Snakes in the Meadows by Ayaz Kohli
Publication Date : May 20th 2019
Publisher : Rupa Publications India
Read Date : June 20th 2019
Genre : Fiction / Literary Fiction
Stars : ★★★★ /5
Jammu and Kashmir, 1987. In the hilly village of pathri Aali, where legends appear true, Aslam and ashwar, two young lovers, dream of marriage and of good things of life. But that is not to be. Unable to cope, Aslam leaves pathri Aali forever. Years later, as men migrate to Saudi Arabia for employment, pathri Aali is populated mostly by women and children. Soon they realize the mujahedeen, who guise themselves as their liberators, are the worst perpetrators, and misery seems inescapable. Ashwar refuses to be cowed down by this reign of terror and is determined not to let it devastate the once-peaceful village. The only one she can Bank on is aslam—and she calls out to him across the distance of time and space, to return and live up to the legends of their village. Snakes in the meadows is a saga of the onset of militancy, and the suffering and the resilience of pir panjal—the ‘and’ of Jammu and Kashmir.
Snakes in the Meadows told about the horrific time of Pathri Aali village in Jammu and Kashmir when militants took over their holy shrine and turned it into graveyard. It was the horrific tale of the region that lacked recognition, faced ignorance of authorities, was crippled by militants and endured cruelty and tortures that turned their heaven like meadows into prison of hell. It was about true monstrosity in people, misery and suffering of innocents, legends and valour, limits of hope and endurance and power of belief and faith. It was about preserving dignity, protecting people, fighting the evil and reclaiming the peace and honor.
TW– Rape, brutal beating, murders, and child abuse
Book was set in Pathri Aali village, Pir Panjal mountain range of Himalaya in time period of 1987 to 2003 when people were still debating 1947’s kargil war and Pakistan was seething with revenge and to get hold of Indian occupied Kashmir. The village and its tradition, legends and their struggle was mesmerizing to read. I was impressed by writing. It was engaging and felt realistic. There were many characters in the story. Each character told their story which had one common thing, their direct or indirect connection Pathri Aali and what happened there from 1997 to 2003.
Book started with introductory chapter of Aslam’s family and villagers. It was engrossing to read stories of Aslam’s father and his grandfather, Khalifa and his son Akram, Ashwar and beginning of Aslam’s love story. But it ended as soon as it started. It was heart breaking when seeds of Aslam and Ashwar’s love story shoveled out of ground before it could germinate that lead both characters’ life in different direction. Ashwar married a widow Hanif who represented his own life of misery, poverty, and misfortunes in Saudi while Aslam climbed the stairs of career as a security officer that was close to his dream of being cop. First I thought story might revolve around just Ashwar and Aslam, but I was so wrong. Lot was going on that affected their life tremendously even though they were miles apart.
There were plans of ISI recruiting people for jihad, for independence of Indian occupied Kashmir. This part had many characters that intermittently introduced militants’ life, their plan, sins they committed, and how some were brainwashed while some were victim of poverty and deceit who were not allowed to go back to their normal life and family, for whom the death or doing what they were told was only option. There were chapters that not only showed monstrous acts of militants but also horrendous crimes of military officers that appalled and disgusted me more than anything in the book.
Title was most relevant. It based on the legend of Serpent in the Garden of Eden, who represented evil. Here the serpent was militants and the garden of Eden was meadows of Pathri Aali village. This book made readers to think who are the real monsters, militant or militarily, those who keep their door shut to people who really needs help or those who shelters culprits, those who does the devil’s work in name of God or those who believes their words without a second thought.
Emotions of villagers were raw. It was hard not to empathize with them. They had to go through terrible time and face rape, beating to death, murders, and child abuse. But it all didn’t shock me as much as response of both army and police authorities when villagers went to ask for their help. That’s the thing here, you don’t get anything unless you come with high rankings referral or proof. I mean what officials were thinking villagers were just making up stories! And only when one of the villager came with proof to one of the officer who push the matters to higher commands, they acted! Until then they were just going to ignore the matter! Ahem, not really impressive. It strained the situation in story but it felt typical Bollywood style.
What was most impressive was Aslam, Ashwar, Lal Jaan and some other villages. I loved the way Lal Jaan and Aslam fought the prejudice of villagers and provided strength to fight the monsters, the way Ashwar united whole village and protected women with her brilliant plan. They were true hero of the story. They all fought their battles in their own way, showed courage, had faith and tried everything in their power to preserve their dignity, village and speck of hope.
Climax was good. I loved the way things started changing for villagers, when they saw the ray of light and hope. The strategy, battle and valour of Aslam was impressive. The end was good. All characters got what they deserved at the end.
Some characters felt like page fillers – Lucy, Adalat shah, Altaf Dastarkhan’s brother, Dharm Pal Singh’s wife, Pinky Sharma. They surely represented inhumanity or their troubles but story could do without them. I didn’t care about them. Too many characters also made it little hard to follow all of their lives and connect the dots.
Overall, it was really impressive debut novel. Interesting, engaging, and heart-wrenching literary fiction with lots of characters, good writing and raw emotions that I recommend to readers of this genre.
*** Note : I received this complementary copy from the author, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. ***
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