Vale of Illusion

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 Kashmir Blues - Urmilla Deshpande , book reviewEveryone knows a Kashmiri shawl wala or carpet seller – they arrive with the coming of autumn carrying treasures of colour in their autumn leaf brown bundles. And then they disappear with spring for months on end and you occasionally, reading about disturbances in the Valley, you wonder whether they will reappear. At the heart of Urmilla Deshpande’s novel is Samaad, a carpet seller who speaks the Queen’s English because he happened to have been educated in England. He is a man with a mission – he has discovered a mineful of priceless Kashimiri sapphires, the Kashmir Blues of the titles and he wants to use the sapphires to ensure peace for the part of the Valley in which he lives.

As a premise this is unusual enough to arrest the reader, especially since Samaad’s strategy includes the usual tools, guns, men and bribery. These are not, you think, the tools of peace but they’re being used to bring peace, so perhaps the strategy could work. Into Samaad’s life drift Naia and Leon.

Naia has lost her adoptive parents, Americans, in an accident and is finding it hard to come to grips with the loss. She finds it even harder when she discovers letter written by her father which tell her that she was never adopted at all but that her mother, who was desperate for a child, picked her up during a trip to India. Accompanied by her photographer friend Leon, Naia travels to India in search of her birth parents and her path and that of Samaad’s cross.

Certainly there is enough to make for intriguing reading, a romantic unlikely carpet seller meets a girl with an equally romantic name. The paths are laid out with rather too much ease – Naia has a family friend who just happens to know her real parents, she also meets Fred who has a deft hand with drugs and just happens to be acquainted with her real parents. Samaad also knows her real parents because he supplies carpets to her father.

Deshpande’s language carries you through the book. She combines acute observations like ‘This city had the smell of humanity, naked. You could smell the people in all their living’, with occasional lapses into triteness.

“The blue sapphires, which according to legend, are the tears of Shiva, continue to be shed for the futility of life and hope.”

While Naia has potential as a romantic heroine, she turns out to be something of a disappointment as we never really get into her head. As if Deshpande agreed, Naia’s importance starts to fade somewhere towards the middle and then she abruptly drops out of the plot for a while. Sadly, we do not miss her. Nor does her affair with Samaad, though promising, strike too many chords since Deshpande’s language seems to fail her that point. Love, in fact, is one of the weaknesses in Deshpande’s book. Naia’s real mother, the ‘small dry sparrow’ Saroj, once had an affair in Spain with an Irish diplomat. The affair, like Naia’s with Samaad’s has no real relevance to the plot, though both could have been utilised deftly in Deshpande’s games of crisscross – for example if Naia had turned out to be Hallam’s daughter.

At the heart of the book is the confusion of identity – does Kashmir belong to India, or Pakistan or to the Kashmiris? Is Naia Indian or American, to whom and where does she belong? Drugs are Deshpande’s way of providing a metaphor for this confusion – her main characters either smoke dope or are addicted to smack.

Illusion is rife – Saroj walking out of her husband’s home encounters a green misty sprite in the hills and discovers a new strength within herself. Though that particular illusion may trouble the reader with unwilling suspension of disbelief.

Possibly the most interesting character is the photographer Leon who is fascinated by Samaad, both from the point of photography and from a love of sheer adventure. After meeting Samaad, ‘his life and everything he had known and done seemed like a low budget documentary’. Leon is animated by the sheer love of danger and beautiful landscapes and Deshpande devotes more time to fleshing him out than she does to Naia.

In the end love vanishes and politics take over, with predictable effect. The blue sapphires, which according to legend, are the tears of Shiva, continue to be shed for the futility of life and hope.

Kashmir Blues by Urmilla Deshpande
Published in India by Tranquebar

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Kashmir Blues
by Urmilla Deshpande

3 Comments on "Vale of Illusion"

  1. koshkha
    20/09/2010 at 12:05 Permalink

    I remember a business trip to India where my boss – not the most culturally sensitive of chaps – was shown a map of India. He pointed to Kashmir and said “Why’s that in India? I would have thought it should be part of Pakistan”. The entire room went deadly quiet, my head dropped in my hands and I wanted the earth to open up and swallow him.

  2. Aniket
    26/09/2010 at 00:57 Permalink


    I wrote a review of Kashmir Blues on my blog. Just FYI.



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Written by Anjana Basu