Old gods and scooters

Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir

A review of Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales From Kashmir by Jaspreet Singh

Published on October 1, 2004

Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales From Kashmir
Jaspreet Singh

Vehicule Press

To get a taste of the paradoxical mood that unites the various stories in Seventeen Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir, one need only look at the author’s back cover bio: Jaspreet Singh, besides being a masterful crafter of beautiful, evocative prose, holds a doctorate in chemical engineering. In this, Singh’s first book, the seemingly disparate worlds of art and science, or religion and technology, are seamlessly blended. The result is a portrait of modern-day Kashmir that lingers in the reader’s mind long after the last story concludes.

Interestingly for a collection based in such a far-flung locale, the landscape is but a secondary feature of these stories. One is of course aware of the exoticism of the surroundings – the ancient gardens of chenar trees and fountains, built on the slopes of mountains; the thick pesticide haze that covers a factory town; houseboats drifting on the lake, mud and straw homes on its shores – yet such details are sparse, rendering the land as elusive as myth. The more defining qualities of the region, for Singh, are the human conflicts it harbours, which are manifested in various forms.

“Remover of Obstacles,” for instance, pits a widow who miraculously feeds a statuette of the god Ganesha with milk from her breast, against her scientific-minded neighbour, who believes that the porous property of the stone idol accounts for its appetite. The opening vignette, “Angle of Heaven,” sees a group of engineers trying to calculate the unquantifiable: “We were the first to estimate the number of mosques and temples and churches in Paradise,” one claims; “Our current project is to determine the chemical composition of Djinns.” In “Arjun,” a particularly compelling tale, a young Sikh travelling with his elders broods over their old ways, resenting the long hair and turban that his religion compels him to wear. When the train is suddenly seized by a vengeful mob, the ensuing violence makes Arjun regret his earlier feelings. As fire engulfs the carriage, he observes that “he has never seen all differences between people vanish so fast.”

It’s these “differences” that help Singh create such a rounded picture of Kashmiri society. Bata shoes, missiles, and scooters mingle with the old gods and magic – with a boy who induces his body to grow faster so that his teacher will love him, with a woman who can parachute off hillsides using the puffed up skirt of her sari. Small troubles such as feuds between schoolchildren are treated with as much importance as the greater battles between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, or between Hindu, Moslem, and Sikh. Such an assemblage of strife risks narrative muddle, but the skilful Sikh manages to control the chaos, balancing violence and beauty, legend and progress, youth and age, and he does so partially through his use of character. Each story puts in the foreground a minor character introduced in an earlier story, to the extent that the reader achieves the sense of knowing a whole community, from lowly orderly right on up to formidable general.

Also meriting praise are the author’s considerable descriptive powers. His is the simple, concise vocabulary of an empirical mind, but arranged with elegance. Consider one woman’s observation that the “flashes of artillery practice” erupting in the firing range appear as “giant incandescent flowers,” or the description of distant mountains burning on the horizon like “welded torches.” And there’s this scene of a man weeping into the muslin of his companion’s dress: “His tears spread quickly inside the fine capillaries of the pallu, like dendrites, like sorrows of the world making way into an infinite sponge.”

Seventeen Tomatoes is a quiet but worthy debut, a love letter penned to the many-faced land of Singh’s youth. mRb

Andrea Belcham lives in Saint-Lazare, where many of her best neighbours are trees.



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