The Pir Panjal ranges are wedged firmly between Jammu and Kashmir like a bookmark in an old well-thumbed book. This is where the reader is transported to in Ayaz Kohli’s Snakes in the Meadows. Set in the little village of Pathri Aaali, a tale of love unfolds in the times of militancy. Ashwar and Aslam meet and fall in love while still in their teens. But like in most love stories, their families drive them apart. Result? Ashwar ends up being compelled to marry a widower—Hanif—the father of Manzoor and Shamma.
Aslam runs away from marriage, abandoning his family. Soon after, he suffers the consequences of his cowardice. It has been said that the mills of the Gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. Aslam and Ashwar’s lives intersect once again but this time around everything has changed. Their little piece of paradise has been laid siege to by a gnarl of slippery snakes.
The militants of the Mujahideen are running the show in the little village. Not too soon after, the so-called liberators turn exploiters and turn on the villagers themselves. The rural folks’ misery further compounds as all around them arise walls with one single message: ‘No one cares!’
The Armed Forces as well as the law-and-order machinery fail them, leaving them to sort out their own lives, as it were. This is when Aslam steps in to take control, and along with the village folk, he forms a sort of self-help group or committee in order to protect themselves.
Through the novel, unfold the many tales the village tells: there are stories of family rivalries and internecine politics where the line between fact and fiction vanishes. In this brutal set of circumstances, women are brutalised, young children molested and men mauled by militants. ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’, said Emily Dickinson and that is what keeps this plot moving. For, you may destroy a man but you cannot defeat those whose live their lives with a never-say-die attitude.
Ashwar turns to Aslam, who seems to be the only person whom she can bank on. Like a lovelorn damsel in distress, she calls out to him—and her cry resonates through the manmade barriers of time and space. After this the author resorts to artifice and melodrama. He has a valiant Aslam sneak unnoticed into a nest of snakes to steal their weapons and cartridges. Almost too convenient for comfort, as he exits the scene, he finds a Carl Gustaf M3 rocket launcher—a Bazooka with five large calibre ammunition—that he carts away without a murmur from the militants.
That definitely gets a bit thick. And even though I tried a large dose of salt along with it, I found it hard to swallow. In the final analysis, Snakes in the Meadows is a journey into the suffering and resultant resilience of the lesser-known world of the Pir Panjal—which remains the soulful ‘And’ in the ongoing turmoil in Jammu ‘And’ Kashmir.