Book Review: The Lion of Kashmir

An examination of Siddhartha Gigoo’s The Lion of Kashmir, a novel that questions what Hope means to those who are living in a corrupted state of social and civic death…

by: Amrita Ghosh

Indian author and filmmaker Siddhartha Gigoo won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Asia) for his short story “The Umbrella Man” in 2015. His other novels are The Garden of Solitude, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2015) and Mehr: A Love Story. Gigoo’s short films, “The Last Day” and “Goodbye, Mayfly” have won several awards at International Film Festivals and he has also written and co-edited books about the Pandit community’s exile from Kashmir. His recently published third novel The Lion of Kashmir (Rupa Publications) is a labyrinthine, complex work that is possibly the first historical fiction of its kind, where the fiction is set in an immediate historical present that has just occurred — the recent revocation of Article 370 and the cessation of the special status of Kashmir in the Indian constitution from August 2019. Constructed in a fascinating, multilayered nonlinear narrative, the novel compels readers into a maze of multiple voices, stream of consciousness, positionalities, and also into the careful task of distinguishing voices, reliable and unreliable narrators, dream versus reality, life versus death. Gigoo unfolds a macabre and liminal space of Kashmir in which human subjects are suffering from PTSD and an onslaught of covert and overt state technologies of violence at one hand, and militancy on the other. The Lion of Kashmir also focuses on the complicated story of Ikhwan, a group of people that were once militants but join the Indian government’s Special Operation Forces in early nineties as a dreaded counter insurgency force against their own people.

The novel’s plot may seem deceptively simple — Zooni is the daughter of a high-ranked Special Forces commandant, Abdul Aziz, an agent of the Indian government symbolizing the Ikhwan. Zooni studies law in London and abruptly returns to Kashmir to search for her father who has disappeared in the wake of political unrest. But, the text quickly unfolds into an expanding tangled narrative of heteroglossia of voices and one is never sure whether the events are imagined, dreamed, or have occurred over the time span of one day after Zooni’s return. The past and present are also constantly fragmented, broken and merged into this rich tripartite structure, divided into three parts— Penumbra, Umbra and The Diary of Abdul Aziz.  Zooni is the classic unreliable narrator, who dwells in doubt and questions, and perhaps the best line that captures her is: “The voices in my head drove me insane.” Yet the entire novel is strewn with a polyphony of voices — there is Zooni’s narrative, her father Aziz’s diary which is partly epistolary (sometimes we hear what locals like taxi-drivers are thinking about the Article 370 and the impending doom of Kashmir, and sometimes readers are drawn into the second in command), Salim Dar’s voice represented within the diary of Aziz, the only other character who also acquires the “lion of Kashmir,” title apart from Abdul Aziz. There is also the voice neuropsychiatrist Dr. Riyaz within Aziz’s diary, who declares his inability to treat the children at the mental hospital living amidst constant violence and fear. Aziz’s voice is equally complex and unreliable like Zooni’s. He withholds truth and honesty from Salim Dar, who works under him and exists in a space of betrayal from his friend. These layers of polyphonic voices from multiple figures create a Kashmir which is non-monolithic and conflicted but more importantly, the voices also reveal what is often not said, the silences and the often-startling revelations of ghostly shadows that haunt the present. In one of the most honest letters to Zooni, marked as “Things you mustn’t know,” Aziz reveals he is followed by shadows of people he has killed, who demand answers for their deaths.

The series of epigraphs strewn in the three sections and the opening of the book are also worth mentioning as they present important intertextual framings of what is to come, and sometimes provide clues to the reader. The novel opens with an epigraph from Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, that sets the tone and a referential intertextuality to Gigoo’s novel. Schulz’s epigraphed story acts as a prescient foreboding to the text. The former is a Kafkaesque series of stories in which the narrator’s dying father transforms into an insect like creature. Zooni’s younger brother Zubair, who emblematizes the many children of Kashmir who exist in a never-ending conflict zone and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, also reminds one of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In The Lion of Kashmir he transforms into an insect like state — “like an insect, he crawled.” He groaned and made strange sounds”—the interface between the animal and the human blurs in Gigoo’s captivating use of magic realism in the narrative.

A myriad of the most important incidents, stories and point of views in the novel come from animals such as pigeons, dragon flies, dogs, birds, and foxes. This occurs when humans are passive watchers or silent in a “strange space.” Using the tropes of magic realism, the encounters between humans and animals set a unique interspecies contact that reconfigures and blurs boundaries between humans and animals questioning the status of the Kashmiri human subject. Perhaps one of the most striking elements of The Lion of Kashmir is the decentering of human subject as the presumed center of meaning which allows for a disruption of the Cartesian model and enables spaces for the animals to share its affect, emotions, experiences. The presence of creatures, animals and figures whose identity is not entirely established or clear in the narrative, also brings about an interesting merger of postcolonial studies and animal studies, what Philo and Wilbert’s seminal work Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human Animal Relations emphasizes as the idea of agency through interactions between humans and animals. Thus, the representation of animals in The Lion of Kashmir deserves special attention — here is another realm of the ‘other’ in Kashmir that one must “listen” to in the novel.

Zooni’s pet dog in Kashmir, Whitey, becomes a significant companion and perhaps the only animal to understand Zooni’s experiences as she searches for her father. Cicadas that are trapped inside matchboxes hauntingly sing of their caged existences as they are dying, and “beetles, locusts, caterpillars, earthworms, silverfish, centipedes, sandflies, crickets, stoneflies and moths” are caged into piles of boxes by Zubair, who undergoes a form of alteration in being — their condition is starkly reminiscent of what Achille Mbembe ((Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11–40. Mbembe in this article explains the liminal space between life and death, in which the colonized subject exists in a perpetual condition of horror—”the living dead.”)) calls the “living dead” — and summed up by the narrator in the novel, “they have metamorphosed into neither-dead-nor-alive creatures”—an allegory of Kashmir, where human subjects exist in a liminality between life and death. Yet, it would be reductive to claim that Gigoo’s novel is just an allegory of Kashmir’s macabre space of unending conflict. Rather, the heteroglossia of myriad narratives strife to come to some understanding and meaning about Kashmir, which continuously belies the reader. There is an aporia of meaning in the novel, perhaps best emphasized by the narrator, Zooni, stating “We are back to square one. But at least, we are not dead,” a poignant reminder that questions what hope means to those who are living in such a state of social, civic death.

The Lion of Kashmir begins and ends at the airport, manifests a journey that poses questions of home and identity, and also reflects on the alignment of arbitrary borders from the Partition of the subcontinent, a lingering causality to the present state of Kashmir’s conflictual space. It highlights an absurdist kind of space about which Zooni and Sara, her British born friend with Pakistani heritage, casually discuss the Kashmiri land as “my Kashmir” or “her Kashmir” — two sides “torn between an uncertain binary,” as Gigoo puts it in the novel. In a Mantoesque moment, it casts a reminder of Toba Tek Singh searching for his home in the hinterlands of the border ((Saadat Hasan Manto, born in pre-Partition India, was one of the most prominent Pakistani Urdu writers whose iconic short story Toba Tek Singh highlights the madness of Partition and the construct of arbitrary borders that fragmented homes and identities.)), defining the limits of belonging and exclusion. More importantly, The Lion of Kashmir is also a key text that forces one to ponder what happens to the people’s everyday life in a conflict zone, shrouded by violence, suffering, trauma and questions discourses of madness and biopolitics through it. Towards the end of Gigoo’s deeply affecting novel, a visit to the mental hospital by Salim Dar and Aziz reminds one of Foucault’s disciplined bodies under power and surveillance.Ten-year-old boy, Sufi Mir, who has been left there by his mother, also suffers from PTSD like Zubair, and yet he “sees things” that no one else does. Gigoo emphasizes that the inmates of the hospital are anything but mad, only debilitated in life from continuous mechanisms of brutality and power. 


Amrita Ghosh has a doctorate in postcolonial literature and theory. She has a postdoc from Linnaeus University, Sweden and is currently working on her book, titled, Kashmir’s Necropolis: New Literature and Visual Text, by Rowan & Littlefield, Lexington Books, USA. She is also a visiting researcher at South Asia Swedish Network, (SASNET) Lund University, Sweden.

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