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In the name of the father

Paro Anand’s Weed is the story of a boy who finds his secure family fall apart one night when he literally follows in his father’s footsteps, writes Indrajit Hazra.

books Updated: Jul 30, 2008 20:05 IST
Indrajit Hazra

This is that rare thing — a staggeringly moving book that makes the reader deeply cynical about cynicism.

Paro Anand’s Weed is the story of a boy who finds his secure family fall apart one night when he literally follows in his father’s footsteps. The violence with which this disruption happens and the way his mother picks up the pieces and desperately tries to glue back the remaining shards of the family make us flinch and despair both at the same time.

The fact that Umer, the boy who narrates the story, is a Kashmiri whose father has left his younger brother, his mother and him to join the jihadi cause, strangely becomes a background riff in this story of trans-generational longings and the battle to stay away from ‘errors’. The falling apart of ordinary life and the seductive destructive charms of another ‘unordinary’ life is dexterously unravelled by the author.

Anand manages to pull this aesthetic coup by avoiding in your face sentimentalism. So how does she do it? Through language. In an early chapter where Umer has followed his about-to-disappear father at night, the author takes us inside the boy’s head as well as making us share his physical discomfort. “It was the first time I was out in the colddark. The first time I saw darkness so thick that I had to push through it. My hands froze the minute they touched the darkness. And the silence. I didn’t know much about these things, but I knew enough to know it was very, very dangerous to go out during curfew. It was one of the things you just didn’t do. At least the good, law-abiding citizens didn’t.” The reader feels the “colddark” — both in its shivering physical form as well as in its wordy mental manifestation.

In another arresting passage in this slim novel, we find Umer and his mother at the office of an organisation that monetarily helps the “half-widowed and half-orphaned”. (“We had a title now. A name to call our sadness by. Half. Those whose husbands had disappeared.”) Both mother and son realise at one point that they are being “interrogated” about their missing husband/father and the reader swims in their separate and yet shared terror. We are never sure whether the questioners were carrying out policy requirements (as they insist) or conducting something more sinister.

Anand’s pointillistic language — at times single words separated by full stops — rhyme with the tensions, the paranoia, the expectations and, above all, the fear that the characters feel. Weed has an unnaturally powerful sense of tone that envelopes the whole narrative like a mist.

The novella is pitched on the blurb as a “follow-up” of Anand’s earlier ‘Kashmir book’, No Guns at My Son’s Funeral, the story of Aftab, another Kashmiri boy, who leads a ‘double life’ of a ‘normal kid’ and a ‘proto-terrorist’. But Umer’s story is far more complex, far ‘deeper’ if you will, than Aftab’s. Looking at this slim book after one has finished reading it, one can’t but wonder how so much lies within the covers of Weed.

Throughout the story one joins Umer’s mother’s gut-gnawing worry that her son will follow his father’s footsteps. At one level, Weed is about a boy who has to decide whether he will choose the world of his father or his mother. At the other, it is about the attempts to inoculate a young, impressionable and rebellious mind against Original Sin.