If you judge too soon, the first few pages of the book might put you off. Here was a teacher who was tired of confiscating trashy romance novels from her students so much that she decided to write a book herself, to reinvent the ‘chick-lit novel’. And yet the first lines of the book – titled House of Stars – is about a young fellow going after a young woman he keeps describing as beautiful, so beautiful. That’s Kabir’s chapter. The whole book is divided into chapters, named after the characters narrating their parts of the tale. Mostly Kabir and Diya.
You only learn of Kabir’s past and Diya’s past in the pages that follow. There is a reason Kabir is so fascinated by Diya, a woman he is meeting for the first time. There is the mystery of that past coming through the mention of a third character called Aman. But it is not just young love and emotional pasts. There are larger stories here – of politics, of terrorism, of humans.
Keya Ghosh, the book’s author who works from the Velliangiri mountains in Coimbatore, tells TNM in an interview that there are strong emotions that drive her to write – being angry, disturbed, despairing. “In the last five years, we have seen hatred on the rise in India. We have seen the demonising of minorities. We have seen extreme violence become commonplace. I felt very strongly that I had something to say on the politics of hate and terror. And I had something to say about love. The two came together in this book.”
Exploring shades of terror
It is not easy to touch upon Kashmir without going through the realities of the people there. Which is not the dreamland that we see beautiful pictures of, but of torn and scared and sceptical lives, of those fighting and fought against, of those that end up victims and then change. “The scary part is that each of us can name at least two people we know who would fit either into the mould of the Hindutva extremist or the Muslim terrorist. Hatred has come to live next door to us. Since I was exploring terrorism and its roots, it seemed only fair that I represent not just the tired cliché of the Muslim terrorist, but also the other shades of terror, including saffron. And Kashmir – ah! Kashmir has long broken my heart. When a nation has reached a stage where it can turn pellet guns on its own people, then we have lost our way,” Keya says.
Kabir is the face of Kashmir here, the one who has travelled to Mumbai for a reason. Diya is the Mumbai girl, but not the carefree, cheerful college student one sees in Bollywood. She obviously has a lot of trouble, the way she keeps hiding her face with her straight, loose hair that Kabir cannot stop describing. They are both in a mall, he is following her, with a letter in his hand. But before he can give it, the mall is attacked. Keya has carefully written terrorism into the first pages of the book, scaring the wits out of a reader who could easily imagine being one of the visitors in that situation. There are old men in there, young mothers, children, and many like Kabir and Diya.
The attackers divide the people into two groups, ask them for names and let the Muslim ones go out. Kabir, unable to give a religion, chooses to stay back with the hostages, mostly because he has to be with Diya. The past better be good, you feel here, for it can’t just be a beautiful face that’s making him risk his life.
Keya explains, “When the story opens, Kabir is already in love. He has fallen in love with a girl without ever seeing her, sitting isolated in a snow storm, a thousand miles away. He has listened to the words of a lover and fallen in love. Of course he sees her as beautiful. And yet the only physical description you really get of her is that her hair is long and she uses it to hide. Eye colour, eyelashes, dimples… all the standard things that are used to build a protagonist in a romance are not even mentioned. Because I have never been able to imagine what she looks like. I know that the main two characters in the book find her beautiful, and so to me too she is.”
She is talking about Aman, the third character you know through the words of Kabir and Diya. It is curious how Keya builds her characters. Kabir and Aman appear the opposite of each other, worlds apart – literally too – till the novel brings them together. Diya earns your sympathy from the moment you learn how difficult it is for her to express her wishes to a father who cares two hoots about it, and a mother who is too meek to say more. You learn of Kabir and Diya through their observations of each other as much as the literal descriptions of the past. But despite the really strong and scary atmospheres they come from, it is their simple desires that Keya makes so charming.
“Kabir told me the secret wish in his heart. All he wanted was a cup of coffee. But a coffee in a college canteen was something he could never dream of, trapped as he was in terrorism. Aman came and whispered to me that no one can stop you from loving. They can keep you apart – but who can tame what’s in your heart? That is the ultimate freedom. Diya came and told me that she had once had a box filled with love and now it was empty. The last step was realising that they wanted to speak in their own voices. I let them whisper. And I wrote,” says the author.