A future foretold

Ashk's premonition of an unstable Kashmir as early as 1957, closely woven with penury of a peasant, evokes compassion as you turn the pages of Sorrow of the Snows

It's ironical what Upendra Nath Ashk observed five decades ago and warned about holds true in present day India. Real India isn't about the Indra Nooyis or Kiran Mazumdar Shaws or sprawling conglomerates. Nestled in a valley far north, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen and the latter remains oppressed by those in power or well-off, even as India boasts of its ever growing economy.

Hassandin, the central character of Ashk's novel, like today's common man, is hopeful that the government's rule in the Kashmir valley will bring prosperity after British suzerainty ends. But little does he know that it might be a while before his dreams come true.

A peasant by profession, Hassandin doubles as a ghodawallah during the tourist season, and lives a hand-to-mouth existence. However, he wants to afford a wedding feast for his only son -- nine-year-old Idu. God-fearing man that he is, Hassandin believes hard work and divine intervention will help him achieve this goal. One fateful day, he takes a pompous Punjabi tourist for a trek but realises that he has chewed more than he canĀ  swallow.

Although he gets an inkling of the matter, the urban-bred seth manipulates him into subjugation and no sooner has he done that, deprives Hassandin of his rightful wages using cheap tactics. But can Hassandin complain? The policemen too are slaves to moolah -- an early account where sacrifices of patriots stand forgotten for personal gain.

Translated in English by Jai Ratan, the book is descriptive and a satirical tone echoes throughout the plot. Ashk hints at the repressive situations that will snowball 10 years hence and destabalise the valley if amends are not made. The book is a sociological analysis and a historical account of the penury that struck Kashmir in 1947.
Also, the character of Hassandin is very real. Each of us have a Hassandin in us who is gullible, vulnerable, exploited and mechanised under circumstances, but hopes for divine intervention in mundane chores of life.

A small success injects people with hope and confidence, but there are times when we realise that the
success was contrived, paving way for a greater failure. But do we recognise the signs? Or is the picture too close to make out the actual image? The aspirations and situations that Hassandin faces answer these questions, evoke compassion, while Ashk's description and Ratan's words take you through a journey in time.

Publisher: HarperCollins
Available at: Leading book stores
Price: Rs 250

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