By Manisha Lakhe
The Tree with a Thousand Apples
Author: Sanchit Gupta
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Price: Rs 350
You’d pick up The Tree with a Thousand Apples by Sanchit Gupta simply because of the stunning cover art by Misha Oberoi. It helps that the cover has a sticker that announces that the script based on the book is longlisted at the Sundance International Screenwriters’ Lab 2017. But also, you can’t wait to get embroiled in Kashmir. There are too many displaced Kashmiri poets in town and you want to know more about a book that talks about the tormented land.
For the first sixty pages or so, you will be impatient. The introduction to the characters, Bilal, Deewan and Safeena goes on and on. You get no feel for the colours of the Chinars, you don’t shiver from the cold breezes, you don’t picture the wooden homes, their creaking stairs. You only understand that the Bhats and the Maliks are neighbours, you understand how Deewan can fight for Bilal, and that Safeena is beautiful and that her tears are like diamonds and emeralds. The story takes its own sweet time to take shape, and that could be a negative for the book.
But then the action begins and the Bhats have to hide in their neighbour’s home from the burning and the pillaging. It is here that you begin to worry, to care for the characters. You realise how young they are and how the innocence of the city is systematically torn apart.
With every page, you begin to understand why the Dal Lake is dying. The author Sanchit Gupta begins to paint a bleak picture with the sudden army checks described beautifully. Now ‘beautifully’ is a wrong word to use when you are reading about rows of citizens walk with their hands above their heads, their ID cards displayed prominently, people being yanked out of lines and taken away for interrogation, but it is a visual that is unforgettable. Where it fails, though, is the weather. You just cannot put a finger on whether it was snowing lightly, with grey ominous skies, or whether it was autumn, with Chinar leaves turning red with embarrassment for the rapes and torture of the people and the land itself.
The author is really very careful to not condone stone pelters and Pakistan supporters, but let’s it go as a struggle for ‘azadi’. He does not even take sides when people are murdered. He seems to then simply report, “Chacha was killed by Anwar” as if the death was just collateral damage. There is grief, yes. He gets on his knees in front of Malik Chacha’s lifeless body, rubs his hands with his blood, wipes it on his face, and prays, Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi raji un, but that’s it. The collateral damage does not wrack his conscience, or help him turn around and change his ways or anything like that. The emotions aren’t explored at all. The author treats the characters as if they were cardboard cutouts or just preliminary sketches for a movie. There is no depth, no inner conflict, no conscience that makes the reader loathe or love a character. But the descriptions of the torture at PAPA-II where the army guys rape Kashmiri girls (Rehana, in this case) is quite graphic. In a movie, perhaps, the audience might believe that army-men are raping because they have nothing better to do, but in a book, the reader wants more. If at least one of the lead characters witnesses the rape, then it pushes the character to avenge the insult, or offer us a reason for his or her subsequent behaviour. But since it is never witnessed by one or more of the principal characters, you wonder if the author wants the readers to hate the army.
Also, the characters cheer during a Pakistan win in cricket, but at the same time really love cricket, not just Pakistani cricket. The author is careful not to take the side of those who want azadi from India because of empathy with Pakistan, but it ends up being wishy washy because of its inability to take a stand.
The story sort of feels rushed when the narrative moves to Bombay, and leaves you dissatisfied. It makes you so restless that you don’t feel like reading the last verse about ‘beautiful tomorrow’, and groan when Bilal puts Safeena’s photograph in Deewan’s pocket, which is so Hindi filmi, treating her like some commodity to be passed on from friend to friend as if she did not have any say in who was going to look after her or marry her. . . .
The reviewer is a writer and poet. She is the founder of Caferati Writers Forum. Her book ‘The Betelnut Killers’ was published in 2010. Currently, she teaches communication and creative writing at KC college, Mumbai and Harkishan Mehta Institute of Media, Research and Analysis, Mumbai.