The Burning School by Sandesh Raj is a beautifully etched novel but somewhere it makes us uncomfortable about the current crises of Kashmir. Going by the title, it indicates a lot, yet at the same time stirs inquisitiveness to delve deep into the mainstream story. The story is about Kashmir, however, this time the lead characters are not from Kashmir. This rarely happens in a Kashmir-bound novel. The novel runs up to 400 pages and comfortably builds its backdrop and idiosyncrasies of the characters.
Kashmir is the land where there are more issues than most of us think of. At the facade, it’s terrorism that the world sees. Only novels like this will take us close to the reality. It’s apt to say words are powerful, mightier than a sword.
The story chugs ahead like an express train, along with taking its mini and subplots collectively. It starts at one point and ends at somewhere totally unexpected loop. The story is about Naved, a young and ambitious man in his mid twenties. He is an IIM graduate and instead of working in corporate, he takes on to teach students struggling for guidance and mentoring for IIT exams in Kashmir. After convincing his family back in Lucknow, he sets for the disturbed land of Kashmir. How did he get into teaching those students is an interesting back story? Once you delve deep, it begins unfolding.
While on his journey to Kashmir, he befriends an army major Ranjit who helps him in the latter part. When Naved reaches in upper Kashmir, one of his students Ashraf and his friends arrange everything for him. Soon, he comes in contact with a terrific Kashmiri Pandit personality, locally known as Panditji – a man of word that defied the Islamic revolution and didn’t leave his motherland. Post this, Naved at his own. He explores the region; witnesses the stone pelting activities mostly by students and the burnt-down primary and secondary schools shock him to the core. The burnt-down schools confirm that terrorists don’t want students to study and do something constructive for the state. Naved, other than guiding and teaching students, also appeals to the parents to send students to his make-shift school, with the help of Panditji.
After a point, the story seems on autopilot but twists and turns never leave Naved and other well wishers of peace. From the students, Abdul is one gem of characters, highly inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. Naved’s work picks up but when he is confronted with Usman, the terrorist of the area, and Vikram, the in-charge police officer – his fight not only gets difficult but he is also on the brink of losing his life and reputation and everything. Why are people not ready to accept in Kashmir or why the police doubts him as a potential terrorists and frames him for the same? Why…what is the connection…what is the story behind the burnt-down schools that transcends beyond Delhi and Pakistan? Who is Shafia? Does she know Naved or vice versa? What did she do to put Naved into inextricable trouble? What will be the future of students that joined Naved for better education? Will they win over terrorism or lose themselves in the groping dark?
The novel is lengthy but offers prismatic view to the current Kashmir–politics, moral, social, and economical – it has covered all aspects diligently with a gamut of interesting characters that not only act as catalytic at times but also shapes the moral and fate of the overall story.
The author tried to cover the voice of all actors in the most holistic possible way but the story emerges as winner solely on humanitarian ground. A terrific novel for Kashmir! One of the best in the contemporary fiction genre. Highly recommended!
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