conspiracy appears as a colossal bluff to the Indians, a shura is convened in Muridke, LET headquarters in Pakistan. Abu Fateh (modelled after Osama Bin Laden), the undisputed leader and convenor of the International Islamic Front, notifies a perplexed audience, “Nothing has gone wrong. All our plans are on schedule..” The Stinger was not to be the first blow for Islam, but the second. The informer on Jalauddin's plans is a feint to mislead the security forces on the wrong trail. The first instrument is a cameraman hired for the cause of detonating a powerful Semtex explosive against a wholly different set of targets in true fidayeen fashion.
Is this the cameraman who Varun notes as a rookie first-timer in Srinagar, assisting the foreign journalist, and whom Habib Shah is suspicious of? Or is he the fidgety Gopalkrishnan who always has run-ins with trouble and mysterious midnight phone calls to make to his wife when Srinagar had curfews clamped? Or is he, of all people, the trusted and devoted Raju, Varun's own cameraman? Who are the high profile targets? What is the Kashmiri connection to this intriguing drama? Why did the feigning informer take the trouble of going all the way to Srinagar's high-security Badami Bagh cantonment and pick on Vijay Kaul for the misinformation and not go to Delhi for someone else in the security establishment? What force prevents the terrorist conspiracy from fructifying? Are the tangled destinies and relations of the past reinventing themselves in this deadly finale? Who is playing what inscrutable game? It would be too uncharitable to give away the answers in a book-review. I recommend that readers buy a personal copy and help themselves to solutions. They are also recommended not to jump to pages 289 to 292 in pre-emptive itches for the truth!
First and foremost, the novel reads like a precise history of militancy through its ebbs and flows, told through some real and some imagined characters. The crucial embryonic and compositional dichotomy between pro-independence and pro-Pakistani tanzeems is lucidly woven into the story. No effort is spared in making bare the condition of the average Kashmiri (like Mansoor, the avuncular taxi driver) and his longing for peace over the last ten years. His honeymoon with azaadi and people like Shabbir Shah is shown to be a brief outpouring of spleen at the ineptitude of Farooq Abdullah and New Delhi in solving his developmental needs.
At the same time, Chandra calls a spade a spade, by referring to numerous Human Rights violations on innocent Kashmiri civilians by Indian army and paramilitary forces. 'The rougher elements in the forces have to be reined back' if there is to be lasting reconciliation of the visibly hurt and tormented man on the street. Chandra also offers interesting counter-factual scenarios wherein lives and shrines could have been saved by judicious employment of the electronic media in various epicentres of massacres and extortion. V.P Singh's government is uncharitably described as 'one of the most spectacularly incompetent' for genuflecting before kidnappers of Mufti Sayeed's daughter. There is also a generous sprinkling of advice to policy-makers, both in New Delhi and Islamabad, of how they could have done better than using Kashmiris as pawns and Kashmir as the chessboard for wholly selfish and counter-productive purposes.
Chandra must also be congratulated for carving a near-perfectly real image of Srinagar's winding lanes and lakes and the Valley's picturesque topography, particularly by the younger generation of Indians who has been disallowed by turmoil to visit that 'Paradise on Earth'. (Vidhu Vinod Chopra's recent film, Mission Kashmir also showed glimpses of the yet-undisturbed supernatural beauty of the Valley). By virtue of being the first novel in English set in Kashmir, The Srinagar Conspiracy had almost a 'Perestroikan' responsibility of describing the locales in all their verdant glory and intricacy. Chandra succeeds without competition, thanks to his years of journalistic peregrinations spent in inhaling and memorising the classic picture-postcard scenes of Jammu and Kashmir.
Thirdly, and not least importantly, the novel lives up to the advertisement of being a potboiler and not just another placid semi-documentary history of the Kashmir imbroglio. The strength of a work of fiction ultimately lies in its plot, and as has been briefly demonstrated, The Srinagar Conspiracy is a nail-biting, seat-edge humdinger, a 292-page dynamite of a plot. With no contextual resemblance, I was reminded of Amitav Ghosh's Calcutta Chromosome, which had an equally gripping plot with roller-coaster zigzags and a fantastic climax. In blurb lingo, The Srinagar Conspiracy is 'unputdownable', with shades of an Alistair MacLean-style detailed technical mapping of the plot, and combined with a Jeffrey Archer-style accidental criss-crossing of protagonists and destinies. There are plenty of shocks and jolts in this journey through ragged plains, rugged mountains, murky organisations and lethal hit men. If one notices a millenarianism and cinematic quality about the whole idea of the fate of millions hanging by the thread of a single act of terrorism, it has to be believed, for hasn't the LET recently issued an open threat to the Prime Minister's Office? In the era of globalised jihad, there can be no telling by what slim breadth the world hangs on to safety.
Stylistically, The Srinagar Conspiracy does not impress beyond a point. Having compared it to an Amitav Ghosh novel, I must warn against seeking the same felicity of phrase and masterful execution of language. Chandra's writing style manages to convey the relevant details, but never to reach any sublime heights. There is no sudden 'Rushdiesque' one-liner that can inspire an annotated exclamation or underline from the reader. Nor is there the floridity or virtual imagery of an Arundhati Roy. Brief flashes of humour suggest that the author is capable of painting some of his characters with a lot more élan. Another stylistic problem lies in the usage of different names to chapters, disconcerting particularly when the titles don't match the content entirely (eg. A Long Hot Summer) or merely stand out for staidness (eg. Varun in Srinagar, Jalauddin in India etc.). Chapter titles also tend to let the cat out of the bag in a suspense thriller like this. A simple serialised chapter sequence or more ingenious titles might have served better. Perhaps these shortcomings can be excused owing to the fact that Chandra is a debutant and in the hope that authors polish their styles with time.
All said and done, The Srinagar Conspiracy is brilliant work, if not in form then in content. It is a minefield of information on Islamic fundamentalism that threatens to unleash new catastrophic wars. It brings alive the dominant issues and concerns for Kashmir, India and Pakistan with laudable accuracy and perspicacity. If ever one wanted an objective and lively account of all that went wrong and all that is needed to correct in the Valley, this is the book. Part one of the novel is also an ode to a lost era, a painful reminder to our own generation that a much desirable state of existence was once the gift that the people of Kashmir enjoyed. It acts as the perfect basis for us to question and rethink, individually and collectively, how a decently agreeable solution can be reached to this thorn in the flesh of the South Asian subcontinent. Even as the Indian government makes fresh and unprecedented forays into inveigling out a modus vivendi, the lessons of the past must remain a constant reminder. Two decades after Rushdie's Salim Sinai first bombarded the reading public with the words, “We are a nation of forgetters,” it is time to carve a new chapter in Kashmir without forgetting the mistakes of old. Should this novel serve such an exalted goal, Vikram A. Chandra would certainly feel prouder than when he is hailed for a homecoming to the 'Ghosh Generation'.
[Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied History at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in Modern History at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.]