Award-winning Urdu writer, poet, essayist and translator Tarannum Riyaz succumbed to Covid-19 during the second wave of the pandemic. In her writing and her character, she displays a soft, gentle and understated elegance. Known for her portrayal of women and the difficulties they face in a male-dominated society, she crossed the line between feminist and feminine poetry. As a short-story writer and novelist, she made her mark among the post-modern wave of Urdu writers that rose to prominence in the 1990s. Birds of the Snows is Riyaz’s own translation of her very Urdu novel. acclaimed, Barf Ashna Parindey, first published in 2009. Soft and modest, there was a dheemapan (softness) in her lehja (tone), which comes through successfully in the English translation.
Far from the harshness and rhetoric that surrounds much of Kashmir’s writing, Birds of the Snows reads like an elegiac swansong about a lost childhood and a once idyllic land now mired in violence and terror. “My Kashmir,” writes Riyaz. “The country of gentle, humble and beautiful people, of intellectuals, artists and craftsmen. The land of silk, pashmina, saffron and green meadows. The home of mountains, valleys and waters. A paradise on earth with a 5,000 year old documented history that has few equivalents in the world.
Generously sprinkled with history and anecdotes, mythology and folklore as well as fragments of song and poetry, this elegantly sprawling novel evokes a layered and pluralistic past. There are vivid descriptions of the changing seasons and hauntingly beautiful landscapes; fruits and vegetables that were once “native” and abundant in the author’s childhood, but have since disappeared or been replaced by higher-yielding hybrid varieties; and old customs and traditions that are dying in the face of modernity.
Sheba, the novel’s compassionate and gentle protagonist, dedicates her life to caring for her ailing teacher, foregoing the “conventional” love and happiness sought by most young women, especially those in conservative societies. Choosing duty, a sense of responsibility and a thirst for education rather than a traditional “happiness forever” with the man she loves, she digs a solitary furrow. His strained relationship with his older sister, Baaji; his family’s struggle for property; and the changing socio-economic relationships between feudal families like his and the kashtgars who once worked the land and provided cheap labor form the vast canvas on which several smaller “background stories” are painted like cameos, each inextricably linked to Kashmir – the moral center of the novel’s universe.
Militancy and terrorism briefly rear their ugly heads halfway through the otherwise serene landscape of Snowbirds. Here too, Riyaz is never strident or partisan. Her humanism makes her cry out in anguish when she sees children take up arms. “It was hard to tell who was behind the bloodshed of this militancy that disguised itself as a ‘freedom struggle’,” she wrote. “Surely there were other realities behind the apparent truth of borders, religious polarization and unemployment, none of which were easy to understand. A horrible reality, supported perhaps by the vast resources of capitalism…. What about the peaceful majority who only want to continue their quiet life? »
This sweetest author and the most ardent but gentle advocate of the “vaadi ka culture” (the culture of the valley) makes the strongest plea for her bloodied and darkened land: Peace prevail!
By Tarannum Riyaz
published by Niyogi Books
Price RS695; pages 498