The House That Spoke by Zuni Chopra Is Different From Your Usual YA Fantasy Novel

Imagine living in a house as old as time, with a living and breathing library at your disposal, an ornate fireplace, and an armchair to sit back for hours and read. No, I am not talking about the library from Beauty and the Beast. But yes, this could easily be a dream for all book lovers, especially when cooped up indoors during the pandemic. Who would not want a beautiful house where you could while away hours on an end, as time passes slowly by?

Soon to turn 15, Zoon Razdan, luckily has exactly that in Zuni Chopra’s YA novel, The House That Spoke. She lives with her mother, Shanti, in Srinagar in their ancestral house. Her grandma lives close by, down the street. Zoon loves her home. Her favourite place in the house is the library where she loves spending her mornings and having some noon chai. Thus, when one day Zoon finds a realtor, Mr. Qureishi in her house, all hell breaks loose and strains her relationship with her mother. Zoon then embarks on an adventure to stop her mother from selling the house. To help out, she has a bunch of curious and unlikely friends along with her shy and newly found friend, Altaf. Altaf is Shanti’s friend, Lameeya’s son.

The House That Spoke is suffused with a fairy tale atmosphere that is a cross between Beauty and the Beast and the Chronicles of Narnia because her own historic house is a portal to both adventure and danger. Despite this magical element, Zoon’s adventures and life are tangled with the dangers that anyone living in Srinagar might face from acts of terrorism to government and army excesses. Chopra portrays the ‘normal’ in Kashmir through Zoon’s eyes: from stray shooting to a bomb blast. The fact that even a 15 year old knows how to navigate through this terror and thinks of it every time she crosses the street to see her grandma, her tathi, manifests the way in which the state has been paralysed with violence and how successive governments have failed it. Hence, the magic evoked in The House That Spoke is fraught with the realities of everyday life, of the darkness that engulfs the state and how Zoon, in trying to save her house, must also save her home from this inexplicable darkness.

This makes The House That Spoke different from your usual YA fantasy novel. It is one that allows teenagers to not just read a fast paced, fun adventure tale but also learn about the different facets of Kashmir: from its syncretic culture to its beauty of passing seasons. The fact that a 15 year old girl is the protagonist makes the story even more delightful. For a change, it is not a male protagonist venturing out to save the world.

Zuni Chopra’s prose is rich and evocative, perfectly mirroring Zoon’s opulent house and her surreal natural surroundings. Each sentence is laden with beautiful and layered descriptions that bring Zoon’s house and Kashmir alive in the minds of the readers. Zuni’s writing makes the novel superbly visual and lets our imagination paint vivid pictures from her words.

The House That Spoke is a great novel to get the kids to read after the usual TV and internet simulations reach a saturation point. The novel can also pave the way to start conversations with youngsters about Kashmir and its condition, particularly given that it is always in the news. Also, you get to support some homegrown YA genre novels that are only now getting the praise and support they need. Cheers to that, always!

You can buy this book here.

A-Country-Without-a-Post-Office Book Cover

Book Review – Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country without a Post Office

Mere words are not enough to capture the sheer brilliance of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and their plaintive cry for his beloved homeland. 

The poems of The Country Without a Post Office (published in 1997) are complex and allusive, recalling the culturally rich past of Kashmir, linking that to the carnage in the 1990s. This creates a haunting continuum to the idea of Kashmir- of how it used to be a land where religion, culture, folktales merged effortlessly and how now it has turned into a land where, “death flies in.”

Needless to say, the poems in this collection are nostalgic, bemoaning the state of Kashmir of the 90s. Nostalgia comes naturally in Ali’s poetry which the blurb describes as “Agha Shahid Ali’s finest mode, that of longing.”

 

Kashmir Vale
Michael Petersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

This longing though is immersed not only in the melancholic but also the political, historic and the literal. Each poem mingles intense pain of various kinds, be it the pain of losing a son or a relative; the distance between families; of the silence in the wake of the aftermath, with the history, culture, and the politics of the decade that pillaged an entire state. All of this pierce the reader’s heart and soul and engulf them in a profound sadness the poet holds for his home.

 

Some remarkable poems that portray this continuum and make the reader engage with Kashmir rather than dismissing it as a mere site of never ending conflict include the beautiful, A History of Paisley that uses the motif of the ubiquitous paisley (often seen embroidered or printed on various fabrics), A Footnote to History, At the Museum that takes a hard factual look at the emblem of our civilization, The Dancing Girl bronze statue from Harappa or the sweeping, I Dream I am the Only Passenger on Flight 42 to Srinagar which in careful couplets and tercets marks the violent culmination of a 1000 year old civilisation. The opening prose poem, The Blessed Word: A Prologue, itself establishes this continuum and the mode of longing by evoking powerful imagery of Srinagar under siege and by invoking the different names the state has had in its past. In doing so, the poet seems to be crying out for the ravaged state and its people. 

 

Kashmiri_people_in_Dale_Lake_kashmir
Dashrathgoyal85 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Rich and decadent metaphors that suffuse his poems such as the Kashmir rose, the famed saffron spice , the paradise like Mughal gardens, the majestic mountain peaks, the stately chinar tree or the floating gardens of the Dal Lake lie uneasily in stark contrast to the conflicted reality of the state. 

A case in point is the pertinent poem, The Floating Post Office. It portrays, in Ali’s typical style of invoking quaintness, a post boat delivering letters on the sly through a network of waterways when the roads are shut.

 

This poem brings to attention the title of the collection itself and how this poem and the title highlight that communication is a lifeline for “the city from where no news can come.” The titular poem also depicts letters unanswered, letters unsent en masse because communication has been blocked. 

Now, think long and deeply about the ramifications of all forms of communication being cut off in today’s highly connected, globalised world. Think then about what happens in Kashmir, where when the rest of the world enjoys high speed internet and India basks in its Jio revolution, an entire state becomes metaphorically a country without a post office. 

हम इस हमले की कड़ी निंदा करते हैं। (कड़ी निंदा सन्देश )

लांस नायक राघव यादव आतंकवाद के शिकार हो गए। कश्मीर में ड्यूटी पर कोई उन्नीस बीस साल के लौंडे ने गोलियों से छलनी कर दिया। बन्दूक उनके पास भी थी, पर उसको चलाने पर पाबंदी थी सरकार की तरफ से। इस से पहले कि ये समझ पाते कि सरकार जाये भाँड़ में, बन्दूक निकालो और गोली मारो, लड़के ने गोली चला दी थी। शहीद हो गए ।
सलामी के बाद शव को परिवार वालों को सौंप दिया गया। साथ में एक चिट्ठी भी थी जिसमें कुछ ऐसा लिखा था –

Continue reading “हम इस हमले की कड़ी निंदा करते हैं। (कड़ी निंदा सन्देश )”

Kashmir, Kaschmir,Cashmere..Or Cauchemar in a Sea of Stories

“Yaathum oorae yaavarum kelir”

This very famous quote from the Tamil poet Kaniyan Poongundranar depicted in the United Nations means “All town is home, all men our kin’. Today, with the world having reduced to one global village, the idea of all towns being home seems quite a possibility. Yet for a lot of us what prevails more than often is -“Home is where heart is”. No matter how far and wide we travel, how old and wise we grow, our heart continues to tick specially for that one place we call ‘Home’. Continue reading “Kashmir, Kaschmir,Cashmere..Or Cauchemar in a Sea of Stories”

The Hindu! Take a bow!

Positivity! Where art thou? Hope! Where art thou?

The country is debating Mr. Aamir Khan’s statements at ‘Ramnath Goenka Awards for Excellence in Journalism’. Irrespective of our political leanings, I am sure most of us would agree with at least one part of his statement where he says something to the effect of – “We are afraid to open the newspapers every day”  Indeed, we are!   Continue reading “The Hindu! Take a bow!”