In the words of the celebrated German writer Günter Grass, “homeland is something one becomes aware of only through its loss”. In this fascinating novel, Rooh, Manav Kaul undertakes a journey to his birth place in Kashmir in search of a sense of closure—a journey that occurs on three levels: physical, metaphorical, and emotional.
Penguin eBury Press
The name Manav Kaul may ring familiar. Yes, he is better known for his acting prowess in mainstream Hindi films like Tumhari Sulu, Jolly LLB 2, and Thappad. But he is also a gifted and prolific writer with many bestselling books in Hindi to his name. Born and brought up in Kashmir’s Baramulla district in the late 1970s, Kaul had to flee the valley along with his family at the peak of violent militancy, and spent his formative years in Hoshangabad, a town in Madhya Pradesh. Even after many years, he could not shrug off his Kashmiri identity. And when he was made to feel that he did not belong in Hoshangabad, the desire to go back to his roots (read Kashmir) grew more intense.
Written in the first person, this autobiographical novel begins in Cherrapunji, Meghalaya, one of the wettest places on earth. Even as he relishes the natural beauty of the mountains of Cherrapunji, the protagonist’s memories go back to his lover Rooh, who once asked him why he did not live in the hills if he loved them so much. This remark from the past acts as a trigger, unleashing a flood of suppressed memories.
Amidst the mist-covered hills of Cherrapunji, the protagonist reminisces about his lost home in Khawaja Bagh, Kashmir, where a mountain represents his connection to the place. He also remembers his last journey to Kashmir, accompanied by Rooh, when he realised that his core essence was still rooted in Kashmiriyat despite years of living away.
Now, he finds himself in Kashmir once again, alone, with the intention of writing a book. It appears that he has parted ways with Rooh. Upon breathing in the air of his lost homeland, his core identity emerges, reflecting in his speech, food preferences, and places he wishes to visit. He experiences mixed feelings of happiness at returning to the place he truly belongs to, and grief at losing his childhood world to a violent political movement.
He observes that the common men and women are still the same, welcoming him as one of their own. Despite the political upheavals and the religious divide, a sense of unity exists among the Muslims and the Pandits. We meet Bilal and Mushtaque, regular working-class individuals who struggle to make ends meet, much like their counterparts in other parts of the world. Although not exiled physically like the Kashmiri Pandits, they, too, suffer in the conflict zone, and need to strike a delicate balance in their political views to avoid repercussions from either side’s anger.
Throughout the novel, the narrator focusses on his father’s relationship with their homeland. His father continues to hold on to the hope of returning, reluctant to discard his winter clothes, like a jilted lover who continues to believe that his sweetheart would come back to him one day. The family house in Khawaja Bagh serves as another metaphor for his father. When the protagonist finally arrives in Khawaja Bagh, he discovers that his house is gone, coinciding with the passing of his father. These simultaneous events symbolise the narrator’s twin losses, intertwined and connected, adding poignancy to the story.
“Kaul writes with deep empathy, highlighting the anguish of displaced Kashmiri Pandits without demonising Kashmiri Muslims. ”
The protagonist meets Roohani, a tourist, during his journey and they quickly develop a deep friendship. Rooh and Roohani serve as counterpoints to the narrator’s narrative; they represent the outsider unrelated to the Kashmiri conflict and symbolise the narrator’s inner self, a virtual alter ego with distinct thoughts.
The beauty of Rooh lies in its masterfully crafted, captivating, and introspective prose, as well as its poignant exploration of themes such as displacement, nostalgia, and identity. Kaul writes with deep empathy, highlighting the anguish of displaced Kashmiri Pandits without demonising Kashmiri Muslims as some recent books and films have done. He provides examples of camaraderie between the two communities, such as when Governor Mohammad Shafi Quraishi of Madhya Pradesh, a Kashmiri Muslim, helps the protagonist’s family bring his father safely from Kashmir during a conflict.
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Rooh is a compelling novel that combines elements of a travelogue and memoir. It should be read not only for its poignancy but also for its exquisite prose.
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, and banker. His most recent novel, A Man from Motihari, has been published by Penguin RandomHouse.