The book “Rooh” by Manav Kaul is a deeply nostalgic novel that shows readers the lesser-talked-about ethereal beauty of Kashmir. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, the story flows in an out of the past and present in a lyrical cadence.
When Rooh tells Manav in a bar in New York that he ought to go to back home to the hills in Kashmir, he’s suddenly thrown into the loop of his past-a blue door, white walls and a house at the end of a lane. Soon, the seemingly small worlds in which his memories reside coalesce into a giant mass and envelop both his past and present, like dark clouds covering a brilliant blue sky.
Two young boys on the cusp of growing up, the cruelty of being a refugee in their own country, a father who is unable to come to terms with this confusing reality-an undercurrent of pain sweeps through his life. “Rooh” emerges as a deeply touching story of tender but broken people the protagonist Manav meets along this journey.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
In Baramulla, Khwaja Bagh, Titli lived right above our house. My brother, Titli and I . . . we played together all the time—all the games, games in the middle of a game, and our tired laughter after the games were exactly the same. My brother and I were not as sad to leave Kashmir as we were about getting separated from Titli. She was our first love. We could never find out whom she loved more between us. I knew precisely what was making me cry while leaving Khwaja Bagh, but I didn’t want to appear weak in front of Titli, and so I held myself together. While leaving, my brother had asked Titli for her photograph. I was surprised when my brother did this. Everything between us had always been divided into three. For the first time my brother had asked for something from Titli that was entirely his, and I had no claim on it. I was sure that Titli would refuse, but she took out a picture from her schoolbag and gave it to him. I kept thinking for a long time—I should have also asked for a memento or given her something for memory’s sake. But what could I have asked for and what could I have given? We left Baramulla for Srinagar.
This happened years ago. Now we had become two fair-skinned boys of a small district of Madhya Pradesh who didn’t like talking to each other much. Kashmir was in our stories still, but whenever there was mention of Kashmir, we could see Titli flying away. I had noticed that every time Kashmir was mentioned, my brother would immediately go to the other room. I was aware that in the other room, he would be staring at that black-and-white picture of Titli. Outside, I would be regretting the fact that I didn’t even cry in front of her. I had to really please my brother, run several errands for him, and then, on some afternoons, he would let me look at Titli. The only condition was I could not touch the picture, and staring was prohibited. Most probably, it was a photograph taken out from her school ID. She looked like a fairy in the photo—one who could step out any time and say, ‘Let’s fly!’
That picture didn’t stay for long in the pockets of my brother’s shorts. We had also begun to grow up, wandering in the bylanes of that village. Titli flew away from our lives gradually.
When Father was on his last trip to Kashmir some years ago, he had met Titli’s family on his way back to Jammu. He told us this, and we both blurted out together, ‘How is Titli?’ Father told us, ‘She was married off. During the delivery of her first baby her legs became paralysed. Her husband abandoned her. She passed away sometime ago due to depression.’
After speaking about Titli in brief sentences between sips of tea, Father got back to narrating his anecdotes about meeting Baby Aunty. But neither of us wanted to know about anyone else. After a long silence my brother got up and went inside. Now he didn’t even have the picture. What would Bhai be doing inside? For a long time I stood quietly outside his room. Then I took out the torn and faded black-and-white photograph of Titli from my mathematics notebook. I had stolen the photo long ago from my brother’s pocket. I wanted to go to Bhai’s room and give the picture to him that very moment, but it was risky. So, I went to the courtyard and buried the picture under a broken wall.
I don’t know how many years ago I wrote about this incident. Now, in my preparation to return to Kashmir, all of this was coming back to me. How much of Kashmir lay scattered in my writings? In all my poems, where I mention a cloud, the cloud belongs to nowhere else but Khwaja Bagh. Every character that I have named Titli is the one whose picture I had buried under the broken wall of my home back then. Every time I say ‘tea’, the four o’clock tea made by my mother in Khwaja Bagh is what I remember. In the fragrance of home, a large part is Kashmir. Can all of this be buried?
On the way to the airport I was breathing hard. I felt a strange anxiety. Was this the right time to go to Kashmir? The question came up repeatedly, like an ache. But when is the right time? Time is imaginary. It takes the shape of how you live in it. I was at the airport and was heading towards gate 45A, holding a coffee in my hand.
A day before I’d tried to call Shabeer, and the phone had started ringing. As soon as he picked up, he began to speak in Kashmiri. I understood that there was no use interrupting him. I could only assume and guess what he was saying, and, accordingly, keep answering in Hindi. Towards the end I asked him for the address; he said something in Kashmiri that probably meant he would come to pick me up.
‘Where would you come to pick me up? At the airport?’ I asked.
He said, ‘No, in Anantnag.’
‘But where in Anantnag?’
‘You don’t worry. I will meet you there,’ he said.
I couldn’t understand anything. So, I said in the end, ‘Dost, if the phone stops working, how will I find you?’
‘Why do you worry? I will find you.’
I said, ‘Fine!’ and disconnected the call. I didn’t understand why going to Anantnag had to be under this blanket of secrecy.
Sitting on the plane, I looked at the faces of all the passengers. They were all going to Srinagar—I don’t know why I was happy about this.
The last time I had landed at the Srinagar airport, Rooh was with me . . .
As soon as we had stepped out of the airport, I’d stopped.
Rooh had asked me, ‘What happened?’
I’d said, ‘I know this fragrance.’
‘This fragrance, of the valley, my Kashmir, it is still the same.’
I kept taking in long breaths this time too, but that fragrance was missing. I had a strange thought—maybe it was because the last time my father was around and this time he was not. Whom did the fragrance belong to? Kashmir or my father? The Internet was shut, but the phone was working. I called Shabeer, and he said that he was waiting for me. Somebody was waiting for me in Kashmir . . . These words brought out bitter-sweet emotions. By the time I could convert this emotion into a smile the emotion was gone. The taxi owner was eating lavasa, Kashmiri bread, with tea. I asked for a piece of that bread and put it in my mouth. Last time around, the fragrance of Kashmir had come to me as soon as I’d landed at the airport; this time its taste was on my tongue.