May Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 4 years ago

With the long-standing Kashmir conflict serving as a backdrop for the novel, An Isolated Incident lends itself to comparisons with Khaled Hosseini’s, The Kite Runner — the haunting and often disturbing coming-of-age story which unfolds in war-torn Afghanistan. In both books, the main protagonists flee the trauma of war and occupation and take refuge in the US, but the past and the events unfolding in their homeland continue to exert an irresistible pull. In fact, Hosseini gives high praise to Kamal’s novel, as quoted on the book jacket.

However, whereas Hosseini’s novel was painful, poignant and impossible to forget, Soniah Kamal’s debut novel doesn’t quite have the same impact. But one should end comparisons with the other book here and view An Isolated Incident on its own merit.

The title of the novel is the clinical, detached term used by officials to describe the unspeakable crime committed against the Zoon family. There are stark parallels here for us Pakistanis who read of atrocities and terrorist attacks regularly. There are real lives and stories behind each of these reports, which we skim over, shake our heads, and then try to forget because it’s the only way we can cope.

It is not an easy task to write about personal tragedy and emotional trauma interwoven with political and social events, unless one is recounting a true story or has lived through such a time. But Soniah Kamal obviously has an emotional bonding with her Kashmiri heritage and this is what she brings to her story. The fact that she has never actually lived in Kashmir or experienced life under Indian occupation makes her task more difficult. She offers some vignettes of Kashmir, like a walk through the Srinagar market or family meal times and picnics, but there is little description of everyday life in the valley. Most of the images that are conjured up are bathed in the rosy glow of the characters’ memories. It is obviously the author’s own cache of memories and childhood stories that she is tapping into, which don’t necessarily extend to practical life or contemporary events.

That is probably why Kamal doesn’t dwell on the Kashmir part of the novel and our protagonist, Zari, is whisked out soon after suffering just about the worst that can befall a person. This is a pity, because very little information filters out of the occupied valley and one would like to know more about what it’s like to grow up in a state that looks like paradise but where life can often feel like purgatory.

The scene soon shifts to the United States where a new family and a new male protagonist are introduced to us.  Zari moves in with distant relatives, who left Kashmir  long ago to build a comfortable life in the US. They have two children who, apart from one childhood visit to Kashmir, have been raised in the US. While the daughter is completely at home in her American skin, the idealist teenage son remains disturbed by geo-political events and is conflicted about his place in the scheme of things. In fact, Zari’s arrival and subsequent involvement with her acts as a catalyst, setting off a chain of events that finds young Billy landing up in a jihadi training camp.

Soniah Kamal takes up issues of identity, integration and heritage, which are increasingly relevant in a world where displacement has become the norm. Are we identified by race or religion, or where we live or what language we speak? How do we embrace the new without letting go of what we grew up with? How far does nostalgia and family lore shape our ideals and beliefs?

Abuse and survival is also discussed. The physical and psychological trauma Zari suffers is so deep that an entire novel could have been devoted to this alone. But how she chooses to join the world again and move on takes a backseat to other existential issues in the novel. In fact, Zari’s ability to heal herself without any professional help is a bit implausible as is her handling of her romantic life. Perhaps, the fact that the main protagonists are teenagers explains their immature behaviour.

However, the message that strongly comes through is that all conflicts are damaging. Ideals are invariably compromised in the mess that is war, and violence has no rewards. This theme is not a new one but is more relevant than ever today and can be made afresh with new parallels in conflict zones around the world. While the author touches upon the misplaced ideology of the jihadis and the mantle of the “freedom fighter” that is exploited and abused, there is little about the occupying forces in Kashmir. But perhaps this is done deliberately in order to focus on the human face of conflict rather than the political. There are also the good and bad among the would-be freedom fighters and many in the dramatic chain of events are sometimes just providing for their families as best as they can.

Ultimately, An Isolated Incident is a story of forgiveness and survival. It is a tale of love and loss, and of finding love again.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.