Book Review: “An Isolated Incident” – by Soniah Kamal

Set in 1990s, the novel, as the book cover indicates, is about Kashmir and the people who are in one way or the other affected by the region’s conflict. A young girl Zari who is in her teens resides in Srinagar along with her family. The family realizes the discomfort of living in a region under military occupation and hence, considers the option of leaving the place but Zari’s father – due to his love for his homeland – never agrees to it. A tragedy hits the family as a result of which Zari’s fate takes her from one relative’s home to another until she finally lands in America to stay with a family who are distant relatives.

On the other hand there is a young boy Billy; a US citizen who’s father belongs to Indian-held Kashmir; the place which he had visited only once during his childhood. Mauj jee – his grandfather’s sister, whom he had met during the visit, had been quite affectionate towards him and keeps writing him letters for quite some time after he gets back to US. Billy is a person who’s always been curious to explore his family’s history while his parents maintain that he should stay away from the past and only live with his current identity i.e. of being a US citizen. But Billy’s curiosity never ends and as things keep unfolding, he starts making up his mind to join the training camps set up for freedom fighters in Afghanistan because for him “Freedom was worth everything and everything was worth freedom”. Only once he’s into it, he realizes the harshness of the otherwise known to be a glorious journey of freedom fighting.

An Isolated Incident is Soniah Kamal’s debut novel that involves some ten good years of hard-work where meticulous care has been taken for character development. A Pakistani-American author having maternal family belonging to Indian-held Kashmir, Soniah Kamal has written this novel to fulfill the promise made to her late grandfather that she would write something about Kashmir at some point in life. Therefore, she dedicates this novel to her late grandparents the lives of whom she briefly discusses in the afterword; ‘Kashmir Calling – A Memoir’.

Sharing some commonality with Mirza Waheed’s Book of Gold Leaves’, this novel begins with a plot set in Srinagar in 1990s. It also talks about life in Kashmir under military occupation and its impact. And when it comes to writing about Kashmir, the topic of freedom fighting becomes the definite part of the story. The different thing here is that An Isolated Incident comes from a Pakistani writer who holds a strong connection with her ancestors’ homeland which is so dear to her and it reflects in the way she ends her book with these touching words:

As I’ll finally lie down to sleep, I will think, it is true, I’ve never lived in Kashmir, but it is also true that my Kashmir lives in me”

There are certain mysterious aspects in the story which can perhaps be understood by those who have a little deeper understanding of the Kashmir conflict. Nevertheless, the tone of the storyline is politically neutral. Being of Pakistani origin has certainly not made the author sound to be promoting the national narrative of Pakistan. The character Billy, who aims to join the freedom struggle, clearly appears to help liberate the land from just any country’s influence once and for all.

The tale is full of emotions and haunting memories. Under the cover of fiction, it gives a glimpse of reality with which the lives of Kashmiris are affected due to the occupation and militancy. It also portrays that the freedom struggle is very much part of any other family leading an otherwise normal life. The shattering of dreams, the loss of loved ones, the difficulty in getting back to a normal life after a devastating trauma, the quest to dig into one’s own lost identity is all encapsulated in this heart-wrenching yet beautiful narration.

What deeply involves the reader is the way Soniah Kamal has penned down the feelings of the main characters. There is a tormented soul of Zari, to whom life seems worthless yet she hangs in there due to her fairly strong faith. Then there is Billy who stretches himself as much as possible to make things better for Zari through his love and care.

All in all, the novel highlights all those dimensions which the people belonging to an occupied land can relate to. The fact that the author has never lived in Kashmir yet has tried to depict the sentiments of its people in a literary way is something praise-worthy. How successful she has been in doing so, only the readers from the ill-fated land can tell but the intention with which Soniah Kamal has made her debut attempt is appreciable. A promise well-kept to her Kashmiri grandfather!


PS: This article originally appeared here: Soniah Kamal’s ‘An Isolated Incident’ is a promise well-kept

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